Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Data. Economics. Environment.

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UPDATE: I stumbled upon this George Monbiot post today (Jan 24) from a few months back, discussing what seems to be a very interesting book by one Simon Fairlie: "Meat - A benign Extravagance". Fairlie apparently skewers a number of "green" myths concerning the environmental damage wrought by meat production; although he advocates a much different farming system than the one we currently have to prevent the environmental degradation and suffering that does occur from livestock farming. To his credit, Monbiot (an already admirable environmentalist and journalist in many ways) recants his previous views in light of Fairlie's evidence and research. Read the post; there's much food for thought (he he sorry) therein.

Something's been cropping up quite often in conversations that I've been having lately.

Me? I eat lots of meat. Too much, I fear, and have recently endeavored to cut back on red meat in particular. Now, "Stickman" isn't a particularly ironic moniker so I guess you could say I'm doing okay in the weightiness department. However, there is good evidence to suggest that large portions of Western society consume more meat than is strictly healthy. Part of the problem is that we humans are outgrowing our biology, as we now consume certain foodstuffs in much greater quantities than the natural settings of our ancestors ever allowed. (More on that below.) I thus find myself sympathizing with a several pro-vegetarian arguments, although I don't think I'll be going full veggie any time soon myself. Still, a number of my friends have embraced the non-meat path and my discussions with them, as well as fellow carnivores like myself, seem worth jotting down.


To start, it seems biologically obvious to me that we are "meant" to eat meat. Humans are essentially the perfect omnivore. Our teeth are a nice mix of flat molars, premolars, incisors, etc that allow us to easily process both plant and animal material. Similarly, our digestive tract (intestines and all) is adapted to process and absorb the nutrients from all ends of the spectrum. Not only have our bodies evolved to deal happily with everything from rump steak to salad leaves, we actually require certain vitamins and nutrients that are only available in one food group or the other. In other words, we have to source some food from animals (e.g. certain B-vitamin complexes) and some from plant matter.

Can't we just talk about this?!
Of course, that last sentence only holds true in completely natural surroundings and, as I said earlier, I see the vegetarian debate is an example of us "outgrowing" our biology. The irony is that the consumption of meat played a pivotal role in the development of the human brain and broader civilization. The higher protein and calorific content of a partly carnivorous diet provides sustenance over longer periods, which among many other things allowed us time to plan and engage in other activities besides living literally hand-to-mouth. Perhaps most importantly, it fostered coordinated group action and communication between individuals, which were critical to tackling your average woolly mammoth.[*] And, indeed, doing pretty anything of substance ever since.

Getting back to what is "natural", I guess you could say that this is now a largely redundant concept. We don't live very naturally at all anymore... And, of course, this is part of the problem as we now have instant access to quantities of meat (and sugar and fat) that we would never have come across in such abundance in nature. Witness the rising trend in developed nations where more people are dying from diseases of lifestyle opulence and excess (e.g. heart attacks and obesity) than infectious diseases. The flip-side to this is that we are having to consciously curb our intake of certain foodstuffs that our bodies crave; something that I don't imagine has precedent for most of human history. The other aspect of having "overcome" nature in this way is that we now have all manner of supplements and products to make fully-fledged vegetarianism a viable and healthy lifestyle alternative. Or so I'm told.

And then you have to unpack the more tricky component of our evolved biological selves: Ethics.[**] While our physiology and human history provide very good reasons to dismiss the notion that we should be herbivores, there's no denying the strong moral compulsion that many people feel when it comes to killing animals. While it's hard to defend someone's distaste for hunting when they eat meat that comes all conveniently packaged from the supermarket, I do think that decent people can agree the suffering endured by many farm animals is abominable. (Watch Food Inc or the even more disturbing Earthlings - which you can see in its entirety online - if you're feeling up to it. On a quasi-related subject I plan to write something on GM crops sometime soon... I'm actually generally pro them for reasons that I shall explain.) It's not too much of stretch going from anti-cruelty to believing that we should not kill animals at all, although I do make this jump myself. Visiting my family in England (including my aunt who has been a vegetarian for decades), my cousin had an interesting thought. She mentioned how she'd been discussing vegetarianism with a friend and they'd pondered whether eating meat might suddenly become totally unacceptable in much the same way that slavery did. I think that this idea has more to it than face value, because it shows how dramatically  we can shift away from a norm that has been socially acceptable for the majority all of human history.

Another twist in the ethical tale is related to matters of resource use, loss of biodiversity to farming and (dum dum daaaa) climate change. I have several friends that have completely or to a large extent cut back on meat, because of such reasons. I admire the strength of their convictions, but can only see the general trend in meat consumption moving one way... particularly with the increased wealth and rising demand for higher protein, Western-style diets coming out of developing nations.

I'm about done here, but I thought I'd leave you with a final, macare thought. I'm not sure where this thought first came to me \(-\) likely some low budget sci-fi film \(-\) but I sometimes have this vision of aliens feasting around a dinner table in much the same way that we do in polite society. Except, rather than roast pork or skewered beef, the meal on display is a grisly composition of human parts. The fleeting image of an exposed human rib-cage ready for the offing might not be enough to permanently put me off my food, but it does cause me to take a depressing second thought about that rack of lamb I love so much.

Right, that's it for now. I'm off to lunch.
(fat full Stickman)

[*] This is a major theme in Jacob Bronowksi's The Ascent of Man, which although dated in some minor aspects, is still a fantastic read. The other great book detailing the role of diet in driving civilization is, of course, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

[**] I know many would contend that morality stems directly from a higher power. I would encourage you to view this post if you're interested in that debate.