In this week’s instalment we’re going to visit one of the more bizarre trenches of the Culture Wars — the ideological fight over what our ancestors ate. We’re going to be doing a comparison between two articles on ancient ancestors’ diet.
The first is a journalistic history of how humans came to eat meat that was published in The Atlantic. The second is a rhetorical piece published by the vegan group PETA — the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
On the surface of it this is going to look like a vegan debunking article but as regular readers will know that’s not really what The Living Philosophy is about. Something in this reflection resonated deeply enough with me that I thought it was worth writing an article and this something had little to do with a takedown of veganism.
If you’re anything like me then you probably haven’t given a great deal of thought to this fight over ancient diets. I had some unacknowledged awareness as we all do of the shape of the cultural divide but it all crystallised for me after reading these articles and having an argument I had with a friend of mine a few weeks previous.
My friend would have been a massive Jordan Peterson fan in his day and would be more right-leaning on a lot of issues and I had the exact inverse of this argument with him. He’s an advocate of a meat-centred diet and claimed that humans used to primarily eat meat and that the gathering of nuts and fruits was secondary to this meat-eating. I strongly disagreed but I hadn’t done enough research to properly defend my hunch.
So I think that argument was in the back of my mind when I was reading these articles and it was especially interesting to read the PETA article which was making the exact opposite point. In direct contradiction to my friend — who feels far better when he eats primarily meat (saying he experiences less inflammation) — the PETA article argued that meat-eating causes more disease; this is because humans are in fact herbivorous and eating meat is an abomination of our nature.
And this got me thinking more about the idea that meat-eating is a frontline of the Culture Wars. I was already aware that there was a correlation between vegans and the Left-Wing end of the spectrum; I was also aware of the general correlation between the meat-loving stereotype associated with the right-wing and which is exemplified by Jordan Peterson. What really struck me as novel however is the idea that this dietary disagreement isn’t just a marker of different sides but a cause of their division.
I think you’d be forgiven for naively thinking that diet would seem a relatively safe topic politically but it is in fact a battleground for human nature. This battle of the Echo Chambers between Carnivores and Vegans is fundamentally a fight over what it is to be human. Are we naturally ferocious hunters or compassionate gatherers warped by The System?
Sowellian and Kuhnian Connections
For those of you who have read the instalment on Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions this will bring to mind the contrast between the Hobbesian Constrained Vision and the Rousseau-inspired Unconstrained Vision. This is the greater context of the disagreement between veganism and carnivorous humanity. There’s a fight for the definition of what it is to be human that is reliant on an evolutionary argument of where we’ve come from.
This appeal to our ancient ancestors is a common rhetorical technique and that’s one of the things I want to hone in on in this video because there’s something unusual in the way this argument is usually framed. It brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between evolutionary thinking and teleological thinking.
We have a tendency to think of Truth as being this monolithic thing that we can capture. We have this idea that Science will someday reach a point where it has a unified theory of everything and we will know everything. Kuhn calls this a “teleological” understanding of truth. One of the reasons why Kuhn was so controversial is that he had little time for this Modernist understanding of truth. We might, following Nietzsche’s analysis in On the Genealogy of Morals see this teleological endpoint of Truth with a capital T as being a relic of the Judaeo-Christian cosmology with its neat beginning and ending.
With Darwin we have an alternative way of viewing the landscape and that is the evolutionary lens. Our understanding of the world is something constantly evolving. We have different Paradigms which emphasise different elements of the truth becoming better and better models but without the monolithic endpoint of Truth with a capital T.
The PETA article’s argument as we will see, despite invoking our evolutionary past, is very far from being an evolutionary argument. The author of the article makes the same fallacy that many of those invoking humanity’s pre-civilised path make: essentialism.
The argument is basically that humans have one essential nature and that if we move away from this then we are in contradiction with Nature — we are sinning against nature. It’s a convenient rhetorical tool — humans have one essential nature which once discovered can be used to bash our opponents over the head. This is an important point and one we’ll come back to in more detail later.
For now with this broader frame for the article in place, let’s take a look at The Atlantic article and the PETA article and follow this trail a little deeper.
The Atlantic Article
The Atlantic article basically gives a brief summary of humanity’s relationship with meat and it starts with the first primate. This was a creature called Purgatorius and this character was something like a mouse crossed with a squirrel and he lived 65 million years ago — so around the time the dinosaurs died. Purgatorius‘s ancestors used to eat insects but as the climate shifted Purgatorius happened to live at a time when there was this overabundance of flowers and fruits and so the first primate used to eat these exclusively.
