Choosing Vegetarianism is Ignoring Human Biology


I heartily enjoy eating meat. I consider animal products to be the ultimate human food where “ultimate” means that for me to recognize a food-pairing as a meal, it must contain meat.

My feelings on food are typical even as they are no doubt heavily-influenced by American culture. Nevertheless, I suspect that most humans feel similarly. It’s for this reason that most of us meat-eaters raise a brow, groan, or otherwise strike a perplexed pose when encountering friends, family members, or acquaintances who choose not to eat meat. We intuitively don’t get it. I believe this is because avoiding animal products fundamentally goes against our biologically-formed nature.

For sake of discussion, I lump all non-meat-eaters into the category vegetarians recognizing this fails to recognize any number of distinctive differences!

Though some meat-heads can be intolerant of vegetarians, for the most part us carnivorously-inclined humans simply resign to rolling our eyes and not asking too many questions. Live and let live, so to speak.

However, even as we can all be tolerant to differing viewpoints on nutrition and food, as we learn more about our evolutionary past, which is to say our own biological predisposition, certain conclusions become unavoidable. One of those conclusions is that human beings have been selected via evolution to eat animal products. How do we know this? Well, it merely takes looking at our evolutionary preceptors and acknowledging that if they were omnivorous or carnivorous, it’s highly probably that we should be, too.

What do we see in our past? The second closest ancestors to modern humans, the Neanderthals, managed to “stick around” (not die out) up until around 30,000 years ago — these were the now-extinct neanderthals. Did they eat only plants? No. Neanderthals “were basically carnivorous” (See Stephan’s in-depth write-up, partially quoted below). Furthermore, you have to go a very long ways back to find any preceptor to Homo Sapiens that came close to being a vegetarian — chimpanzees branched off from the Homo genus some five million years ago!

Whatever reason for choosing vegetarianism, it really doesn’t matter to the following conclusion: choosing vegetarianism requires ignoring or rejecting human biology. This doesn’t make it wrong to choose vegetarianism; it just doesn’t jive with our genetics. Avoiding animal products in your diet may put your health at risk.

The question vegetarians should ask themselves is: is it worth risking their health to maintain adherence to a life-paradigm or morality that is in direct conflict with their biological nature?

I believe we will achieve considerably more coherence within our chosen morality if that morality is built with a firm grasp of human nature. That we are intended* to eat animals is part of that nature.

If you look at the chart above, Homo rhodesiensis (typically considered a variant of Homo heidelbergensis) is our closest ancestor, and our point of divergence with neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). Some archaeologists believe H. heidelbergensis was the same species as modern Homo sapiens. I haven’t been able to find any direct evidence of the diet of H. heidelbergensis from bone isotope ratios, but the indirect evidence indicates that they were capable hunters who probably got a large proportion of their calories from meat. In Europe, they hunted now-extinct megafauna such as wooly rhinos. These things make modern cows look like chicken nuggets, and you can bet their fat was highly saturated.

H. heidelbergensis was a skilled hunter and very athletic. They were top predators in their ecosystems, judged by the fact that they took their time with carcasses, butchering them thoroughly and extracting marrow from bones. No predator or scavenger was capable of driving them away from a kill.

Our closest recent relative was Homo neanderthalensis, the neanderthal. They died out around 30,000 years ago. There have been several good studies on the isotope ratios of neanderthal bones, all indicating that neanderthals were basically carnivores. They relied both on land and marine animals, depending on what was available. Needless to say, neanderthals are much more closely related to humans than chimpanzees, having diverged from us less than 500,000 years ago. That’s less than one-tenth the time between humans and chimpanzees.

I don’t think this necessarily means humans are built to be carnivores, but it certainly blows away the argument that we’re built to be vegetarians. It also argues against the idea that we’re poorly adapted to eating animal fat. Historical human hunter-gatherers had very diverse diets, but on average were meat-heavy omnivores. This fits well with the apparent diet of our ancestor H. heidelbergensis, except that we’ve killed most of the megafauna so modern hunter-gatherers have to eat frogs, bugs and seeds.

