Of Men and Monkeys, Memes and Meat       John Mayer

When one is considering becoming a vegetarian, or trying to convince others of the virtues of doing so, one of the most basic questions to be confronted is this: is a vegetarian diet natural for mankind? This is an argument that must be joined if vegetarians are to have credibility on the scientific and logical plane, rather than just the emotional one. We must not fudge the facts to put a happier face on nature, to paint things as we think they should be rather than as they are, just as we would hope those defending their carnivorous dietary traditions would not cull out only those scientific facts that support their predisposition, disregarding others. The tendency to do this is called "authentication bias," and is a common stumbling block in the search for truth.

One example of this tendency I have encountered among fellow vegetarians is the argument that meat fuels aggression, that man was a placid and peaceful farmer like Cain until he first shed blood, until he ate meat and, having tasted blood, started down the road that led ultimately to the terrible phenomenon of warfare. Most anthropologists believe, however, that the opposite is the case: that competing tribes of humans engaged, at most, in occasional skirmishes, that threatened tribes chose the simple expedient of moving on to other territories, until we first learned to till the soil, until we first put down roots, as it were, and the cost of abandoning our fields became too great, and we felt compelled to stand and defend our first homelands.

Even if, as Robert Ardrey has claimed (African Genesis, 1961), we are children of killer apes, born of an especially fierce line of primates, driven by nature to slay to survive, to chase down and rend our prey with our savage, albeit shortened, jaws, to shred the flesh of other creatures with untrimmed fingernails, that still does not render a vegetarian lifestyle invalid or illogical. As Katherine Hepburn put it, in Knoxville's own James Agee's African Queen, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." Even if we have evolved to eat meat, there are compelling environmental, economic and ethical reasons to move to a vegetarian diet if we can do so and maintain our health. Studies, such as the classic study of mostly vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists, demonstrate we can not only maintain our health without meat, we can actually improve it. But I do not think man evolved as a carnivore at all.

I have known people to insist that of course we are adapted to eat meat! Look at our pointy canines! Why, they're even called canines, implying we share the taste for blood with our wolf brothers! One wonders how many folks of the flesh-eating persuasion have actually compared our teeth with those of the average omnivore, let alone those of say, the tiger. To imagine that our tiny canines were ever intended to be employed in the same fashion as the fangs of the great cats is laughable, and the teeth of omnivores much more closely resemble those of the lion or the tiger than they do ours. Take a look at some casts of our skulls and theirs at this website: <http://www.sculpturegallery.org/museum.html>. Even the gorilla, an obligate herbivore (with the possible exception ot the occasional grub worm) has far more formidable canines than ours. The fact that these are markedly more pronounced in the male gorilla suggests they are intended not for hunting but for fending off rivals for the affections of the female gorilla. <http://talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/gorilla.html>

I once bet a restauranteur a meal that the gorilla was a vegetarian. When I brought a book to back me up, he weaseled out of paying by insisting my copy of The Animal Encyclopedia was out of date and had surely been superseded by later works. (Plainly, the man was not a native Southerner; we know the importance of honoring our gambling debts.) Happily the internet now offers a plethora of references, many of them indisputably up-to-date. For example the following statement can be found in the online papers of Fokren Masters: "Despite their fearsome size (three hundred to five hundred pounds for males and one hundred fifty to two hundred fifty pounds for females) and large canine teeth the western lowland gorilla is an herbivore." Paper and bibliography can be found at: http://www.chuckiii.com/Reports/Anthropology/The_Western_Lowland_Gorilla.shtml. No doubt a more assiduous search of the net will turn up many other references on the subject.

We can move still closer to man than the apes and find compelling indications that meat-eating is not in our genes. The australopithicines, discovered by Dart and others, were vegetarians; this has been determined by the pattern of striations on their teeth. Not having any training in anthropology myself I don't know how the striations rule out meat, but I do recall that the striations on the teeth of australopithicus robustus, the bigger, tougher apeman, indicate he ate mostly nuts and grains. Those on the teeth of australopithecus gracilis, more familiarly known as Lucy, the one that probably represents our immediate ancestor (though the recent discovery of australopithecus ramidus has complicated the issue), indicate that she ate mostly fruits.

But if we are meant to be plant eaters, how can our ancestors have defied their natures and turned carnivore? As far back as anyone can remember people have eaten meat; therefore it must be natural. Carnem edo, ergo carnivorus sum. But modern man overrides his instincts constantly. I call your attention to the scholarly study of human behavior brought to us by way of the educational television show Fear Factor. In case you've not had the opportunity to keep abreast of the show's studies in experimental psychology, participants seek weekly to overcome humanity's most basic instinctual fears such as fear of falling from great heights, fear of confined spaces, fear of drowning, et cetera, encouraged by the positive reinforcement of a potential $50,000 payoff.

