Foodies vs. Darwin: How Meat Eaters Ignore Science

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Cooking and savoring animals used to be acceptable—but then came evolution, genetics, and the study of non-human thought

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"No age has ever been more solicitous to animals, more curious and caring," writes Matthew Scully in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. "Yet no age," he continues, "has ever inflicted upon animals such massive punishments with such complete disregard."

Scully highlights one of the more troubling paradoxes at the core of modern life. Humanity proves its love for animals on a daily basis. We lavish an abundance of affection on companion animals, work tirelessly to protect endangered species, and donate generously to shelters and welfare organizations.

At the same time, we treat animals with unfathomable disdain. We wear them, experiment upon them, hunt them, render them into cosmetics, and, most notably, eat them. Making matters even more disturbing, we rationalize all this behavior as perfectly normal. It's just the way of the world, red in tooth and claw.

What if we discussed the moral and legal rights of animals with the same level of detail we bring to discussion about where to find the best prosciutto?

Humans are the only animals capable of untangling this paradox. To be sure, non-human animals possess innumerable skills that we lack, but—as far as we know—they don't have the cognitive gifts to think abstractly about relationships among species. For us to ignore this challenge would be a grave failure. Unfortunately, the most influential voices in the so-called "food movement," concerned as they are with both taste and sustainability, disagree, even though they are in a position to push this paradox to the center of public debate. They view the ethics of slaughter as an issue best to avoid.

What, after all, is to be gained by questioning one of humanity's most habitual acts? What benefit is there in alienating one's loyal base of omnivore followers? Why muddy the waters when you can win friends and influence palates with the latest brisket rub? With few exceptions, popular explorations of meat production and consumption studiously skirt the essential concerns underscoring our ingrained habit of killing animals to satisfy our tastes.

Sure, food writers trip all over each other to express their righteous outrage over the many evils of factory farming. Wonderful. But not a single one has decided to take a shot at reconciling their outrage—an outrage that ipso facto acknowledges that an animal has inherent worth—with their promotion of heirloom birds, grass-fed beef, and fried pork bellies cut to perfection by "artisanal" butchers.

The fact is, what's being butchered here is logic. Thinking, talking, and writing about meat almost necessarily evokes a wildly emotional response (just read the comments on my posts). But what's required right now isn't emotion, but reason. The food movement has taught us to doggedly investigate every facet of our food system. This noble imperative has led to an admirable increase in public awareness about the source and quality of everything we eat. But our collective effort to vet the food system of any and all abuse ironically slams on the brakes when reason get too close to the brink of animal rights.

Nonetheless, I wonder what we might discover if, somehow or other, we careened over the edge and seriously explored, in the popular press, the ethics of animal exploitation. What if we discussed the moral and legal rights of animals with the same level of detail we bring to discussion about where to find the best prosciutto?

Perhaps the most intellectually jarring conclusion we might reach is that our current philosophical justification for dominating the non-human world is embarrassingly antiquated. In fact, it's rooted in ancient ideas that ignore both Darwin and the science of genetics.

As Paul Waldau reminds us in Animal Rights: What Everyone Needs to Know, it was Aristotle who, more than 2,000 years ago, codified a rigid typology of life based on a fundamental distinction between humans and animals. His typology was with the book of Genesis. In the Aristotelian worldview, humans transcended an atomized sub-human world in which every species served a distinct role in the service of humankind. Under Aristotle and the Old Testament, using animals was more than okay; it was our cosmological duty. "Nature," Aristotle wrote in Politics, "has made all animals for the sake of man." For Christians, of course, that role belonged to God.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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