PaleoVegan say it’s curtains for the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis; Carolyn jams out on sociobiology and violence

November 29, 2011

This is worth a re-post. Once again the brilliant pre-frontal cortex over at PaleoVeganology has done some wonderful reporting and analysis. This time it is regarding a new study that appears to put the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis to rest once and for all. He also discusses, among other things, the history of this hypothesis and how it was never meant to encompass such simplicities as “meat made us smart” or “meat made us human”. Alas, as ideologies compete to be representative of the most “natural” and therefore most “normal” and “necessary” way to be, many paleodieters and other carnists have relied heavily on this hypothesis for their arguments.

But as we leave ETH’s funeral, we shouldn’t just clap our hands and embody everything we argue against by saying, “SEE? It’s NATURAL to be vegan! Science has proved it!” That’s not what this is about. Rather, the way that the ETH has been used by carnists represents a phenomenon: Our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our choices, or to even admit that we have choices. This Normal, Natural, Necessary brand of logic has been used to uphold almost every type of unnecessary violence in human history, and pseudo-science has often accompanied it. We’ve written about this extensively elsewhere in our blog including here, here and here. Science is wonderful and liberating when it’s used how it’s supposed to be used (as Paleovegan uses it): as a method; as a critical thinking tool, as a path by which to ask questions, open doors, admit we’re wrong, assess, reassess, make connections, get awestruck, and hopefully figure out a thing or two in the process. But leaving our complicated social and psychological choices to vague arguments about “nature” and cherry-picked data isn’t science; it amounts to little more than sociobiology, rationalization, and dangerously lazy thinking.

We don’t need to say “veganism is natural” or “meat eating is not natural” in order to make good arguments for veganism; if we do that, we are falling prey to dangerous and convenient sociobiological arguments. Sociobiology is the study of the “biological sources of social behavior.” And sociobiology should always be questioned, for it has generally not amounted to much more than biological determinism. It is the editorializing of science. It is taking objective biological facts and assuming that certain subjective behaviors can and do extend from them. From there, there’s usually some kind of sticky, subtle moral leap: This ancestor ate meat, so we should too, in fact we’re stupid if we don’t. Men are bigger than women, and women are reproductive machines, so that’s why men rape. Animals kill each other, so it’s natural for us to be at war, and we’ll never not be at war because we are just naturally aggressive.  Homosexuality is an aberration because it doesn’t lead to reproduction (OR homosexuality is evolutionarily smart because it staves off overpopulation… how about homosexuals just exist because they love each other?) Women have smaller brains, so of course they’re not as intelligent. There’s a scientific explanation for everything, right?? But many people believe that sociobiology is little more than racism, sexism, and other violence wearing science’s clothes.

In short, we should carefully distinguish between science and sociobiology, and the latter should, if not scare the pants off anybody who wants to change the world, at least make them really weary.

Now, here’s some actual science: Humans have big brains relative to other species, and in particular, a big frontal cortex. When you have the kind of frontal cortex a human does you are able to make all kinds of complicated assessments and choices. And here’s my wish, given that fact: Let’s work with what we have, and celebrate our ability to make conscious choices, and our ability to do the least harm…and let’s stop worrying so much about which of our ancestors ate what and who and when. While we’re at it, let’s stop worrying about a gold-standard perfect diet and, by extension, perfect health and immortality, because those things don’t exist, and never have.

Anyways, the historical truth about food, as usual, is messy; some humans ate some types of meat at some point, others ate other things, and there are a thousand scenarios, motivations, and ecologies to be accounted for. But even if there were one answer as to what our paleolithic ancestors ate, it would be irrelevant. Because we are not paleolithic. Because we have to worry about ourselves, now. Today. 7 billion humans, industrialization, capitalism, ecocide, 2011, hundreds of billions of unnecessary nonhuman deaths, constant war. And, among other things, a whole bunch of us who deny that we are regularly making choices–not just being whipped around by some mysteriously undefined inkling called, conveniently, “nature”. Like it or not, this is what we’re working with. Let’s be present with our situation instead of copping out by slipping into simplistic, irrelevant, and ultimately impossible fantasy re-creations of the past.

Thanksgiving: What’s to Celebrate?

November 24, 2011


It’s difficult to find the right words for a day like today. This is especially true when you’re surrounded by drunk and overfed relatives who, quite frankly, don’t want you spoiling their day off with another tirade on whales or Bosnians or whatever the hell it is today. But, god bless ’em, you’re going to do it anyway. Years from now, your younger cousins will thank you for showing them that critical engagement with social issues is a far more effective ways to piss off adults than the entire Slipknot back catalogue. Congratulations, you’re a role model.

