We’re most similar to other plant-eaters, and drastically different from carnivores and true omnivores.Those who insist that humans are omnivores, especially if their argument is based on canine teeth, would do well to look at what the evidence actually shows. We’ll cover that below.
- The animals most similar to us, the other primates, eat an almost exclusively vegan diet.
- “Omnivore” doesn’t mean 50% plants and 50% animals. Many consider chimpanzees to be omnivores but 95-99% of their diet is plants, and most of the rest isn’t meat, it’s termites. If humans are omnivores, then the anatomical evidence suggests that we’re the same kind: the kind that eats almost exclusively plant foods.
- Saying we’re omnivores because we’re capable of eating meat is just silly. We’re capable of eating cardboard, too. And by the “capable” argument, then cats are omnivores, since nearly every commercial cat food has plant ingredients. (Check the label.) Nobody would ever make the argument that cats are omnivores based on what they’re capable of eating. But they sure make that argument for humans, enthusiastically.
- Our so-called “canine teeth” are “canine” in name only. Other plant-eaters (like gorillas, horses, and hippos) have “canines”, and chimps, who are almost exclusively vegan, have massive canines compared to ours.
- Our early ancestors from at least four million years ago were almost exclusively vegetarian.
- Among animals, plant-eaters have the longest lifespans, and humans are certainly in that category (and yes, this was true even before modern medicine)
- We sleep about the same amount of time as other herbivores, and less than carnivores and true omnivores.
- The most common cause of choking deaths is eating meat. Real carnivores and omnivores don’t have that problem.
The meat-eating reader already has half a dozen objections to this before s/he’s even read the rest of the article, and I will address those objections specifically, but first let me address them generally:It’s human nature to want to feel that what we’re doing is right, proper, and logical. When we’re confronted with something that suggests that our current practices are
not the best ones, it’s uncomfortable. We can either consider that our choices may not have been the best ones, which is extremely disturbing, or we can reject that premise without truly considering it, so that we don’t have to feel bad about our actions. That’s the more comfortable approach. And we do this by searching our minds for any arguments we can for why the challenge must be wrong, to justify our current behavior. This practice is so common psychologists have a name for it: cognitive dissonance.
Think about that for a moment:Our feeling that our current
actions are correct isn’t based on our arguments. Rather, our actions come first and then we come up with the arguments to try to support those actions. If we were truly logical, we’d consider the evidence first and then decide the best course of action. But often we have it in reverse, because it’s too difficult to accept that we might have been wrong.
This is particularly true when it comes to vegetarianism.It’s easy to identify because the
anti-vegetarian arguments are usually so extreme, compared to other kinds of discourse. A person who would never normally suggest something so fantastic as the idea that plants can think and feel pain, will suddenly all but lunge for such an argument when they feel their meat-eating ways are being questioned, and they’re looking for a way to justify it. That’s psychology for you.
The most common counter-arguments
“Humans have canine teeth. End of story.”
Our dentition evolved for processing starches, fruits, and vegetables, not tearing and masticating flesh. Our oft-cited “canine” teeth are not at all comparable to the sharp teeth of true carnivores.
If you have any doubt of the truth of this observation then go look
in the mirror right now – you may have learned to call your 4 corner front teeth, “canine teeth” – but in no way do they resemble the sharp, jagged, blades of a true carnivore – your corner teeth are short, blunted, and flat on top (or slightly rounded at most). Nor do they ever function in the manner of true canine teeth. Have you ever observed someone purposely favoring these teeth while tearing off a piece of steak or chewing it? Nor have I. The lower jaw of a meat-eating animal has very little side-to-side motion – it is fixed to open and close, which adds strength and stability to its powerful bite. Like other plant-eating animals our jaw can move forwards and backwards, and side-to-side, as well as open and close, for biting off pieces of plant matter, and then grinding them into smaller pieces with our flat molars.
John A. McDougall, M.D
“Humans have always eaten meat.”
No, we haven’t. Just because we assume that humans have always eaten meat doesn’t make it true. I’ll provide evidence for this shortly. But what’s more important is that unlike other animals, humans can act outside of instinct. That means that if early humans did eat meat, they were simply making an interesting choice, not doing what their biology favors. We really have to look at our digestive system to get the best evidence for what we’re optimized for eating, not what some humans chose to eat. Otherwise, thousands of years from now anthropologists might conclude that eating McDonald’s is natural because humans circa 2011 used to eat a lot of it.
