EVERYTHING YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO KNOW
I was twelve years old before I ever heard the word “vegetarian,” and when I did, I didn’t like it much. I grew up in a remote farming community of the British Isles, where there was no sewage system or electricity, and the water had to be pumped by hand from the well. I pretty much believed myself to be an isolated oddity of nature because I hadn’t eaten meat since the age of two, and my parents firmly believed I was going to die, for the same reason. Many endless hours were spent sitting anxiously in the doctor’s office.
“Is he eating meat yet?” the doctor would inquire.
“No!” my mother nervously replied, feeling guilty that she was failing in her duty to bring up a healthy boy child.
“Well, he doesn’t look too bad, for the moment,” the doctor would conclude. “Better bring him back again in six weeks.”
And so it went on: more trips to the doctor, the death sentence postponed by another few weeks, more anxiety and anguish from my distracted parents, no sign of any dietary compromise from their fanatical son, and all the while, the doctor’s pen poised and ready to make out the death certificate: This child died from failure to eat meat.
Except, it didn’t happen.
Mostly, I was in pretty good physical shape—big enough to play second row in rugby, a rather brutal English game—and although my diet was somewhat restricted (my poor mother was driven to her wit’s end trying to devise meals her finicky son would eat), there were no occurrences of rickets, anemia, edema, or plague. If anything, I seemed to be somewhat healthier than other kids my age.
Then, one day, someone told me what I was. “You’re a vegetarian!” he exclaimed. My first instinct was to hit him as any right-minded boy would who’d just been insulted.
“What’s that?” I scowled.
“Someone who doesn’t eat meat! Like you!”
The truth slowly dawned. I wasn’t entirely a freak of nature, then. There were others like me. How strange. Then I learned there was something called the Vegetarian Society. I wrote to them, got their newsletter, and was horrified. I had nothing in common with these people at all, other than the fact that we both excluded certain foods from our diet. They seemed middle-aged, obsessive, absurdly self-important, and fixated on something called nut cutlets. I happily went back to being a lone vegetarian.
The name struck me then, and still does, as being disagreeable; and rather than use the “V word,” I preferred to say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t eat meat,” whenever it was offered. Note the apology.
If you like toast, you don’t call yourself a “toastarian” (or if you did, most people would rightly think you’d taken leave of your senses). Similarly, if you appreciate an occasional dry martini, you wouldn’t describe yourself as a “martinarian,” unless you wished to cultivate a reputation for eccentricity. So why, then, should I be labeled after something I don’t eat? It makes little sense to me, and in any case, I like to think of myself as something more than a set of dietary preferences. “Meet Peter Cox, the vegetarian” is about as illogical as “Meet Peter Cox, the free-hairian” (because I don’t wear hats). Such is the blight of pinning labels on people.
Actually, it gets even worse, because as you’ll see later in the book, I’ve moved on to veganism now. Can we let that one pass, just for the moment? I’ll explain all in due course. Otherwise, we’ll be on this page all day.
To conclude: Everything I’d learned about my deviant way of eating during the first three decades of my life can be summed up as follows:
1. It’s dangerous, almost certainly life-threatening, and should only be attempted under strict doctor’s supervision.
2. It has a name. Not a very nice one.
3. Other people do it, too, but they’re even weirder than me.
And so I would have continued, but one day, my life took an unexpected turn, as lives invariably do.
I’d just turned thirty, and had recently left the advertising business. It’s a great business to be in when you’re young, and an even better business to leave when you’re not. I was toying with a few other business ideas, but nothing seemed to pass the spreadsheet stage satisfactorily. Then one day, my wife said, “The Vegetarian Society is looking for a Chief Executive.”
It seemed intriguing. Despite eating a vegetarian diet virtually all my life, I knew nothing about “vegetarianism,” and the prospect of being a “professional vegetarian” initially seemed hilarious. However, they were an old, established nonprofit group apparently looking to update their image, and I was someone who could do that for them. Since the staff of some two dozen people was spread between a base in Manchester, England, and another in London, the first task was to make sure everyone was singing from the same song sheet.
The main challenge, however, was much more fundamental: what, precisely, were we supposed to be doing? Were we a pressure group? An animal rights group? A social tea party? There were many widely varying views, as indeed there had been since the founding of the society one and a half centuries earlier.
The first organized vegetarian movement in the West was born in a unique time of extraordinary religious, political, and social upheaval. We tend to think of our world today as being a chaotic place, but it can’t hold a candle to the events of the midnineteenth century. Consider just a few taking place at that time. In 1848—the year after the Vegetarian Society was established—Marx and Engels produced The Communist Manifesto, and the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. The horror of the Irish Famine was in full swing, killing a million or more people and generating extraordinary new levels of immigration to America. With increasing ferocity, the British Empire was struggling to retain its grip on its far-flung territories, such as India, China, and Canada, with war and revolution the inevitable backlash. In 1849, Thoreau published On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Two years earlier, the Mormons sought religious freedom and founded Salt Lake City. Charles Darwin’s on the Origin of Species would offer up a scientific challenge to the religious interpretation of man’s place in the world in the next decade, and in 1861, America itself would be torn apart in the Civil War that set neighbor against neighbor, and brother against brother. Although Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (published in 1859) was ostensibly set at the time of the French Revolution some seventy years earlier, its sentiments, and indeed his opening words, perfectly captured the zeitgeist of this extraordinary period:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …
From this fiery melting pot of great good and great evil belched forth many new movements and factions, and one of them was the Vegetarian Society. It is no coincidence that the society first took root in Manchester, England, cradle of the Industrial Revolution.
Manchester was the center of the new economy, the nineteenth century’s equivalent of Silicon Valley, the most talked about and the most written about city in the Western Hemisphere. Extreme wealth and terrible poverty existed cheek by jowl, the one a consequence of the other, as the famous French social critic and writer Alexis de Tocqueville vividly describes:
A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen through it is a disc without rays. Under this half-daylight 300,000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. A thousand noises disturb this damp, dark labyrinth, but they are not at all the ordinary sounds one hears in great cities … . From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back into a savage.1
So here, in Manchester—this cutting-edge city where the future was literally being forged—was where organized vegetarianism found fertile ground. It was a reform, protest, healthy-living, and religious movement all rolled into one. Yes, religious: many of the first vegetarians in Manchester were followers of the Swedish scientist, mystic, philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who saw meat eating as “the most vivid symbol of our fall from grace and the source of all evil.”2
Vegetarianism was therefore one of the earliest of all protest movements, and in its many elements, there could be found something for almost everyone. Its emphasis on consuming healthy, wholesome food (most manufactured foodstuffs of the time were scandalously adulterated) was a forerunner of today’s consumer movement. Its denunciation of the appalling cruelties of the slaughterhouse, and endorsement of compassion and consideration to all living things, has clear parallels in today’s environmental movement. Its assertion that animals—like women—might possibly have rights, brought it into direct conflict with the status quo, and has obvious political parallels today. In short, the early vegetarians of Manchester were dangerously free-thinking people. Indeed, some of them had to flee quickly across the Atlantic for their own safety, and from this grew the American vegetarian movement. Its chief proponent, Sylvester Graham, was one of the founders the American Vegetarian Convention in 1850. His immortality is assured, of course, by the flour and the crackers that still bear his name today.
The vegetarian movement acquired many and varied notable supporters, among them Gandhi, Tolstoy, and George Bernard Shaw, but the Vegetarian Society itself became something of a dying ember. It was more of a support group for its members than an active movement. That was the situation I inherited, and since there was insufficient support for a more proactive agenda, I decided I’d only be wasting my time to remain there; so I resigned.
Then something interesting happened. I’d been midway through negotiating an agreement with a publisher to put out a range of vegetarian books on behalf of the society. I phoned the publisher to say that I was leaving. “What will you do next?” he inquired. I said that I wasn’t sure, but I’d probably start a business of some sort.
“Well, while you’re planning that,” he said, “why don’t you write a book for us?”
“Sure,” I replied, thinking nothing of it.
Ah, the naïveté of youth.
Aside from climbing Everest without oxygen, writing a book is possibly the most grueling torture yet devised by the human race. And a blank piece of paper (nowadays, a blank computer screen) is the most terrifying object yet created. After the first day, I went to bed early, exhausted with brain fatigue, and convinced I’d contracted a ghastly, debilitating disease. The second day, I managed to produce two hundred words. Then I stopped, because I’d said everything I could think of. That’s what working in advertising does to you.
Then it came to me: research! That’s what writers did, wasn’t it? I clearly needed to do some research. So I went to a medical library, down a gloomy and far-flung corridor of a musty Victorian teaching hospital. It felt like a time trip into another era.
I didn’t expect to find much, if anything, and in truth I didn’t even know what I was looking for. But I was desperate, in the way that authors and condemned men grow desperate when their time is running out. What I found was astonishing.
Going back to 1978, I unearthed an amazing piece of research (which I’ll get to after a short digression) that was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and authored by Dr. Roland L. Phillips, one of America’s most respected epidemiologists.3 I had to check that word when I first encountered it. “Epidemiology” is defined as “the study of the relationships of the various factors determining the frequency and distribution of diseases in a human community.”4 To put it more simply, epidemiology is scientific detective-work.
The easiest way of comparing the health of meat eaters to vegetarians is just to watch them over a long period of time, and see who dies of what. Basically, it’s not too difficult to do, although obviously it can takes years before you start to see any results. From the scientist’s point of view, the main danger is that you’ll die before the experiment has finished.
In some ways, epidemiology is a seriously overlooked discipline. It isn’t as glamorous as the “wet” sciences, which make headlines with the latest high-tech brain transplant or potential cure for cancer. But because it concentrates on studying the way things actually are in the real world, it is capable of giving us extremely relevant insights into health and disease. You’re going to see the results of some epidemiological studies now, and while you are considering them, please remember that the knowledge these studies give us has been obtained at a high cost—many millions of people have died to bring us the benefit of these findings.
Roland Phillips and his team were very interested in a subgroup of the American population called Seventh-Day Adventists. This group was particularly fascinating because their church advocates a very different diet and lifestyle than the typical meat-based American one. So the first thing Dr. Phillips did was to locate a large number of Seventh-Day Adventists. We’re not talking about a few dozen, or even a few hundred people here. Dr. Phillips’s sample size was massive—25,000 people, all of them residents of California. Obviously, the more people you study, the less likely it is that a few freak results are going to skew the analysis. In this case, the huge number of people involved makes the study very reliable, indeed.
Then the members of Dr. Phillips’s team just waited. Every year, for six years, they would contact each one of those people, just to see if he or she was still alive. If the person had died, a death certificate was obtained, and the underlying cause of death was determined. Patience and tact are two key qualities for a good epidemiologist! At the end of the six-year period, the team had some highly significant results.
Compared to the average, meat-eating, Californian population, the risk of dying from coronary heart disease among Adventists was far, far lower. For every 100 ordinary Californians who died from heart disease, only 26 Adventists males had died—that’s about one-quarter the risk. Among females, the risk was one-third. You can see this illustrated in Figure 1.1.
