Humans overboard, part two

This was originally intended to be part of the previous chapter, but it probably deserves its own post, plus that last one was getting kind of long.

I suspect most people would classify me as an animal lover, or at least leaning heavily in that direction. And on occasion, I have run into a shocked response when it is found that I am not a vegetarian or vegan. My reply to this has been to tap my teeth and point out that these are the teeth of an omnivore, developed over literally millions of years of evolution, which is certainly true. And usually, my questioner ignores this and switches to the idea that my diet is unethical. No one, as yet, has stuck around to hear all the reasons why this doesn’t work, so I decided to enumerate them in toto here, because that’s what a blog’s for…

First off, let’s go back a step and look in detail at that factor which is so quickly glossed over. The dentition that we possess has been present, with little change, throughout the entire hominid line and even further back, and is still possessed by most of the primate kingdom as well. While we cannot offer any opinion on what is meant to be, since nothing is intended in evolution, what our bodies have developed to handle is a widely-varied diet that includes animal proteins. Our brains need a lot of protein to develop, and it just isn’t available (and appears never to have been) from the plant kingdom. Even now, with the emphasis on vegetarianism, it takes factory farming to produce enough concentrated proteins to satisfy this alternative diet – the development of subsistence farming some ten to twenty thousand years ago (itself a tiny fraction of our developmental span) wasn’t enough to meet these demands. Vegetarianism has only been possible in the last relative minute or so of our existence. Indeed, there were a few nearly-vegetarian hominids, inasmuch as we can tell from their teeth and jaws – and they didn’t last long, and had much smaller brains as well. What lasted was us, and we very likely did so because we ate meat (among countless other factors.)

True enough, now we have a choice, and in no way should this post be considered an effort to tell anyone what this choice should be – but it will serve as a counterpoint to the attempts, so often seen, of others to do the same. Let’s tackle that unethical standpoint now.

Life on this planet is a wide-scale competition for resources, and nearly all of these resources are actually other life – this holds true from the bacterial level all the way up to the largest species on our planet. A very wide number of species would not exist at all if it weren’t for the concentrated sustenance obtained from the lives of other animals. Ignoring this doesn’t make it go away; life often comes at the expense of others. And here’s where I have a little fun with perspective, because that very sentence can be considered distasteful, solely from its phrasing, especially with the word “expense.” If you prefer, life can also be considered an ongoing process relying on the interactions of all species – to the best of my knowledge, about the only species on this planet that can survive on their own without any others are things like algae, and even then it’s not clear that some of their sustenance isn’t altered by other life forms. This is what defines an ecosystem.

We have two rather distinctive, and quite strong, evolved behaviors that impact this topic significantly. The first is our fear of dying, which certainly has its usefulness. It should be noted, however, that it is an emergent property, a trait that survived because it was the most effective in passing on to offspring – if we feared death, we tended to avoid it long enough to have kids, and that’s pretty much what evolution will produce; obviously, the opposite is not an effective formula. Yet this fear of death is somewhat ironic, in that death is inevitable – it’s all for naught. Well, not exactly, because it does help us produce offspring, but it becomes clear that it’s a desire that cannot be fully satisfied.

The second behavior is the peculiar one of our empathy; even when we cannot feel pain, when we have no direct impact from the plight of others, we still feel a certain level of distress when others are suffering. This is a trait that helped foster our status as a cooperative species, in that our well-being did not merely involve ourselves, but certainly the family, and often the whole tribe (from an evolutionary standpoint, the distinction between these two is muddy, actually.) Most especially, we have a lot of empathy for the young, which makes perfect sense, since we have babies that are ridiculously helpless for years – if we didn’t stick around to help them out, our species would die out quickly. But curiously, this trait is also remarkably unspecific, and has been linked by studies to simple visual cues like bigger eyes in relation to the size of the head, and a bigger head in relation to the rest of the body – traits that our young have, but many other species have as well. Thus, we can get almost as protective over certain other species as we can over our own young, even though this serves no apparent purpose whatsoever, and cannot be rationally supported – evolution produces a working model, not necessarily the most efficient or specific one. It’s a reaction, not a planned action. It also varies in its affect on everyone – not everyone feels it as strongly as others. This might even be evolution at work, those behavioral variations that spring up, the most effective of which will eventually gain selective prominence throughout our species.

