This blog is no longer being updated.
This blog has run its course, and I no longer have a need for it. I’ve had enough of this kind of thinking. It’s also time for me to “recreate” myself, in ways, so to do this I’m leaving some old parts behind me.
I’ll be trying a new kind of blog as a part of this “recreation,” but I will leave this one up if for no other reason than this: some people still come across it as a search result on Ishmael, “the takers,” and since I posted those 23 pages from the book a long time ago and still think they’re good for people to read, I’ll give future Googlers the opportunity to do so. The other blog will be at ayenteeaychohenwhy.wordpress.com—you can follow it if you want, but it isn’t going to be anything like this one has.
I heard somewhere that all writers are propagandists: Once they get their premises by, they’ve got you.
About a year ago someone recommended The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris to me. I picked it up from the library a few weeks ago feeling kind of sick of fiction for a while. I started to read it one day, got tripped up by some goofy statements in the first few pages, read another chapter, and set it aside. I haven’t picked it back up since then. I’ll give it another shot, but I don’t know (for sure) whether I’ll finish it or not.
I can admit that I have biases too. That should be obvious. My biases might clash with the author’s biases enough that I don’t finish the book. I don’t know. It might be that 1967 was simply “a different time.” I don’t know.
One of the strangest features of previous studies of naked-ape behaviour is that they have nearly always avoided the obvious. The earlier anthropologists rushed off to all kinds of unlikely corners of the world in order to unravel the basic truth about our nature scattering to remote cultural backwaters so atypical and unsuccessful that they are nearly extinct. They then returned with startling facts about the bizarre mating customs, strange kinship systems, or weird ritual procedures of these tribes, and used this material as though it were of central importance to the behaviour of our species as a whole. The work done by these investigators was, of course, extremely interesting and most valuable in showing us what can happen when a group of naked apes becomes side-tracked into a cultural blind alley. [All emphasis is mine, not Mr. Morris’.] It revealed just how far from the normal our behaviour patterns can stray without a complete social collapse. What it did not tell us was anything about the typical behaviour of typical naked apes. This can only be done by examining the common behaviour patterns that are shared by all the ordinary, successful members of the major cultures-the mainstream specimens who together represent the vast majority. Biologically, this is the only sound approach. Against this, the old-style anthropologist would have argued that his technologically simple tribal groups are nearer the heart of the matter than the members of advanced civilisations. I submit that this is not so. The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified. Truly primitive tribes have not existed for thousands of years. The naked ape is essentially an exploratory species and any society that has failed to advance has in some sense failed, `gone wrong’. Something has happened to it to hold it back, something that is working against the natural tendencies of the species to explore and investigate the world around it. The characteristics that the earlier anthropologists studied in these tribes may well be the very features that have interfered with the progress of the groups concerned. It is therefore dangerous to use this information as the basis for any general scheme of our behaviour as a species.*
I want to get at each of the bold parts.
… into a cultural blind alley.
I find this one weird simply because I don’t understand what he means by “blind alley.” I assume he means something like dead end, or, more exactly, something that doesn’t work. And this is why I’m confused; in what was is the life of a “primitive” person a way that doesn’t work? It’s worked this long, and it will (presumably) work long into the future.
This, and some other things I’ll get to, show me Mr. Morris’ bias toward … hmm—how can I put this? Toward This is the best we’ve ever had it; how dare you suggest anything is wrong!
… represent the vast majority.
Until very recently, in terms of geological time, hunter-gatherers weren’t only the vast majority—they were the only ones around.
… technologically simple tribal groups are nearer the heart of the matter …
Mr. Morris says this in a way that suggests it’s wrong, bad anthropology, etc. But, as far as I know, this is what anthropologists still believe. And—again, as far as I know—in the last fifty years the
general view of “primitive people” has become more positive. It’s generally taught, leading me to believe that it’s the dominant view, that primitive people work less, are better fed, have high food security, and so on.
… any society that has failed to advance has in some sense failed …
Again, pure bias. He’s unfurling the banners and yelling “Isn’t modern society great!” with this. Knowing me, it’s no wonder I’m having trouble convincing myself to keep reading.
That’s the one that bugs me most, I guess. Judging the people of another culture based on the standards of your culture, and then declaring that culture a “failure” seems like one of the stupidest things a scientist can do. Sure, he’s a zoologist and isn’t, by profession, to show cultural sensitivities. He studies animals, people being just one. But scientific study is supposed to be free of biases (although, of course, the reality is much different).
On page 23:
It is worth re-iterating here that, in this book, we are not concerned with the massive cultural explosions that followed, of which the naked ape of today is so proud-the dramatic progression that led him, in a mere half-million years, from making a fire to making a space-craft. It is an exciting story, but the naked ape is in danger of being dazzled by it all and forgetting that beneath the surface gloss he is still very much a primate. (`An ape’s an ape, a varlet’s a varlet, though they be clad in silk or scarlet.) Even a space ape must urinate.
But we made a spaceship! I get so tired of seeing this and other arguments like it. So what? So fucking what. I get it. You like modern society. I think it’s going to kill itself. We disagree. I think I’m right. Your reasons for thinking you’re right are dumb. (Spotting biases is easier when they’re this blatant, donchathink?)
