16 April 2006

False naturalists

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:43 pm

Troy.jpgLast month, Meat and Livestock Australia launched a series of advertisements that use evolutionary arguments to promote the consumption of red meat today. The cornerstone of the campaign is a 60-second television spot featuring antipodean actor Sam Neill banging on about how red meat was responsible for human intelligence and how, accordingly, “we were meant to eat it”.

The advertisement is so reminiscent of the meat propaganda flick in the award-winning Simpsons episode “Lisa the Vegetarian” that the geniuses at The Campaign Palace must have had it in mind. You might remember it: presented by the (fictional) Meat Council as part of its “Resistance is Useless” series, Meat and You: Partners in Freedom has perennial B-grade actor Troy McLure making spurious appeals to science (“Ask this scientician!”) and other non sequiturs. You can download a copy of it here: it’s long, but it’s worth it.

The MLA campaign also includes a couple of print ads, the most random of which shows a hot girl in a singlet drinking a glass of water and asks, “Is eating red meat as natural as drinking water?”. All of them emphasise the importance of red meat in human evolution and conclude that we should now all eat it three or four times a week.

There is a fair amount of current discussion in scientific circles about what prompted the apparently rapid evolution of the human brain, which is about twice as heavy as the Homo habilis brain and loads heavier than the brains of other animals about our size. There seems to be a complex interplay here between the how and the why: our brains expanded to accommodate the increased demands of social interaction and language, including keeping track of our friends and enemies and cooperating to track down food; but to do so they needed a new and dense source of energy, a new kind of food; and whatever that was, it required more intelligence and bigger brains to secure; and so on.

The MLA’s claims seem to derive most directly from UC Berkeley anthropologist Katharine Milton‘s theory, published in Evolutionary Anthropology in 1999, that our ancestors introduced red meat into their diets as the African forests receded about two million years ago, and that this new source of energy and nutrition kicked human evolution along significantly. That sounds plausible enough. But Dr Stephen Cunnane reckons it wasn’t red meat but littoral foodstuffs like clams, frogs, bird eggs and fish that gave us our enormous brains. Richard Wrangham writes in Current Anthropology that it was cooked tubers, though it’s not clear that proto-humans were using fire at the relevant time. Simon Mead et al say we all used to eat each other whenever we got the chance, and this widespread anthropophagy had significant health benefits including resistance to prion diseases like mad cow. More on this later.

It’s still a live issue—as is the question of what exactly our forebears ate and when. Many have argued that we are adapted to eat a more or less meat- or vegetable-rich diet, and most have had their own reasons for doing so. Congenital smartypants Cecil Adams summarised some of the arguments to and fro in a Straight Dope column back in 1990, and concluded that we have evolved to be more or less omnivorous: relatively bad at chewing and digesting meat compared to full-time carnivores like wild cats and dogs, also pretty crap at eating vegetables compared to ardent herbivores like cows, but able to make some sort of fist of either. The best part was when Cecil said this:

Not all anthropoid apes are exclusively vegetarian. The primatologist Jane Goodall established more than 20 years ago that wild chimpanzees kill other animals once in a while and eat the meat with relish.

In response to which one Guru Singh Khalsa of Los Angeles for once out-smart-arsed Cecil with this brilliant rejoinder:

In reading through your column “Vegetarians Go Ape,” I noticed an unusual fact that you seemed to expose with great confidence. You stated that “Jane Goodall established more than twenty years ago that wild chimpanzees kill other animals once in a while and eat the meat with relish.” I question the accuracy of this. Where would wild chimpanzees obtain relish?

That’s all by the by, of course. And, in fact, so is the whole argument. What early humans ate is entirely irrelevant to the question of what humans should eat now: from a health perspective, and particularly from an ethical perspective. Even if they’re spot-on about our climb down from the trees, Sam Neill and friends are wading hip-deep in the naturalistic fallacy, which falsely equates what is historically true with what is morally right. (I know that this isn’t exactly what philosopher GE Moore meant when he coined the term, but the term has come to embrace this additional fallacy, which turns out to be more pervasive than the one he originally identified, which by the way I have no idea what he was talking about.)

If Simon Mead and friends are right, then cannibalism “made us what we are” about as much as anything else did. We don’t like to admit it, but we shouldn’t care—it happened two million years ago; there’s no need to apologise for it now (two hundred years would be a different story). But there’s no way Sam Neill—or even Sam Kekovich—are going to get on the box and tell us we should be taking bites out of each other. And nor should they: we’ve decided independently that eating people is bad.

A less far-fetched example. We know that our close relatives among the great apes are absolute bastards to each other. Chimpanzee society, for example, is an orgy of assassination, infanticide and gang rape—and many other animals get up to similar kinds of no good. It seems safe to assume that early humans had comparable tendencies: I mean, look around. You could easily argue that rape and murder are natural: our ancestors did it, and won a selective advantage by doing it; we probably still carry the same instincts for it. Does that mean we should do it? Of course not. We’re intelligent, reasoning creatures—however we came to be that way—and we don’t always have to be ruled by our instincts; we can make a choice.

There are many ways to choose: you might want to try deontology, which considers your duties and the rights of others; or consequentialism, which is concerned with the
results of a particular action. They’ve all got problems, but they’re almost all better than looking to our distant ancestors for guidance, or just doing whatever is instinctive. Everyone knows that, don’t they?

This amusing editorial in The Age pits Sam Neill in a celebrity food-fight against this website’s unwitting patron, Missy Higgins, who recently appeared in a PETA ad holding a pig. No meat tray for guessing whose side I’m on.