[The counterpoint to empathy is that we can also be remarkably aggressive, primarily in response to threat, and to a large extent this also links to appearance – species that merely look mean to us garner far less empathy. Pandas, with their huge eye spots and baby-like bodies, get thousands of times more endangered-species attention than any reptile out there, and this has nothing to do with the level of threat of extinction. And before anyone remarks about non-predatory diets, bear in mind that dolphins are notoriously carnivorous and predatory – just as much as tuna. Why save dolphins and not tuna? Because they fucking smile at us. Seriously, we really are this superficial as a species.]

Now, neither of these has anything to do with ethics. Ethics is about effective interaction within our own species; this is the only purpose it can serve, because we’re going to see no reciprocation, no benefit, from extending this to anything else. Ethics revolves around cooperation, trust, and fairness – tribal benefits – and while it is an offshoot of the empathy that helps provoke our cooperative behavior, which actually keeps our species going, it is a more specific, involved concept than merely reaction. Any way that you look at it, however, it has no bearing on any other species at all. Thus, using the word “ethical” in relation to how we handle any other species isn’t applicable; all it does is demonstrate how the fundamental reaction of empathy gets mistaken for a reasoned response with some overriding purpose and importance. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to kill animals for food – and nothing right about it either. It is solely an emotional reaction.

The next argument is invariably the inhumane conditions of livestock farms. Once again, this stems from the idea that we shouldn’t be mean to animals, only because we feel bad about it. And that’s fine, really. But there are a tremendous number of factors that are missed in here. The first is, not all farms raise animals in inhumane conditions – you will note that every source of video and descriptions of conditions never manages to tally how many such farms there are, what percentage of them among all farms in this country (or any country,) nor even the range of conditions that exist – it is always presented as a given that “livestock” automatically means “stacked in boxes” or whatever. Apparently, none of these people have ever driven past the vast expanses of pasturage devoted to raising animals – or more likely, find that presenting that balanced perspective weakens their morally superior standpoint. And there appears to be an underlying assumption that animals “in the wild” lead carefree, healthy, unstressed existences – just saying that brings up the idea that this is ludicrous, doesn’t it? Wild animals sleep in ice storms, suffer from unbelievable numbers of parasitic and viral infections, and are routinely preyed upon by other wild animals. They compete over food sources and mating rights (on occasion to the point of serious injury,) get trapped by floods and killed by wildfire, and may spend large portions of their entire lives fleeing danger. They never receive any kind of medical attention, much less routine feedings, and death can come from starvation, exposure, and having their bowels ripped out. Sorry to be so graphic, but let’s maintain the perspective here, especially as a species where far too may of us earn a living in little boxes. Oh, wait, all of a sudden that’s not inhumane?

Within this, guided by our own fear of death, sits the idea that there is such a thing as a timely demise, or even an undeserved one. But death is not a bad thing, and to counteract our species’ peculiar emphasis on dichotomous thinking, it is not a good thing either – it just happens. Evolution is the process of selecting genes that help stave this off until after successful reproduction, and for many species, that’s just as far as it extends, death occurring almost immediately after bearing offspring. We cannot offer any opinion about not deserving death (or even absolving responsibility by ensuring it simply isn’t by our hands,) without, again, resorting to emotional arguments, because there is no logical argument that holds. And there is certainly no goal or achievement that we might be depriving any species of by ending their lives “too soon” (most especially when we maintain breeding programs that actually thwart most of the selective pressures that exist outside of our influence, and you will notice I did not say, “naturally” there, since we are as natural a species on this planet as any other.)