Having a day off work is great, but it’s important to be aware of what today represents to the indigenous people of the Americas. Many have called for a National Day of Mourning to commemorate the victims of a genocide that is yet ongoing. The systematic extermination of the original inhabitants of this continent defies comprehension in its scale and brutality. According to whose figures you accept, the native human population of the Americas was reduced by between 80 and 99 percent in the 400 years between Columbus’ arrival and the massacre at Wounded Knee. We’re talking about up to one hundred million people. More people than you could have met in ten lifetimes. More people than the top eight most populated cities in the world combined. A little more than one out of every one hundred people currently alive today. Behind every “self made” millionaire is this history of primitive accumulation.

Humans were not the only victims of these policies of extermination and the violent conversion of the common fruits of the Earth into discretely bound units of private property. In just a hundred years, the North American bison population dropped from about 60 million to one or two million. [1] During the mid nineteenth century, passenger pigeons thrived to such a degree that “there would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in the flocks for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another.” [2] Today, they are completely extinct.

Area of primary forests in the United States (lower 48)
Deforestation Leads to Exinction

The ecosystems of North America were once burgeoning with an integrated diversity of species: salmon, wolves, mink, ermine, badgers, beavers, otters, bears, cougars, bobcats, cranes, eagles, turkeys and so on. Yet one by one, these creatures were displaced and nearly or completely eradicated because of the same philosophy that legitimized the genocide of American Indians, the same philosophy that legitimized the exploitation of European peasants and the same philosophy that legitimizes global capitalism today: manifest destiny. That what is is good because god wills it; because it is “natural.” The genocidal imperative.

Ward Churchill has made the argument that we ought not be surprised when the United States government engages in wars of aggression overseas or domestic repression at home. After all, it was the genocidal imperative that founded this country and, from near the outset, wealth began to be centralized among those who were willing to commit the most heinous atrocities. We have arrived at a point now where our society rests on a foundation of normalized violence. Our economy depends on war all the time to function. The bodies of the body politic literally run on the product of extreme systemic violence: 50 billion nonhuman animals killed every year for a nutritional need that does not exist. The aforementioned staggering death tolls pale in numerical comparison to this figure, yet it occurs annually and with little fanfare.

We are not listing these examples to try to present some sort of equivalency between the suffering endured by humans and the suffering endured by nonhumans. Quantifying and comparing one person’s suffering or oppression to another’s is absurd and incoherent. The purpose is to identify common modes of oppression and the cultural logics which justify them. The purpose is to honor and mourn those who are gone and to fight with those who still remain. The purpose is to understand the history of how we got came to live in arguably the most violent society in all history and to ask why that seems normal to so many of us.

If we are aware of the histories that precede us, then we can begin to construct functional and peaceful alternatives to the cultural logic of genocide. Confronting manifest destiny is a necessary part of this process even if (and maybe especially if) it makes your relatives uncomfortable.


“As an indigenous person, the fur trade represents so much more to me than just animal abuse. It represents cultural genocide. They were the footsoldiers of an invasion and conquest of the new world. They were ones who introduced disease and alcoholism. They were the ones who introduced gunpowder and many many things that lead to our decimation.”–Rod Coronado

If you plan on eating turkey this thanskgiving, this is required viewing. Please don’t fool yourself into thinking that “humanely raised” or “free range” turkeys live and die in appreciably different conditions. Raising animals for food means rape, castration and murder 100% of the time.

1. The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001, pg 321-322

2. A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting, Penguin Books, 1992, pg 168-170

On the Holy Grail of Nutrition

November 1, 2011

There isn’t one. Move on. First world humans spend undue energy searching for a perfect nutritional formula that will turn us into bronzed, teutonic gods. This is a little silly considering the fact that a fair percentage of the human population doesn’t get enough of anything to eat.

Getting enough calories is important. Getting enough vitamins is important. Not eating foods that make you sick is important. Beyond that, people are pretty adaptable. Most of us are just making do with what we can get. As a vegan, I could argue that dairy products are “bad for you” and “unnatural.” But clearly millions of people survive, many of them quite healthily, while consuming dairy. So I don’t make arguments about what a person should or shouldn’t eat based on nutrition. I make them solely on ethical grounds. I refuse to eat dairy not because it’s bad for me, but because it’s bad for cows.

The Paleo Diet: Not the Way to a Healthy Future

The Evolutionary Search for Our Perfect Past.

Eat with your ethics. Because you can.