The Irony of Origination in the Vegan America Project

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

In reading books (published and unpublished) about veganism and animals, I’m struck by how often writers want to take us to “the beginning” to ascertain a kind of ur-relationship with the natural world or diet from which we have strayed.

This pursuit of an originating myth is neither a new phenomenon nor one confined to vegans or vegetarians; nor has it been, is, or ever will be, disinterested. How, when, and why human beings domesticated certain species of animals is a contested space, because the study of the origins of human societies has always been colored by race and gender as well as notions of human difference and supremacy and the normativity of meat-eating.

Take, for instance, paleoanthropologist Richard Bulliet’s Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human–Animal Relationships. Bulliet traces human societies from “separation” (when hominins began to recognize themselves as separate from other animals) to predomesticity (when humans lived among animals), to domesticity (when they tamed some of them), and then to post-domesticity or urbanization, and the separation of humans from animals used for food or clothing. Bulliet argues that predomestic civilizations had diverse ways in which they recognized their connection to and disconnection from animals. He suggests that the arrival of agriculture didn’t necessitate the immediate domestication of some animals and the rejection of other animals as pests and predators. He further points out that, pace those who assume that economic issues were the main reasons why humans domesticated certain animals, sacramental or ritualistic needs may have played more of a role than the desire for meat, dairy, wool, labor, transportation, and so on.

In arguing that these transitions were both less uniform, specific, or dramatic, Bulliet explicitly or implicitly questions a number of long- or at least passionately held beliefs about our origins and attitude toward animals. The first is that human society had a golden age of human–animal connection that was disrupted by agriculture, which forced humans into an adversarial relationship with animals whom they’d once revered but now competed with for resources. The second is that our exploitation of animals is coexistent with, and a function of, the emergence of homo economicus—that proto-Enlightenment creature of reason and civilization rather than superstition or anthropomorphism, which itself a manifestation of the scientific method and the necessary disenchantment of nature. The third is that meat-eating was essential for the development of the human brain and that the need to hunt animals led to cooperation and organization among humans and thereby to social organization and civilization. Fourth, that gender roles (Man the Hunter; Woman the Gatherer) whether negatively or positively valorize or essentialize meat’s primacy. And fifth, that a prehistoric vegetarian, collective, matrilineal, harmonious social order was disrupted by a meat-eating, hierarchical, patriarchal, warlike social order.

The point here is not to argue that Bulliet is correct to be skeptical but to emphasize how seductive are dichotomies in Western attempts to understand human origins and, by extension, what our appropriate relationship is with other animals. Bulliet at least shows that assumptions about human social evolution following a neat trajectory (whether up or down) or even a kind of universal, axial shift in consciousness are problematic. It was in all likelihood messier, more fractured, more diverse, and more hybridized than our taxonomizing brain would like to believe.

That’s true of vegetarianism itself. As Tristram Stuart shows in his magisterial survey of the subject The Bloodless Revolution, vegetarianism has been associated with godlessness and heightened spirituality, political conservatism and radicalism, ancient religious mandates and contemporaneous understandings of physiology. From the beginnings, vegetarianism was syncretic, scientific, crackpot, philosophical, ascetical, libertine, and a host of other contradictions.

The need to complexify and problematize easy dichotomies can be represented by the views of two famous philosophers. René Descartes is widely reviled for promoting the notion that animals were mere machines and unable to feel pain, and thereby consolidating an instrumental attitude toward animals that remains the scientific paradigm to this day. Jeremy Bentham is famous for his argument that an animal’s sentience and not its intelligence or other capabilities should be the sole consideration of whether it is treated well. What is less well-known is that Descartes was a vegetarian, who believed that meat-eating was injurious to a long and healthy life, whereas Bentham not only was not a vegetarian but believed that animals killed at human hands might suffer less than their wild counterparts. Neither philosopher was being hypocritical or inconsistent.

The Vegan America Project inevitably finds itself in the middle of these paradoxes and, equally inevitably, pulled and pushed by those who believe in any of the above theories of what is the original, most natural, scientific, godfearing, consistent, equitable, or purest way to eat or live in the world. VAP can no more escape the times or the cultural milieux of its contributors than all the other scholars or activists from antiquity to the present.

And it shouldn’t try to. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to argue rationally and with the best evidence available for a cause or position, while at the same time recognizing that it won’t get to the root of all problems or satisfy our hunger to seek an originating diet, relationship, or beinghood.  This decision doesn’t spring from VAP’s anti-utopianism; it is merely the most honest position we can take.