Yet might choose to be vegetarian
Format observation: My posts tend to run very long and I appreciate they can be hard to read. I am trying out a new approach to combat this: each post will have a short version and then an in-depth version following it. You can read only the short. Or if it is really interesting, also read the in-depth version. Let me know what you think about this.
Our Paleolithic past makes us need meat, but also predisposes some of us to adopt vegetarianism .
For the environment, both industrial farming and industrial animal raising are destructive. Saving the Earth comes from regenerative or circular agriculture, not vegetarianism.
Humans evolved to be hyper-carnivores. Hyper-carnivores are animals for whom meat represents more than 70% of diet. Recent exhaustive research proves this fact. We switched to a grain based diet with the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 — 12,000 years ago. Our bodies have not adapted to this change by losing the need for meat. Especially as almost no civilization became vegetarian even after the Agricultural Revolution. This is why there are severe health risks from the absence of meat. Vegetarianism is unhealthy.
Yet at the same time, factors from our past motivate some of us to become vegetarian in the modern context:
- Disgust of blood and raw meat.
This was a useful emotion because it motivated ancestors to avoid rotten diseased food. Now with over-processing it drives the consumption of plastic foodstuffs and avoidance of messy meat.
As humans are faring well, we project this empathy on human-like animals. This prompts us to refuse to eat them. We all take pity on the doe-eyed Bambi, yet people have no trouble eating all the fish in the world for example. Are fish less conscious or do they not suffer? No, they just look too different to trigger empathy
- Good intentions and social signaling.
Abstaining from something signals purity and altruism. Mystics and holy men abstain from earthly temptations. This comes from an ancestral value of people who gave to the community. In time culture deformed it into a complicated moral mix of associations. At present, it confers moral and social value to vegetarians. They are forgoing earthly temptations because of the purity of their soul. It is not empty signaling, many believe they are having a positive impact by being vegetarian
- Need for autonomy.
Humans need to have control over their own fate and environment. In a global society, we have lost this autonomy. One person cannot influence world events. It’s natural too seek out ways to impact the issues you care about. If you care about the environment, vegetarianism appears like a way to have a positive contribution. It feels more autonomous than trying to boycott the global industrial food chain.
There is much more money in fake meat than in real meat. Why? Because it is so much cheaper to make fake meat than real meat. Raising cattle is complex, expensive business. Packaging soy with artificial additives into a meat-like object costs much less. The smart money goes into fake meat because that is where the profit lies. Big money brings big marketing. Movies like the Game Changers — James Cameron direct the movie. He also invested millions in a fake meat company. Does it get more persuasive than Oscar director making movies to market a category of products?
If you are a vegetarian, take an honest look at the impact of industrial agriculture on the Earth. Then take a hard look at the health risks for yourself.
Ask yourself if there are ways to do good for the Earth that are more effective and healthy for you? For example you could take action to push for regenerative agriculture and punish polluters.
If you are a staunch anti-vegetarian, try to empathize. I hope this article explain the deep psychology behind vegetarianism. Understanding people helps us communicate. Maybe you can better connect with vegetarians in your life instead of fighting their choice.
Either way, I hope it convinces you to dedicate your energy and good intentions to fights that make a difference to the Earth, like boycotting polluters.
Vegetarianism is a controversial subject. Proponents fervently defend it. Others passionately argue against it. The discussions around meat eating resemble religious conflicts more than rational debates.
Vegetarianism is not an ecological solution
I believe the reality is both industrial farming and industrial animal husbandry destroy the Earth. Both create massive pollution in the environment. Both destroy wild ecosystems. For example the Amazonian rainforest is being cut down both for soy and for cattle.
The solution to food production is circular or regenerative agriculture. This involves raising both plants and animals in symbiosis, forming a regenerating ecosystem. It’s not about plants versus meat. It’s about creating ecosystems that regenerate themselves. Like the ones that grow naturally.
In a forest the deer eat the trees and the bears eat the deer. If there were no bears, the deer would eat too many trees and diminish the forest. This happens in European forests where the bears have been hunted to extinction. If there were no deer, the bear would starve. But the forest would also die off eventually. With no dead animals to decompose, it would lack essential nutrients. With no deer to keep trees in check, other plants would have no chance. The ecosystem would become unstable and likely fail altogether.
This ecosystem solution is what happens naturally on Earth. Are there other potential solutions? Sure. Maybe at some point we will know enough to grow food in labs. Are we there yet? I don’t think so. Anything that is new is by definition dangerous. We don’t know the potential harm of lab-grown food.
A good example of this risk are trans-fats. These were invented about 100 years ago. They are seed oils which have been hydrogenated: a hydrogen molecule was added. They are a man-made invention as they did not exist until humans invented them.
You know trans-fats as margarine. They were heralded as the healthy replacement of animal fats. According to the cholesterol hypothesis at the time, saturated fat (from animals) caused heart disease. But seed oils (sunflower, corn, rapeseed) are difficult to use because they are liquid. Trans-fats are seed oil which had been solidified. This made them a convenient replacement for butter and lard. People thought they would be healthier because they had low saturated fat.