This is very forceful evidence. It isn’t theoretical, or hypothetical, or a scientist’s opinion or some other piece of cunning public relations. It is a straightforward, nonarguable, nonnegotiable fact. It is, quite simply, what happened. Counting dead bodies is pretty convincing, even for the most hardened skeptics.
Now the next question, of course, is why? Well, one reason must be the fact that most Seventh-Day Adventists do not smoke. “OK,” say the skeptics, “it’s nothing to do with eating meat, it simply proves that smoking isn’t healthy. And we knew that already!” Unfortunately for the skeptics, that explanation doesn’t hold up. You see, Dr. Phillips and his team had considered possibilities such as that, as, indeed, good epidemiologists should always do. So they next compared deaths from heart disease among Seventh-Day Adventists to deaths from heart disease among a representative group of nonsmokers, as studied by the American Cancer Society. Clearly, if Adventists were healthier purely because they didn’t smoke, then deaths rates in these two groups should be the same.
Figure 1.1. Deaths from heart disease. Seventh-Day Adventists compared to the general population.
But they weren’t—not by a long shot. The cold figures showed that Adventists had only half the risk of dying from heart disease, when compared to nonsmokers (actually, people identified by the American Cancer Society as “never having smoked”). So there was clearly something else very special about the Adventist lifestyle.
What could it be? Perhaps people with religious faith die less often from heart disease? Perhaps they have less stress in their lives? Perhaps they secretly take a magic potion that protects them? A determined opponent could throw up any number of possibilities to explain away these findings.
And that’s where the sheer good science of Dr. Phillips’s research really paid dividends. He thought that people might raise all kinds of possible explanations, such as these, and he accounted for them. Dr. Phillips realized that although the Adventist church advocated the vegetarian lifestyle, it wasn’t compulsory. Some Adventists still ate meat. So he included this aspect in his research. He found that about 20 percent of them ate meat four or more times a week, about 35 percent ate it between one and three times a week, and the remaining 45 percent never ate it at all. To a bright mind, these facts created a unique scientific opportunity.
Why not simply compare the health of Adventists who never ate meat (i.e. vegetarians) to those Adventists who did eat it? In a flash, it would eliminate all other confounding factors. So that’s what Dr. Phillips did.
You can see the result in Figure 1.2 on the following page. Among Adventist men who ate meat, the death rate from coronary heart disease was only 37 percent of the normal death rate for the average meat-eating population in California—impressive in itself, and certainly proof that the nonsmoking Adventist lifestyle is pretty healthy. But among those Adventists who were vegetarian, the death rate plummeted even further—right down to 12 percent of that of the normal population. Twelve percent!
Let me just put this another way, so that we’re really, really certain that we understand each other. Vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventist men are about ten times less likely to contract coronary heart disease than a “normal” meat-eating person.
Figure 1.2. Deaths from heart disease. Seventh-Day Adventist vegetarians compared to Seventh-Day Adventist nonvegetarians.
Now, one of the great things about large-scale studies such as this is the longer you are prepared to wait, the more interesting and more accurate the results become. So that’s what happened next—they waited, and watched. For twenty years. Eventually, Dr. Phillips’s team published the final results of the study, which had literally observed people growing old and dying over two decades.5 This landmark project provided the first ever scientific proof that the more meat you eat, the more at risk you are of getting heart disease.
Look at Figures 1.3 and 1.4 (on pages 11 and 12) and you’ll see a summary of the results. The relative risk of fatal heart disease closely correlates with the frequency of eating meat. Those Adventist males who consumed meat one or two times a week were 44 percent more likely to die from heart disease than Adventist vegetarians. Those who consumed it between three and five times per week were 60 percent more likely to die from heart disease. And for those who consumed it six or more times a week the rate rose to 62 percent. For females, the rates are 38, 25, and 58 percent, respectively. The significant finding is that even a small amount of meat—once or twice a week—greatly elevates the risk.
Figure 1.3. Weekly meat consumption correlated to risk of fatal heart disease, for males.
For men in one particular age group—forty-five to fifty-four—the stakes are particularly high. For these people, prime candidates for heart disease, the risk for meat eaters, when compared to vegetarians, is 400 percent greater!
Your head is probably spinning, and I apologize for that. I know mine was when I first came across this study. But quite clearly, it must be seriously flawed. I mean, if it was correct, your doctor would have told you, wouldn’t he or she? And certainly, the government and its various agencies would surely by now have broadcast the message high and low: more meat means more heart disease, so go vegetarian! Any administration that had the interests of its citizens at heart (excuse the pun) would most certainly have publicized this extraordinary news without any delay. Unless I missed something, they didn’t: so undoubtedly this study must be wrong. A freak, perhaps. Or a bizarre statistical quirk.
Figure 1.4. Weekly meat consumption correlated to risk of fatal heart disease, for females.
I continued researching.
The next thing I found was a study from Japan. Inspired by the insights gained from the American Seventh-Day Adventist studies, scientists from the National Cancer Center Research Institute, in Tokyo, embarked on a similar study.6 Similar, that is, in concept—but even broader in scope. In this case, the Japanese decided to follow not a mere 25,000 people, but an astonishing 122,261 individuals, tracked over sixteen years. The logistics alone must have been daunting: each man (they only studied males in this survey) had to be interviewed at home, by specially trained public health nurses.
Because the size of the study was so large, it was possible to divide the participants into various subgroups according to their dietary and lifestyle preferences. After much hard work and computing time was expended in analysis, two lifestyles emerged as being very high risk and very low risk, respectively: The high-risk lifestyle included smoking, drinking, meat consumption, and no green vegetables.
The low-risk lifestyle was, not surprisingly, precisely the opposite. In Figure 1.5, you can see how the lifestyles compare. Deaths from all causes were elevated by 1.53 times greater among those who smoked, drank, ate meat, and didn’t eat green vegetables. The risk of heart disease was 1.88 times higher in this group, and the risk of any kind of cancer was 2.49 times higher.
So far so good—and probably just what you were expecting to see. But the statistical power of this huge study was able to reveal, for the first time, some extraordinary relationships between meat consumption and ill health. Let me summarize:
• The Japanese found that simply adding one factor—meat—to an otherwise healthy lifestyle had a serious effect on mortality. The difference between the lowest risk group (no smoking, no drinking, no meat eating, and lots of green vegetables) and those people who led a similar lifestyle but ate meat was that the meat eaters boosted their risk of dying from heart disease by 30 percent.
Figure 1.5. Risky lifestyles: how two opposite lifestyles compare.
• At the other end of the scale were the two most unhealthy groups. We generally think of smoking and drinking as unhealthy habits, and the study confirmed this—people who smoked and drank (but consumed green vegetables and didn’t eat meat) were 39 percent more likely to die from any cause than the healthiest group. However, even more unhealthy were those people who smoked, drank, ate meat, and didn’t consume green vegetables. These people increased their risk of dying from any cause by another 14 percent! In other words, the vegetarian lifestyle was conferring some protection, even on the smokers and drinkers!
Well, that’s the Japanese, of course. Probably something funny in the water over there, which makes these statistics meaningless to Westerners.
Then I found a study from Germany.
When the German Cancer Research Center advertised in Der Vegetarier , the German magazine for vegetarians, for participants in a similar tracking study, they were following a rather different angle. The scientists were particularly interested in the way the vegetarian diet seems able to protect against cancer. It is thought that nitrate consumption is linked to the development of cancer, and many vegetables contain nitrates. So why don’t more vegetarians contract cancer? One possibility is that their overall diet contains other elements (vitamins A and C, for example) that protect them and lower their risk. This was one of the main areas the researchers were keen to investigate. Eventually, a total of 1,904 subjects were recruited.
After five years, the results began to emerge. Deaths from all causes were very low, indeed—only 37 percent of the average meat-eating population. All forms of cancer were slashed to 56 percent of the normal rate, and heart disease was down to 20 percent.7
Perhaps this was due to a lack of smoking? As in the two studies quoted previously, the researchers had already taken that into account. Even when vegetarian smokers were compared to nonvegetarian smokers, it was found that the vegetarians’ rate of heart disease was still only 40 percent of the average population’s. Clearly, the vegetarian diet was playing a significantly protective role.
I don’t know. All this data was seriously spinning my head. And the results all seemed to be saying the vegetarian lifestyle is far, far healthier than the meat-eating one. Not at all what I’d been brought up to believe.
Then—please take a deep breath—I found a study from dear old Britain.
This one tracked the health of 4,671 British vegetarians (actually, it tracked their causes of death) for seven years and, knock me over with a feather, it reached very similar conclusions.8 For male vegetarians, the death rate from all causes was 50 percent of the general population’s; for females, 55 percent. Looking at heart disease alone, for the male vegetarian the death rate was only 44 percent of normal, and for female vegetarians, 41 percent.
The study also compared the vegetarians to a similar population group—customers of health food shops—and found that they were also at less risk for heart disease—60 percent of the average population. Presumably, this reflected health food shoppers’ greater interest in their own health, and avoidance of smoking. However, when the two groups were compared, it was obvious that the vegetarians had reduced their risk of heart disease by a third when compared to the health food shoppers.
Finally (I think you’ll be pleased to see me use that word), I found the great-granddaddy of them all. The China study. Hold on for a few more paragraphs, please, this is important.
If the Japanese study was impressive in terms of the number of participants, the China study is unprecedented in terms of the depth of information produced. So much so, in fact, that it made headline news in the New York Times.9 Under the headline “Huge Study of Diet Indicts Fat and Meat,” the report began:
Early findings from the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease are challenging much of American dietary dogma. The study, being conducted in China, paints a bold portrait of a plant-based eating plan that is more likely to promote health than disease.
A “plant-based eating plan” … whatever could they mean? Surely not the “V word”?
Two major surveys were undertaken, one in 1983 and the other in 1989-90. In the 1983 survey, 367 items of information were collected on how people live and how they die in 138 rural Chinese villages; 6,500 adults and their families were surveyed. In the 1989-90 survey, more than 1,000 items of information were collected on 10,200 adults and their families in 170 villages in rural China and Taiwan.
“This is a very, very important study,” commented Dr. Mark Hegsted, emeritus professor of nutrition at Harvard University and former administrator of human nutrition for the United States Department of Agriculture. “It is unique and well done. Even if you could pay for it, you couldn’t do this study in the United States because the population is too homogeneous. You get a lot more meaningful data when the differences in diet and disease are as great as they are in the various parts of China.”
Let me summarize some of the key findings of the China study to date:
• While 70 percent of the protein in average Western diets comes from animals, in China only 7 percent of the protein does. Although most Chinese suffer very little from the major killer diseases of the West, those affluent Chinese who consume similar amounts of animal protein to Westerners also have the highest rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Suspicious, or what?
• The Chinese consume 20 percent more calories than Westerners do. This should mean that they are fatter than Westerners, but the reality is that Westerners are 25 percent fatter than the Chinese! This is almost certainly due to the fact that the Chinese eat only a third as much fat as Westerners, but twice as many complex carbohydrates. That’s another way of saying “plants.”
