The internet abounds with expert advice on what we should or shouldnt feed. High carb or low carb diets? Grains or gluten free feeing? Meat eating or veganism?
Most of it promotes our food selections as a simple binary decision – eat this dont feed that; this is good for you, thats bad.
Yet, the decisions we make about what to eat are a complicated affair. Theyre never a simple case of feed whats best for your health or what naturally suits our physiology.
Cultural mores, religious practices, ethical concerns, gender, stage of living and nation of health, geographic location, economics and family and individual predilections all play a role in the selections we make.
One of the most confusing choices people face is whether to eat meat or not, and opinions are very strong on both sides of the debate. But is it natural to do so?
Our ancestors evolved to be super-predators with meat eating and sharing a key survival strategy for our kind for millions of years. So, do we really have a option to feed meat today?
Things to feed and avoid
Culture is a ubiquitous force-out when it comes to making selections about food. All human societies, from hunter-gatherer to post-industrial ones like our own, have food preferences and fads, or restrictions and taboos.
We eat things because they savor good, even if they are bad for us. Other things we avoid have proven health benefits, but perhaps theyre simply not as tasty or palatable.
Sometimes food taboos exist for good reason – such as to prevent overuse of an important resource or to reduce the risk of food poisoning at an important stage of life.
But just as often we find dietary preferences are culturally patterned behaviours, such as women changing their diet at differing times in their menstrual cycle, despite the practice having negative health consequences.
On top of this, certain nutrients like sugar activate reward pathways in the brain similar to those associated with cocaine use, making them highly sought after, and potentially addictive.
Much of the dietary advice found on the internet might be well meaning, but a substantial quantity of it is deceive and frequently smackings of anti-intellectualism.
Bowls full of bullshit
More often than not though the ease with which we are going to be able post our opinions online contribute to a glut of dietary advice that can only be described as bullshit.
Bullshit is defined by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt to mean something espoused by someone who pretends to know a lot about it but actually knows very little.
Its rife on the internet and fuels both anti-intellectualism and a deep mistrust of scientific authority.
The debate about meat, and whether we humen have evolved to eat it, has to be one of best available examples of bullshit seen on the web.
It has significantly lost all sense of the complex reality of food option behaviours, and far too often tries to rewrite our evolutionary history by invoking pseudoscience.
The substance of their debates is often traceable back to the influential but pseudoscientific opinions of vegan physician Milton R. Mills.
Some vegan sites even assert supporting from anthropology for their anti-meat agenda.
We also find bogus debates like these promoted in the mainstream media where some columnists push an anti-intellectual agenda by misrepresenting the views of scientists themselves such as fellow anthropologist Richard Leakey.
For the record, heres what he has actually written about meat feeing and human evolution.
But if you love a good steak, dont take the moral high ground just yet. Theres plenty of bullshit in the pro-meat camp as well.
One is no need read internet debates on the subject of meat feeing to see barnyards full of it on both sides.
As an interesting aside, social anthropologists have found meat to be the one food thats subject to food taboo across a large number of cultures.
So, there might be a much deeper( genetic ?) origin to our differing sentiments towards meat, with some people loving it, and others repulsed by it, across the world.
Humans evolved as super-predators
No matter what the most militant of vegans or vegetarians would like to think, theres an abundance of scientific evidence that we humen evolved to be predator apes.
Our ancestors were highly skilled hunters and meat was widely eaten and highly prized.
While hunter-gatherers varied considerably in terms of how much meat they ingested , none of them was vegan, and such diets simply wouldnt are accessible or viable options for them anyway.
Our human ecological and life history strategy evolved around acquiring and sharing hard to catch, but large pay-off, foods such as big mammals and fish.
We humen are dependent upon culture for everything we do, whether it be the values and shared ideas we have about the world, social relationships, or the methods and tools we use to aid with the catching and processing food.
The earliest examples of stone tools used for acquiring and processing food have been found in Africa and date to around 3.3 million years old.
Butchered and defleshed bones from around the same day indicate clearly that early humans were butchering large bodied mammals for food.
Fire was probably used in an at least an ad hoc way from around 1.6 million years ago – probably much earlier – but became a regular tool for pre-modern humen from at least 400,000 years ago.
Cooking played a major role in making both meat and starchy foods palatable and digestible, our ancestors with a huge survival advantage.
Food cooking, especially of meat, may even have contributed to the evolution of our large brains.
Endurance running, persistence hunting
Humans are the only living primate adapted for running – especially endurance running, and during the hottest day of the day. This seems also to be a universal pattern among the species belonging to the human genus Homo ; all dozen or more of us.
The organs of balance – our vestibular system – are designed to help keep the head stable because of its tendency to pitch forward when running.
Humans possess a nuchal ligament to connect the base of the skull to the spinal column and help keep the head balanced as we run.
We have long lower leg and a narrow trunk and pelvis. Our rib-cage is barrel shaped rather than shaped like a funnel with a bulge gut, like chimpanzees.