Now we come to ‘suffering’ as the primary argument, which is admittedly far more valid than ‘death.’ What is missed, far too often, is that if farm conditions are unacceptable, then change them. It’s not hard at all to campaign for higher standards for farming, and in fact, these have been accomplished numerous times. Not to mention that such an approach stands a far greater chance of also gaining the support of those who choose not to embrace vegetarianism or veganism. Unfortunately, that’s not really the point often enough – the point is to create some kind of moralistic high ground to sneer down from, a demarcation that separates the healthy, thoughtful (ahem) vegan from the groveling savages that eat meat. Yeah, that’s always been a useful approach, all throughout history…

And so we come to the idea that vegetarianism/veganism is healthier for us. Which actually hasn’t been established very well, and cannot – the assumption is made that, with every report of one kind of food or another producing some adverse effect, then the default must be avoiding any of those altogether, and subsisting on what our forebears ate. Except, as pointed out already, our forebears didn’t really have such diets. But first off, there have been few studies that show that vegetarianism or veganism really is healthier – these categories are far too broad to apply usefully, and it is remarkably easy to develop vitamin/mineral deficiencies while pursuing them. As mentioned in the previous post, what we need is a variety of proteins, carbohydrates, fibers, fats, and sugars – these are not necessarily provided by a vegetarian diet any better than by an omnivorous one, and probably takes significantly more effort to accomplish with the former. And yes, anything to excess can be unhealthy – this includes plant-based diets, since our systems are poorly equipped to handle large amounts of cellulose (ungulates have multiple stomachs to manage it.)

[A stupid side note, which I decided not to expand upon: a lot of the problem with ‘feedlots’ and farm conditions stems from meeting demand, which stems from a burgeoning population. Not only is this never addressed by vegetarians/vegans, part of the reason it even exists is our extended lifespans. The obvious solution is not to live longer, healthier lives…]

Back to our forebears. The vast majority of our species’ existence, and that of its progenitors, dealt with quite large degrees of bacterial and parasitic contamination, sustenance in varying degrees of spoilage, food sources in less-than-optimal growing conditions, and on and on – we would avoid with disgust probably 90-95% of what our ancestors ate. I mean, the huge spice trade of our recent history did not exist because of exotic culinary preparations, but to disguise the ratty and distasteful nature of so much of our food. Germ theory is even more recent, being less than two centuries old (and in fact, there are studies that indicate how our present germophobia might actually be detrimental to our immune systems.) And yet, our lifespans are the longest they’ve ever been. To think that any diet, in our age of refrigeration and health departments and food expiration dates, can possibly be considered unhealthy, in comparison to most of our past history, is laughable. Not to mention that there’s no such healthy/unhealthy divide, and you’ll note that even the minimum requirements from the FDA don’t list foods or even types, but just factors such as carbohydrates and minerals, and those are necessarily averaged out. It’s all a spectrum, some of which depends on our own individual physiology, yet undeniably quite broad. Demarcations are only in our imagination.

So, hopefully, we’ve established by now that diet is strictly an opinion, not very dependent on any kind of quantifiable superiority in any way – but if not, let me know and I’ll bring up some of the things I left off for brevity. Opinion is naturally personal, not only unbeholden to anyone else’s influence, but also a poor choice of rationales for any form of superior attitudes. We have a culture that has glorified health and diet to the point where somehow this is everyone’s concern, up to and including how people may be judged by their impact on our health care system. This is absolutely amazing when you come to think about it, because if we’re that concerned about health and costs, we should eradicate automobiles entirely, far and away the leading cause of hospitalization and death, as well as property damage, environmental pollution and destruction, and so on.

Pronouncing one’s moral high ground is simply asking for trouble, both (as noted above) from the standpoint that it’s never been a convincing attitude, but also when one encounters the type of person (ahem) who is willing to challenge it; no one is free from exploitable guilt trips. I mean, holy shit, you condone intolerable overseas labor practices for a phone to update Facebook statuses and take selfies?!? You not only brought another kid into this world, you let your pregnancy be paid for by insurance?!? Do you have any idea what the batteries in your hybrid car do to the environment?!?

Overall, however, it’s probably better to recognize what a personal opinion is, and if we expect deference towards our own, we should be extending it to others. Eat whatever you feel comfortable with, and do so while reading what you like, watching the movies you like, or listening to the music you like. If you feel so bad about yourself that you need to judge others as lesser beings because of any personal choices like these, perhaps it might be a hell of a lot more useful to improve yourself with your contributions to society in some way – everyone wins then, and without any self-importance. Just a suggestion…

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