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Vasu Murti

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THE NEXT DISTRACTION
Politics and Passions - Winter 1995-96

Part 2
The Vegetarian Alternative

According to the American Dietetic Association, "most of mankind for most of human history has lived on vegetarian or near vegetarian diets."

Humans resemble the other primates (frugivores) and possess a set of completely herbivorous teeth. In The Human Story, edited by Marie-Louise Makris (1985), we read: "...recent studies of their teeth reveal that the Australopithecines did not eat meat as a regular part of their diet, and were mainly peaceful vegetarians, rather like chimps or gorillas. The popular image of the murderous ape is now as extinct as the Australopithecines themselves."

Zoologist Desmond Morris makes a case for vegetarianism in The Naked Ape: "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."

How did agriculture arise? One particularly interesting theory is put forth by Mark Nathan Cohen in his book The Food Crisis in Prehistory. This view is startlingly simple: agriculture developed because the world was overpopulated. Relative to the existing hunter-gatherer technology, the environment was incapable of supporting the existing population.

'"It seems odd at first to think of the world as being overpopulated...when the population was only a fraction of what it is today or to think of the world as environmentally exhausted, when it was more fertile then than it is now,'" observes author Keith Akers in A Vegetarian Sourcebook.

"But we must remember that the hunter-gatherer technology is extremely inefficient with respect to land resources. It is estimated that each of the Kung bushmen (a modern hunter-gatherer society) requires over 10 square kilometers of land -- more than 2500 acres. At this rate of land use, the world could hardly have supported more than a few million hunter-gatherers."

According to one theory, primitive men were anatomically ill equipped to be full-time predators. Plant food was thus the basis of their diet, and meat was eaten infrequently. Hunting with primitive weapons--bones, sticks, and spears--is far more difficult than most people realize. Even throwing a rock with accuracy demands great practice and skill. If this theory is correct, primitive man's time was spent mostly gathering and foraging for plant foods.

A study of the Bush People of the Kalahari in Africa found that, even during a serious drought, the most important source of food came from vegetables. Four out of eleven males never went hunting. The others killed 18 animals in eight days. Their chances of obtaining meat on any day was about 25 percent.

On the other hand, the women always returned from their gathering expeditions with food; a 100 percent success rate. The entire tribe was able to comfortably feed itself if each member contributed 15 hours of work per week--even better than our own society's achievement.

"It seems...the real heroes of our Stone Age period were the women, not the men," observes British author Peter Cox in his 1986 book, Why You Don't Need Meat: "...our ancestors ate much more plant food than is popularly believed."

* * *

Our society is now in the throes of rethinking and expanding the entire idea of rights. In only the past ten years we've seen a blur of changes in our legal and social attitudes towards the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, women, the aged, children, homosexuals, and the mentally and physically handicapped.

The issue isn't one of equality per se. The law cannot erase the real differences between people. The issue is one of equal treatment regardless of what outward differences divide us.

This reassessment, whether the resultant social upheaval and changes please you or not, is the result of both new scientific and social discoveries and a rededication to old ideas. (Women and racial minorities have, after all, been demanding equal treatment for centuries.)

We used to lock the retarded and insane away, believing them to be without rights or consideration. Now, ideally, we train the retarded and allow them to participate in society at their own pace. We offer medical treatment and counseling to the mentally ill and the troubled, realizing at last that even insanity is a meaningless term.

Our laws, if not our social consciousness, no longer excuse the mistreatment of humans because they're "only slaves" or "feebleminded" or "the weaker sex." The notion of human rights --at least the right to be free of pain and deliberate mistreatment -- has come to be based on something more than what an elite describes as normal or acceptable.

But if we’re finally discarding the notion that rights can be doled out on the basis of one’s having the right skin color or sex or IQ, are we willing to discard the notion that one must be human to receive equal consideration? Ready or not, science may now be forcing our hand.

In the late 1960s, researchers began experiments designed to teach chimpanzees the American Sign Language for the Deaf...Should we deny compassion to any creature just because it's less able to express its feelings in terms we can understand?

Advances in medical technology have forced us to look hard at our traditional definitions of life and death. Doctors are now able to keep people alive by using sophisticated life-support systems and so-called heroic measures. Many lives have been saved through these means, but many legal and ethical complications have also been created.

We no longer speak of death as merely the absence of a heartbeat. We use terms like brain death -- the point at which consciousness and awareness cease and are incapable of recovery. We are learning that a beating heart and inflated lungs alone do not constitute a meaningful existence

Legal precedents have already been established to allow doctors to disconnect life support systems once it becomes apparent that a patient's brain activity has stopped and is irretrievable. Notice that our courts, doctors, and the rational public do not (thank goodness) measure the value of life on the basis of the patient's skin color, IQ, bank account, or social status. We concern ourselves with specific questions: can the person respond to meaningful stimuli? Is the person aware? Can he or she feel pain?

Leaving aside the controversy over euthanasia and medical ethics, let's assume that we agree on one premise: once awareness vanishes and is irretrievable, the body kept functioning indefinitely solely by machines and external manipulation is a mere husk.

Whether it's legal or moral to pull the plug in such a situation is not the question here. Our discussion must focus only on one point -- that the fundamental characteristic of sentient beings is their capacity for awareness and expression. As long as a human shows the slightest ability to register emotions, our traditions and laws work to protect that individual’s interests.

And what of nonhumans with interests? While you may argue, however illogically, that animals have no legal status, you cannot reasonably deny that animals are capable of feeling and awareness.

They feel pain...can we refuse to consider a creatures suffering merely because it belongs to another species?

---taken from
The Vegetarian Alternative
Vic Sussman
1978

Go on to: Part 3: Cartoon
Return to: The Next Distraction

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