Have you ever made the argument that our bodies aren't made for eating meat? Stephen Fenwick-Paul thinks that such 'appeals to nature' can be unhelpful, and proposes alternatives when debating with non-vegans.
When early philosophers were faced with tricky questions such as ‘why do things fall rather than rise up?’ they responded, without embarrassment, ‘it is in their nature to do so.’ Such a response now would rightly be ignored and more deservedly ridiculed. Slightly more sophisticated versions of the ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ argument are still deployed in many arenas of debate and frightening frequently in vegetarian and vegan diet discussions.
A meaningless argument
Some vegans claim that it is natural for humans to eat only vegetables, while some meat-eaters claim that it is natural for humans to eat meat (often quoting Desmond Morris and the Savanna hypothesis). Both sides then set about cherry-picking human anatomical features to substantiate their claims. If you ever find yourself in an argument where your opponent is using the same argument as yourself to prove the opposite you should have a strong suspicion that one of you, or most probably both, are failing to understand your own reasoning.To understand why these arguments are meaningless we need to break them up into manageable chunks.
Using the right words
It is often argued that we are not designed, or meant to eat meat. To many vegans this will seem a reasonable and firmly based assertion, but it’s not. Firstly, we need to throw out the words ‘designed’ and ‘meant’ because both imply intention and unless you have fundamentalist ideas of divine creation, we must replace those words with the only word that can apply: ‘evolved’. Evolution bestows upon all life capabilities which improve those organisms’ chances of reproducing. There is no design or intention, no plan, no set of morals or ethics in evolution, just the smallest reward in reproductive success that comes with chance variations in DNA.
Substituting the word ‘evolved’ for ‘designed’ the above arguments begin to show their weakness. What do we mean when we say a species has evolved to or not to do something? We know that a sparrow has evolved to fly because it can do so: there must be an evolutionary advantage to the sparrow in flying in order to survive in the struggle for life. We know that penguins would not gain an evolutionary advantage from flying from the fact that they have lost the ability to do so (their resources are used to better effect in other ways). In short, we know that a species has evolved to do something because it can do it.
“Some vegans claim that it is natural for humans to eat only vegetables, while some meat-eaters claim that it is natural for humans to eat meat. Both sides then set about cherrypicking human anatomical features to substantiate their claims.”
Some will argue that because humans may suffer harmful and life-shortening consequences from consuming meat or that they do not possess the appropriate claws and teeth to bring down a fleeing antelope that this is surely proof enough that humans have not evolved to eat meat and hence must be acting unnaturally? Let’s see how these ideas apply to other animals. We know that vultures will eat meat that lions will avoid because the chances of food poisoning for them is too high. We know that vultures are ill equipped to slay their prey and must scavenge. It would be ridiculous then to argue that it is unnatural for vultures to eat meat because they lack the appropriate offensive weapons and for lions because they lack the appropriate digestive system to consume the most rank of meats. The fact that dolphins are considerably better swimmers than humans is not an argument to stop humans swimming.
To some this may be sounding like an outright attack on veganism, but it is not, it is an attack on badly formed and irrelevant arguments. To state it clearly: humans have evolved to eat meat (as well as eat vegetables). The often presumed implication of this statement, that if we are evolved to do something it must follow we should do it, is where the logical mistake hides and not understanding this error is why many vegans so passionately object to the above statement. An evolved ability does not lead directly to its moral acceptability. We can easily see why this is so by replacing to eat meat with some other human traits such as to steal, to lie, to war, to murder, etc.
For all these we readily pass laws to either stop or limit their use in some form. Therefore it is clear that an evolved characteristic does not confer moral acceptance - other considerations need to be made before one can claim an act is moral or immoral.
Beyond stomach juices and claws
Why do so many associate the justification of their diet with how natural it is? At the heart of this question is the selectiveness of evolved attributes proponents of these theories put forward. It is easy to understand the direct relationship between the ability to catch and eat meat and our diet – the two are closely coupled but so is reproduction and rape. Our species is not simply a well evolved eating machine. Our success as a species is not down to our ability to consume food – there are and have been many other species that have been far better hunters and gatherers than us - it is in our ability to act sociably.
The mental skills required to thrive in large interdependent groups are immense: complex language, empathy, extended notions of kinship, sympathy, loyalty, revenge, logical thought, justice, enhanced reciprocation to name but a few. When we look for the justification for our morality the least important places to look are in the vestiges of anatomical inheritance from some ancient ancestor - such as the length of our canine teeth – where we should be looking is in the evolved mental characteristics that let us understand the distress we cause to our victims and the impact of choices on our environment and our bodies. One can imagine a far distant planet where the dominant intelligent and communal species has evolved directly from a carnivore ancestor. Yet their intelligence gives them an empathy with their prey and an understanding of their environment that in time sees the adoption of veganism as the inescapable moral and logical choice.
The justification for veganism is not that of diet: it's to be found in our minds.
By Stephen Fenwick-Paul
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