• Current Western dietary guidelines suggest that we should reduce the fat in our diets to less than 30 percent of our calorie consumption. The Chinese study reveals that this is by no means enough to effectively prevent heart disease and cancer—it should be slashed to something closer to 10 to 15 percent.
• You don’t need to drink milk to prevent osteoporosis. Most Chinese consume no dairy products and instead get all their calcium from vegetables. While the Chinese consume only half the calcium Westerners do, osteoporosis is uncommon in China, despite an average life expectancy of seventy years. “Osteoporosis tends to occur in countries where calcium intake is highest and most of it comes from protein-rich dairy products,” says Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a nutritional biochemist from Cornell University and the American brains behind the study. “The Chinese data indicate that people need less calcium than we think and can get adequate amounts from vegetables.”
• The study also reveals that meat-eating is not necessary to prevent iron-deficiency anemia. The average Chinese adult, who shows no evidence of anemia, consumes twice the iron an average American does, but the vast majority of it comes from plants.
The main nutritional conclusion from this study is the finding that the greater the consumption of a variety of good-quality, plant-based foods, the lower the risk of those diseases commonly found in Western countries (e.g., cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes). Based on these and other data, the scientists behind the study predict that the majority of all such Western diseases could be prevented until we were about age ninety years old if we were prepared to cut out meat and basically go vegetarian.
Says Dr. Campbell: “We’re basically a vegetarian species and should be eating a wide variety of plant foods and minimizing our intake of animal foods.”
Well, all that gave me plenty of food for thought.
I don’t know what you think of the preceding five studies I’ve mentioned, but I know what I thought. Either these studies are the result of deranged and misguided minds run amok, or somebody’s been keeping the truth from me for decades. Remember, I’d been vegetarian all my life and had been conditioned to believe that it was an unnatural and perilous thing to do. Now, suddenly, I had plain evidence in front of me that contradicted everything I’d been taught to believe. It was like the frog all of a sudden learning that he was, in fact, a prince (well, let’s not stretch this analogy too far … ).
So why hadn’t I been told? Why hadn’t we been told?
Imagine you have stock in a drug company. One day, the company announces that it has a new product that will immediately slash heart disease by 50 percent. No question about it. No side effects. No ifs or buts. It works.
Now, do you think that would make headline news around the world? Do you think you would be a very, very rich bunny, and a very, very happy one, too? You bet you would.
So that’s the problem I faced. If all this good news about the vegetarian diet is true, why haven’t we been told?
The first group of people we turn to when we want health advice is the medical profession. So that’s where I turned, too. Surely, they should know the truth? After all, the research results you’ve just seen were published in medical and scientific journals, and you’d expect that most doctors would keep up to date with these things.
Well, they try to. But the trouble is, an awful lot of other work gets published in scientific journals, too. Dr. Vernon Coleman, a doctor and medical writer, explains what happens to all this research:
There are so many medical journals in existence that a new scientific paper is published somewhere in the world every twenty-eight seconds … . Because they know that they need to publish research papers if they are to have successful careers, doctors have become obsessed with research for its own sake. They have forgotten that the original purpose of research is to help patients … . Believe it or not, much of the research work that has been done in the last twenty years has never been analyzed. Somewhere, hidden deep in an obscure part of a medical library, there may be a new penicillin. Or a cure for cancer. You don’t have to go far to find the evidence proving that many scientific papers go unread: approximately twenty percent of all research is unintentionally duplicated because researchers haven’t had the time to read all the published papers in their own specialized area.10
So the first reason more doctors don’t know the truth about the benefits of the vegetarian lifestyle is, simply, because they just don’t come across the evidence. But even if they did, there are two further problems: First, there’s no one to sell it to them. This may sound rather cynical, but the truth is that doctors respond to the information they are fed, and most of it comes from one direction—the drug industry. Research has shown that by far the greatest influence over doctors’ prescribing habits is the nonstop barrage of promotion that these companies produce.11 By contrast, only 12 percent of their prescribing decisions are influenced by articles in professional journals. Second, doctors have traditionally focused on studying disease, rather than promoting health. As Dr. Joe Collier, a clinical pharmacologist who has studied and written about the drug industry, puts it:
“Doctors fail patients because they are preoccupied with, even obsessed by, disease. Right from their earliest days at medical school, training concentrates on the recognition and treatment of disease, rather than its prevention … . Disease is so much a part of a doctor’s horizon that it may be difficult for a patient to escape the consulting room without an illness being diagnosed and at least one medicine being prescribed.”12
Then we come up against the medical system itself. The sad truth is, information from major studies such as those described above are rarely used to offer advice that will improve people’s lives. When medical science comes across studies that show that vegetarians have less heart disease than meat eaters, it doesn’t respond by saying “Great! Let’s advise all our patients to go vegetarian!” Instead, it asks itself, “What is it about the meat eaters that makes them so unhealthy?” This then generates yet more research, as you will see.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, the mastermind from Cornell University behind the China Study described above, explains this mode of thinking: “One line of investigation suggests that evidence is not sufficient for serious dietary recommendations until mechanisms are identified and understood. However, this logic is rather nihilistic. If this were necessary, then it should also be reasonable to require a full mechanistic accounting of the effect of the same food constituent upon other diseases as well. Such logic contradicts the true complexities of biology and discourages hope of public health progress ever being made.”13
In other words, it isn’t necessary to understand every last detail of the cause-and-effect relationship between meat eating and disease in order to start taking action now. Another expert, Dr. O. Turpeinen, of Helsinki, who himself has produced some fascinating work, which we will consider a little later, expressed it like this: “It is not always judicious to wait for the final results and the irrefutable proof before taking action. Many lives could be saved and much good done by starting a little earlier. Although we do not yet have an absolute proof for dietary prevention of Coronary Heart Disease, there is strong evidence for its effectiveness, and its safety.”14
So studies such as the five mentioned above usually go unpublicized, and serve to generate more theories, which are then explored and tested, often by conducting animal experiments. You may be amazed to learn, as I was, that researchers have known for decades that feeding a naturally vegetarian species, such as rabbits, a meat diet will produce heart disease. And they’ve also known that in naturally carnivorous species, such as dogs, it is virtually impossible to produce clogging of the arteries, even when large amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat are fed to them.15 Now for heaven’s sake, doesn’t this information tell us something about the sort of diet we humans should be eating?
What have they been doing all this time? Why haven’t they given us this vital information?
What they’ve been doing is yet more research. Looking in ever closer detail at the mechanisms of disease. And, oh yes, producing wonderfully profitable new ranges of drugs and medications to avoid heart disease, treat heart disease, and fight cholesterol.
AN APPOINTMENT WITH THE DOCTOR
This is all rather depressing. It suggests that, although we already have a medicine that can prevent and treat heart disease and many other major problems of our time—it’s called the vegetarian diet—it will never become widely recognized or prescribed. When I went to interview a hospital dietician, whose job it is to help people with high cholesterol levels reduce them by dietary means before drug treatment is prescribed, I was amazed to find her including meat and other animal products in the diet sheets she was giving out.
“Why aren’t you encouraging people to go completely vegetarian?” I asked her. “Surely you’re aware of the weight of evidence in favor of the vegetarian lifestyle?”
She replied dismissively, “Oh, people would never do that. There’s no point giving people diets that you know they just won’t follow.”
It seemed to me that she was denying her patients potentially lifesaving information, based on little more than her own prejudice. As a result, many of them could be condemned to a lifetime of taking cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Luckily, some doctors don’t share this dismal attitude. Dr. Bruce Kinosian, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, is one. “If you can lower cholesterol with diet, why use drugs?” he says. “There are clearly people who need drugs to lower their cholesterol, but there are other options out there that may be more cost-effective and are not being emphasized. There are a lot of people with high cholesterol levels in this country, and as a matter of social policy, you don’t want to get in the habit of prescribing pills to everyone.”
So there are a few glimmers of hope out there. In a free society, it is difficult to suppress the truth forever, particularly when it is something so eminently sensible as the vegetarian way of living.
In the course of my own research, I had heard about Dr. David Ryde, a British family doctor, and I was curious to know if everything I’d heard was true, especially the revelation that he happened to be the lowest-prescribing general practitioner in Britain. Dr. Ryde is in every respect a conventionally trained and qualified doctor, but he has gradually acquired a reputation for preferring to treat his patients through dietary means. The vegan diet, to be precise. So I visited him in his office.
An athletic and vigorous man greeted me at the door with a big grin. I later learned that he is actually thirty years older than he looks. First, I asked him how he came to be vegetarian.
“The seeds were planted when I was walking home from school one day,” he told me, “and I saw some pigs being beaten. That set me thinking. Was it really necessary to inflict so much cruelty just to have bacon for breakfast? Anyway, at the age of twelve, I stopped eating meat and fish, much to the horror of my parents. But they couldn’t deny I was healthy enough—I was captain of athletics, rugby, and swimming at school, and I could easily cycle 100 miles or more in a weekend.
“When I went to medical school, we were taught nothing about nutrition. They simply said there were two types of protein—‘first class’ and ‘second class.’ It was only years later that I began to understand that plant protein could be entirely satisfactory for human needs. I was still keenly interested in sport, playing rugby for the county, and for the United Hospitals.
“Eventually, I began to become interested in the science of nutritional medicine, and I started to offer my patients nutritional advice. Some patients simply didn’t want to know—they’d take the attitude that they didn’t want a lecture, they just wanted me to write a prescription for some pills—that’s what they regarded as ‘proper’ medicine. But other patients were more willing to try something new, and I started to get some extraordinary results.
My first was a patient with severe angina. His condition had been deteriorating for about five years, and he’d been into hospital, was taking all the medication, and so on. But his condition was, frankly, almost terminal.
It was a really pitiful sight to see him struggle to walk the few yards from the car to the surgery. Now a person in such a desperate state will listen, and they will try anything. So I suggested he try a strict vegetarian diet, actually a vegan one.
“Just one month later, he could walk one mile, from his home to my surgery. Three months later he could walk four miles, while carrying shopping. ‘It used to take him a quarter of an hour to climb three flights of steps,’ his daughter told me. ‘Now he’s up in a few seconds!’
“That was my first success, and it encouraged me to try it with other patients. Another interesting case was a professor of medicine, actually the dean of a medical school. He had been taking antiulcer medication for four years, with little success. I suggested he try a vegan diet, and after three days, there was a remarkable improvement in pain reduction. A year later, he had lost about ten pounds of weight, and he looked a new man, light-hearted and happy.
“Another interesting case was a woman with severe headaches, and a blood pressure of 185/120. I suggested she try a vegan diet, and the pressure soon came down to 115/75. Now you’d never seen that kind of reduction using medication. And she felt fantastic! Which was another benefit, because antihypertensive medication often leaves patients feeling exhausted.
