Humans Are Herbivores*, and Other Facts We Love to Deny

In a recent article, moral philosopher and author of Animal Liberation Peter Singer asks whether the meat industry is “cooked” now that plant based eating is on the rise.

Like so many pro-vegan articles do, Singer outlines the environmental destruction inherent in animal agriculture, the inefficiency of eating animals (when we could eat the original nutrients, plants, instead), the chronic disease associated with consuming animal fat and protein, and the moral kerfuffle of killing and eating animals when we don’t need to.

Towards the end of his article when the moral issue inevitably crops up, Singer points to a 2015 piece in the Washington Post by Charles Krauthammer, who ponders how future generations might view our slaughtering of animals for food.

Krauthammer says, “I’m convinced that our great-grandchildren will find it difficult to believe that we actually raised, herded and slaughtered [animals] on an industrial scale—for the eating.”

The abuse of animals for our entertainment, taste pleasure, as test objects, and for clothing will surely go down in history as another moral atrocity. Most people—because 97% of the United States’ population is not vegan—are perfectly content living within this atrocity, viewing it as natural, normal and necessary.

But the issue compounds itself when seemingly rational, intelligent people such as Krauthammer purport the following skewed logic: “As a moderate carnivore myself, I confess to living in Jeffersonian hypocrisy. It’s a bit late for me to live on berries and veggies.”

Krauthammer appeals to Jeffersonian hypocrisy as though it were something noble and saintly. How convenient to wave a hand towards our ancestors to rationalize the barbarism of our current generation. The Paleo Diet does the same thing.

Like Krauthammer, not many people want to consider how their behaviors might be negatively impacting others enough to change those behaviors. That awful combination of shame and indignation in response to animal cruelty presents itself as “bacon, tho.”

So too do we see reactions like this in the Globe and Mail’s “From the Comments”  feature, where editors highlight some of the most “interesting and insightful” comments in response to various articles and post them for further consideration.

Most of the responses to Singer’s article do not qualify as interesting or insightful, however, and merely serve to underscore more of the insufficient critical thinking that Krauthammer himself deploys in attempt to defend his own preferences for eating animals.

One commenter says, “Veganism is a first world fad with religious overtones—key nutrients are not possible with a vegan diet so require supplements.”

This commenter hasn’t taken the time to do some simple research. All successful civilizations have consumed the majority of their calories from plants (starches). Roman gladiators were even known as hordearii, or, “barley men,” for they eschewed meat for grains and beans to improve their performance in the arena.

As the gladiators proved, there’s nothing inherently insufficient about a plant based diet. According to the American Dietetic Association, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

It’s important to remember that the leading causes of death in the western world result from an excess of animal protein and fat—not individual nutrient deficiencies.

Another commenter says, “It’s true that raising animals for consumption has a large environmental toll, and the oceans cannot sustain current levels of fishing. But the human body was designed for an omnivorous diet. Our teeth and our gut evolved to eat both animals and plants.”

Somehow, we are supposed to conclude from this person’s incongruous logic that the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture is a necessary evil because humans are omnivores and are therefore obligated to participate in destructive behavior. Even if humans were biologically omnivores, which we are not, omnivores can healthfully consume plants and animal flesh—either one will do. So why not choose plants in this case to abate environmental destruction?

Though humans have evolved to survive as scavengers eating a variety of omnivorous fare, this does not mean humans are evolutionarily adapted to thrive eating animals and their byproducts. Again, the leading causes of death (cancer, diabetes, stroke, heart disease) are due to humans eating an excess of animal fat and protein, so we cannot scientifically claim we have evolved to eat meat, dairy or eggs in large or regular quantities.

Another scientifically validated fact for this commenter: only herbivores develop heart disease, or clogged arteries. And animal cholesterol is the leading risk factor for heart disease in humans. In other words, if you’re a human and you don’t eat animal cholesterol, you won’t develop heart disease. If you’re a human and you eat animals, you will eventually develop heart disease. That makes you an herbivore. Omnivores and carnivores can eat as much animal flesh as they want and never develop clogged arteries.

Dr. T. Colin Campbell of Cornell University, who found that cancers can be switched on or off depending on how much animal protein (specifically casein) is in the blood of rats, recommends that no amount of animal protein is safe for human consumption. Specifically, anything over 5% of calories from animal protein is too much, pushing the human body towards cancer growth.

The above comments are common across the Internet and in everyday dealings between vegans and non-vegans. I have a coworker who walks by my desk each week and says bacon, as though that’s some kind of argument against my vegan existence.

But notice how not one comment excerpted by the Globe and Mail argues the ethical considerations put forth by Singer or Krauthammer. Perhaps it’s too painful to consider how the industrial slaughter of 70+ billion domestic animals per year horrifies us. We all know it’s wrong. But instead of stopping and thinking for a while, admitting we need time to ponder this concept, we prefer to leap onto de facto misunderstandings disguised as truth.

As a society striving to be rational, just, and compassionate, shifting to baseline vegan will allow us to enact our values, our science, and our reason from the ground up.

And that’s the truth—whether we like it or not.

*EDIT: If you’d like to get technical about terminology, humans fall more into the frugivore, or fruit eaters, category, just below the folivore (leaf eaters). By mapping the area of absorptive mucous in an organism’s gut compared to its body size, researchers (in peer-reviewed and published scientific studies) discovered that humans fall into the distinct category of fruit eater. Check out this video from NutritionFacts.org (around 1:40) for the citation and explanation of this topic relative to what our Paleolithic ancestors were actually eating. Hint: it wasn’t a meat based diet.

 

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