What happened to this wonderful invention? It is banned by law now in most developed countries. Why? They are extremely harmful. Trans-fats distort the membrane of your cells. They cause heart disease, cancer, neurological problems, depression, insulin resistance.
I want to talk about the individual dimensions of vegetarianism:
- Why it’s healthy to eat meat
- Why people make great effort to not eat meat, e.g. be vegetarian
Our Paleolithic ancestry dictates both the positive impact of meat on our health and the behaviour of vegetarianism.
Why it’s healthy to eat meat
We evolved to be hyper-carnivores
Did our ancestors eat a lot of meat? There is a lot of debate on this subject. Studies of various quality and disciplines attempted to answer this question.
In 2021 a comprehensive analysis was done by the University of Tel Aviv. It included 25 lines of evidence from 400 research papers. It found that our ancestors were hyper-carnivore predators for about two million years. They only gradually increased vegetable intake as large animals declined (due to climate and hunting). This eventually led to the domestication of plants and animals. The conclusion of the research is that humans are natural carnivores forced into an omnivorous diet by circumstances.
This study is compelling because it took into account many different approaches and disciplines. Previous attempts looked at current hunter-gatherers but these are not representative because they have been forced into ecological niches by the dominance of agricultural societies. This analysis looked at the body and how it is adapted to eat.
“One prominent example is the acidity of the human stomach.” says Dr. Ben-Dor, a lead researcher “The acidity in our stomach is high when compared to omnivores and even to other predators. Producing and maintaining strong acidity require large amounts of energy, and its existence is evidence for consuming animal products. Strong acidity provides protection from harmful bacteria found in meat, and prehistoric humans, hunting large animals whose meat sufficed for days or even weeks, often consumed old meat containing large quantities of bacteria, and thus needed to maintain a high level of acidity. Another indication of being predators is the structure of the fat cells in our bodies. In the bodies of omnivores, fat is stored in a relatively small number of large fat cells, while in predators, including humans, it’s the other way around: we have a much larger number of smaller fat cells. Significant evidence for the evolution of humans as predators has also been found in our genome. For example, geneticists have concluded that “areas of the human genome were closed off to enable a fat-rich diet, while in chimpanzees, areas of the genome were opened to enable a sugar-rich diet.”
Research on bones and hunting practices of prehistoric humans show that our ancestors were hunters specialized in large and medium-sized animals with high fat content. These classify them as hyper-carnivores: animals which eat more meat as than 70% of their diet. Other hyper-carnivores are lions and other felines, wild dogs and wolves, crocodiles. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypercarnivore]
“Hunting large animals is not an afternoon hobby.” says Dr. Ben-Dor. “It requires a great deal of knowledge, and lions and hyenas attain these abilities after long years of learning. Clearly, the remains of large animals found in countless archaeological sites are the result of humans’ high expertise as hunters of large animals. Many researchers who study the extinction of the large animals agree that hunting by humans played a major role in this extinction — and there is no better proof of humans’ specialization in hunting large animals. Most probably, like in current-day predators, hunting itself was a focal human activity throughout most of human evolution. Other archaeological evidence — like the fact that specialized tools for obtaining and processing vegetable foods only appeared in the later stages of human evolution — also supports the centrality of large animals in the human diet, throughout most of human history.”
How does this compare to our ability to digest vegetable foods? We have long guts full of bacteria, protozoa and fungi dedicated to digest fiber from vegetables. These are the hallmarks of an omnivore. However they are tiny compared to a true herbivore, like the cow which has a significant portion of its body dedicated to digesting the fibrous vegetables it eats.
An argument against humans as carnivores is that some great apes are vegetarian. Human digestive structure is only partially similar to them The gorilla which has a much more vegetarian diet has a much longer gut for digesting all the plant life. [https://gorillafoundation.nl/general-information/#:~:text=The%20muscles%20of%20a%20gorilla,to%20life%20on%20the%20ground.] But it’s not just about size. It’s also about what is in the gut.
A team of researchers led by Howard Ochman at the University of Austin in Texas sequenced the gut microbiomes of hundreds of wild chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, and of hundreds of humans from the US, Venezuela and Malawi in landmark study to evaluate the evolution of the human microbiome.
“Ochman and colleagues show that human evolution was accompanied by both a rapid divergence of the microbiome from the microbiome of apes, and a drastic loss of diversity of the microbial community,” says Thomas Bosch from Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany. Many of the bugs lost are known to digest vegetable matter.
This is not to say we are exclusive carnivores. We have a complex flora to digest plant matter in our guts. We have amylase which is a key enzyme to digest carbohydrate. Research indicates that human amylase genes spiked around the time of the Agricultural Revolution. This means we adapted to starches because we had switched to a starch-heavy diet.
Likely the great ape ancestors of Homo Sapiens were at one point omnivorous with more emphasis on plants. They gradually became more predatory up to Homo Sapiens which rose the apex predator of the world. The hyper-carnivore diet allowed our massive brains. It also allowed food gathering to be an efficient process, freeing up time for other pursuits.
Our success as predators was so great that we diminished our food supply: large animals. This led to agriculture as an alternative food source. This led to States and the whole of human civilization.
