The Natural Vegan?: An Historical Perspective

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 then poorer people. 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.

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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.

6 Responses to The Natural Vegan?: An Historical Perspective

  1. larry says:

    It seems like it would be enough to say “your committing the appeal to tradition fallacy and the appeal to nature fallacy”. If the can’t show they aren’t committing one of these then they can’t progress in their criticism.

  2. Carolle says:

    Right on McWilliams!

  3. Provoked says:

    Many thanks for putting the fallacies of “natural” food choices in perspective. Yes! As thoughtful consumers presented with a bounty of choices and truthful information – We CAN change history!

  4. Gary says:

    There are populations that have gotten the vast majority of their calories from plant-based foods – and that’s without the convenience of FIeld Roast sausage or soy creamer – so going vegan is not really much of a leap.

    But more importantly, compassion and kindness are natural, too, and now we have the technology to manifest those parts of our better natures by eating a vegan diet and avoiding animal cruelty when we buy clothes, personal care items, and so forth. To deny that part of our humanity by inflicting easily avoidable violence would be brazenly unnatural.

    Granted, as this excellent post points out, “natural” is such a malleable term that it can be used to defend anything. I’m just showing that, if desired, the “natural” argument can be used in support of veganism.

  5. serge says:

    we are natural omnivores. To deny that humans always ate both plant food and meat is not a serious argument. Obviously meat constituted smaller part and it is clear it is healthier to have at least 60% of food eaten of plant origin but still, we eat everything and this means we are omnivores.

  6. Provoked says:

    We can argue back and forth till time stands still on what humans ate a thousand years ago… What they are capable of digesting today… What is or isn’t an adequate source of nourishment, what is “natural” and so on.

    Clearly – Today – Most people sitting behind a computer screen have the ability to survive and thrive on a plant based diet. We can all discuss what is or isn’t healthier by degrees… But, there is absolutely no question as to what’s the most compassionate way to live. I submit that what is palatable to the mind and emotional make-up of man also benefits his physical digestion as well.

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