“I’ve seen results such as these in my patients too often to attribute them to coincidence. Really, this kind of treatment has no side-effects, and the benefits are so worthwhile, that there’s no reason not to try it.”
“What sort of reaction have you had from your colleagues?” I asked.
“In the early days, they used to warn me that I wasn’t prescribing enough medication. When they charted the prescribing rates of GPs [general practitioners], I would always be right at the bottom, way off the graph. And I think that worried some people. But these days, I’m asked to give talks to colleagues and to administrators. Obviously, my methods are far less costly to the health service than usual.
“I also feel strongly that we doctors need to examine more closely what actually goes on in the consulting room. You know, the truth is that patients don’t usually come and see us because they’re ill; they come because they’re worried. They’re anxious about some aspect of their health. Now, if all we do is simply send them away with a bottle of pills, we have actually reinforced their anxiety, which can make a cure harder.”
He paused, and smiled.
“Fundamentally, we must remember that we’re not vending machines!”
Dr. Ryde isn’t alone, but he is in a minority. Other caring members of the medical community have come to the same viewpoint as he has (that we are basically a “vegetarian species,” as Dr. Colin Campbell calls it) and that we are today eating the wrong sort of food—with disastrous consequences. For example, I could mention
• Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Washington, D.C.–based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which encourages doctors to practice medicine based on nutritious vegetarian diets and other positive lifestyle changes, rather than reliance on, and the use of, drugs and surgery.16
• Dr. John A. McDougall. As a plantation physician in Hawaii, Dr. McDougall cared for 5,000 people, mostly of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino ancestry. He observed that his first-generation patients, those who migrated to Hawaii from their native lands, were in excellent health and always trim. Their children and grandchildren became fatter and sicker. The only thing that changed was their diet. The older folks lived on a traditional diet, mostly rice and vegetables. Their offspring, raised in a modern society, learned to eat richer foods—meats, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and highly processed foods. He became fascinated by the effect of diet on health, wrote many bestselling books, and now runs a world-famous clinic. “The most powerful medicine ever imagined,” he says, “is right there on your dinner plate.”17
• Dr. Dean Ornish. Founder, president, and director of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, he is also a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a founder of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine there. For the past twenty-three years, Dr. Ornish has directed clinical research conclusively demonstrating that the meat-free diet and other lifestyle changes can reverse even severe coronary heart disease without the need for either drugs or surgery. He is the author of five bestselling books, including the New York Times bestseller Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease. We’ll look at Dr. Ornish’s work in detail later.18
• Dr. Michael Klaper. A surgeon, at the University of California Hospitals in San Francisco. Dr. Klaper began to realize that many of the diseases his patients brought to his office—clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), high blood pressure (hypertension), obesity, adult-onset diabetes, and even some forms of arthritis, asthma, and other significant illnesses—were made worse, or actually caused by the food they were eating. This prompted him to undertake a serious study of the link between diet and disease, eventually leading him to implement nutritionally based therapies in his practice. The results were dramatic. Nearly all of his patients who followed his vegan diet, exercise, and stress-reduction programs soon became leaner and more energetic, while their elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels returned to safer values. (In twelve weeks on this same program, Dr. Klaper’s own cholesterol dropped from 242 mg/dl to 140 mg/dl, while a twenty-two-pound “spare tire” of abdominal fat melted away—without dieting or restricting calories. He also observed that many of the chronic diseases mentioned above improved or resolved completely, often allowing his patients to reduce or discontinue their medication entirely. He is now director of the nonprofit Institute of Nutrition Education and Research, which seeks to educate physicians and other health professionals about the importance of nutrition in clinical practice, and is a member of the Nutrition Task Force of the American Medical Student Association.19
These and other doctors, such as Dr. William Harris,20 Dr. Joel Fuhrman,21 and Dr. Robert Kradjian22 have all spoken out about the health impact of the meat-free way of living. And even though their voices are loud and clear, they are still very much in a minority. Why?
REDUCE ME TO TEARS
I think one of the answers to this perplexing question lies in the way much of modern scientific research operates. For a start, most research today is undertaken with a commercial aim: usually that of finding or creating a drug that can be sold to a profitable market niche. This is also the reason why many of the diseases that afflict Third World countries aren’t given much attention by the pharmaceutical companies—they’re simply not going to produce the return on investment that companies require. As far as dietary means of preventing or treating disease, well, where’s the bottom line? If you can’t patent it, package it, and sell it for a good markup, forget it.
As you’ll see later, the vegetarian (and especially, the vegan) diet can work wonders for your cholesterol level. But that’s not going to increase anyone’s share price. “The ultimate wonder cure for a lousy lifestyle has arrived: the anti-cholesterol pill,” reported a British newspaper. “Take one a day and you can go back to junk food, throw away the running shoes, and even take up smoking again and still escape a heart attack.” Since Britain has one of the highest death rates from coronary heart disease in the world, the British market is certainly worth grabbing. Comments a stockbroker, “The drug companies want people to ignore dieting, even though it is much more effective than drugs for 90 per cent of people. Ideally the industry would like to prescribe anti-cholesterol drugs to everyone with a family history of heart disease—the market is enormous.” And a doctor, who had just been whisked off to Rome for a lavish drugs company sales pitch adds, “Anti-cholesterols are the hottest property in the drug world and people are being hounded into their massive use even before some of the long-term trials are completed. In theory they allow people to live on hamburgers and sausages and yet have the blood cholesterol of a Chinese peasant who eats rice and soybeans.”23
There’s another reason, too, and it is well described by the term “reductionism.” When studies are published that demonstrate the superiority of the vegetarian diet—in either a preventative or curative capacity—most doctors and scientists seem to respond (if they respond at all) by searching for the one “magic ingredient” that makes vegetarians healthier. Is it the lower animal fat in their diet? Or the larger amounts of vitamins A and C? Or the trace minerals? Or the amino acid pattern in the protein? If they could just put their fingers on it, then the problem would be solved. Meat eaters could make suitable adjustments—eat leaner meat, or take a few more vitamin pills—and then they’d be as healthy as vegetarians.
And that’s the problem with reductionism: a classic case of not being able to see the wood for the trees. Reductionist science produces masses and masses of data. This is, in fact, a chronic problem with science today: too many people are providing too much information, yet too few people have time to read and digest it. I suspect that in some cases scientists are repeating the same work without knowing it. Too many people talking—too few people reading, digesting, analyzing, and synthesizing.
The aim of reductionist science is to find the single magic bullet … that one missing piece of the jigsaw … the ultimate answer … the quest for the Holy Grail. Hence most medical research today has as its aim the isolation of a pure form of a chemical compound with a clearly defined (stoichiometric) chemical formula, which can be administered in quantitative doses and shown in statistically designed clinical studies to significantly and reproducibly affect the outcome of the disease.
But what if it doesn’t exist?
What if our belief in magic bullets is just that—magical, illusory, not based in reality? In that case, no amount of scientific research, and no amount of expenditure, will ever find it. A reductionist approach toward medical research also, sooner or later, runs into the law of diminishing returns, whereby we have to spend more and more economic resources in order to achieve less and less. That’s why, for example, all the cancer charities you know seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for money—and many of them are the best-funded charities in existence. The only message we all seem to receive loud and clear is “Give us another billion or so, and give us another decade” and then, at last, we may finally have a cure that works. Yeah, right.
The straightforward reality is that all the ingredients of a healthy vegetarian diet work together to preserve health and combat disease. We know how some of them work, we think we know how others work, and we know nothing about how yet others might work. But that’s not the point. The point is, it does work. So why aren’t we all vegetarian by now?
MESSING WITH YOUR MIND
If you’re of a cynical turn of mind (I’m sure you’re not, but the next person who reads this book might be), you could be thinking right now, “I hear what you’re saying, Cox, but give me a break—you know very well that, in another week or two, the news will be full of experts saying exactly the opposite is true.”
And you know, you’d be right to say that. We’re bombarded with advice, much of it contradictory, from the media. What’s a poor guy or gal to believe?
Well, I’d encourage you to be even more cynical. I’d suggest you might like to ask some rather uncomfortable questions, like “Where did the story come from? Was it planted by a PR company (much of today’s news is). If so, who are their clients? Who paid for the research? Who’s paying that bow-tied, media-trained expert on TV? These are nasty, suspicious questions that demonstrate a deplorable lack of faith in human nature … So ask them.
Most people hate lawyers, but I have a soft spot for them. They often have witty and clever minds, can do little harm outside of a courtroom, and are mostly just frustrated authors, bless’em. The real enemy today is the PR person.
A top PR person can handle almost any impending media disaster—for a fee, of course. They will do precisely what you want them to do, say what you want them to say. If you want them to find a doctor who will stand up at a press conference and say, “People who don’t eat meat will die from moonbeam poisoning,” then they will assuredly find just such a doctor. They may have to send halfway round the world to get him, of course, but if your budget’s big enough, it will be done—money can buy these things. And they will do it all with a grin on their bright little faces, and not one twinge of conscience in the place where their hearts used to be. That, incidentally, is pretty close to a definition of a psychopath.
Now, the scientists who undertake epidemiological studies don’t employ PR people, of course, so when their research is published in the professional journals, it rarely makes headline news. The headlines go to the PR merchants and their clients. I happened to be in the offices of one of the world’s biggest PR practices a year or two ago, speaking to the account director for a big meat client (by day, I’m a literary agent, and I was there on unrelated business concerning one of my own authors). The “Mad Cow” crisis had just grabbed the headlines again. Meat sales were plummeting, and I wondered aloud how she was going to handle it all. She turned to me, and sighed deeply. “We can handle most disasters and emergencies,” she said. Then she paused dramatically. “But even we can’t polish shit.”
This is how they do it. As the “meat crisis” in Britain lurched from one disaster to the next, the Meat Trades Journal gave the game away. “SHOWDOWN!” it screamed in huge letters across its front page.
“Top Nutritionist Joins Forces with the Meat Promotions Executive to Quash the Health Lobby.” The story continued: “One of the world’s top nutritionists has joined forces with the Meat promotions Executive in a bid to kick the health lobby’s arguments into touch.”24
The scientist’s name was Derek Miller, and he was no ordinary hype merchant. One of the world’s top nutritionists, he occupied many senior positions as an advisor to governments, the United Nations, and other highly influential bodies. So when the meat industry succeeded in “taking him on as an advisor,” they couldn’t contain their glee. And there it was, in black and white. Miller’s job was to “quash the health lobby” and to “kick their arguments into touch.” It couldn’t be much plainer—this man, a world-respected scientist, was now going to be used to suppress the truth about meat eating and health.
Further into the story, an even more outrageous statement was made: “He believes that meat is not only good for you, but that it is impossible to live without it.”
There’s no risk of confusion here. No chance of differing interpretations, differences of opinion, differences of emphasis. A nutritionist of Miller’s reputation and expertise would certainly be aware of studies similar to those you’ve just seen. He must have known that millions of vegetarians worldwide were living healthier lives than meat eaters. So we’re left with just one conclusion.
