In my recent posts, I have diverted a bit into a discussion of diet. It is clear that readers have found that topic much more interesting than my posts on death, Terror Management Theory, rants on religion, and discussions of Epicureanism in general. And these posts have generated great questions from readers – questions that deserve expanded treatment.
I have proposed that people who are drawn to Epicureanism – usually independent-minded folk – have the right cognitive style to put aside conventional wisdoms, authoritative pronouncements, and self-interested propaganda, and critically reconsider their diet. I have concluded that an ancestral framework is a good starting point for choosing what foods I eat and lifestyle I live. It is a starting point, not the destination. I have concluded that my path should be guided by sound science, and by my personal results.
I am drawn to an ancestral diet and lifestyle based on evolutionary theory. Simply put, what was good for our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years is probably good for us today. I acknowledge that there are some problems with this approach. There is disagreement on just what our ancestors ate, and, of course, different populations probably ate quite differently from each other, so there is no one ancient diet to emulate.
Also, it is likely that we humans have been evolving rather quickly to adapt to our modern circumstances. But evolution takes time. Some humans began to adapt to dairy, perhaps five to ten thousand years ago. This gave them a survival advantage, since dairy was a rich source of nutrients that the new grain-based agricultural diet failed to provide, and it insulated them from crop failure famines. Today, about one-third of the world’s population can tolerate dairy.
What we need to ask ourselves is this: do Hot Pockets (which have too many ingredients to list here, but include modified food starch, sodium aluminum phosphate, the ever-questionable “natural flavor”, sorbic acid, xanthan gum, locust bean gum, guar gum, and, of course, artificial color) convey a survival advantage similar to dairy, such that we should eat Hot Pockets to bestow an advantage to our children and later progeny?
An evolutionary approach to diet raises questions for readers. Does this approach result in a lot of meat consumption, and isn’t that wrong? Didn’t we evolve as vegetarians? How does a diet that contains meat square with Epricurean ethics?
To me, these questions illustrate the remarkable success that vegetarians have had in advancing their belief system. Even those who are not vegetarian seem to accept that it is the right thing to do. And that makes me sad, as I think of people eating meat and not fully enjoying it because of the guilt they feel.
An ancestral diet need not include a lot of meat and animal foods, like dairy and eggs, but probably the most nutritious diet for most people includes a significant amount of these foods. How much and what types should be determined by each person, based on their own experience and ancestral heritage (those not adapted to dairy, for example, should avoid it).
Is vegetarianism more ethical than other approaches? This is a complicated subject, and deserves a detailed examination. I assert that vegetarianism, and its more extreme variation, veganism, is unsustainable, environmentally destructive, and ethically flawed.
Sustainability, environmental destruction, and food security
The starting point of any discussion of sustainability should be the recognition that what we are doing now — an industrial model of food production — is not sustainable. We are on borrowed time, in terms of soil quality, water resources, and pollution. A vegan diet, especially, is not sustainable. It is terribly damaging to the environment, relying on petroleum inputs to the soil, sterilizing ecosystems in favor of mono-crop systems, and causing chemical runoff that results in major damage to rivers and oceans. An industrial model of meat production is cruel, and relies on the same mono-crop industrial food production system to increase the output of meat and dairy.
TED2013_0053244_D41_0374 (Photo credit: TED Conference)
There appears to be at least one solution, however. Allan Savory gave a TED Talk, in which he proposes returning the world’s grasslands to ruminant grazing (albeit with a modern twist), both for food production and for reversal of desertification and climate change. I am a little skeptical because it is a proposed panacea, but it makes sense. Meat production need not be done in the industrial manner we see today. It could be done in a manner that worked in nature for thousands of years. But grain production is quite new, and has a track record for destroying environments and leading to the sudden collapse of civilizations. I marvel at the hubris of the idea that our radical reshaping of our planet’s biomes is a better option than returning to or mimicking nature. And for those who think cow farts are the problem, I’m pretty sure we did not have a climate change disaster when there were millions of bison in America (estimated at 60 million pre-Columbus) and wildebeest and other migrating foragers in Africa. We need to be smart about returning ruminants to the land, because the grasslands and those animals co-evolved, and likely cannot thrive apart.
Joel Salatin holds a hen during a tour of Polyface Farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Then there is the experience of Joel Salatin, a farmer in Virginia. Using livestock management methods that Savory would approve of, Salatin has managed to reclaim depleted farmland, and restore a foot of topsoil. This is unprecedented. We need an army of Salatins.
