Sunday, August 13, 2017

Thoughts on Eating Living Things

"Almost a third of Americans, 32%, believe animals should be given the same rights as people, while 62% say they deserve some protection but can still be used for the benefit of humans. The strong animal rights view is up from 2008 when 25% thought animals' rights should be on par with humans'."

Rebecca Riffkin, "In U.S., More Say Animals Should Have Same Rights as People,", May 18, 2015

My wife, Mary, has discovered cooking for family gatherings is not what it once was.
In my youth it was simpler. My father, who taught general semantics, believed "food dislikes" were a symptom of ignorance of general semantics principles. If someone might say, for example, "I don't like spinach," he would respond, "But you haven't even tasted this spinach; you're just reacting to the word, the label. Taste what's on your plate and see; maybe you'll like it."

After months of "tasting" everything on our plates our food dislikes diminished and then disappeared -- which created another problem. We very rarely went to a restaurant, but a family story is told of one such occasion before I was 10 years old. After everyone else had ordered, I was still studying the menu. Urged to hurry up, I blurted out, "That's what you get, Dad, for teaching us to have no food dislikes!"

A doctor gave me an allergy test, and reported I was allergic to a dozen or more items -- including corn (hard to avoid in Iowa) and wheat (requiring my loving mother to bake rye bread for the family). After a summer on my aunt and uncle's farm, playing in the corn bin and eating wheat bread, with no apparent ill effects, that was the end of my allergies.

No one I knew refused to eat GMO food, was on a "gluten free" diet, "lactose intolerant," or allergic to peanuts (we lived on peanut butter sandwiches).

To borrow Garrison Keillor's phrase, our mothers just "put the hay down where the goats can get it." "Food" was cooked, put in bowls on the table, transferred to our plates, and consumed -- usually meat, potatoes and gravy, two or three vegetables, and a little salad -- dessert if we'd been good, and were lucky.
When we were young there were few, if any, vegetarians, let alone vegans, among the children of beef, hog, dairy and chicken farmers. Now our family gatherings include representatives of virtually every food preference group, each with their own special meals. (This includes the "lactose intolerant" and "gluten free" at our table.)

Of course, those with real medical problems must be respected. But the varieties of beliefs about eating once-living things also need to be respected.

I'd extend this to attitudes about abortion. If someone truly believes that aborting a fetus is "murder," it makes their "right to life" opposition to abortion more understandable -- especially if they only apply the belief to themselves and do not insist the government impose it on everyone else.

I'd also be tolerant of what superficially, initially, appear to be inconsistencies: those who favor the availability of abortions, but believe it is morally reprehensible to eat a fish; or those who believe no one should be permitted to abort a fetus, but join the 62% of Americans (87% of Republicans) who favor the death penalty for adults. ["National Polls and Studies; Huffington Post, January 2014," Death Penalty Information Center.]
"China, together with Iran, North Korea, Yemen and the US (the only G7 country to still execute people) carried out the most executions last year." "Death Penalty Statistics, Country by Country," The Guardian. Only 58 of the 195 U.N. nations still have the death penalty. "Capital Punishment by Country,"
We come by our beliefs regarding diet, including eating once-living things, from our parents, experience, culture, religion, education; also our moral, philosophical and ethical beliefs. And so long as our beliefs and actions don't have an adverse impact on others we are all stronger for this diversity. [Photo credit: unknown; beef cattle feedlot]

I started down the road now revealed in this blog post as a result of a conversation today regarding vegetarians and vegans. It seemed useful for me to try to think through where I come out.

I am neither a theologian nor a research scientist. All I know -- or suspect or believe -- is what I have been reading in books like, Frans de Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016); Jonathan Balcombe, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (2016); Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds (2016) -- and even, most recently, Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2015). There are undoubtedly research scientists who attempt to refute the assertions of these authors; if so, I have not read their works. After all, I'm just reading books that interest me; I'm not engaged in research for a doctoral dissertation.