It was a lie, and he was a liar. Worse than that, in fact: a man paid to lie. A man who should certainly have known better. A man whose reputation as a nutritionist would guarantee him access to television, radio, the press—and whose expert status would rarely be questioned by ever-respectful journalists. What a great find for the meat industry, indeed.
“I personally am all in favour of having a go at the vegetarian lobby,” said Mr. Miller. “Their moral arguments are not on [target] and their nutritional arguments are rubbish.”
Moral arguments? Mr. Miller was singularly ill-qualified to talk about morals.
The subtle art of molding the public’s perception (that’s yours and mine) of your product can take many forms. Sometimes, it’s as simple as changing the name you call your product. For example, when the word “fat” acquired a negative image among consumers, the meat trade simply decided to ban the word.
“Fat lambs are now being called prime lambs. Fatstock is known as primestock, and fattening cattle are known as finishing cattle,” reports the Meat Trades Journal. Commented a livestock auctioneer, “There’s no doubt that fat had become a nasty word in many people’s minds.”25
And it’s not just the “F word” that arouses nasty associations, as the following news report makes clear:
The editor in chief of the Meat Trades Journal urged that the words “butcher” and “slaughterhouse” be eradicated and replaced by the American euphemisms “meat plant” or “meat factory.” Alternatively, butchers could adopt the Irish word “victualler.” This would distance consumers from awareness of the “bloodier side” of the meat trade … . [The editor argued that] the meat trade’s cause was not helped by the “bloodspattered whites” of Smithfield porters as they strolled “in front of the secretary birds.” They and butchers should be put into velvet overalls. “It will reduce cleaning bills and any adverse reaction from the fainthearted.” These days the word “butcher” was spread over newspaper headlines about the Ripper or the aftermath of bomb attacks. A change of nomenclature might only seem a verbal difference but it would “conjure up an image of meat divorced from the act of slaughter.”26
But the “newspeak” (should that be “meatspeak”?) doesn’t stop there. The Meat and Livestock Commission now wants terms such as “hormone-free,” “chemical-free,” and “additive-free” prohibited when used to describe organically produced meat, because they “can be confusing and sometimes misleading and inaccurate,” and lead to legal problems, bad publicity, and lack of public confidence.27
It goes on and on. Pig farmers are now being encouraged to stop using the words “growth promoters” to describe the drugs they give to their animals to (guess what?) promote growth. And the names given to the cells that these poor animals spend much of their lives in, “flat-deck cages” and “farrowing crates,” are now considered to be “too emotive.” They’re going to be replaced by “nurseries” and “maternity units.”28
George Orwell would be proud.
MEAT NAZIS MUST DIE
Since the meat industry has untold millions to spend on advertising and promotion, it is perhaps surprising that their track record isn’t better. Sometimes, their advertising slogans seem to be downright counterproductive. In Britain, they adopted a slogan that shouted “Where’s the Meat?,” which reminded millions of people that meat eating was a declining habit, and another, “Meat’s Got the Lot,” which emerged at the time that food poisoning, antibiotic, and hormone contamination were also hitting the headlines. At other times, they have seemed unconsciously humorous, such as the “Slam in the Lamb” slogan, which to me seems like an Australian euphemism for sexual intercourse. But of course, that’s just me and my funny mind.
The American meat industry is equally cursed. When they spent a fortune on a series of very high-profile advertisements featuring star names, they burned their fingers not once, but twice. “Sometimes,” Cybill Shepherd was depicted as saying, “I wonder if people have a primal, instinctive craving for hamburgers. Something hot and juicy and so utterly simple you can eat it with your hands. I mean, I know some people who don’t eat burgers. But I’m not sure I trust them.”
Frankly, I’m not at all sure I trust Cybill Shepherd, especially when she’s being paid to peddle me a burger, and it is indeed gratifying when such fatuous copywriting gets its comeuppance, as it duly did when Cybill subsequently confided to Family Circle magazine that one of her own beauty tips was trying not to eat red meat.29,30 Shepherd later maintained that she had not, in fact, made the statement, attributing the error to a misinformed publicist. Nevertheless, the beef barons who had paid for the $23 million ad campaign must have found the whole thing rather heartbreaking.
When James Garner agreed to appear promoting “Real Food for Real People,” his reward was even worse—prompt admission to a hospital for heart surgery. Members of the Farm Animal Reform Movement thoughtfully sent him a vegetarian cookbook, a rather brilliant publicity coup that seemed to get more high-profile media coverage than Garner’s original advertisements.31 And to add insult to injury, the Beef Industry Council had a “Hubbard Award” (named after a nineteenth-century advertising shyster) bestowed on it by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for “misleading, unfair, and irresponsible” advertising. “Popular beef products, such as hamburgers, are, by definition, not lean and contain large amounts of fat,” said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the CSPI. “Real beef isn’t so healthful when it’s eaten by real people.”32
One of the biggest Freudian slips of recent times was spotted when college student Erik Pyontek from Trenton, New Jersey, saw a poster promoting meat products in his supermarket.33 Entitled “America’s Meat Roundup,” it depicted a tall blond cowboy proudly holding the American flag, hand on hip, his firm-jawed gaze courageously meeting the horizon. Pyontek went away and dug up a picture in a high school history textbook he’d been reminded of and yes, there it was, a tall blond Aryan proudly holding the Nazi flag, hand on hip, his firm-jawed gaze courageously meeting the horizon—the same all but for the Swastika. “We’re not trying to send out any subliminal Nazi messages,” screeched a spokesperson for the ad agency that created it. Nevertheless, the common symbolism of the two images is very telling.
The art of advertising copywriting is a fine one. On the one hand, you have a responsibility to be accurate in what you say. On the other hand, you have to sell the product. Sometimes, the distinction between accuracy and salesmanship is blurred, as in the recent British “Meat to Live” advertising campaign. The advertisements typically feature a selection of male models doing typical he-man stunts, hand stands, and so on, thus trying to create a masculine, athletic image for their product—all very predictable and bland. However, the accompanying text is more interesting. “Without a regular supply [of iron],” one of the advertisements claims, “you could well suffer from listlessness or, in extreme cases, anemia … . This, on its own, is a powerful reason for eating meat.” Is it? The British Advertising Standards Authority considered that this turn of phrase might give the impression that meat was essential to a healthy diet, and warned the Meat and Livestock Commission not to create this impression in future advertisements.34
“Healthwise,” said another meat ad, “it’ll steel you against the elements too.” Again, the Advertising Standards Authority considered the wording to be ambiguous, and asked the Meat and Livestock Commission not to imply that eating meat could provide health benefits that couldn’t be obtained by eating a balanced, meat-free diet.
But if their public aspect has been less than irreproachable, at least the Meat and Livestock Commission appreciate the benefits of a vegetarian diet where it counts—at the very heart of their organization. For when a journalist from Marketing magazine had lunch there, he was relieved to discover that “the staff canteen offers a vegetarian option every day for those who prefer not to ingest what they sell.”35
Nothing like a little hypocrisy, is there?
MEET THE MAD COWBOY
Howard Lyman will probably break your arm if you ever meet him, not because he’s a dangerous person (although the American beef industry thinks he is) but because his handshake is like putting your hand into a vice and tightening it very hard indeed.
Howard is an amiable giant, a real all-American cattle rancher and fourth-generation cowboy from Montana and, oh yes, he just happens to be vegan.
One day, he found himself on Oprah. This is what happened in Howard’s words:
A funny thing can happen when you tell the truth in this country. You can get sued. In April of 1996, I was sitting on the stage of the The Oprah Winfrey Show, looking into the shocked faces of a studio audience that was learning for the first time that we were turning cows into cannibals. “Right now,” I explained, “we’re following exactly the same path that they followed in England—ten years of dealing with [Mad Cow Disease] as public relations rather than doing something substantial about it. A hundred thousand cows in the United States are fine one night, then dead the following morning. The majority of those cows are ground up and fed back to other cows. If only one of them has Mad Cow Disease, it has the potential to affect thousands.” Oprah herself was taken aback, and said quite simply, “Cows are herbivores. They shouldn’t be eating other cows … . It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger.” Sitting next to me on the stage was a representative of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Dr. Gary Weber, whose job it was to reassure the viewing public of the absolute safety of meat. I felt sorry for the guy; he had an extremely difficult hand to play. He couldn’t deny my assertion that we’d been feeding cows to cows, but belittling the fact didn’t sit well with a gasping audience. During commercial breaks he privately agreed with me that we shouldn’t be adding chopped-up cow to animal feed.36
I think you know what happened. Howard and Oprah were sued for “food disparagement”—surely one of the most ludicrously biased, unconstitutional, and nakedly self-interested pieces of legislation ever to be concocted. Between 1996 and 1997 some thirteen states enacted food disparagement laws, and similar laws are pending in other states as well. In legal jargon, food disparagement suits are called SLAPPs, for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Actual court victories are not necessarily the goal of a SLAPP suit. They primarily aim to chill speech by forcing defendants to spend huge amounts of time and money defending themselves in court. “The longer the litigation can be stretched out … the closer the SLAPP filer moves to success,” observes New York Supreme Court Judge Nicholas Colabella.
On the February 9, 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unanimously affirmed the trial court’s decision, rejecting the claims of the cattlemen that their beef had been “disparaged.” In doing so the court ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to show that Oprah Winfrey, Howard Lyman, and King World Productions had “knowingly” disseminated false information tending to show that American beef is not fit for public consumption.37
Said the court: “Lyman’s opinions, though strongly stated, were based on truthful, established fact, are not actionable under the First Amendment.” Notably, the court added: “Stripped to its essentials, the cattlemen’s complaint is that [Oprah’s] ‘Dangerous Food’ show did not present the Mad Cow issue in the light most favorable to United States beef. This argument cannot prevail.”
Food disparagement laws and the SLAPP lawsuit are two additional weapons available to those who would prefer you not to know what’s really going on.
SO WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON?
I’ll tell you. We’ve looked at some of the scientific evidence, considered why the medical profession is still so reluctant to universally endorse the vegetarian lifestyle, examined some of the naughty tricks the bad boys of the meat trade get up to, and seen how repressive legislation may be used to silence critics. But there’s more. And it’s nothing to do with PR executives, lawyers, or doctors. It’s to do with us—you—and how you think about yourself.
Alarmed by the growth of vegetarianism among young people—the consumers of tomorrow—the meat industry is busy spending its vast resources launching its propaganda into schools and other places where young minds can be influenced. In its thinly disguised advertising material, you will find many astonishing statements, such as: “Modern man does not need to hunt but he still needs a balanced diet—of which meat is an essential element.”38
This is, as you may have begun to suspect by now, utterly untrue. Meat is not “an essential element” of a balanced diet, as millions of healthy vegetarians will testify. And as a parent, I find it outrageous that the meat industry (which claims to have “established a good reputation among teachers for providing credible and well-balanced classroom resources”39) should be allowed to go into schools with such misleading propaganda masquerading as fact. Yet many of us still mistakenly believe that humans are somehow “genetically programed” to eat flesh foods, and cannot thrive without them; that we are, in essence, carnivores.