We should be comparing and contrasting vegetarianism to the humane animal production methods, like those of Joel Salatin, not the industrial system that dominates the market today. This system is dominant due to poverty and ignorance of alternatives. But humanely raised animal products – meat, dairy, eggs – are available and affordable (if we eliminate some of the sugar and processed foods in our diet, and the huge healthcare costs that result). If farmers continue to implement Allan Savory and Joel Salatin’s techniques, which mimic natural systems, we can hope that humanely raised animals are the norm in the future.
The agricultural revolution that began around ten thousand years ago allowed the human population to explode. Grains were critical to this revolution. And while advantages did come from it, including city dwelling, literacy, culture, and civilization, it also caused us to be much less secure. Yes, grains can be stored for a while, but a series of crop failures due to weather, climate change, pests, or poor soil management, will leave a population unable to feed itself. What started as a poverty food (hunter/gatherers turning to wide grains in time of hardship), has become an essential base of our food system, putting us at risk. And, as Allan Savory has told us, desertification of large parts of the globe is the direct result.
We evolved to eat fruit. We don’t have the digestive track or teeth to be omnivores. Meat is unhealthy. Soy is healthy. Where do these ideas come from?
English: Category:Michael Shermer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am a fan of Michael Shermer. A prominent science writer and skeptic, and author of several interesting tomes including The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, Shermer argues that we first develop beliefs (mostly as a result of our childhood indoctrination, experiences, and culture), and then we justify those beliefs by paying attention to information that support our beliefs while ignoring conflicting evidence. We don’t start with a blank slate and build up our beliefs based on unbiased examination of the world around us. It’s all about cherished beliefs and confirmation bias.
Let me suggest that vegetarian “facts” are an example of this process. Anthropologists tell us that we evolved from other apes, and our diet has changed over time. But it is clear that now we are omnivores, and that the broadening of our diet is what allowed us to thrive and spread around the globe. We were not locked into one tropical area (which is necessary if fruit is the basis of our diet), and we don’t feed on just one plant or animal. If we are lacking the right enzymes or teeth or digestive track to specialize in certain foods, then we invent tools and fire in order to better utilize those foods.
Many people report better health after changing their diets, whether by eliminating animal products or by eating more animal foods (for an interesting case study, read about Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the arctic explorer who, in a controlled study, ate nothing but meat for a year, and thrived). What may explain these seemingly conflicting reports is that each group likely reduced or eliminated processed foods, and the food additives and go with them.
But while switching from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to vegetarianism or an ancestral diet may produce improvements, over the long term the ancestral diet is superior because it is far more nutritious. Grains make up a large part of a vegetarian diet. Grains, however, are impoverished in nutrition, no matter how they are prepared. Eggs, liver and other organ meats, dairy, and meat are nutritional powerhouses, providing more nutrients, and especially fat-soluble nutrients, that simply cannot be gotten from grains.
Studies about meat consumption and health are generally poorly designed (such as by failing to distinguish between cured meats and fresh meats, by having low-quality sources of meat, or by relying on questionnaires so that “meat eaters” are those who eat a lot of McDonald’s burgers, along with fries and a Coke, of course), or misreported by sensationalist media. It appears that fresh meat is not unhealthy.
Soy, the vegetarian source of protein, is an endocrine disruptor and depresses thyroid function. The health benefits and consequences of soy have been researched extensively, and the jury is still out. It is safe to safe, however, that soy has been misrepresented as an unqualified healthy food, and it is the cause of much of the deforestation of the Amazon basin (mostly to feed CAFO cattle, so eat local grass-fed). And mono-crops like soybeans result in the deaths of much larger numbers of small animals (in clearing the land, plowing, harvesting, and as a consequence of fertilizing and “pest” control) than if we were eating large livestock, like cattle.
It appears that vegetarians start with the conclusion that eating animals is cruel in all cases, and thus a meat-based diet doesn’t even merit consideration. I admit to once sharing this idea. I contend that meat eating need not be cruel, and the suffering that remains in a naturalistic system of meat production is warranted by the positive outcomes for humans’ health, for the health of the environment, and for the animals themselves (see my discussion of an Epicurean perspective below).
