Where Meat-Eating Came From by Richard Deboo
When discussing veganism, or when one is considering removing meat from the diet, the question always arises – if we shouldn’t eat meat, how come so many people do? Around the world, from community to community, meat-eating is rife in society. If this isn’t a natural act, why do so many people do it? Where did meat-eating come from?
In order to consume animal flesh a human first has to acquire the body of the dead animal, and so – like all “predators” – humans have o hunt for their prey. It is therefore suggested that humans are natural hunters; that is, that it is in our nature to hunt down other animals and kill them for their flesh.
But seems more likely that rather than as hunters human beings spent much of their evolution as the potential prey of other animals. We have none of the physiology ordinarily found in any other “natural born killer” species, those obligate carnivores who need to kill in order to survive. We have none of the pace, the stamina, the burst of speed, the sheer body size and muscle power or the strength of jaw and claw, which are all hallmarks of natural killers, with the attendant overwhelming physical presence to quickly catch and despatch that species’ natural prey. As hunters, humans are in fact rather puny and feeble. Technological advances (such as the development of weapons) have enabled humans to exaggerate their hunting capabilities but this does not alter our essential physiological characteristics, all of which point to an evolutionary heritage spent idling away our years peacefully chewing on fruits and nuts and seeds, in balance with our ecological niche, causing no great harm to others, and always wary of those powerful predator species for whom we humans could so easily become another meal.
Very few humans ever actively participate in hunting down and killing other animals to eat, and so despite this activity allegedly being an integral aspect of humanity’s nature, no-one appears to suffer any adverse psychological or emotional side-effects from not engaging in the act of hunting and bringing the flesh to the dinner table. In fact, it is exactly the opposite: the majority in society would be, it seems, quite horrified by the prospect of having to track down and kill animals for food, and a substantial majority are implacably opposed too to the notion of hunting for entertainment purposes, as a pleasure pursuit or sport, indicating that hunting is not ordinarily perceived as a positive “past-time.” One feels that we should do so if it is an inherent, natural characteristic of our kind. But for society as a whole, hunting is not a activity in which we indulge or which we condone.
Even so, many of the human societies that have developed throughout the course of history went through a period of social organisation described as “hunter-gatherer” communities, such that hunting acquired significance for making meat available to that community. There are many societies still in existence around the world. It was through this social process that meat first entered the human diet. But there was nothing natural or inevitable about this process.
Current research indicates that hunting arises in communities as part of a power struggle, a jostling for influence and social control and as a means for the men (it is always the men!) in a community to achieve dominance over women in the community. We search in vain for any community anywhere in which it is the women in the group who are the active hunters for animal prey; men assume the role of hunter and the role is regarded as one that ought to carry considerable status in the group. Power is conferred upon those men who are regarded as most adept at hunting.
Despite being described as “hunter-gatherer” groups, it is the “gathering” that has always been more important nutritionally than the hunting. The largest proportion of the food acquired by such a community has been plant-based foods. It is these foods which have most effectively supported community survival and these have generally been gathered locally to where a community is based – most usually by the females in the group. Any flesh-based foods resulting from hunting (food gathered by the males in the group) have provided only a very modest addition to the overall nutrition available to the community and certainly have not been critical to its survival. But no doubt because the gathering of these significant foodstuffs of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds was regarded as easy (one simply had to stay close to where one lived and collect it as it grew naturally) it carried little status within the group, and so was an activity that was left to women and children (who had with low social rank), no doubt at least partly because women, under the demand to provide childcare, were unable to wander far from the community’s centre.
The hunting aspect of acquiring food was undertaken by men (unburdened by childcare demands and who could therefore wander at will) travelling far from home and undertaking the challenge of tracking down the desired animal species. This received greater attention, and was accorded much higher status in the community, as a more advanced and challenging skill than simply collecting the locally-growing fruits and vegetables. And so it was that the hunters in the community were able to enhance and entrench a power base within the group, receiving accolades for their hunting successes. This then afforded a significant opportunity for them to control the political dynamic of the community, and their resulting advanced position in the social hierarchy of the community was based purely on their hunting prowess.