All right, then, let’s look at the evidence.
Scientific evidence suggests that our ancestors probably originated in the east African Rift Valley, which is a dry and desolate place today, but would have been very different two to four million years ago. The habitat was very lush then. There were large, shallow freshwater lakes, with rich open grassland on the flood plains and dense woodland beside the rivers. Fossil evidence shows that foodstuffs such as Leguminosae (peas and beans) and Anacardiaceae (cashew nuts) were readily available, as were Palmae (sago, dates, and coconuts). Evidence gained from the analysis of tooth markings indicates that our ancestors’ diet was much the same as the Guinea Baboon’s is today—hard seeds, stems, some roots, plant fiber—a typically tough diet requiring stripping, chopping, and chewing actions.
Our ancestors also had very large molars and small incisors, unsuited to meat consumption but ideal for consuming large quantities of vegetable matter. By 2.5 million years B.C., however, evidence shows that the land began to dry out, forcing Australopithecus (the name of one of our early ancestors) to desert this idyllic “Garden of Eden” and to try and survive on the savannahs, where he was poorly prepared for the evolutionary struggle that was to come.
Before this crucial point, there is little doubt that our ancestors had largely followed a vegetarian diet, typical of primates. Studies of minute scratches on the dental enamel of an Australopithecus fossil suggest that his diet consisted largely of hard, chewy seeds and berries, although a few eggs and small animals may have been consumed, too. Most scientists consider it unlikely that Australopithecus was a systematic hunter, or “killer ape,” as this species has sometimes been depicted.40
So we were forced by our rapidly changing environment to eat anything and everything we could get our hands on, which of course included some flesh. As our old habitat receded, we had to make some quick decisions. We had been used to eating a mainly fruit and nut diet. As this became increasingly scarce, we had to adapt to eating whatever we could find. There wasn’t much. We found roots and grasses, and made do with them. We would have stumbled across some partly rotten carrion flesh, and gratefully ate what we could salvage. We would have chased easy-to-catch small game. We ate it all, no questions asked. Interestingly, we still preserve some ability to digest and utilize leaves and grasses, which recent scientific work has discovered, and probably dates from this period of our existence. We became not carnivores, but omnivores—actually, I would argue in favor of the word “adaptivores,” because it conveys a more accurate impression of what was going on at that point in our history. In his book The Naked Ape, the zoologist Desmond Morris made an interesting observation about this period when he wrote: “It could be argued that, since our primate ancestors had to make do without a major meat component in their diets, we should be able to do the same. We were driven to become flesh eaters only by environmental circumstances, and now that we have the environment under control, with elaborately cultivated crops at our disposal, we might be expected to return to our ancient primate feeding patterns.”41
If we as a species can be characterized by just one word, it would be “adaptability”: we have learned how to survive in almost any environment, no matter how seemingly hostile. It is our passport for success in any situation, no matter how desperate, and unquestionably the key to our survival. We were forced out of our original habitat, and miraculously we survived. We were forced to learn how to live on the plains in competition with other animals that were natural carnivores, and again we met the challenge.
So here we have a picture of a species that was originally vegetarian, and then, due to force of circumstances, adapted to become omnivorous. This reality is a long, long way from the “meat is an essential element of the diet” myth propagated by the meat trade. It is clear from recent analyses of human remains that even during this period of our development, plant food was still by far the most important source of food. The level of strontium present in bones is an accurate guide to the amount of plant food consumed, and scientists at the University of Pisa, Italy, who have analysed the bones of early Europeans have found that they were eating an “almost exclusively vegetarian diet” right up to the time agriculture was developed.42
So, to what extent should our omnivorous adaptation influence our modern food habits? The first point to understand here is that the word “omnivore” does not mean “carnivore,” as some seem to think it does: “We humans are biologically omnivores,” says the Meat and Livestock Commission in the propaganda it gives out to our schoolchildren, “and an omnivorous diet is one which includes a whole range of foods—meat, in various forms, prominent among them.”43
This is utterly misleading, for it implies that meat is an essential part of our diet. The fact is that meat is optional—we can choose to consume it, or not. Either way, we should know what the implications are.
The second point to understand is that our genetic constitution has changed very little for several tens of thousands of years. But, of course, our diet has changed—unfortunately, for the worse. Basically, our bodies are still in the Stone Age, and expect the sort of nutrition they were getting then. They’re just not used to getting the kind of junk food we give them today. No wonder so many diseases are related to our modern pattern of food consumption.
As you might imagine, modern Westernized humans consume vastly more animal flesh than we have ever done in the whole history of our species. And we don’t even have to exercise to get it—the exertion of the chase has been replaced by the flick of the credit card as it slides from our wallet.
In 1912, the first ever medical observation was made of a heart attack. In less than a hundred years, heart disease has soared away to become one of the leading killers of the Western world. But why? What has changed in such a comparatively short space of time? I put this question to Professor Michael Crawford, a recognized authority in the field.
“What has happened,” he told me, “is that we all started from a common baseline of wild foods. This is the sort of primitive diet which humans have eaten throughout most of their evolution, over the past five million years. However, in the last few centuries, things have gone haywire. In Europe, our diets have gone in one direction, in Africa and India they’ve gone in a different direction. In Western Europe we’ve focused on consuming foods which are very rich in nonessential types of fat, but pretty miserable sources of essential fats. Our diets have also become rich in processed and refined carbohydrates. In fact, the problems are quite easy to identify—it’s taking corrective action that seems to be difficult for some of us.”
All in all, it seems as if the human race has unwittingly been playing a huge experiment on itself over the past century. In the year 1860, about one-quarter of our energy came from fat sources. By 1910, this had risen to one-third, and by 1975 about 45 percent of our total energy intake was coming from fat, much of it saturated animal fat. Thus, in no time at all, the amount of fat in our diet doubled. So it’s hardly surprising if this new diet that we’re eating today has some rather dreadful side effects, in the form of diet-related diseases.
Modern food animals are bred to be fat: the carcass of a slaughtered animal can easily be 30 percent fat or more. But the sort of animal that primitive people hunted was a wild animal—it had, on average, only 3.9 percent fat on its carcass.44 So today, even if we cut our meat consumption back to the greatly reduced amount that our ancestors consumed, we will still be taking in seven times more fat than they did!
But even this isn’t the end of the story. The type of fat on the carcass of the animal that our ancestors ate was different, as well. Primitive meat had five times more polyunsaturated fat in it than today’s meat—which is high in saturated fat, but much lower in polyunsaturated. Also, our ancestral diet only had one-sixth the amount of sodium (salt) that the modern diet contains. And because fresh food comprised such an important part of the diet, the primitive diet was much, much richer in natural vitamins. For example, there would have been nearly nine times as much vitamin C in the primitive diet, twice as much fiber, three times as much total polyunsaturated fat.
So if you were worried that a meat-free diet might not be healthy, don’t be. In point of fact, it’s much closer to the kind of natural food that we’ve always eaten, and that our bodies have always been used to. In evolutionary terms, the meat we eat today is a new food for us, which means that we’re actually conducting a huge experiment on our own bodies. And as you’ve started to see, the results don’t look at all good.
Now, spend a moment looking at the table below. Here you can see typical characteristics of vegetarian animals (herbivores) compared to carnivorous animals. This straightforward evidence very clearly demonstrates the overwhelmingly vegetarian nature of our species.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HERBIVORES AND CARNIVORES
HerbivoreCarnivoreHumanHands/hoofs as appendagesClaws as appendagesHands as appendagesTeeth flatTeeth sharpTeeth flatLong intestines to fully digest nutrients in plant foodsShort intestines, rapidly excrete putrefying fleshLong intestines to fully digest nutrients in plant foods; flesh foods cause constipation.Sweats to cool bodyPants to cool bodySweats to cool bodySips waterLaps waterSips waterVitamin C obtained solely from dietVitamin C manu- factured internallyVitamin C obtained solely from dietExists largely on a fruit & nut dietConsumes flesh exclusivelyDiet depends on environment, highly adaptableGrasping hands capable of using tools or weaponsNo manual dexterityGrasping hands capable of using tools or weaponsInoffensive excrementPutrid excrementOffensiveness of excrement depends on dietSnack feederLarge meals infrequently takenCombines worst of both worldsPredominantly sweet-toothedPreference for salty fatty foodLikes both sweet and salty/fatty foodLikes to savor food, experiment with variety, combine flavorsBolts food downLikes to savor food, experiment with variety, combine flavorsLarge brains, able to rationalizeSmall brains, less capable of adaptive behaviorLarge brains, able to rationalize (at least in laboratory studies)
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Did you notice in the meat trade’s propaganda quoted earlier that they spoke of “modern man,” when they really meant to say “modern people”? Most people tend to dismiss unconscious sexism such as this as trivial, because it is so common. However, I now want to present you with yet more forbidden knowledge that goes straight to the heart of the modern myth of the red-blooded male meat eater.
Many of us are conditioned by our upbringings to believe that “man is a natural hunter and meat eater.” Note that I—like the meat industry’s propaganda quoted above—said “man,” not humans. In the account of human evolution that most of us learn, women are mere appendages—accessories and mating objects for the all-powerful hunting male. According to the conventional wisdom of anthropology, it is hunting that has made us what we are today: intelligent, because hunters must be wily; tool makers, because hunters must have weapons; upright walkers, because hunters must walk and run long distances; cooperative, because hunters must work with each other to ensure a kill; and masters of language, because hunters must communicate with each other.
This is simplistic rubbish. But it is only in recent years that this ubiquitous stereotype has been challenged, by a few women anthropologists, who have become rather tired of the persistent omission and denigration of women from the accepted account of human history. Less than sexually secure males may wish to stop reading now.
“The most popular reconstruction of early human social behaviour is summarized in the phrase ‘man the hunter,’” explains Adrienne Zihlman, professor of anthropology at UCLA. “In this hypothesis, meat eating initiated man’s separation from the apes, males provided the meat, presumed to be the main item in early hominid diet, by inventing stone tools and weapons for hunting. Thus males played the major economic role, were protectors of females and young, and controlled the mating process. In this view of things, females fade into a strictly reproductive and passive role—a pattern of behavior inconsistent with that of other primates or of modern gathering and hunting peoples. In fact, the obsession with hunting has long prevented anthropologists from taking a good look at the role of women in shaping human adaptation.”45
The plain fact is that the sort of hunting that our ancestors practiced was never a good enough way of providing food for everyone. Careful studies of societies who lead similar lifestyles to those of our ancestors—such as the Bush People of the Kalahari—reveal that the probability of obtaining meat on any one hunting day is about one in four.46 Now, just how long do you think a society can exist, based on a 25 percent success record? By contrast, the women always return from their gathering expeditions with food—a 100 percent success rate. And the entire tribe could comfortably feed itself if each member put in a fifteen-hour week—rather better than our own society’s achievement.