“We’re capable of eating meat, therefore we’re omnivores. Case closed.”
Okay, fine, then cats are omnivores, too. (“Case closed.”) Commercial cat foods, both wet and dry, contain things like rice, corn, and wheat. In fact, some people feed their cats a pure vegan dietwith no meat at all.
But of course, cats are true carnivores. We don’t call them omnivores just because they’ll eat things contrary to what nature intended. That would be silly. No one makes that argument for cats. But they make it for humans, enthusiastically. However, they can’t have it both ways: Either we don’t assume humans are omnivores just because we can eat meat, or we apply the same standard to other animals and conclude that cats are omnivores, too. Which is it?
“Humans are omnivores.”
“Omnivore” doesn’t mean 50% plants and 50% animals. Many consider chimpanzees to be omnivores but 95-99% of their diet is plants, and most of the rest isn’t meat, it’s termites. If
humans are omnivores, then the anatomical evidence suggests that we’re the same kind: the kind that eats almost exclusively plant foods. And if an omnivore is an animal that is capable of eating both plants and animals, and ever does so, then sure, we’re omnivores, but then again, so are cats. (See above.) A true omnivore would have a body optimized for eating both plants and animals. With non-humans we can look at what they eat in the wild to figure out their preferred diets, but humans lost our instincts long ago, so we can look only at our anatomy and digestive systems. And that evidence is compelling.
“Vitamin B12. End of story.”
B12 isn’t made by animals, it’s made by bacteria. (source) It’s found where things are unclean. (And meat is dirty.) This easily explains why historically it’s been easy to get B12, because until recently we didn’t live in a sanitized environment. Plants pulled from the ground and not washed scrupulously have B12 from the surrounding soil. (source) Vegans should take a B12 supplement, not because veganism is unnatural, but because the modern diet is too clean to contain reliable natural sources of dirty B12.
Incidentally, our need for B12 is tiny — 3 micrograms a day. Not milligrams, micrograms. The amount of B12 you need for your entire life is smaller than four grains of rice. (More on Vitamin B12 from John McDougall, M.D)
“Other primates eat meat.”
Hardly. Various sources (below) say that a chimp’s diet is 95-99% plant foods, and the primary non-plant food isn’t meat, it’s termites. We also have to remember that primates are intelligent and can make choices outside of instinct, just like humans do, so the tiny amount of meat they might eat could simply be due to choice, not instinct. The idea that primates are a good example for why humans should eat meat evidently didn’t impress the most famous primate researcher of all time, Jane Goodall. Goodall is a vegetarian.
But haven’t humans always eaten meat? What about evolution? We evolved to eat meat!
Robert W. Sussman, Ph.D., professor anthropology in Arts & Sciences, spoke at a press briefing, “Early Humans on the Menu,” during the American Association for the Advancement of the Science’s Annual Meeting….[E]arly man was not an aggressive killer, Sussman argues. He poses a new theory, based on the fossil record and living primate species, that primates have been prey for millions of years, a fact that greatly influenced the evolution of early man.
“Our intelligence, cooperation and many other features we have as modern humans developed from our attempts to out-smart the predator,” says Sussman…. The idea of “Man the Hunter” is the generally accepted paradigm of human evolution, says Sussman, “It developed from a basic Judeo-Christian ideology of man being inherently evil, aggressive and a natural killer. In fact, when you really examine the fossil and living non-human primate evidence, that is just not the case.”
Sussman’s research is based on studying the fossil evidence dating back nearly seven million years. “Most theories on Man the Hunter fail to incorporate this key fossil evidence,” Sussman
says. “We wanted evidence, not just theory. We thoroughly examined literature available on the skulls, bones, footprints and on environmental evidence, both of our hominid ancestors and the predators that coexisted with them.”
But what Sussman and Hart discovered is that Australopithecus afarensis was not dentally pre-adapted to eat meat. “It didn’t have the sharp shearing blades necessary to retain and cut such foods,” Sussman says. “These early humans simply couldn’t eat meat. If they couldn’t eat meat, why would they hunt?”