And so it went for fifty million years. Our primate ancestors ate nothing but these fruits and flowers. But then around 15 million years ago hard seeds and nuts joined the menu. This wasn’t an insignificant development. In fact these were pivotal in making it possible for our ancestors to even eat meat. In comparison to the diet of fruits and flowers, these nuts and seeds were high in fat and low in fibre which led to the development of the small intestine and the shrinking of the caecum where fibres are digested.
Fast forward to 6 million years ago and we have the emergence of Sahelanthropus tchadensis who represent our split from bonobos and chimps. This is the first hominin and was our first ancestor to walk predominantly on two legs. She had flatter canines than her ancestors and thicker enamel which probably speaks to an increase in chewing — which could have been bits of meat but probably just a more nut- and seed-rich diet.
With Australopithecus between 4 and 3 million years ago we might see a level of meat-eating similar to today’s chimps. They may have eaten meat irregularly but still didn’t have the hardware to eat too much without risking death by twisted gut.
But by 2.5 million years ago the groundwork was fully laid. Thanks to 12.5 million years of nuts and seeds, we had developed the intestinal hardware to eat meat but we probably also developed tools to crack these hard nuts — tools that will have come in handy for uninitiated meat eaters like ourselves.
But the hardware alone wasn’t enough to change our lifestyles. Instead it was that great changer of habits — the climate. 2.5 million years ago rains were much less abundant in this part of Africa and so the abundance of fruits and flowers had come to an end.
Rainforest turned to sparsely wooded grasslands and during the dry season from January to April it would have been increasingly difficult to get enough food. And so there was a crossroads in the hominins. The Australopiths decided to double down on lower-quality plants in large doses while our ancestors opted for meat. Where the change in climate had decimated the flowers and fruits it multiplied the numbers of grazers on the now abundant grasslands. And so our ancestors were faced with an overflowing affluence of this new type of fare.
The long preparation of nuts and seeds, and our ancestors’ decision to walk on two feet had led us to this omnivorous chasm and the dramatic shift in climate shoved us over the edge. And that is the story of how humans came to eat meat.
That is, according to The Atlantic. But now, let’s look at PETA’s account.
The opening shot of the article is a bizarre rhetorical question.
Quick test: When you see dead animals on the side of the road, are you tempted to stop and snack on them? Do you daydream about killing cows with your bare hands and eating them raw? If you answered “no” to these questions, then, like it or not, you’re an herbivore.
We’ll not pick at this one too much because the dramatic rhetorical intent is just a little too transparent.
But the first subheading is “Think you’re a paleo caveman or -woman? Well…” and then the paragraph that follows is:
Although many humans choose to eat both plants and meat, earning us the dubious title of “omnivore,” we’re anatomically herbivorous. The good news is that if you want to eat like our ancestors, you still can: Nuts, vegetables, fruit, and legumes are the basis of a healthy vegan lifestyle.
The rest of the article lists the anatomical features that make us, as they put it, “anatomically herbivorous”.
But for me this is the rhetorical centre of the article so let’s linger on it a little longer. The first thing that strikes me is the term “paleo” in this subheading. The term Paleo refers to the Palaeolithic era which spans from 2.5 million years ago to 200,000 years ago.
The shortening of Palaeolithic to paleo is obviously a rhetorical choice that’s meant to bring to mind the popular health diet known as Paleo which is based around the idea that we should eat what our pre-civilised hunter-gathering ancestors ate. The PETA article is obviously implicitly invoking this diet with its claimed health benefits in order to debunk it with the rest of the article.
But this invocation puts a question mark over everything that follows. As we’ll remember from The Atlantic article’s account, the Palaeolithic era marks the exact era when our ancestors became devoted meat-eaters. And so the PETA author is factually wrong to claim that our paleo ancestors were herbivores.
Now we could be charitable here and say that while the subheading is misleading the content is accurate since our pre-Paleo ancestors did subsist primarily on nuts vegetables fruits and legumes.
But that isn’t really what they are doing. They’re not suggesting that we become like our pre-Paleo ancestors. The implication of the article, which only gets stronger as it goes on, is that our pre-civilised Palaeolithic ancestors were herbivorous. Like those advocating the Paleo diet, the PETA writer is trying to play on the common bias that the true essential human is the one that preceded agriculture and civilisation. This opening salvo is about as close as the author gets to an explicit untruth but this essentialist implication is subtly laced through the rest of the article.
Rhetoric, rhetoric and more rhetoric
As the article goes on they list the differences between humans and carnivores: our small canines, the range of motion in our jaws, our stomach acidity and the length of our intestines.
