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.