It is quiet clear that in original societies such as these, hunting is only possible when backed up by an effective, dependable, and reliable source of plant food. Once the tribe is certain of food, then those men who want to (about a third of the Kalahari males never hunted) can go off and gamble on a kill—nothing jeopardized if they come home empty-handed.
And yet, many modern people, living entirely synthetic lives in wholly unnatural Western environments, still believe and behave as if meat eating is the magic thread that keeps us in touch with the primitive, authentic humans we think we ought to be (“Real Food For Real People,” as the advertising slogan tries to exploit this myth). Modern people who have never been told of the absolutely crucial role of “woman the gatherer” in human development are—to be blunt—profoundly ignorant. They are ignorant about the history of their own species, which makes them ignorant about their very own, personal identities. And ignorance leaves them wide open to exploitation.
A WOMAN’S WORK
Women, being the principal gatherers, also became the first growers. There is a significant difference between horticulture (which came first, and involved the cultivation of wild plants) and agriculture (which came later, and involved ploughing the ground, using domesticated animals). While horticulture seemed to spring up almost simultaneously in many parts of the world, agriculture was never adopted in New World original societies (the Americas). And there are still some horticultural tribes in far-flung places, whose development never seems to have progressed to complete agriculture. In these tribes, such as the Australian aborigines, it is often the women who take responsibility for plant usage and cultivation, cutting the tops off wild yams, for example, and replanting them to produce a continually cropping plant in a perfectly balanced relationship with nature.
Why did horticulture first develop? Obviously, it represents a quantum leap in the amount of food that can be amassed for a given amount of effort. Instead of wandering and gathering, it was now possible to stay in a single spot and work continuously at harvesting grain. The transformation from gathering to cultivation seems to have taken place in locations where plants yielding a lot of starch were available. Grain being particularly easy to store when dry, it was now possible to work intensively at harvesting, and to accumulate an impressive store of food that would not spoil as it was kept. Modern experiments have shown that it is possible to manually harvest about five pounds of grain an hour. If four people worked continuously for the three weeks that wild wheat was ripe, they could produce about one ton of grain—enough to feed themselves for an entire year. Interestingly, this wild wheat was of a much higher protein content (about 24 percent) than our modern, highly developed strains (about 14 percent).
Now, consider the crushing impact that ever-more-prolific female horticulture must have had on the male ego. “Man the Provider” has always been a male-inspired, self-justifying myth (think of our phrase “bringing home the bacon”). The reality of the traditional hunter/ gatherer society was that it was held together primarily by the food-producing and child-rearing abilities of the females—not by the males, who contributed in total far less. With the advent of horticulture, women were further challenging the usefulness, indeed, the whole raison d’être of the male role. They were steadily increasing the already large contribution they made to the group’s food supplies. The male contribution, if anything, would have been diminishing at this point, for a fixed home base would have restricted the amount of wild animals within easy reach.
It is a strange thing, but the cultivation of plants is a rather difficult thing to control on old-fashioned, paternalistic principles. It just isn’t naturally suited to it. For one thing, there are no “best bits,” no parts of the plant that are so much better than the rest. In the good old hunting days, certain parts of the dead animal were more highly prized than others, and tradition dictated that the best should go to the number-one hunter. The tail of a kangaroo, the trunk of an elephant, the tongue of a bison, the eyeball fat of a guanaco (a kind of llama)—all these things were considered to be prize delicacies in certain societies and, accordingly, should only be given to the very bravest hunter. But where were these perks in a plant? Search as you might, you just couldn’t find them. It would seem that vegetable foods are innately egalitarian.
On the other hand, meat strongly reinforces the established pecking order. The smallest social divisions can be exaggerated and exploited, and great ego satisfaction can be obtained by comparing one’s own position to someone further down the pecking order. Here is one fairly typical social hierarchy that anthropologists have identified in contemporary hunting societies; those closer to the top receive the most highly prized cuts of meat.47
Active male hunters
Helpers of net owners
Fathers of dog owners
Those who carried the meat
Sisters or sisters-in-law of the killer
All these people would receive meat in the quality and quantity that befitted their station. In addition, tribal chiefs, “house” chiefs, and chiefs of confederacies would expect their dues as well. It is on this masculine set of values that our present society has largely modeled itself, rewarding as it does any successful display of aggression, competition, or social rivalry. It is very recently that some women have started to realize that they have been tricked into supporting this pernicious ideology, and some of them, such as the writer Norma Benney, are starting to question it. She considers that hierarchical structures such as these “involve concepts of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in which the former inevitably exploits the latter. Feminist thinking challenges these hierarchies, and women are starting to realise that in the process of struggling for our own rights, we should not participate in the victimisation of those even worse off than ourselves in the patriarchal pecking order. We need to develop fresh ways of seeing the world if we are to get out of the habit of ignoring the realities of how other, non-human animals are living.”48
It can be seen, then, that flesh consumption reinforces and indeed, creates, social divisions, and further celebrates the values upon which those divisions are based. Plant cultivation, on the other hand, is stubbornly egalitarian. It is clear that if the system were changed, those with the most to lose would be those who occupied positions close to the top of the pile—those who received the tastiest treats, and those with the greatest social standing. With the advent of horticulture, there was less economic dependence on the hunter and his meat than ever before. So the hunter became a horticulturist, then an agriculturist, and brought with him the values and ideology of the hunt.
Horticulture is essentially a cooperative act with the earth. Seeds are given to the ground in an area that is likely to be well irrigated, and in return the earth will manifest her fertility. It is based on the great cycle of nature—what anthropologist Mircea Eliade calls “the eternal return.”
Agriculture, however, has at its core an act of coercion; it is stamped with the symbolism of the hunter, even today. Female animals are made pregnant whenever the farmer so desires, sometimes with the use of an apparatus known as the “rape rack,” whose function is precisely as it sounds. Even the crops in the fields are controlled by use of chemicals that “wage war” on other plant species with no commercial value to the farmer. And of course, in modern societies, agriculture is an operation almost exclusively controlled by males. Women have been relegated, once again, to the less important role of menials, laborers, child rearers, and food processors.
Pretty soon, animals were “agriculturalized,” too. It is likely that men had already formed something of a symbiotic relationship with a few types of wild species. Dogs may have been used sometimes to track and chase the hunters’ quarry. Animals, both dead and alive, would have figured prominently in religious ceremonies designed to give men control over the species he intended to hunt. Young animals, orphaned when their parents were butchered by the hunt, would have been kept as pets. And it is likely that some animals served as substitute sex objects for the male. Even in modern America, the Kinsey report estimated that one in twelve of all males had sexual relations with animals.
Some animals, too, would have been kept as tame decoys, to allow the hunters to closely approach their quarry without alarming it. This practice still exits in some modern slaughterhouses, where so-called “Judas sheep” are specially trained by the slaughter men to lead the victims from the pens to the killing floor.
Man had, therefore, been involved in a symbiotic relationship with semiwild animals for a considerable length of time prior to the development of agriculture. The status of animals and females may have been, in the collective male mind, remarkably similar. Superfluous female babies, like young animals, would be culled, sometimes by being buried alive. Women, like female animals, produced milk that men could drink. Women were (and still are, in some societies) used as wet nurses for young animals, particularly piglets.
Some anthropologists suggest that the presumed cult of the fertility goddess shows that men venerated and worshipped the female principle, but this is only one interpretation. The whole point of evolving a religion was to better yourself, to gain control over some aspect of your existence. Early man did not worship the wild boar, the reindeer, or the bear in the same way as modern people worship their God. He carved their likenesses, painted their outlines, performed magical ceremonies, and made sacrifices for one main purpose: to gain control. In the same way, he sought (and achieved) control over the female.
So both women and animals became domesticated—enslaved to agriculture. And the new agriculture regularly and reliably produced food in more ready abundance than ever before. Nutritionally, there was less need now for flesh food than at any time previously. But culturally and symbolically, the ritual of meat production and consumption was now more essential than ever, serving as an embodiment and confirmation of the values of a society created around male dominion achieved through slaughter.
Ponder on this: each time you consume animal flesh, you make a blood sacrifice to this outmoded and evil ethic.
TOOTH AND CLAW
We have briefly touched upon the development of Western society from primate to hunter-gatherer, then to horticulturalist and finally to agriculturalist. Now we need to consider why, in a modern, post-industrialized society such as ours, the myth of the red-blooded masculine hunter-killer is still a potent image for us.
There are two fundamental reasons: First, the historical record itself colors our judgment. The garbage that is generated as a result of eating meat is pretty permanent—bones last longer in the ground than husks or seeds. Scientists, usually males, have traditionally focused their attention on the tools and artifacts of hunting, rather than the easily overlooked remnants of horticulture. And this can produce some very misleading results, indeed. For example, with only their rubbish tips to go on, archaeologists studying the Bush people of the Kalahari would conclude that they were an almost exclusively meat-eating tribe—the very opposite of the truth.
But a further, and far more significant, reason is this. The science of anthropology began as a kind of natural history, a study of the peoples encountered along the frontiers of European expansion. Such peoples—invariably called primitives or savages—were often studied, not so much for what they themselves were, but rather as a means of justifying Victorian culture’s position at the apex of the evolutionary pyramid. The ideas of Darwin and Huxley, frequently misquoted and misunderstood, were similarly advanced as “proof” of our culture’s superiority over the savages, of Man’s rightful dominion as lord and master of Nature, and of man’s proper subjugation of woman. This was not what Darwin intended; but it was what happened.
“In late Victorian society,” writes Darwin’s biographer Jonathan Howard, “a peculiarly beastly form of social climbing, ‘Social Darwinism,’ was established under Herbert Spencer’s slogan ‘The survival of the fittest.’ The evolutionary law was interpreted to mean victory to the strongest as the necessary condition for progress. As a prescription for social behaviour it justified the worst excesses of capitalism exploitation of labour, ‘reasoned savagery’ as T. H. Huxley labelled it.”49
For many Victorians, evolution started to replace religion as the justification, the rationalization, for the prevailing status quo. It was no longer necessary to believe that God had put Man at the top of the natural hierarchy; Man could now claim to have gotten there by his very own efforts. If Man was really only an animal, then he was the most successful animal—more aggressive, more dominant, and more ruthless than any other. In a fast-expanding industrial society, these values were prized beyond all others; “female” values were never less visible. And it is precisely from this period in our recent history that many serious misconceptions about our origin date.
Our notion of women’s and men’s role in prehistory, says Adrienne Zihlman: “derives in part from currently perceived differences in status of the sexes. Popular pictures drawn of the past are too often little more than backward projections of cultural sex stereotypes onto humans who lived more than a million years ago. Themes of male aggression, dominance, and hunting have long pervaded reconstructions of early human social life; and this had led to a belief that present-day inequality of the sexes has its roots in an ancient lifestyle and in inherent biological differences between the sexes … . Beginning with Darwin’s discussion of human evolution, the theme of male dominance and female passivity and the use of tools as weapons has run through thinking about evolution. The emphasis on hunting, as with male dominance, is an outcome of male bias, however unconscious it may be, and this bias pervades even studies of primate behavior. In Darwin’s case, given the values of Western society, especially Victorian England, and the nature of available evidence, his emphasis on males is not surprising.”50
It really is extraordinary that so many of our conceptions about the history of our own species, and our place relative to other animals and life forms, should still be so deeply biased by the values of Victorian Britain. Let us investigate some of them.
