Reason to Go Vegan #6: Evolutionary Biology

Every enlightened person acknowledges the fact that there’s morphological continuity between humans and non-humans. This is basic evolutionary biology. My hand has it origins in the transition from fish to land lizards. My arm and the arm of a hawk have a common origin. The human body has its origins in3.5 billion years of evolution. This we can all agree upon.

But what about my cognition, consciousness, emotionalism. Admittedly, we know less about the evolution of these phenomena, but this is changing, and what we’re finding confirms that, just as there’s physical continuity between all animals, there’s mental continuity as well. Let’s listen to what some of the leading scientific minds have said about the nature of cognitive evolution and it implications for the human and non-human relationship:

Donald Griffin, the father of cognitive ethology–the science of animal thought–writes: “the central nervous system of multi-cellular animals all operate by means of the same basic processes regardless of the species or even the phylum in which they are found. Because we know that at least one species does indulge in conscious thinking, and take it for granted that conscious and unconscious thinking result from activities of the central nervous system, we have no solid basis for excluding a priori the possibility that conscious thinking takes place in any animal with a reasonably well-organized central nervous system.”

Bernard E. Rollin, a leading authority on veterinary ethics, echoes this theme of continuity in his book Animal Rights and Human Morality: “For Darwin himself, and for the nineteenth-century biologists (at least in England and America) who carried forth his ideas, thought and feeling in animals was an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.” Rollin deems this idea central to “the foundational theory of modern biology.”

What does all this mean? In essence, we are not emotionally or cognitively distinct, in any fundamental way, from non-human animals. This single fact may be the best objective intellectual justification we can come up with for veganism. When humans and non-human animals are part of a continuum, rather than thought of as qualitatively distinct forms of life, human meat-eaters confront a serious quandary. It becomes incumbent upon them to forge a contemporary justification for carnivorous behavior. Aristotle and Genesis will no longer do.

By undermining the long-held basis of inherent human superiority over non-human animals, the science of evolution obliterated the framework within which thoughtful carnivores long justified their behavior. As it now stands, human meat-eaters, unless they reject modern science, support the killing of non-human animals without the slightest intellectual or ethical grounding. Vegans, by contrast, base their diet in the soundest science.  We must promote Darwinian evolution as the intellectual basis of veganism.

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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.

One Response to Reason to Go Vegan #6: Evolutionary Biology

  1. Richard McMahan says:

    This is just wonderful stuff.
    Thank you.

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