Is It Ethical To Eat Meat?

May 30, 2012 · 24 comments

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Back in March, the New York Times Magazine feature, The Ethicist, written by Ariel Kaminer, asked carnivorous readers to respond to the question, is meat-eating ethical? They observed that the vegan and vegetarian viewpoints were dominating this issue and they wanted to give the meat eaters a chance to voice their opinions. Some of my readers suggested I respond. Here is the essay I submitted. Let me know what you think!

We owe our large brain to meat

Human dominance over animals sparks an ethical dilemma for many, regarding whether or not we should consume animals for food. The answer may be found emerging from the evolutionary record.

Eat the way evolution advises us to

In nature, animals instinctively eat the way their anatomy and physiology directs them to. Cows graze on grass and forage. They have evolved multiple stomachs which allows them to properly break down that food so it may become available to them for making the vital nutrients they need. Their teeth are flat to accommodate their food supply. Their digestive systems have evolved to create proteins and fats out of the carbohydrates they eat. This machinery if you will, has allowed cows to survive on grass.

Predators such as lions and tigers will not hesitate to kill another mammal for food when it needs to eat. This carnivorous fare is essential to their survival. Their teeth and digestive systems have evolved to accommodate this food supply.

The best health advice I see in the nutrition world is to eat what you are. Humans need animal fats, muscle, tendon and organ tissue. We need to eat the way evolution advises us to eat.

Our ancestors ate meat

Paleolithic, mesolithic and neolithic people ate meat. Over 40,000 years ago when the first behaviorally modern humans came onto the scene, (as seen in the fossil record as bone and stone tools, cave paintings, artwork and burials), there was no question. Animals were clearly used for food along with plant foods that were gathered.

Meat has all the nutrients necessary for brain growth and development

There are many scholarly anthropological papers written about the evolutionary growth of the human brain. It is a fact that the growth of the human brain was based on the availability of appropriate nutrients in the diet. The availability specifically of long chain fatty acids such as DTA, DHA and AA were necessary for this growth.

These long chain fatty acids are found in animal foods such as meat, fish and eggs. It is hypothesized that as the predecessors to homo-sapians were able to hunt successfully, the size of the brain grew and along with it, other advanced evolutionary features such as bipedalism also evolved.

The availability of these nutrients allowed the brain to nearly triple in size–from 375-550cc at the time of Australopithecus, to 500-800cc in Homo habilis, 775-1225cc in Homo erectus, and 1350cc in modern humans (Homo sapiens).[Crawford 1992]

According to Leslie Aiello, in her book “An Introduction to Human Evolutionary Anatomy” (Academic Press, 1990), in evolutionary terms, big human brains — with enormous energy requirements — are inversely proportional to gut size.

Agriculture (grains) reduced the size of the brain

Interestingly, it has been documented that as agriculturalism emerged, about 10,000 years ago and humans started to eat grains, the size of the brain became smaller. The addition of grains to the diet decreased the amount of meat eaten and the nutrients specific to meat. [Ruff, Trinkaus, and Holliday 1997]. Eaton [1998]

The switch to agriculture is hypothesized to have provided a failsafe supply of food, accompanied by meat when it was available. As human populations grew and competition for meat became more fierce, agriculture seemed to be a good way to assure some food when the hunt was poor.

More meat – greater intelligence

This brings us to the crux of the matter. It is clear from many Paleolithic studies, that meat eating humans increased their brain size and with it the intelligence to control their environment on the backs (or bodies) of animals.

In the circle of life, we see animals eating animals because there is a clear need for food. Humans evolved following this same pattern.The last 10,000 years of agriculture is much shorter a time period than the adaptation to meat eating which occurred previously, that allowed our brains to develop and expand human consciousness.

In order to be fully nourished, we need to eat the way evolution advises us to eat. It is ethically correct to follow our nature and eat meat.

My criticism

My own criticism of this essay is that it really doesn’t answer the ethical question posed. I knew that someone with degrees in ethics or philosophy would probably be the winner and the runners up as well. See the final essays here. The winning essay is extremely well written and worth reading, entitled, Give Thanks For Meat, as are all the runner up essays.

There was an interesting panel of judges: Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan and Peter Singer. This panel of  men stirred up a bit of controversy as Marion Nestle is a very well known nutritionist and could should have been a judge. I think she would have fit in with the men very well.