Tennyson’s clichéd phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” perfectly captures the prevailing ethos of the period, combining as it does Tennyson’s own deep-rooted fear of the chaos and disorder he believed to exist in the natural world, together with the inference that it is the proper duty of Man to subdue and dominate this wild force. Today, it is still a powerful image in the minds of many people who, in other respects, would not wish to share the values and prejudices of their Victorian ancestors. Most of us do, indeed, take it for granted that nature in the raw is cruel and merciless, showing no compassion to those who are too weak to defend themselves. And it is certainly a convenient way for us to see the world, for it proves our claim to supremacy over all other creatures; and it excuses our actions toward them, no matter how barbaric.
Tennyson himself was a typical product of his era. Born in 1809, he had a secluded childhood in Lincolnshire, where his father was a minister of the church, a manic-depressive, an alcoholic, and frequently violent. Unable to form a close relationship with his father, the young boy became very shy, very insecure, and would often seek solace in the lonely churchyard, where he would fling himself down weeping among the graves, longing to die. He grew up with a sense of embitterment, and believed that life should have given him a better position than merely being a parson’s son. He was a hypochondriac, and, according to those who knew him, constantly worried about his bowels.
His attitude toward women was equally characteristic of the period. “Woman is the lesser man,” he believed, “God made the woman for the man.” As far back as 1860, the feminist Emily Davies was poking fun at what she described as his “bisexual theory of the human ideal.” Like many others, he was deeply worried by what he saw as the dangers of too much democracy. In 1865, there was a public outcry concerning the governor of Jamaica, E. J. Eyre. A small rebellion on the island lead to Eyre taking savage retribution, hanging nearly 600 people, and flogging many more. There was an attempt to have Eyre prosecuted for murder, but Tennyson thought that Eyre’s action was entirely justified, being “the only method of saving English lives.” He even contributed to a fund set up to defend Eyre. “Niggers are tigers,” growled Tennyson. Nice chap, yes?
He wrote recruiting poems for the army and held conventional views on the subject of Ireland, which has always been a problem for the English. “Couldn’t they blow up that horrible island with dynamite,” he asked, “and carry it off in pieces—a long way off?”
All this begins to tell you something about the values of the man who invented that unpleasant phrase. It should come as no surprise to learn that Tennyson found “Nature” quite horrifying. “The lavish profusion in the natural world,” he wrote, “appalls me, from the growths of the tropical forest, to the capacity of man to multiply, the torrent of babies.” The Victorians decided that they liked Tennyson, his poetry, and his values, enough to make him the poet laureate of his day.
Even so, some people may still feel that, bigot and racist though he was, Tennyson was essentially correct about nature, or at least, about other animals. They do kill and eat each other and that justifies our own flesh-eating habit and the values it embraces. Certainly, the meat trade wishes to perpetuate this idea for its own commercial ends. In publicity material given to British schoolchildren, it approvingly quoted the television naturalist David Attenborough: “People have become divorced from the realities of nature in their urban environment. I hope to bring back in my programmes a clear understanding that we are part of that wider system, and that animals die and are eaten.”51
There are several points to make in response to this decidedly weird “death is good” argument. First, natural carnivores—such as hyenas—certainly need to kill to stay alive; but as you have already seen, there is overwhelming evidence that humans are not carnivores.
Second, I should point out that, equally, many animals do not need to rip into other animals’ flesh in order to survive. To argue that hyenas hunt their prey, therefore humans should symbolically do the same, is selective logic bordering on insanity. Why should humans behave like hyenas? Why not like the vegetarian elephant? Or the dikdik? Or the lesser-spotted Patagonian nut cracker? If you’re going to pretend to be another species, you may as well make it as exotic as possible, while you’re waiting for the men in white coats to arrive.
If we are going to imitate other animals in our conduct, why not imitate good-natured ones? Television wildlife documentaries are often obsessed with the eating habits of carnivores, much to the satisfaction, no doubt, of the meat industry. But why don’t they show us the highly developed, altruistic behavior that some species clearly demonstrate? Consider these remarkable examples:
• When dolphinaria were first becoming big business in the United States, the normal method of “collecting” wild dolphins from the sea and bringing them into captivity was to throw a charge of dynamite into the sea among a school of dolphins, and pick up those that had been stunned. Of course, this would kill many others, but that didn’t matter to the people who owned the dolphinaria; there were plenty more of them in the sea. The men who were responsible for collecting the stunned dolphins in nets would frequently report other dolphins coming to the rescue of those that were unconscious. The normal practice would be for two dolphins to arrange themselves on either side of the unconscious one, and stay there until it recovered. This would enable it to continue to breathe, for dolphins are mammals and need air; otherwise they drown. “That the action was deliberate,” said one report, “is shown by the way the supporting dolphins, when they had to leave it to come up to breathe, swam in a wide arc to come back and continue to support it.” Unquestionably, this is altruistic behavior of a very high order—the “good Samaritan” dolphins could not have been reacting “instinctively” to a distress call, of course, because the unconscious dolphin wouldn’t be able to make one. The very latest research on dolphins again challenges the human conceit that only people are capable of showing love, enjoying sex, and thinking creatively about abstractions such as the future and the past. “I’m trying to tell people that these are cultural animals,” says naturalist Ken Norris, who researches spinner dolphins off Hawaii. “We’re dealing with an animal for whom cooperation with its fellows is life itself … they can carry on a discourse about things that don’t exist, like the past and future and concepts. They also teach each other, which to me is the concourse of cultures.”52
• In Tanzania, Africa, an elephant control officer is summoned with his gun to a village where elephants have been reported to be raiding the crops. He sees the bull elephant and fires, aiming at the brain. The bull falls wounded, but is not dead—the bullet has missed the brain, hitting the shoulder. Three other elephants move in on the prostrate bull, arranging themselves on each flank, one behind. Astonished, the officer does not fire again. “They boosted him onto his feet,” he says. “I was amazed by it.” He returns to the spot the next day, but there is no trace of the wounded male.
• In similar circumstances, another elephant control officer decides to shoot a bull elephant, raises his rifle, and fires. He misses the brain, but breaks the bull’s shoulder. The bull bellows in great pain, and two cow elephants hear his calls and come running. They start to half carry, half drag the bull into the jungle, away from danger. The officer runs closer in to the bull, trying to get a final shot in to kill it. One of the cows angrily turns on him, and he shoots her point blank. She crumples up and dies. “The remaining cow,” reports the officer, “went sadly on her way, every few yards stopping to listen and look back.”
• Yet another officer is tracking three cow elephants and one bull. He finds them, and fires quickly at all four. The three cows drop dead, almost instantly. The bull does not, but is badly wounded and confused. To his horror, the officer now realizes that the cows have baby elephant calves with them, which the long grass prevented his seeing. The calves rush to the bull, not for protection, but arrange themselves on either side of him and try to help him along.
There are countless other examples of animals behaving selflessly with altruism. All this is a very long way from the “Nature red in tooth and claw” myth, demonstrating as it does compassion, altruism, and courage on the part of nonhuman animals, and perhaps raising a gleam of hope for the future—a future based on shared values, shared experience, and shared environment.
A PLATE FULL OF HATE
One of the saddest, most pernicious deceptions perpetrated on men today is the notion that “If you are not able to kill”—and what more potent symbol of killing is there than a slab of animal flesh on a plate?—“then you are not really a man.” This is how one modern man perfectly expresses this evil concept: “The instinct of the hunter is one of the most deeply ingrained of our inheritances from the past. Could it be said that he who had no trace of such a feeling was somewhat lacking in virility?”53
And that man should know what he’s talking about, having participated in the deaths of thousands of Earth’s most magnificent mammals, not however without some stirring of conscience: “A whale struggling in its death flurry is a really moving spectacle, even to the hardened eyes of a whaler. But no sound is heard from the whales. If they had vocal cords proportionate to their bulk, with which to express their suffering, there would undoubtedly be very few men who would have strong enough nerves to bear the last moments of a whale dying by the harpoon. A blue whale, mortally wounded by several harpoons, has been known to tow a modern ‘catcher’ behind it for two hours before dying. Gunners themselves, who might be thought to be quite indifferent to the sufferings of their quarry, are generally affected by an obscure and uneasy feeling that we have all experienced when the ‘flurry’ occurred.”
So are men forever destined by biology to be murderers of their fellow creatures? Of course not. As a man, I am outraged and enraged by those who tell me that the man who gazes back from the mirror is, at heart, an unrepentant and eternal killer. As the great writer and Nobel prize—winner Isaac Bashevis Singer observed, “People often say that humans have always eaten animals, as if this is a justification for continuing the practice. According to this logic, we should not try to prevent people from murdering other people, since this has also been done since the earliest of times.” I also know that contact between our species and others does not have to be brutal and deadly.
In the 1970s, humans started to explore the alien world of these gentle sea creatures, and we first started to realize that we shared common bonds with them. Divers who have swam with them frequently report feeling as if the whales were protecting and taking care of them. In one amazing incident off Hawaii, a female whale asked for human help. In March 1976, the White Bird was carrying divers when a giant humpback whale knocked her head on the boat three or four times, diver Roy Nickerson reported. After each knock, she would withdraw, and raise herself to look up at those on deck. He donned his wetsuit and went down to investigate. He found she had aborted, and her baby calf was stillborn, but not free of her body. Other divers then went down, lassoed the dead calf, and pulled it clear. It was a sad incident, but illustrative of the cooperation that could exist between our species, if we wanted it.
But before that happens, we have to first understand, and then overcome, the doctrine of “Meatismo,” which corrupts the minds of many men. Here it is, perfectly expressed, with words so evil that they chill me each time I read them. Nazi philosopher Oswald Spengler spawned them: “The beast of prey is the highest form of active life. It represents a mode of living which requires the extreme degree of the necessity of fighting, conquering, annihilating, self-assertion. The human race ranks highly because it belongs to the class of beasts of prey. Therefore we find in man the tactics of life proper to a bold, cunning beast of prey. He lives engaged in aggression, killing, annihilation. He wants to be master in as much as he exists.”54
Now you know the enemy. These are appalling words. They speak of life without love, without compassion, without joy. Actually, they are not describing life at all, they are portraying a kind of living death (which is precisely how most modern food animals are reared). Words such as these will serve to excuse any atrocity, any barbarism. And of course, they have done so.
But they are not true. Man is demonstrably not a “beast of prey.” The greatest achievements of human history—horticulture, for example—came about through cooperation, not lethal domination.
Something to think about, isn’t it?
YOU DON’T NEED MEAT. Copyright © 2002 by Peter Cox. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.