The muscles of our shoulder are decoupled from those of our neck because they arent used for climbing, aiding the need to counterbalance the legs and reduce rotation of the head when running.
We have large ankle bones, archways across two directions of the foot, and the ligaments of the foot absorb energy when we operate releasing it during toe-off.
Our big toe has been brought into line with the other toes, losing its branch grasping abilities.
Humans have sparse and short body hair and between 5 and 12 million appocrine sweat glands that can create up to 12 litres of water a day to help prevent hyperthermia.
The only other African mammals that are active during the hot of the working day, running long distances, are dogs and hyenas.
Pigmentation protects the outer layers of the skin against sun damage and ultimately skin cancer, so is vital for a mammal that has sparse body hair and is active in the heat of the day.
All of this points to hunting, and a particular style “ve called the” persistence hunting. It would have been widespread prior to the invention of weapons like bows and arrows around 60,000 years ago.
David Attenboroughs Life of Mammals series has some wonderfully engaging footage of San humen undertaking a perseverance hunting. Its well worth a look.
A gutsy move
To claim we shouldnt eat meat because we arent anatomically corresponding to carnivores demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of how evolution has worked.
Humans and carnivores, like puppies and hyenas, are very different kinds of mammals, separated by around 100 million years of evolutionary history.
We are primates, and our basic body plan is held genetically by our primate heritage. You cant turn an ape into a wolf in simply 3 million years!
While much has been made of our sacculated colon, this is a feature common to all apes, and is the result of common evolutionary inheritance.
We have all evolved from plant eating apes regardless of what we eat today. A sacculated colon in no way indicates we are herbivores.
Besides, humen do feed a lot more than simply meat and clearly require a wide range of foods for a balanced diet. For example , no apes can synthesise vitamin C in their bodies so it must be acquired from plant food sources.
However, the human rights intestine differs substantially from other apes in a couple of key respects: first, we have a small total gut for our body size, and second, our greatest intestine volume lies in the small intestine, while in other apes it lies in the colon.
A bigger small intestine indicates we assimilate most of our nutrients there, and that we obtain them from high quality, nutrient dense, sources like meat and starchy foods.
While a large colon, as seen in all other apes, fits with their strongly plant based diet (8 7-99% of foods) and the need to fermentation it. Human simply cant survive on the type of diet we watch chimps, gorillas, orangutans or gibbons eating.
Another disturbing piece of proof worth noting is tapeworms. Each year millions of people around the world are infected with them through eating under-cooked or raw meat.
And heres the rub: without infecting a human host, at the least four species of tapeworm being able to reproduce. Humans are a definitive host for them.
The only other mammals to be definitive hosts for tapeworms are carnivores like lions and hyenas.
Molecular clocks suggest human tapeworms evolved about the time our ancestors began to hunt.
Briefly, two other human features require mentioning because they have been widely used to mislead people on the issue of meat eating.
Our teeth are similar to those of other apes in the interests of size, shape and number we posses – all apes and Old World monkeys have 32.
But theres one important difference: we humans have small canine teeth.
The canine teeth of apes are not used for catching prey or chewing food. Instead they are for display and are used by males to combat it out for predominance in a social hierarchy or for access to mates.
A small canine tooth evolved in human evolution sometime after 5 million years ago and represents a shift in the social structure and mating behaviour of our ancestors.
It shows us that male-to-male conflict had reduced. Perhaps because males were sharing food with females and each other. Males and females may even have been monogamous at this time.
Lastly, humans have fingernails instead of claws because we are primates. No primates have claws. So to claim that our absence of claws presents we shouldnt eat meat again indicates a clear lack of familiarity with our biology.
Besides, early human hunters used tools, their big brains and understanding of their surrounding and cooperative tendencies to catch food , not their brawn.
Making informed choices
There is a danger in taking our evolutionary history as fate. We are no longer hunter-gatherers and our lifestyle is about as far removed from that of our ancestors as can be imagined.
We need to adapt to our changing circumstances and find a diet that healthily supports it, like we have always done as a species.
Whether we choose to eat meat or not is not just a question of biology. It involves a complex decide of culture, social, ethical, health, personal and economic factors as well. It is not binary.
The best guide for most people on how to eat comes from science itself, for example, as presented in guidelines like those from the Australian Government.
But many millions of people today survive on low or no meat diets, by choice, or otherwise. In this sense, vegetarianism or veganism is like any other culturally situated dietary choice.
It should be both understood and respected as such and cant be explained away or justified by appealing to a particular narration of our evolutionary past.
In the end, my gripe is not with vegetarians or vegans or with those people who choose to eat animal food. My beef is with people who set out to promote their beliefs by appealing to anti-intellectualism.
Dishonest people who eschew the evidence and contestability of notions that lie at the heart of science for personal, political or financial gain.
Those self-appointed experts who set out to purposely deceive us by employing pseudoscience or plain old bullshit to construct their own version of our past.