What so you think about this debate? Are you a carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, locavore, anyvore? Let me know!

This post is shared at: Full Plate Thursday, Creative juice Thursday,
Simple Lives Thursday, Fresh Bites Friday, Fight Back Friday. LHITS, Seasonal Celebration, Is it Ethical To Eat Meat?, Barnyard Hop, Mouthwatering Monday, Meatless Monday, Traditional Tuesday, Hearth & Soul Hop, Real Food Wednesday, Sustainable Ways, WHole Food Wednesday, Allergy Free Wednesday, Healthy 2Day, Mommy Club

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 K May 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm

This is a great essay, & makes, I think, a very compelling argument for meat-eating as ethical. And yes, Marion Nestle would’ve provided an appropriate and nice balance, gender-wise and intellectually, to the panel.


2 Hanna May 31, 2012 at 4:42 am

your right. we have evolved to eat meat. if it comes from a place that treats the animals right where is the problem? (or is that another arguement?)


3 Sara - My Merry Messy Life May 31, 2012 at 9:02 am

I think you’re exactly right. I also believe there is nothing ethically wrong with eating meat as it was done in the old days – when our food ran wild and were not mistreated as they are today in huge meat farms. I think the way to eat meat ethically today is to buy from small farmers who let the animals roam free and are fed healthy diets, since we obviously can’t all go out hunting like our ancestors did :). Stopping by from Simple Lives Thursday link up!


4 Sara - My Merry Messy Life May 31, 2012 at 9:10 am

I did a whole series on my site similar to this and I’ll link up to your page because it gives another perspective on the issue of eating meat! Thanks so much!


5 Sara - My Merry Messy Life May 31, 2012 at 9:16 am

Here’s the link where I added your site! (under update: ethical treatment of animals)


6 Danielle @ Analytical Mom May 31, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Great essay! I disagree that the other finalist essays were all well-written, though! :)


7 leslie May 31, 2012 at 3:57 pm

I think maybe the question should have been more like ” Is it ethical the way our meat is raised?


8 Jill May 31, 2012 at 10:24 pm



9 alexia olson May 31, 2012 at 8:31 pm

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability by Lierre Keith is possibly the most compelling argument I have come across advocating meat eating. It addresses the ethical dimension, providing a very clear and well-argued response to radicla vegans. Moreover, it offers a caustic and much needed critique of agricultural civilization, and the class crazy culture it gave birth to.

That said, your essay was great! Well written and well argued.


10 Jill May 31, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Hi Alexia,
Yes the Vegetarian Myth is an excellent resource for arming oneself for the arguments against meat eating. I highly recommend it!

Thanks for your comments!


11 mari June 15, 2012 at 2:14 am

The Vegetarian Myth is an extremely problematic book and has been critiqued into the ground. I’d really suggest getting the other side of the story on that book. Here’s a good start:


12 WK June 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm

That whole blog is veganist and Cultural Marxist garbage. Not worth reading. Really, the word “problematic” should have put me up to at least yellow alert for it.


13 mijnheer June 2, 2012 at 2:47 pm

At least two recent scientific studies (one published in the journal Nature, in December 2011, and the other in The Journal of Evolutionary Biology, June 2012) claim to refute the so-called Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis (essentially, that eating meat gave us big brains). Although it’s true that our remote ancestors ate meat as a good source of energy, it would now appear that eating meat was neither necessary nor sufficient for evolving large brains.

Even if the Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis makes a comeback, there is a logical fallacy involved in inferring an “ought” (that eating meat these days is ethically justified) from an “is” (how part of our anatomy evolved).


14 April June 4, 2012 at 6:27 am

I watched an interview with David Attenborough recently and he said that lions eat their prey alive but they never show this on TV because it would be considered too disturbing.

I think if farm animals are treated well and their death is quick, they’re being treated much better than if they were prey for a pack of lions.


15 Mrs. D June 4, 2012 at 8:20 am

I agree with your self-criticism that the essay doesn’t really answer the ethical question involved, though it certainly gives information that I’d love to see published more frequently in places where more people would read it!

As a philosophy-oriented person in many ways, I don’t think you really mean “it is ethically correct to follow our nature” in all ways – human nature has many flaws. Which would then beg the question of why we shouldn’t commit, say, infanticide of children with birth defects (quite a beneficial practice, for somebody with no understanding of or respect for human dignity) but we should eat meat, especially the meat of animals that are more conscious and more capable of suffering than newborn infants. It gets so darned complicated that way!