The possession of animal flesh became a focus for exerting political power and acquiring social and material affluence. It was only those with the opportunity and capacity to seek out animal flesh that could achieve such status in the community which was of course the preserve of the males in the group. Hunting was denied to women because of the imposed demand that they remain focused on child-bearing and child-rearing, whilst the men were free to roam. Furthermore, training in hunting was a skill offered only to young males (in contrast, young females were schooled in home-making) and as the one sure route to higher social status it became the ambition of all who were allowed to participate in the hunting process to want to become the best at hunting. Returning from a hunting trip with the “trophy” of a successful hunt became a cause of celebration and ceremony within the community and afforded the opportunity for the advancement of social standing for those who had been instrumental in “bringing home the meat.” Over time, animal flesh came to be regarded as a totem of power and its function as a signifier of one’s community standing has been carried through even up to the present day, whereby a rise in social rank is often accompanied by a change in diet with an increase in meat (and dairy) consumption, as a simple expression of material success and more advanced status in the community. In the present era, the industrial and commercial “development” of so-called “emerging” nations such as China and India shows a dramatic increase in meat and dairy consumption in those countries as their populations become more affluent, adopting the dietary choices of Western Europe and the United States as a demonstration that “they have made it.”
What is ultimately apparent, however, is that even though hunting non-human animals is characteristic of the large majority of human communities throughout history, it still remains the case that the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever lived have never hunted and it cannot reasonably be suggested therefore that it is an integral component of the nature of a human being to “go out on the hunt.” Humans are not lions or tigers or bears. The desire to hunt down animal flesh is not a default characteristic of a human being in the way that it most assuredly is for polar bears, or wolves, or cheetahs. For humans, hunting is so much more about social control and power and the dynamics of political leverage than about the acquisition of essential nutrition. Man the hunter is a myth, and this myth is simply the expression of the exaggerated arrogance and egotistical obsession of men determined to be the alpha male in their community.
At this point the meat- and indeed dairy-eater may counter that it is not hunting that defines the human relationship with other species but animal husbandry, or animal farming. Thus, no-one need hunt for their food (at least not in countries such as the UK) because animals are kept as “livestock” and the farmer takes care of preserving the availability of animal flesh on behalf of everyone else in the community.
It is thought that such animal farming originated some ten thousand years ago and this has been a characteristic of human societies around the globe for thousands of years. The origin and development of animal farming, and the reduction of multiple animal species to the status of mere “livestock” results from the same power imbalance that was the cause of the emergence of hunting in social groups.
The expansion of communities from small “hunter gatherer” societies into larger societies with settled and more extensive and complex hierarchies allowed for the emergence of additional status roles. Just as capturing prey and therefore the “ownership” of animal flesh provided the hunter with advanced social prestige, so too did the “ownership” of “livestock” animals permit the possessor of these confined animal groups to advance his social standing in these more densely-populated communities.
In early agrarian societies control of access to food and ownership of the means of producing food for the population conferred considerable power, not just animal flesh products but also crops and grain-store ownership. But it was the flesh of kept animals that bestowed the most considerable status as meat continued to be a much less readily available food source compared to crops and was also less affordable to the poorest in society, and thus it retained its mark as a sign of affluence. This belief in the high value of meat was deliberately encouraged and endorsed by those at the apex of society who were the owners of livestock and meat production, and who were thereby able to entrench their prestige and, by controlling access to this rarest and most highly-valued food, also allowed them to exert social control over the rest of the community.
Thus it was that various wild and once free-living animal species began their descent down to the status of “livestock”, confined and captive animals, as though their only purpose was to serve humanity as a future source of flesh and clothing when dead, or a present source of milk or eggs whilst alive. With the invention of the social construct of “livestock” farming humanity began the process of controlling utterly the births, lives and deaths of these members of other species, manipulating every aspect of their lives – when and what they eat and drink, when they can reproduce, when and how they die.
There was nothing natural in this process, and nothing about the lives of these chosen species to indicate that this was an accurate reflection of a natural function of either the animal species or the human species. There is nothing in the nature of a ruminant such as a cow, or natural foragers such as the various porcine species, or in the nature of birds such as chickens or turkeys to suggest that their only role as living beings is to serve the interests of another species such as homo sapiens. On the contrary, these animals are concerned with the interests of their own kind, just as any other species is want to do, and they have their own social orders and relationships, and would all seek to live out the fullness of their own, individual lives according to their own interests – and would do so but for their confinement at our hand.
Similarly, there is nothing in the nature of humanity to suggest that we must be the owners of the lives of members of other species, and must control any and all aspects of their lives and deaths, manipulating and distorting their existence by selective breeding to maximise their production of flesh or body fluids. As we know, no animal product is essential for our health or our survival, and therefore there need be no livestock. No livestock.
Man the herder is a myth and this myth represents only a further exaggeration of the power imbalance endemic in human communities that reserves power and status for an élite few that control the group’s vital food resources. This power struggle is as true of seed-based food production as it is of “livestock” production, but with the substantial difference that with animal-based farming there is the critical component of the exploitation, abuse and killing of billions of pain sensitive, sentient individuals.