It was not possible for early humans to consume a large amount of meat until fire was controlled and cooking was possible. Sussman points out that the first tools didn’t appear until two million years ago. And there wasn’t good evidence of fire until after 800,000 years ago.
Considering the other primates
Our closest animal relatives are, of course, the other primates.They provide clues about our ideal diet since our anatomy is so similar. Very few of them eat any significant amount of
animals, and those who do typically mostly stick to things like insects, not cows, pigs, and chickens. Jane Goodall, famous for her extensive study of apes while living with them, found that it was very rare for the primates she saw to eat other animals. Critics lunge all over the fact that Goodall discovered that primates occasionally eat meat. But the key word here is occasionally. If we ate meat is infrequently as the other primates did, our health would certainly be a lot better. Goodall herself apparently wasn’t impressed by primates’ occasional eating of meat: Jane Goodall herself is a vegetarian.
Which brings up another point: The people who hysterically scream at me that chimps are omnivores, besides ignoring that chimps’ meat consumption is so small as to be virtually non-existent, never acknowledge that the non-plant foods chimps eat are not the same things humans eat. Chimps do noteat cattle and chickens. And humans don’t eat termites. The idea that the meat-laden American diet
can be justified because chimps may eat a whopping 5% of non-plant foods, none of it cattle or chickens, and much of it termites, is rather silly.
Let’s use the Harvard article’s figure for chimps and round it up to a generous 1%. If that were beef — which it is not — how much beef would that be? For an adult human, a mere 8 grams a day (about 1/3 of an ounce, or just 0.02 pounds). That’s about 1/9th of a medium carrot. Get a carrot, cut it into nine pieces, and each piece then represents the amount of meat you could eat every day to have your diet match that of a chimp. Yes, there you have chimps’ overwhelming “omnivorism”.
Eugene Khutoryansky who does believe that eating meat is natural, still cautions that the implications of chimps’ killing should give us pause:
Eating meat is indeed natural in the sense that other animals do it as well. In fact, it is even done on occasion by our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. However, there are many other things which are also natural. For example, chimpanzee males sometimes rape the females in their tribe. Chimpanzees sometimes engage in organized warfare against other tribes with which they compete for territory. A chimpanzee male, in a moment of rage, sometimes picks up a nearby infant, and crushes his skull against a rock. And chimpanzees do on occasion eat meat, and they do on occasion engage in cannibalism, in spite of the fact that there is a plentiful supply of food from other sources. So eating meat is indeed absolutely natural. However, the fact that it is natural does not imply that it is ethically permissible. If we believed that eating meat was ethically permissible simply because other animals did it as well, then this would imply that there is nothing wrong with rape, cannibalism, or infanticide, all of which routinely occurs throughout the animal kingdom.
Omnivore, What It Means To Be One
The problem with the term “omnivore” is that it’s used in different ways. Many folks assert that if a primate evereats any meat at all, no matter how small or insignificant, then bam! — they’re an omnivore. But cats eat copious amounts of rice, corn, and wheat in commercial cat food, and have far more plants in their diet than meat in primates’ diets. So why do these
people insist that the piddling, insignificant amount of animal foods consumed by primates makes them omnivores, while cats are carnivores no matter how much plant food they eat?
And once they (think) they’ve shown that primates are omnivores, they then use this “fact” to justify the huge amount of meat that people eat today. This of course is ridiculous.
A more reasonable definition would be that a true omnivore would routinely eat large quantities of both plants and animals. A creature consuming less than 5% of its calories from animals just doesn’t seem very omnivorous to me. (This includes other primates, our ancestors, and traditional Okinawans.) But for the record, if you insist that such creatures are omnivores, then I’ll agree with you — as long as you agree that humans should also eat less than 5% of our calories from animals, just like the other creatures you’re basing our “omnivorism” on. And that cats are omnivores, too.
Humans lack a desire to eat whole animals
True carnivores (and omnivores) salivate about the idea of eating whole prey animals when they see them.Humans do not. We’re interested in eating the body parts only because they’ve
been removed from the original animal and processed, and because we grew up eating them, making it seem perfectly normal. It’s amazing how much of a disconnect we’ve been able to learn about the difference between animals and food. As GoVeg puts it:
While carnivores take pleasure in killing animals and eating their raw flesh, any human who killed an animal with his or her bare hands and dug into the raw corpse would be considered deranged. Carnivorous animals are aroused by the scent of blood and the thrill of the chase. Most humans, on the other hand, are revolted by the sight of raw flesh and cannot tolerate hearing the screams of animals being ripped apart and killed. The bloody reality of eating animals is innately repulsive to us, more proof that we were not designed to eat meat.