Most of the subjects seem to have little problem braving the death-defying aspects of the show. There is, however, another segment which often requires that they eat some unsavory item, usually an animal that is not part of the western diet - perhaps a large insect or type of vermin - or parts of an animal that are not ordinarily consumed in our culture: eyes, spleens, gonads, even the good old-fashioned pork brains that I once enjoyed as a lad, albeit without the scrambled eggs that made for a hearty country breakfast. This part of the show has more washouts than any other; contestants who have shown themselves willing to swim through flooded tunnels or walk narrow planks stretched between skyscrapers balk at being asked to consume unfamiliar animal products and relinquish all claim to the $50,000. Is this the act of a born carnivore? Would a hungry jaguar turn away from an unfamiliar cut of meat? Or does this suggest that the eating of flesh is something instilled into us at an early age, and that only those particular meats we learn to accept as toddlers gain exemption from our instinctive revulsion to the consumption of animal parts? Equally instructive are the contestants who do manage to fight back their rising gorge and eat the loathsome victuals.

Knoxville's most successful food co-op prior to the present one was a place near campus called The Sixteenth Street Alternative; I was a member. Our goal was to lower the cost of groceries moreso than to provide vegetarian or organic specialties. Among our offerings was fresh meat prepared by students at a nearby butchers' college. The meat was top quality, but we were able to sell it very cheaply because it had been inexpertly cut; often sections of blood vessels were clearly visible. We sold very little of it; most of it was discarded or carried home to feed our dogs. If humans are by nature meat-eaters, why was the clear evidence of physiology so off-putting? It is also interesting to note that, as each generation becomes further removed from the farm, meat increasingly comes to us in forms that disguise its origin: patties, filets, strips, nuggets...

I would suggest that though we evolved as herbivores, early man's higher brain function was able to overrule our natural aversion to eating the flesh of other creatures. Probably we observed other animals, natural predators, devouring their prey and followed suit. Perhaps we thought it more satisfying to identify with the powerful hunters rather than their unfortunate victims. Maybe we even hoped to acquire some of the fierceness of the hunter by emulating him. Or by eating him.

In fact there is evidence that lower primates than man can defy their biological imperative and initiate activities that then become commonplace within a group, passed down through succeeding generations, seeming almost instinctive, but not to be found in geographically distant tribes. In other words, among chimpanzees and even lower primates there are actual cultural differences between populations. Perhaps you have heard of the Hundredth Monkey theory which states that, when the hundredth monkey adopts a behavior, suddenly that behavior becomes common to all monkeys everywhere. I don't know that anyone ever really took this notion seriously, but we now have scientific evidence that it is not so.

On occasion the geneses of some cultural traditions have been observed. For example, in the middle of the twentieth century observers noted a young female macaque monkey on the Japanese island of Koshima developing the habit of washing the dirt off sweet potatoes the tribe had been given. Soon her mother and peers began to do the same and, eventually, the whole tribe. Though all those monkeys that originated this behavior have long since passed over, the activity remains a part of the culture of that tribe.

The use of tools among chimpanzees also varies from tribe to tribe. So do forms of greeting, some tribes using the chimp equivalent of "Ssuuup?" and others, "How ya doin'?" Most significantly for our purposes, so does the ratio of meat eating vary among chimp tribes. The June 2001 issue of Natural History speaks of field studies of scattered groups of chimpanzees and their degree of carnivory. A tribe at the Mahale Mountains Wildlife Research Center in Tanzania, for example, is known to hunt and kill ten different species of mammal. Other tribes are described as "almost entirely vegetarian." Interestingly, in some tribes small mammals such as hyraxes are attacked and killed but not eaten, are sometimes played with much as a human child would play with a doll. This suggests to me that the killing of animals as sport or as a random, thoughtless act probably preceded the eating of them. More information on the Bossou studies may be found at the Bossou Chimpanzee World site. Also of interest: The Primate Research Institute site.

Elsewhere I have read that there are chimp tribes wherein only vegetation and insects are eaten, with the exception of monkeys. Apparently monkeys are hunted and killed only when a female is in estrus, and are offered to her much as a human suitor would bring his date a posy of flowers. Often the hapless monkey is not even eaten, suggesting its killing is a tribal ritual rather than an expression of our chimpanzee cousins' need for red meat. [Update: Recent speculation suggests that some chimp tribes help to establish dominance hierarchies and develop organizational skills through hunting.Ref to come]

If monkeys and chimpanzees are sufficiently advanced intellectually to ignore their culinary instincts, to alter and adapt such basic behavior as eating habits, then there is little doubt that our ancestors could have done so as well. In fact, fossil evidence of the eating patterns of our ancestors establishes convincingly that meat-eating was a cultural afterthought. Perhaps it was necessary that we as a species go through a meat-eating phase to reach our current state of civilization. Probably early man could not have moved into temperate zones had he not relied upon the nutrition stored in the bodies of birds and mammals during the winter months. Almost certainly we would not have forged our bond with canines, whose canine teeth actually are adapted for seizing and killing other animals, had we not had some bones to throw them.

But plainly the fact that most humans now eat meat does not mean that we have always done so, any more than the fact that cattle are able to digest the meat products in their feed means that cattle are carnivores. Of course, there remains the matter of our need for B12. But that's a subject for another article.

©2004 John Mayer