How many times have you heard someone justify their behavior based on the illogical premise that history somehow makes it right and assures its ethical legitimacy into the future? In fact, throughout history influential leaders and thinkers have used this same troubled logic to defend slavery, genocide, the oppression of women, racism, and discrimination based on a whole host of irrelevant criteria including sexual orientation, religion, color and now species.
In my discussions with people both online and in person, I find this interpretation of history and evolution to be one of the most common “apologies” for meat eating I hear these days. I see it as yet another way to avoid honestly confronting the moral issue of using and killing animals for food in an age when it is not necessary. Some actually sympathize with the position of vegans and vegetarians, yet still default to this argument which explains perhaps why 95% of us continue to blindly follow the cultural norms reinforced in us since childhood.
But when we are open to taking a critical look at what we have been taught, the modern myth of humans evolving to eat meat can be challenged on several levels. Here are a few of them:
1. Because we are highly evolved moral beings, averse to violence and suffering
If evolution teaches us anything at all, it teaches us that our moral consciousness and our emotional intelligence are a result of highly developed areas of our brain that afford us these faculties. “… Humans are the only animals that can intentionally structure the patterns of our lives according to a basic set of self-aware moral ideals,” writes journalist and history professor James McWilliams. “This ability, which is generally premised on reducing unnecessary pain and suffering, happens to be the foundation of human civilization.” (1)
2. Because Einstein said so
Ironically the idea that humans have somehow evolved to eat meat stands in stark contrast to the evolutionary and ethical theory of one of the greatest scientific minds who ever lived, Albert Einstein. Einstein argued that humankind would need to evolve to vegetarianism to essentially save himself and the planet. “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” (2)
So if the argument favoring history carries so much weight for most of us, will a mainstream move to vegetarianism as Einstein predicted ever occur? I think so. For one thing, the interpretation of history that meat eaters use to justify meat eating is selectively referenced from those historical sources that support the practice of meat-eating, while ignoring the rest of our history — namely our close ancestral relatives who were primarily or entirely herbivores.
3. Because so called progressives should think progressively about animals too
Even more ironic still is how otherwise progressive-minded people today continue to support the oppressive forces in our society with their eating habits, the same forces that they have adamantly opposed in other areas of their life — in their political leanings, in their religious and spiritual beliefs, in the kind of media and entertainment they seek, in the sort of books and magazines they read, etc. Still the oppression of animals remains unexamined for most progressives, and their diets reveal a deep denial of this oppression. But even this recalcitrance appears to be softening. Victoria Moran, author of Main Street Vegan, recounts that at one point her friend Michael Moore was “anti-vegan” but is now on the vegan path.
4. Because glorifying the history of humankind’s baser instincts thwarts evolution
Yet even in the face of these exciting new developments, groups like the Weston A. Price, Foundation argue that evolution essentially has a gun to our heads to consume animal products (Horn, Meat Logic). Other variations on the “we’ve always eaten animals” logic include the popular Paleo diet, whose fan sites unearth a vast ancestral mythology on the rituals of eating animals, referencing allegedly scientific, anthropological and cultural studies to prove it. Prehistoric humans and their ancestors ate some amount of meat. There’s no question about that. However, an in-depth analysis by science writer Rob Dunn published in the Scientific American reports on recent studies indicating that Human Ancestors Were Nearly All Vegetarians. But, again, is what our ancestors ate really relevant to the very different circumstances we face today regarding our food choices and lifestyles? We are no more compelled to eat like our ancestors than we are to practice cannibalism, rape, slavery, murder, or any of the other violent traditions which are all an unfortunate part of our human legacy.
5. Because by focusing on our potential to do good now, we overcome the oppressive tendencies of our past
All this talk of what is right for us to eat based on past examples distracts us from dealing with the here and now, over which we have complete control. No one is arguing that we don’t have a long history of hunting and eating animals. The more timely question is why, in an age when meat eating is unnecessary (for the vast majority of the human population), would we want to focus on what our ancestors ate some 10,000 or more years ago? To paraphrase author Colleen Patrick Goudreau, why would we want to base our ethics for eating on our paleontological ancestors whose lives were dictated by a vastly different set of circumstances and about whom we still have many unanswered questions? Certainly there are lessons to learn from history on many levels, but in relating historical facts to present circumstances, context and relevancy are everything.
6. Because the lessons from history strongly support the opposite
When confronting the person who argues his case based on history, I say, first, agree with that arguer wholeheartedly. Then explain how the history and evolution of other social justice movements can instruct and galvanize us regarding the future of the vegan/animal rights movement. One common thread that runs through all of these movements is that they were ultimately successful in permeating mainstream culture and society.
They may have begun as fringe movements whose followers were ridiculed and dismissed as extremists, but their leaders ended up being canonized in the history books and described as pioneers who popularized their social movements. And many of these leaders clearly articulated the need for both human and non human animal rights, including Cezar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., and Alice Walker. Filmmaker and activist James LaVeck makes a compelling case for how the British anti-slavery movement serves as an example and inspiration for the contemporary animal rights movement in his presentation, Let’s Not Give Up Before We Get Started.
7. Because our appetite for justice is far stronger
In the words of Victor Hugo, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” It appears that we are standing on the threshold of an era when the tyranny of history is about to be dealt yet another serious blow. As the vegan/animal rights movement continues to gain momentum, our deplorable and largely unchallenged legacy of treating animals as property, currency, objects and cheap, disposable pieces of meat is coming under greater scrutiny than ever before in our history. This makes the infamous statement, “man has evolved to eat meat,” seem even more hopelessly out-of-touch and reactionary, revealing an attitude that clings desperately to the past and fears change, even when that change promises to reconnect us with the most fundamental and universal principle of justice and respect for all. I believe justice will ultimately prevail in the end.
(1) James McWilliams, an excerpt from his essay, Morality, Biology, Complicity.
(2) For more on Einstein’s views on vegetarianism, see http://www.ivu.org/history/northam20a/einstein.html