Ask yourself: When you see dead animals on the side of the road, are you tempted to stop
for a snack? Does the sight of a dead bird make you salivate? Do you daydream about killing cows with your bare hands and eating them raw? If you answered “no” to all of these questions, congratulations–you’re a normal human herbivore–like it or not. Humans were simply not designed to eat meat. Humans lack both the physical characteristics of carnivores and the instinct that drives them to kill animals and devour their raw carcasses.
Many of your friends and family are confused, thinking people are omnivores, needing both meat and plants in their diet. We only appear to be omnivorous because we have the ability to “doctor up” meat with salt and sauces (barbecue, sweet and sour, marinara, etc.) sufficiently enough to make it palatable. Prove this for yourself. The next person you meet head-on who claims meat is “tasty,” stop him in his tracks and insist that he eat a large plate of plain, unseasoned, boiled beef or boiled chicken in front of you ; note their displeasure. Then offer that same meal to the dog or cat and note how eagerly this critter devours the meat.
Were Meat Eaters! Our Canine Teeth Show It!
It’s part of our collective consciousness that we have “canine teeth” and that this “proves”
that we’re meat eaters. But the truth is that this argument couldn’t be weaker.
Canine teeth are canine in name only. Humans’ so-called “canine teeth” are unlike the canine teeth of actual canines, which are really long and really pointed. Our teeth are absolutely not like theirs. In fact, other vegetarian animals (like gorillas and horses) possess the same so-called “canine” teeth.
Overall, our teeth resemble those of plant-eaters much more than meat-eaters. For example, we have molar teeth (plant-eaters do, carnivores don’t). Try to find a human-type molar inside your cat’s mouth. Our teeth can also move side to side to grind, just like the other plant-eaters, and completely unlike the carnivores. Their jaws go only up and down.
What’s funny to me is how the teeth argument is so importantto meat proponents when they make their point about canine teeth, and then as soon as they find out that our teeth are much more similar to those of herbivores than of carnivores, and therefore consideration of our teeth suggests that we’re designed to be plant eaters — suddenly what kind of teeth we have is not so
important to them after all.
Others have argued that predators have eyes on the front of their heads for binocular vision, while prey animals have eyes on the sides, indicating that we fall into the predator camp. This ignores the fact that the animals that we’re most similar to — the other primates — have eyes on the front of their heads, and are almost exclusively vegetarian. It’s also important to remember what I said at the top of this article: There is certainly evidence on both sides of this debate, but the preponderance of evidence clearly shows that we’re suited to eating plants almost exclusively.
Does the unhealthfulness of meat mean that it’s not natural?
The medical evidence is overwhelming:The more animal foods we eat, the more heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other degenerative disease we suffer. This has been
exhaustively demonstrated beyond any doubt. Dean Ornish, M.D. showed that heart disease can be reversed, and he did so by feeding his patients a vegetarian diet. John McDougall, M.D. has also written extensively about how animal foods cause disease, and how he’s helped patients regain their health by eating unprocessed vegan foods instead. The esteemed T. Colin Campbell oversaw the most massive study of the relationship between diet and disease, the China Study, which the New York Times caled “the grand prix of epidemiology”. His conclusions are the same as the other experts: we’re not
designed to eat animal foods, because we get sick when we do so. And as mentioned earlier, the Maasai in Kenya, who still eat a diet high in wild hunted meats, have the worst life expectancy in the world. (Fuhrman)
But is this evidence that meat-eating is unnatural? Maybe so, but maybe not. On the one hand we expect that’s what’s natural for us to eat should keep us in the best health (and that would discount meat, at least in the amounts it would take to make us true omnivores). But on the other hand, people can certainly live well beyond their reproductive years on a mixed animal-plant diet, which is mostly what evolution cares about. So it’s hard to say whether the unhealthfulness of meat is evidence that we’re naturally plant-eaters, but then again, we have other, better evidence anyway. The best evidence that we’re supposed to eat primarily plants is the obvious one: our anatomy.
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