by Titus Rivas
Sometimes vegans claim that the original human diet was purely vegetable, and therefore eating meat and animal products in general could be seen as a perversion. The carnivore or more correctly omnivore menu would be perverted not only in the physiological sense of being detrimental to human health, but also morally, because people would kill and use animals without any innate biological urge to do so. What are the reasons for this unusual claim? Two sources for the belief that veganism is natural exist.
First, there are several religious texts (e. g. Genesis) that hold that the only original food God intended for human consumption consisted of fruit and vegetables.
Secondly, people point to the food habits of the great apes, i.e. those primates closest to man from a biological, evolutionary viewpoint
In this short essay I will scrutinize the background for the naturalistic case for veganism.
1. Religious texts
The problem with religious sources is that even if some of them are trustworthy and truly the product of divine inspiration, not all of them can equally be so. There are many holy books that contradict each other on an infinity of specific issues. This means that only a believer can take seriously the information about our original state that a religious text is supposed to provide. I am not saying that no religious text whatsoever would ever contain any truth, and even less do I wish to offend anyone's religious feelings. What I do contend is that only fellow believers might be convinced of religious claims that human's original eating was meant to be confined to plants.
If we want to convince others that veganism is in itself good and worthwhile, we don't want to have to convince them first of any particular religious system. Especially since we do not as vegans all belong to the same creed, and since many of us are not even followers of any religion whatsoever.
The biological case for the supposed unnaturalness of eating meat and dairy products rests entirely on the eating habits of the great apes. Let us only take a look at chimpanzees. Jane Goodall in her book "In the Shadow of Man" states that chimps are omnivorous, just like humans. They eat plants, insects and meat, as well as eggs and young birds. She also describes the hunting habits of chimpanzees, which can catch some twenty different types of prey during one year. Mostly they hunt the young of antelopes, pigs and baboons, and also young and adult guereza monkeys.
Chimps are especially famous for their intelligent manipulation of sticks as tools during termite fishing. This means that the case of chimpanzees, who are extremely close to humans, disproves the idea that our ancestors simply must have been herbivorous. Not all of the great apes have a vegetarian life style like the gorillas.
Also our teeth and digestive system show that we are not confined to vegetables. Some modem-day eating habits may be in a sense unnatural and detrimental to our health, but this is not the same as claiming that eating meat and dairy products would be unnatural for us humans. It is not at all unnatural, but completely natural, and part of the human biological characteristic of being very universal in our possibilities to adapt to different circumstances. Just like our intelligence and hands, like our standing upright, and our speech, our omnivorous diet greatly benefited our biological success as a species. We can be both vegans and complete meat-eaters, as Eskimos are, unfortunately.
3. Biology and Veganism
As we have seen, the religious ground for believing that veganism is the natural kind of human nutrition cannot be generalised beyond believers of particular denominations.
Moreover, biologically the claim is ludicrous, as we can conclude from the chimpanzee menu and from our own physiology. Instead, we should realise that from a strictly biological viewpoint, veganism is an unadaptive, unnecessary limitation within the biological possibilities of humankind. Biologically speaking, veganism is a bit like anorexia: it is an unnatural abstinence from natural resources.
There can be no case for veganism based on claims about our natural, unspoiled nutrition. I am not saying by the way that veganism is an unhealthy diet or that it would be ecologically wrong to be a vegan. I am just saying that there is nothing original or biologically innate about veganism.
4. The Moral Case for Veganism
There is no valid naturalistic case to be made for veganism. Instead, we should stick to the only type of argument that is unshakeable by any biological findings. This is the moral argument. We do not need to be vegans because it is natural, we should be vegans because it is morally right.
Anyway, even if veganism were natural, that would not force us to be vegans. It most certainly was natural for humans to walk naked at the very beginning, but I doubt whether everyone who claims veganism is natural, would declare him- or herself to be a naturist (nudist) too. The point is however that veganism is not natural in the biological sense. It is a highly advanced moral choice that should be promoted primarily on ethical grounds.
Thus, we can even extend our veganism to other beings that are under our care, like dogs. For dogs it is even less natural never to eat meat than it is for us people. Nonetheless, with the right balance in their diet, it is possible for dogs to thrive on vegan food. If we apply the (false) naturalistic argument for veganism to dogs, dogs should never be deprived of eating meat. If we apply the moral argument to them however, we should feed dogs in as vegan a way as biologically possible.
Titus Rivas, The Netherlands
Published in Vegans International 4th quarter 1994, page 7.