Of course as we’ve seen from the other article the reason for all these anatomical differences is that our ancestors were herbivores but with nuts and seeds and later the shift in climate we have been evolving in the direction of meat-eating for millions of years.
Anyway back to the article where the rhetoric really gets turned up with the claim that:
Meat actually begins to rot while it makes its way through human intestines, which increases the risk of developing colon cancer.
The germ of truth that the article is working with here is the fact that vegans and vegetarians experience lower incidence of cancer than meat eaters especially colon cancer. The causation for this isn’t clear but it’s certainly not because meat is rotting while it’s in our intestines. That’s taking a germ of truth and coating it in rhetorical bacon.
This claim then gets amplified by the author of The Power of Your Plate Dr Neal Barnard who:
talks about humans’ early diet, explaining that we “had diets very much like other great apes, which is to say a largely plant-based diet …. [M]eat-eating probably began by scavenging—eating the leftovers that carnivores had left behind. However, our bodies have never adapted to it. To this day, meat-eaters have a higher incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other problems.”
There’s a lot to unpack in this one. Again there’s the point at the end about the higher incidence of diseases among meat-eaters. This is actually a really fascinating fact that I think we could have a lot of fruitful exploration with.
But you can also see the essentialism beginning to creep in here. He says that our bodies have never adapted to it. There’s a black and white distinction in that: you are either adapted or you are not adapted. It’s not very evolutionary. In The Atlantic article we saw that if our ancestors even 5 million years ago had eaten too much meat their colon would have twisted and they could have died. But even that was incredibly adapted compared to our pre-nut and seed eating ancestors who couldn’t possibly have digested meat.
To say that our bodies have never adapted to it is rhetorical essentialism. Yes we get diseases — though some have argued that may be down to meat quality rather than meat-eating itself (though I’m not sure that I buy that argument). Nevertheless the claim that we have never adapted to it is just outrageous. We are no longer simple herbivores even if we are not traditional carnivores. We fit neither bucket particularly well.
This little drop of essentialism only gets tastier with the next paragraph:
Briana Pobiner, paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, adds, “[F]ruit and different plants and other things that we may have eaten maybe became less available. . . . The meat-eating that we do, or that our ancestors did even back to the earliest time we were eating meat, is culturally mediated. You need some kind of processing technology in order to eat meat .… So I don’t necessarily think we are hardwired to eat meat.”
This is just a delicious serving of rhetoric. Key words to pick out there are “culturally mediated” and “hardwired”. We are straying ever-further from an evolutionary lens and we have now landed on a static computer analogy.
The undertone here is that humanity has an essential nature. We have hardware which puts limits on what we are hardwired to do. But then we have culture — we have software and this is where the culturally mediated element comes in.
It’s a veritable shitstorm of rhetoric at this point. We have moved into a sort freshman postmodern idea of social construction. Eating meat, the argument goes, is culturally mediated i.e. it is a social construction hence we aren’t necessarily hardwired to eat meat.
Again this neglects the timescales involved in evolution. No we are not hardwired to eat meat but we have been moving towards it for 15 million years and living in it fully for 2.5 million years. We are not like wolves and dogs whose 55 million year existence has been solely as meat-eaters.
The Myth of Paleo Herbivores
It’s just a tricky set of arguments that are being utilised here. It’s an article riddled with half-truths. It obscures certain elements of the narrative to craft an ideologically convincing story.
The real kicker for me is what follows. In an article about humans and meat-eating, and following on from the claim that meat-eating is culturally conditioned and that we are not hardwired to eat meat, the PETA author takes a very interesting digression with the next paragraph by talking about humans domesticating cattle and beginning to consume dairy 10,000 years ago.
Now maybe I’m just hyper-critical at this point because it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to talk about dairy in an article on human meat-eating. But with this paragraph following on from the idea of meat-eating being culturally conditioned and the rest of the article saying that we are anatomically herbivorous and that we are not adapted to eating meat, it seems to me that they are trying to suggest that we only started eating meat 10,000 years ago. The first subheading being “Think you’re a paleo caveman or -woman? Well…” only enhances this suspicion.
To an impressionable young mind who is partial to a bit of Anarchist critique of civilisation and The System and is high in compassion, I can only imagine that the assumption they would have in the back of their mind after reading this article would be that meat eating is just another evil of civilisation — another bit of dodgy cultural conditioning that we need to unlearn.
Again it’s not being said directly here but there just seems something deliberate in the digression; it seems rhetorically appropriate.
