Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Suffer the Little Chickens

I am an unapologetic carnivore. I have objections to veal, but then I don't find it particularly appetizing, so I'm sort of off the hook. I hold out hope that there are "humane" ways in which to conduct a livestock industry. I'm prepared to admit that I don't spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about it. While I'm ordering my Triple Whopper.

But I'm not convinced that vegetarian evangelists do, either. Not really. Consider the effect of selective breeding on the animals that we consume for meat, dairy, and other uses. It has been estimated that a mere 10,000 years ago, human beings, our pets, and our livestock accounted for about one tenth of one percent of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass. If it had a spine and lived on land, the odds were better than 99.9% that it was NOT an animal attended by us. Add up the humans living today with animals under our care and that share of the TVB is upwards of 98%. And most of it is bovine.

What is to account for this tremendous evolutionary success? Shepherds! Domesticating cattle, swine, poultry and the rest conferred huge benefits on ourselves, to be sure. But what a deal for the critters! They were able to outsource their most strenuous activities to us, such as acquiring food and mates. Consequently, their brains---no longer taxed by these biologically pressing demands---have shrunk. These animals are not their wild ancestors. They are not cut out for the world at large.

So what to do with them? As romantic as some may consider it to let them loose, that's obviously not an option. The environmental impact would be deep and far-reaching. Mother Nature is not nearly as compassionate as the (largely) well-intentioned folks who'd like to see done. In fact, she is a cruel bitch. There is no Eden waiting for ol' Bessie beyond those barnyard doors.

So what to do? I say we ponder the philosophical issues at hand, raise consciousness about the excesses of the livestock industry, and keep the hamburgers coming. I'll take mine with extra pickles.

The Cooking Apes

I was fortunate to finally get a hold of a copy of Richard Wrangham's marvelous study in human origins, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. It's a slim volume, and a recommended read for anyone interested in accounts of how we got here that do not include talking snakes. Whereas control of fire and the "civilized" custom of eating cooked food have long been held as the innovations of a clever primate that occured after we developed our big brains, Wrangham demonstrates why, in fact, the reverse is true---our big brains and civilized nature were made possible in the first place principally by just these two uniquely human activities.

"So what is this? More 'Just So' stories from the adaptionist peanut gallery?"

Hardly. The author assembles such an array of mutually reinforcing evidence from multiple fields of study that the reader is left with an impression that the core of his thesis should have been obvious all along. By the standard that the measure of a scientific proposition is the difference between what it explains and what is required to explain it, Wrangham's cooking hypothesis ranks among the best theories we have on what kindled the rapid rise of our species from a chimp-like ancestor, and makes us so different from living apes today.

Read this book.