Our Ancestors Ate Meat, Why Can’t We?

Evolution is awesome. But some of the things that happened during evolution weren’t that awesome. A common counter-argument to veganism is that our ancestors ate meat, and therefore it is natural for us to do the same. Of course, most of this is true. But the logical conclusion that follows isn’t that we should eat meat. In fact, many of the things our ancestors did in nature were brutal and unethical.

We’ve been eating meat for thousands of years

Our ancestors did many things that we would find disturbing, including killing each other, and didn’t do many things we do today that improve our lives. We have laws, societal norms, an education system, medicine, science and several realms of human endeavour that are completely “made up” by humans but are still highly beneficial to society. Basing our ethics on cavemen is not going to take us very far. Our knowledge has improved, and our ethical behaviour should improve accordingly.

But, eating meat helped us evolve

It doesn’t matter if it did, because we live in a very different world and different things today will make us evolve other than eating meat. Also, something helping us evolve doesn’t mean that such behaviour is ethical or acceptable today. Early homo sapiens used rape as a strategy for gene-promotion when they could not get access to consensual sex. This helped the human species evolve to where we are today, but of course, we cannot justify rape because it might have helped us evolve.

And before anyone gets angry at me, I am not saying eating meat is equivalent to rape. Comparisons between unethical acts are pointless. The point I am trying to make, however, is not about the magnitude of the offence. It is about the justification we give to any offence. In this respect, any professional debater would tell us that basing ethical arguments on evolution is flawed logic.

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On another note, most scientists agree that it wasn’t meat, but cooking foods, that made our brains evolve. This would explain why we’re the smartest animals and the only animals that cook, while other, more carnivorous animals like cats and lions are less intelligent than us. The hypothesis is that cooking allowed humans to get more energy from the same amount of food, and to spend less time chewing, which meant this extra energy helped fuel brain growth.

Well, but eating meat is in our nature

Regardless of whether we consider human beings to be natural omnivores or not (which is still a debate in the scientific community, see here), I think we can all agree on two things:

  • We can be perfectly healthy and thrive on a vegan diet, and
  • Something being “natural” doesn’t automatically mean it’s ethical

On the first point, it is the position of the most respected health institutions around the world, like NHS England and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, that a well-planned vegan diet is healthful and can prevent certain lifestyle diseases. Regarding the latter point, this argument is known as an “appeal to nature” fallacy, which holds no logical value. We do many things that are unnatural, but alleviate human and animal suffering, and avoid doing some natural things that we dislike.

If adopting a plant-based diet reduces animal suffering, is environmentally sustainable and improves our collective health, does it really matter if it’s natural? I say it doesn’t. I’d rather be sustainable, ethical and healthy than be “natural”. What would we rather? The fact that our ancestors ate meat shouldn’t dictate what we eat today. In fact, nothing our ancestors did should dictate how we live in a civilised, modern society.

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