The concluding section then explains why the diseases associated with meat are only becoming prominent now: it’s because most people couldn’t afford it before the 20th century. As meat eating becomes more accessible as the author puts it “thanks to the cruel, cost-cutting practices of farming” we are seeing the rise in diseases.
What’s interesting is that this covers the exact same ground that the Paleo diet stakes its claim on. Except that instead of pinning it down to meat eating Paleo advocates put it down to processed foods.
So much has changed in the past century that it seems at the very least uncautious but something closer to dishonest to claim that meat eating is the cause of all modernity’s illnesses. Industrialisation, the sedentary lifestyle, urbanisation and the stresses of the modern lifestyle are all overlooked and we have found, as fitting of any ideological argument, a single cause. It being a vegan article, that cause is meat.
And with that we reach the end of the article but I still think there’s so much more that we can unpack in it. It’s just a fascinating microcosm of what’s going on in the world.
I wonder to what extent the author of the article is drinking their own Kool-aid and to what extent it’s a sort of a “means justifies the end” situation. Because if you read this article and you knew none of the facts you would find yourself gleefully outraged and shocked. It’s the sexy kind of outrage that you can share on social media. I think part of the sexiness of virality in it is that there’s this new narrative being spun out of things we already kind of knew.
And it seems that if you want to be heard in today’s Attention Economy then you need to present a saucy narrative. There’s a belief that veganism is good for the animal and it’s good for our health but those facts don’t seem to be sexy enough and so we end up rewriting human history and showing the shocking things that humans do to animals to as many people as possible. When you’re trying to convert people to a new way of being logic isn’t enough.
But that being said it’s just hard to read. There’s another side to the argument where it seems like this kind of argument is only going to cause anger and further silo-ing. The echo chamber will love it but for those outside the echo chamber it is only going to have the opposite effect. So while logic might not be enough I’m not convinced that this much rhetoric is helpful either.
If nothing else it’s an interesting trench in the culture wars. Carnivores and vegans are retelling the story of human history to fit with their narratives of what humanity is. And there’s a lot to be learned in that.
Because these are grand narratives. Both sides are telling an all-encompassing grand narrative about humanity. They are playing the same game as religions. And perhaps with good reason. If you are going to try and change people’s lifestyles at scale then you want to create a community you want a cause and you want a grand narrative in which all of this is nestled. This article shows that veganism meets these requirements. It is one of the New Religions vying for our allegiance and seeking to give our lives a greater meaning.
But I think where all this gets really fascinating for me is the essentialism. Because beneath a seemingly commonplace article about veganism there’s a whole lot of worldview going on. In the PETA article there’s a Binary Opposition set up between humans as they are now and humans in their true state. But what’s interesting is that the locus of this argument has shifted. Once upon a time this was a religious argument and the true nature of man was before the Fall or in the East we might speak about our buddha dhatu — our Buddha-nature or we might speak of the Dao. But with the collapse of religious authority the evolutionary argument has replaced the religious one.
The battleground has shifted from a religious hermeneutics to human evolution. The true human is the pre-civilised one. We explored the political power of this argument in the article on Thomas Sowell’s Constrained Vision and Unconstrained Vision that tends to demarcate the Left vs Right divide over Hobbes and Rousseau. So when the vegan and paleo folk are arguing over what we should eat they are playing a new game on very old territory.
Beneath this argument about humanity, there’s an inherent contradiction. It adds a level of comedy to the whole thing. The Paleo people look at getting back to the true diet of our Paleo ancestors as if this was an equilibrium point. But where the vegans do have a point is that we are new to the carnivore scene. In the past 50 million years our veganism far outweighs our meat-eating. But what both camps are ignoring is that the ground they are fighting over is evolutionary — by its very nature this ground is shifting.
We are not essentially vegan any more than we are essentially paleo. Clearly there is evidence that eating a vegan diet can reduce the risk of certain diseases. The same can be said of Paleo. But does that mean that humans are essentially vegan? It most certainly does not. Evolution is in flux. The old opposition between culture and nature is too rigidly set. The software vs hardware analogy that has become popular in the past couple of decades doesn’t help. The hardware of humanity is evolving. The modern diet and lifestyle is as truly human as the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer.
We might argue that this isn’t the healthiest direction for humanity to go in and there’s an important point in there which leads us towards eugenics, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch or at least towards Revolution. The evolutionary lens gives us a responsibility in creating humanity but this entire argument space is instead captured by an essentialist atomic argument. It’s still stuck on the early modern fascination with static space. The real Paradigm shift of Darwinian thought has yet to penetrate all the corners of our worldview and this neglect makes it the perfect ground for cultural conflict.