*As much as a blind or natural process like evolution can “intend” anything.

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Seneca, like other Stoics, has a doctrine of nature that is remarkably close to that of Emerson or modern American environmentalists. The wise man (sapiens) will never be bored when contemplating the simple things of nature. The natural beauty of the countryside and the healthful action of the waves can have a calming effect . . . He also believed in the simple and strenuous life and the avoidance of luxury and decadence, and there are numerous passages . . . which decry the ostentatious, self indulgent practices of his contemporaries . . . Seneca has no patience for philosophy as a word game or a practice of engaging in hair-splitting arguments for their own sake. He rather sees it as a practice or way of life that all those who seek the good should investigate and adopt.

(From a helpful Amazon review)

Finished Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. I’ve only casually understood the Stoic philosophy prior to reading this book. As the above review notes, Seneca is concerned with making peace with death and living in accordance with nature. Seneca frequently cites the benefits of philosophy, which should be practical and useful. Fortune is something that should be looked on with ambivalence — neither should we get enamored when our luck is good nor depressed when bad. Happiness is a state of mind. I’m not positive, but it seems to me that Seneca originated the idiom to “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” (See the quoted bit below).

The Letters are a quick read at only around 230 pages. If you are interested in some ancient wisdom from a Roman philosopher, you would likely enjoy this book. Below are some passages I particularly enjoyed from the book.

  • “Look at the amount of punishment that boxers and wrestlers take to the face and the body generally! They will put up none the less with any suffering in their desire for fame, and will undergo it all not merely in the course of fighting but in preparing for their fights as well: their training in itself constitutes suffering. Let us too overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wreath or garland, not in trumpet-calls for silence for the ceremonial proclamation of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won for ever once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated.”
  • “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen; but I do know what’s capable of happening . . . I’m ready for everything. If I’m let off in any way, I’m pleased. . . . for just as I know that anything is capable of happening so also do I know that it’s not bound to happen. So I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite.”
  • “Resent a thing by all means if it represents an injustice decreed against yourself personally; but if this same constraint is binding on the lowest and the highest alike, then make your peace again with destiny, the destiny that unravels all ties. There’s no justification for using our graves and all the variety of monuments we see bordering the highways as a measure of our stature. In the ashes all men are leveled. We’re born unequal, we die equal.”
  • “Death you’ll think of as the worst of all bad things, though in fact there’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing which comes before it – the fear of it.”
  • “For those who follow nature everything is easy and straightforward, whereas for those who fight against her life is just like rowing against the stream.”
  • “One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage.”
  • “No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificant creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty, changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination.”

A better way to die?


Michael Eades talks about the implications of humans eating animals with regards to:

  • The symbiotic relationship created therein (i.e. there are more cows because humans like eating them – similar to trees and paper)
  • Relativistic comparisons between the humane harvesting of animals via slaughterhouses and the normal way millions of animals die every day in the wild — i.e. natural causes like a hawk tearing the lung of a crow and the crow dying of asphyxiation or lions causing an elephant to suffocate, etc.
  • Cortisol’s (stress hormone) meat-ruining impact incentivizing slaughterhouses to be humane, not stressing out the animals.

It’s a thought-provoking, well-written piece. The book referenced is one I should probably add to my wish list.

Here’s a snippet:

When animals (ourselves included) are stressed, they release cortisol, a hormone that looms large in the fight or flight response. This cortisol can be measured and used as an indicator of stress. Cattle are minimally tamed animals. They are by nature skittish. They don’t take well to being handled and, in fact, don’t really like to have people around. Dr. Grandin has taken cortisol samples from animals just standing around the farm with people within view and discovered that they have a slightly elevated cortisol levels. When she tests animals in properly designed slaughterhouses right as they reach the final station, she finds that they have similar cortisol levels as animals standing in the barnyard with humans present. In other words, a little stress, but not a lot.