I am even less well educated about the human biome, but further humbled and fascinated with the idea that I am carrying more cells of microbes and bacteria in and on my body than human cells (perhaps 100 trillion of theirs to 37 trillion of mine).
"As of 2014, it was often reported in popular media and in the scientific literature that there are about 10 times as many microbial cells in the human body than there are human cells; this figure was based on estimates that the human microbiome includes around 100 trillion bacterial cells and an adult human typically has around 10 trillion human cells. In 2014 the American Academy of Microbiology published an FAQ that emphasized that the number of microbial cells and the number of human cells are both estimates, and noted that recent research had arrived at a new estimate of the number of human cells at around 37 trillion cells, meaning that the ratio of microbial to human cells is probably about 3:1. In 2016 another group published a new estimate of ratio as being roughly 1:1 (1.3:1, with 'an uncertainty of 25% and a variation of 53% over the population of standard 70 kg males.')" Human Microbiome Project," See also, NIH Human Microbiome Project; Karen Weintraub, "Findings From the Gut -- New Insights Into the Human Microbiome," Scientific American, April 29, 2016.
Frans de Waal (Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?) argues (if I read him correctly) that humans are mistaken to evaluate how "smart" animals are by comparing their cognitive abilities with our own.
Webster's defines "cognitive" as "activity such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering." "Definition of Cognitive," Merriam-Webster. Thus, Jonathan Balcombe's (What a Fish Knows) observation that "A small squid can learn mazes faster than dogs do, and a small goby fish can memorize in one trial the topography of a tide pool by swimming over it at high tide -- a feat few if any humans could achieve" could be considered examples of "cognitive ability" in animals.

Actually, other species can often best our ability to do something. As I have written of squirrels, "Much as we may squirm to avoid admitting it, an honest evaluation of the data compels the conclusion that squirrels do, in fact, have a superior intelligence to humans. They also have more patience and determination. More willingness to work at, and stick with, problem solving. More commitment to scientific experimentation. And, not incidentally, an athletic prowess -- not to mention courage -- that puts our Olympic athletes to shame by comparison. As the clerk put it to me with commendable candor when I asked about a squirrel-proof bird feeder, 'Look, mister, there ain't no squirrel-proof bird feeders. There are just squirrel-resistant bird feeders.'" "The Natural Superiority of Squirrels" in "UI Held Hostage Day 498," June 3, 2007
Mammals, fish, birds, insects, microbes -- and trees -- may need to communicate (and do); they do not need to speak English or solve the New York Times' crossword puzzle. The standard he says we should use is to ask, "Are their cognitive abilities sufficient to insure the survival of their species?" (not a direct quote).

Measured by de Waal's standard, any honest, open minded inquiry into the cognitive and other abilities of species other than our own will leave the reader humbled, in awe, and filled with respect for the wide range of abilities of our plant and animal "cousins." Sufficiently so -- at least for me -- that when it comes to what I will and won't eat, I am unable to distinguish between the life force present in a chicken and a fish, a carrot and a shrimp.

Which, of course, brings me back around to the oft-heard inquiry, "So, what's for dinner?"

If one wishes to avoid killing and consuming plants and animals that possess not only a "life force" but sufficient cognitive ability to keep their species alive for millions of years, there is virtually nothing left on the menu.

No one needs to live to eat, but everyone needs to eat to live. The variation of "necessity is the mother of invention" is that "mother is the invention of necessity." Eating is also the invention of necessity. Confronted as I am with the necessity of eating, what should I do?

I have finally come around to the wisdom of many of the only true "Americans," those who were here when our ancestors arrived. I may have romanticized the teaching I received from a Meskwaki elder, but not by much. Without disclosing any of the details he shared in confidence, the general idea involved a respect for the Earth and living in harmony with all of its plant and animal inhabitants. One imposes as light a footprint as possible on the Earth, taking only the minimum one needs for food.

So that will be my creed. Eat only what I need (which, as a side benefit, won't do my waistline any harm), going especially light on eating anything I would not have been willing to kill, and insofar as possible not contributing to that 40% of the food Americans buy and then throw away.

I'm neither advocating this analysis for others nor criticizing others' different choices. It's a personal matter everyone can think through for themselves (or not). Moreover, I may change my mind. But, for now, these are my "Thoughts on Eating Living Things."

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