The Vegan Diet: Unnaturally Compassionate

Perhaps the most common oppositional response I get when I explore the virtues of veganism is that “it’s not natural” for a human being to eat only plants. Evidence is culled from a human dietary past that’s always included at least some consumption of animal flesh. But while there’s little doubt that human evolution has hinged on at least the episodic consumption of meat, this “it’s not natural” argument against herbivory ultimately hinges on a lazy assumption:  if humans have always done it, then it’s the natural–and thus the right–thing to do. 

 When the concept of natural is placed in historical perspective, however, some troubling conclusions emerge. In eighteenth-century America– a time I happen to know well–it was considered perfectly natural to own black people. It was also natural to put a man to death for committing a homosexual act. It was natural to legally forbid married women from owning property. And it was natural for wealthy people to be closer to God. These “natural” practices and beliefs were not only as “natural” as eating meat, but they were repeatedly justified as integral components of natural law.

 The jarring idea that what was considered natural yesterday isn’t what’s considered natural today is especially true when it comes to food. Whether we’re talking about plants or animals, the bulk of the modern diet has been radically altered–mostly through selective breeding and hybridization–into a fundamentally different version of what it once was. Whether one eats a vegan or paleo-diet, the fact remains that the bulk of what we’re consuming–no matter how natural we think it might be– is the result of aggressive human manipulation of the food system. 

 From this perspective–the perspective of food history–today’s diets cannot be deemed “natural” or “unnatural,” but rather the result of a choice made among an unprecedented variety of largely human-determined alternatives. If you’re a locavore who eats locally slaughtered chicken and broccoli grown by your neighbor you’re eating no more naturally or unnaturally than the vegan who eats imported fruits and vegetables, quinoa, tofu, and almond-milk, followed by a vitamin B-12 supplement.  In the grand scheme of things, both are choices among equally fabricated options. The key point being, of course, that one choice happens to be healthier, better for the environment, and more humane than the other.

 So, the choices that our global food system provides essentially negates the “it’s not natural argument.” It does so on the grounds that, compared to the “natural” diet consumed out of necessity by our distant ancestors throughout human history, nothing we eat today could even remotely reflect what was once choked down for the purposes of brute survival. Meat then is not meat now. Vegetables then aren’t vegetables now. Cow’s milk then is not . . .oh wait, nobody drank cow’s milk until very recently in human history (7000 years ago). But still, for whatever reason, we deem it natural to drink cow’s milk.  . . .

 Civilization evolves, bodies evolve, food evolves. Never before have humans had the option of choosing a diet that best reflects our deepest respect for our bodies, our planet, and the multitude of species we share it with. Call it natural or unnatural, it really doesn’t matter: veganism is a diet that allows humans today to capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity. Veganism can now make history.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

One Response to The Vegan Diet: Unnaturally Compassionate

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