I can pretty much assure anyone that these animals meet their deaths in today’s slaughterhouses with orders of magnitude less stress than they would were they living in the wild and being preyed upon by large carnivores. In fact, had they been living in the wild, they wouldn’t exist today. They would have been relegated to the long list of animals that have become extinct.

Let’s consider cattle. Cows are large, fairly placid, relatively slow, and exceptionally stupid. They are also uncommonly good to eat. All these facts taken together make it clear why cattle are still with us. (It also reminds me of a great and very true statement I heard once but can’t remember where: ‘If you want to preserve the American bald eagle, all you’ve got to do is make ‘em good to eat, and before long, you’ll be overrun with them.’) And not just a few specimens in zoos, but by the millions roaming pastures the world over. Cattle, unlike other wild animals, allowed themselves to be domesticated. Humans complied and domesticated them. A covenant arose between humans and cattle in which we provided for them and they for us. We kept them safe and allowed them to breed and survive as a species; they provided us with meat in return. It’s been a great bargain for all sides. Although any individual steer trudging off to slaughter may not see it this way, the covenant has been a godsend for the breed, which has grown and prospered. There is a wonderful book titled The Covenant of the Wild detailing this animal-man symbiotic relationship that should be on everyone’s bookshelf, especially anyone’s who doesn’t feel right about eating meat or who is being relentlessly hounded by vegetarian friends or family. Although it’s never pleasant to think of animals being put to death so that we can eat them, it is reassuring to know that it is done as stresslessly as possible. If done right, with almost no stress at all. If, however, the PETA folks had their way, these animals would be turned away from the slaughterhouse doors and sent to live out their days peacefully on lush pastures somewhere.

If this vegan fantasy came to pass, what would happen to these cattle? Would their deaths be more or less stressful than at the hands of their human handlers? You probably know the answer, but let’s take a look. And, remember, not for the squeamish.

Free the Animal banner

I just finished up a project for Richard Nikoley, friend and founder of Free the Animal. Richard had commissioned me to create a banner for his site, and after hashing out the concepts, I worked on putting together a design.

Here’s the final product:

Some of the ideas the banner is intended to convey are:

  • Man as a self-reliant, rugged individual — a hunter — evolutionarily designed over the eons.
  • That a man’s health is dependent upon his understanding the nature of his genes and putting that knowledge to practical work in a modern age, an age that is drastically different from the gross majority of man’s biological existence on this planet.
  • Human beings are a dominant, independent species, one meant to be free.

Many of these ideas weren’t spoken when Richard asked me to do this design — that is because many of them were already understood. One thing Richard talks little about these days on FtA is his philosophical stance, which centers heavily around an understanding of human beings.

Human beings are intelligent animals. Our intelligence sets us above all other species, but it also enables us to reflect introspectively about our place with regard to the planet and to each other. Such reflection inescapably leads to an understanding that man should be free, both unbound by other men and unwilling to forcibly control his fellow man*. Moral implications aside, it’s this introspection on our nature that leads us to understand how we should approach our health.

Modern man (post-agriculture) has existed for only a handful of millenia, whereas we were evolutionarily designed over some two million years (To say nothing of the millions of years of evolution that occurred prior to homo sapiens). Evolution gave us genes that function best under certain conditions. It’s reasonable to assert that those prehistoric conditions involved a certain amount of activity (i.e. hunting, gathering, play), some amount of scarcity (inability to find food leading to periodic bouts of famine) and substantially limited agricultural technology. How these inputs and constraints molded our genes is a fundamental question worth asking. Free the Animal tackles this question for the purpose of living optimally, as modern men with ancient genes.

“Free the Animal” is a motto. And Richard is expanding on what it means to free the animal his site. Be sure to check it out!

* Except in cases where force is required to defend himself or his property.