Our Paleolithic biases prompt some people to become vegetarian in the modern world.
Why people become vegetarian
- Disgust of blood and raw meat.
Natural selection favored humans who did not consume rotten, spoiled or infected meat. This is why we feel disgust when smelling rotting food. We also feel some disgust at the sight of blood and raw meat. Why?
Raw meat has a lot of bacteria. It is a significant health risk. We almost always cook meat now, yet Salmonella (found in meat) is the most frequent bacteria-related food illness in the U.S.
It was advantageous for survival to avoid raw meat, especially if it looked in any way suspect. Fire for cooking has been used for two million years so before our ancestors became Homo Sapiens. This is plenty of time to develop the instinct to avoid raw meat through disgust.
The modern world is much more germophobe than any other point in history. We have taken our disgust with potential infectious agents to the extreme. Our excessive sterilization is causing harm. Children raised in an environment that is too sterile are more likely to suffer auto-immune conditions, from allergies to asthma to lupus.
It motivates us towards foodstuffs that do not look like food, but rather like sterile, plastic objects. From McDonald’s food that aims for a standardized plastic look to the massive sales of packaged foodstuffs, this is seen in many aspects of society.
It prompt people away from meat because it is more prone to trigger disgust than vegetables, especially packaged vegetarian food products.
Empathy is another human emotion that is widespread because it improved survival fitness. It allows people to empathize with one another. Groups of humans who empathizes fared better than those who did not.
Our capacity for empathy is triggered visually. You feel much stronger empathy for someone suffering right next to you than you do reading about it in an article.
The cues for empathy are about identifying humans and their emotions. We have complex neural pathways in our brains devoted to reading faces. Any slight imbalance in our state, such as fatigue, stress, lack of sleep, diseases, significantly decreases our emotion reading performance.
Our ability to detect emotions activates for some animals as well. The closer they look to human, the more our emotion-reading mechanisms activate. Thus the more empathy we feel.
We feel empathy for the puppy with big brown eyes and soft fur. We feel less empathy for a bird, less for a snake, less for a fish and none at all for insects. The more unlike humans they look, the less empathy we feel.
This is why vegetarians eat fish. Empathy activates for the poor cows or pigs slaughtered. I have been living on a property where pigs are raised for half a year and I can tell you pigs have disturbingly human eyes. But empathy does not activate for the cold, scaly, weird fish.
This discrimination is not a choice. It is how our empathy mechanism works.
Yes, I know people who eat fish but not other animals are technically pescatarians. Yet in reality people who identify as vegetarian eat fish. In a study 41% of vegetarians said they eat fish.
3. Good intentions and social signaling.
Abstaining from something signals purity and altruism. Mystics and holy men abstain from earthly temptations. This comes from an ancestral value of people who gave to the community. At the same time, vegetarianism is promoted as being beneficial for the planet.
Thus people adopt vegetarianism for good intentions. They want do good.
It also confers moral and social value to vegetarians. At an unconscious level we perceive they are forgoing earthly temptations because of the purity of their soul.
It is not empty signaling, many vegetarians honestly believe they are having a positive impact by being vegetarian.
If you don’t believe the moral association search vegetarian on Twitter. This came up as they did this today:
It is a post from India. Notice ‘the pious guidance’ and ‘Saint Dr.’ The religious and moral associations are quite clear.
4. Need for autonomy.
Humans need to have control over their own fate and environment. In a global society, we have lost this autonomy. One person cannot influence world events.
You see the Amazon burns, the rivers are poisoned, the air is black, children die of famine. You cannot influence any of this. News make us feel powerless.
Our ancestors had a better sense of control over their lives. They did not know what happened around the world, only at a local level. At that level, they could influence events (or had the impression that they could).
If a human 100,000 years ago felt he or she had no control of his or her life, panic and then depression set in. These emotions served to motivate that person to change something. Lack of control represented high risk.
Now the same mechanisms take place. It’s natural too seek out ways to impact the issues you care about. It’s very hard to actually do so. If you care about the environment, vegetarianism appears like a way to have a positive contribution. It feels more autonomous than trying to boycott the global industrial food chain.
There is more money in fake meat than in real meat.
Why? Because it is so much cheaper to make fake meat than real meat.
Raising cattle is a complex, expensive business. Packaging soy with artificial additives into a meat-like object costs much less. The smart money goes into fake meat because that is where the profit lies.
Big money brings big marketing. James Cameron is a renown movie director. His movies include Aliens, The Terminator, Titanic, Avatar. Recently he directed Game Changers. This is a movie that claims to be a documentary. It promotes vegetarian diets. However it has been proven to misinterpret research and even lie outright by many different sources (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, list can go on).
Why would James Cameron lend his name and talent to create a movie that is misleading to say the least? Maybe because he and his wife have founded Verdient Foods, a company that produces pea for the fake meat industry. He has a lot to gain financially by promoting vegetarianism as it grows his bottom line.
This movie is one of the latest examples of vegetarian marketing. Plant-based food is big business, with an expected market value of 37,000 million USD. Its growth depends on convincing people to switch from meat to plant-based meat substitutes. The main goal of all these companies is to create this attitude change.