vegetarianism as a "natural" human state?

these links are primarily in response to brant's question about vegetarianism. sorry, man--my hard drive crashed in december and i lost your email address (along with almost everyone else's). Oxford Journal of Medicine (2000?) Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum (2002) [this is a .pdf] Journal of Medical Ethics (2000) -->[you might be unable to access this. it's a book review of a book attempting to address the validity of deriving medical ethics from a naturalisitic biology. the reviewer criticises the books author for falling into G.E. Moore's "naturalistic fallacy" himself--attributing vegetarianism (or any other -ism that has to do with biology) to human evolutionary history.] Here's another article that you likely won't be able to get but that presents a quick and balanced perspective.
"Human Food Intake and Choice: Biological, Psychological and Cultural Perspectives" by Paul Rozin (pg. 19-20) Meat: The cultural fate of a biological super food. According to many accounts, the shift from a predominantly plant diet to a diet with a substantial amount of meat was a major feature of human evolution. Meat has an extraordinary nutritional advantage over other foods; because human nutri- tional requirements are similar to those of other animals, the meat of other animals is very likely to be a nutritionally complete food. Carnivores are not particularly susceptible to nutritional deficiencies (unless their prey is consistently deficient). Nutritional balance plus high energy value makes meat an ideal food. The two shortcomings of meat as a food were its greater potential for microbial contami- nation and the fact that it is generally harder to obtain than plant foods. In light of the great advantages of meat, it is not surprising that humans find it generally tasty and appealing, and that it is generally the favored food of humans. When it is in short supply, it is traditionally made available selectively to the most powerful members of a group. Domestication made meat much more abundant, easier to obtain, and cheaper. However, throughout most of history, meat has remained an expensive food. There is a long history, certainly over thousands of years, of ambivalence to consum- ing animals. Vegetarian traditions are associated with Buddhism and other belief systems, and were present in ancient Greece. Furthermore, across cultures, meat has been the focus of the majority of taboos (21-25). This seems to derive in large part from complex belief systems that teach the sacredness of life, and from our similarity to many of the available edible animals. Meat seems to be an almost per- fect example of an ambivalent object. In the later 20th century, in the developed world, two sets of additional culture-based concerns have added to the reluctan- ce to consume meat. One is a concern for the world and its future, in that meat is an inefficient means to provide energy to humans, in comparison to plants. The second is the rising concern for degenerative diseases, and in particular the putative contribution of animal fats to cardiovascular disease. Thus, for ecological/moral, health, and animal-rights-related moral reasons, there is an increase in partial or full vegetarianism in some parts of the developed world. Cultural concerns have compromised the attractiveness of meat, biologically sui- ted to traditional humans as a super food.
So I guess the "take-away" from these articles is that meat has always been a part of the human diet. It has always posed certain (short-term) health risks--mainly the possibility of contracting parasites or microbes unless prepared correctly. Meat confers certain huge advantages over plants, namely increased calorie content per volume consumed, that has led to cultural byproducts like seeing meat as the food of the wealthy/powerful. Vegetarianism is likely a decent dietary choice for people today because of our relatively long life spans (the high-calorie content of meat offers certain long-term risks like heart disease) and the availability of vitamins to cover nutrient gaps in an all-plant diet. But the fact remains that vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice that runs somewhat counter to our biology. For the majority of humans, a valid argument for vegetarianism needs to be based on socio-cultural, economic, or moral/religious grounds rather than biological ones. In my mind, however, the lack of a biological reason does not weaken the strength of the argument on behalf of vegetarianism. The problem really is that, in the West, vegetarianism has been linked traditionally with "progressive" or "liberal" values that eschew a common moral/religious foundation for all people and downplay most economic considerations. If you're only left with socio-cultural arguments then the relativist counter-response to vegetarianism always remains--"that's okay for you; not for me."


Blogger mg said...

we're seriously considering becoming vegetarians for the issues you mentioned but also due to the mistreatment of animals in today's industrial farming society.

in fact we're at the point where we'll only eat meat if we know where it came from. usually that means free range meat, and hopefully animals that were fed pesticide free, animal free feed.

2/08/2006 11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts and posting of the links. My protaganist in this debate and I had to call a cease-fire because it is way too emotional an issue for her, and so she won't be able to benefit from your thoughts, unfortunately. I forget sometimes that I'm a professional arguer and so am able to come back guns blazing without any personal animosity -- though people "outside the academy" or courtroom can take it personally. So peace was declared before there could be lasting damage.

My two cents -- I sympathize strongly with MG's comments and view, and buy organic/free range where it is available and at least somewhat affordable. Industrial food production is quite offensive in its treatment of animals, and as Christians we should expect and demand better.

Where I step back, though, is when the "meat is murder" nonsense starts spewing, because it presumes a moral equivalence between humans and animals that is also quite offensive -- and not Biblical. Having witnessed a murder autopsy and looked into the eyes of grieving relatives, I quickly lose my patience when the term is applied to the butchering of animals for food -- and you can see where I might end up pulling no punches in attempting to disabuse people of such nonsense when I'm confronted with it (and hence hurt the feelings of the sensitive).

With the above in mind, though, wouldn't it be awesome if the "religious" right took just, say, %10 of the energy they pour into pushing ID, and redirected it at responsible meat production?

2/08/2006 1:10 PM  
Blogger e said...

good comments.
mike--i'm with you all the way. b and i rarely eat meat these days, but our reasoning behind it sounds much like yours: factory farming, unhealthy animals propped up by antibiotics and growth hormones.

i'm wondering: are "bison burgers" a better option than beef?

2/10/2006 9:50 AM  

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