Here is my favorite essay on why veganism is not a tenable answer to the issue of killing for food:


16 Christine @ these light footsteps June 4, 2012 at 12:47 pm

“Predators such as lions and tigers will not hesitate to kill another mammal for food when it needs to eat.”

And humans in our evolutionary history have often needed to eat animals to survive, too. But currently we have a lot of other ways of procuring food so…do we need to eat as many other animals? As often? That weren’t grass-fed? That we don’t kill ourselves? That lived in factory farms? That we don’t give thanks for?

I admit that I would eat meat in a situation where I needed it to survive as I am able to recognize my position on the food chain. However, I’ve been surviving just fine for 17 years without meat, and until I reach the point where I would be willing to kill an animal with my own hands (or weapon) in order to eat it, I won’t be eating meat. I acknowledge that this day may come for any number of reasons, but as I don’t see a distinction in worth between different types of lives, I would really need to feel it was justified to eat another animal.

Anyway, just some food for thought.

P.S. — Good essay and thanks for raising the discussion!


17 Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network June 8, 2012 at 6:10 am

Although critical for many as their only source of zinc and iron, red meat consumption I believe should be considered a ‘treat’ and eaten occasionally rather than on a regular basis, rather like our ancestors would do. Eating less red meat has proven to be better for our health and also the environment. Agriculture is responsible for an estimated 14 % of the world’s greenhouse gases. A significant portion of these emissions come from methane, which, in terms of its contribution to global warming, is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. If red meat were truly a luxury, we wouldn’t need the excessive numbers of cattle we have now-Food for thought anyway, just thought I’d put it out there:-)


18 Judy@Savoring Today June 9, 2012 at 10:54 pm

I grew up on a farm, I have never once questioned eating meat, however, I have questioned how animals are raised and treated in large feed lots. I read a few of the essays submitted, some were very thoughtful. Thanks for sharing your essay on Hearth & Soul, I hope many read it. :)


19 Lisa Cauthers June 11, 2012 at 12:55 am

I used to eat meat very sparingly, and I was low on zinc and iron and other nutrients found in meat, red meat especially. I don’t think it’s ethical for me to NOT eat meat. Human suffering to spare the life of animals? I’m definitely a carnivore and I need some meat to be healthy. Just because I’m human doesn’t mean I can’t eat my natural diet. I think we just need to make sure that animals used for food are raised ethically and not be extravagant in our consumption of them.


20 Lisa Cauthers June 11, 2012 at 12:56 am

Oops I meant OMNIVORE not carnivore haha. I really try not to eat too much meat!


21 amber June 12, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Hi There,

I featured your awesome informational post this week on Allergy-Free Wednesdays. Your post and other highlights can be seen here:

Please join us again this week for more allergy-free fun and inspiration.

Be Well,


22 Laura July 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm

It is not sustainable for humans to eat animals anymore. There are billions upon billions of people on the planet, and millions of people are starving … because we take the food they would normally eat and feed it to livestock. All the unhealthy meat-eaters I know and have known (that died in their 40′s) and all of the healthy vegans I know is proof enough for me. My vegan grandmother lived to be 97. My husband and I have noticed a marked health improvement in the years since going vegan (improved strength, energy, and eyesight being just a few). I am healthier now than I was at 18. All you are doing here is trying to make yourselves feel better because you’re doing a doing a terrible, terrible thing.


23 Laura July 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Oh, and on the health note, I was looking at my bloodwork from 4 years ago (right before I turned vegan) compared to my bloodwork today and was amazed. 4 years ago I was anemic, and lots of the numbers were way out of whack from the “normal” range. My migraines I suffered from for years are gone. I feel amazing. Eat meat if you want, but attacking vegans as radical is obnoxious and extremely ignorant.


24 Jill July 17, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Hi Laura,
I’m glad to hear that veganism is working for you. I think you must be hallucinating because I do not see anything in this essay that “attacks vegans”. Sorry you took it that way. However, I do see the vegan diet as a radical diet since nowhere in evolutionary history has such a diet been encountered.

On a brighter note — I do enjoy some vegan recipes as side dishes to my meat.

Oh, and by the way, my bloodwork is incredibly “perfect” in spite of all the meat, fat and cholesterol I eat.


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