What would a vegetarian utopia look like? Apparently, there would be no livestock at all. Livestock would be of no utility to us, would compete with us for resources, and would be harming the environment with their methane farts and erosion-causing hooves, so we would take steps to restrain their populations. Is it ethical remake the world to remove the kinds of animals it has contained for millions of years? I don’t know, but it appears to be foolish and arrogant, and certain to end in disaster.
No matter what we humans do, we cause harm. To a Jain, killing even a fly by mistake is abhorrent. The logic of vegetarianism, in seeking to avoid harm, is a slippery slope. Since we cannot achieve harm elimination, we must settle for harm reduction. Where do we draw the line? Perhaps we decide that, as agents of harm, we must eliminate ourselves from the system.
Or, we might consider that humans merit consideration. We have value, and so our flourishing offsets some harm to other creatures. I suggest that this angst over causing any harm, is symptomatic of our tendency to view ourselves as existing somehow outside the animal kingdom and nature. We would never fault a wolf for taking down an elk, because it is being a wolf, and the elk, in being eaten, is being an elk. You can pity the elk, but you don’t condemn the wolf. One does not have greater value than the other, and their interaction is part of a complicated web and equilibrium in the world in which they were born. But we humans tend to think we’re more than mere animals, and should break from our primitive ways. I think this thinking is an artifact of our religious worldviews, and artifact that often persists after our abandonment of religion.
I do not argue that cruelty is good. But I think that the operator of a modern-day feedlot or slaughterhouse is more cruel, and a manager of a mono-crop farm more indifferent to cruelty, than our ancient hunter ancestors. We can exist within nature without falsely imagining ourselves either gods or demons.
Epicurus and Lucretius on animal welfare
English: Book 1, page 1, of De Rerum Natura by Titus Lucretius Carus, from the 1675 edition by Tanaquil Faber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In Epicureanism, pleasure – or the freedom from anxiety – is the greatest good. Security frees us from anxiety. Justice serves to create security. Justice is achieved when humans form social contracts not to harm or be harmed. Justice by means of social contract was a useful human invention, and does not occur in nature as a transcendent norm. See, Principal Doctrines 6, 31, 33. See also, Jo-Ann Shelton, Contracts with Animals: Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 1995, Digital Commons.
But justice is subordinate to security; if security could be obtained without justice, there would be no need for justice (Shelton). Epicurus thought that animals, or at least some of them, are incapable of forming a social contract. “Those animals which are incapable of making covenants with one another, to the end that they may neither inflict nor suffer harm, are without either justice or injustice.” Principal Doctrine 32.
As Epicureans know, few of Epicurus’ writings survive. Apart from these principal doctrines, and his well-known affinity for cheese, little is known of Epicurus’ views on animals. So, in her excellent article, Shelton turns to the Epicurean poet Lucretius. Lucretius had much to say about our relationships with animals.
[I]n his discussion of the origins of animal life, Lucretius states that the species still existing at his time were those which had adapted well to their situations. Wild species survive because they are endowed with particular qualities which provide them with protection; for example, they are savage, like lions, cunning, like foxes, or swift, like deer. Other species, perhaps less well endowed, such as sheep, cattle, horses, and dogs, sought the protection of humans, and, in a mutually beneficial arrangement, they provide us with meat, dairy products, wool or labor in return for readily-available food and safety from predators. In his account of this process, Lucretius has stated a theory recently iterated by Stephen Budiansky: that domestication is a natural occurrence and that some species choose to move in and cooperate with one another. (Citations omitted.)
Here we have the Epicurean view in a nutshell. Animals and humans co-evolved, and each recognized a benefit to their survival by cooperating. Humans provide animals with security, not necessary a long life. Animals provide services and products, including meat.
Now, whether animals consciously make such a decision is difficult to say. Epicurus appears to have thought animals could not contract, whereas Lucretius said that some could, like horses and dogs. From personal experience, the dogs I’ve known would rather live with their humans than in the wild, but cattle and chickens seem to have no thoughts whatever on this or any subject. In any case, human intervention into the natural order has benefited the survival of those species, and, where we treat them humanely, their lives are likely much better than they would have been in nature.
Gas mask drill for artillery horses (Photo credit: National Library of Scotland)
Lucretius speaks on the need for humane treatment of animals. In his discussion of animals used in warfare, he shows that humans are the cause of much of their own unhappiness, in engaging in warfare and as a consequence of violating the human-animal contract by subjecting animals to the unnatural horrors of war. Such is the peril of upsetting the natural order, and is a lucid lesson for us two thousand years later.