If the organisation of our earthier activities-our feeding, our fear, our aggression, our sex, our parental care-had been developed solely by cultural means, there can be little doubt that we would have got it under better control by now, and twisted it this way and that to suit the increasingly extraordinary demands put upon it by our technological advances. But we have not done so. We have repeatedly bowed our heads before our animal nature and tacitly admitted the existence of the complex beast that stirs within us. If we are honest, we will confess that it will take millions of years, and the same genetic process of natural selection that put it there, to change it. In the meantime, our unbelievably complicated civilisations will be able to prosper only if we design them in such a way that they do not clash with or tend to suppress our basic animal demands.
This part is weird to me. Part of the bolded sentence is simply more bias (our civilizations need to prosper!—because, seriously, what else are they going to do?), but the last half of it makes sense. Of course any way of living must agree with our animal demands. But, I dare say, the way most people live now doesn’t have that in its favor.
*If interested, you can read this book online for free. Here’s Google’s cached HTML version of it. I’m just glad I thought about finding the quotes I was looking for online first, instead of typing them all out by hand like I usually do.
I had a weird experience earlier today. Yesterday someone reiterated to me why she is a vegan after a misunderstanding over something I said. When I got up today (I must have had some subconscious thought on the matter in my sleep) I thought about finishing/re-doing a post I’ve had saved as a draft for a year (to the date—another contributing factor to the weirdness). I then second-guessed this urge and instead opened up my bookmarks. In one of my feeds, posted yesterday, was a post titled “Veganism and Radical Sustainability.”1 His post is a lot better (and thorough) than the post I was going to do, so instead of doing a full post of my own I’ll post some highlights with a bit of commentary.
I was going to make a post about this because a year ago one of my friends posted this on Facebook: “[Name Removed] has a hard time listening to non-vegans talk about saving the planet.” I was really confused by this, and offended, on some level. My first question was simply How is veganism going to save the planet? (Part of the reason I hesitated to post this for so long, but only part of the reason, was that I added the feed from this site to Facebook and I was afraid he’d read it, and I was being a huge pussy at the time. I’ve since taken the feed off again, and so with little risk of him reading this, I’m free. If he does happen to read this, I’m sure he’ll be willing to discuss the matter reasonably. I think he’s learned his lesson and won’t jump to undue conclusions.)
If it’s not obvious, I don’t think veganism can “save the planet,” and I think the people who believe it will are, to some extent, deluded. This is not to say that I’m viciously opposed to vegans being vegans—I’m really not opposed to them being vegans at all. As I’ll quote in a minute, a vegan diet, are far as civilized diets go, is the most efficient and is, in some complex way, commendable. But I’m opposed to veganism in theory, not so much in practice. I don’t think it’s the best diet for people, and it’s definitely not going to “save the planet.”
What do I mean by ‘radical’ sustainability, and how does it relate to veganism? Radical comes from the Latin radix – root. Radical sustainability is a kind of sustainability that has deep roots. It’s not something civilized, colonized (and colonizing) people are coming up with, from the distorted vantage point of industrial life, but something that we see when we look to our indigenous heritage, into the land and the big story of who we are. It is something we can look to and see – ‘people existed here without killing the land – how did they do it?’
I make this distinction from simple ‘sustainability’ because that word alone has become meaningless. People bend it to serve their purpose – every big auto, oil, and agricultural corporation claims to have ‘sustainability’ as their primary concern. The word has been killed, it means too many things, most of which are never actually ‘sustainable’ – nourishing or maintaining life.
How does this relate to Veganism? Because, to put it simply, if we look at our roots, the life ways of our indigenous ancestors, we don’t see anything resembling a vegan diet or way of life. Traditional cultures everywhere have two qualities that exclude them from being vegan: 1 – they don’t farm, and 2 – they consume animals as food / are omnivores, be it via insects, eggs, fish, or mammals. If we really look, we’ll see that vegan ethics do not have deep roots at all.
A vegan diet, being a civilized diet, is unsustainable. I’ve known this for a long time.
[From vegan.org] In a time when population pressures have become an increasing stress on the environment, there are additional arguments for a vegan diet. The United Nations has reported that a vegan diet can feed many more people than an animal-based diet. [Emphasis Urban Scout’s.] For instance, projections have estimated that the 1992 food supply could have fed about 6.3 billion people on a purely vegetarian diet, 4.2 billion people on a 85% vegetarian diet, or 3.2 billion people on a 75% vegetarian diet.
Whoever wrote this does not understand the connection between population growth and grain production. Veganism, while addressing many of the terrible problems with animal-cruelty and pollutive factory farms, does not address the larger force that drives population growth, in fact, the diet simply adds more fuel to the population growth diet. By taking grains out of your diet you support another way of food subsistence and limit population growth. Of course, a grain-free diet will still not cease the collapse of civilization, but may actually help to induce collapse, as a collapse-free future no longer exists. I don’t want anyone to think that eating differently will “save the world” or “bring down civilization.” Changing your diet alone will not help that.2
If we broaden our concept of sustainability – if we understand that civilization, agriculture and domestication are inherently unsustainable, then veganism dissolves as any kind of solution. It is a diet that has evolved with agriculture and the most priveleged class of civilization. It does not challenge domestication, absolutely the most ‘unnatural’ aspect to our lives, and actually reinforces it strongly.
I think veganism should be defined as efficient, not sustainable. This is because within the context of civilization – which is inherently unsustainable – it is a more efficient way for humans to live. In fact I’m sure those at the top of this culture’s pyramid are aware of this – that it would be more efficient to cut the cattle out and feed all the grain and soy straight to the humans in their feedlots – and are strongly supportive of the endless sea of vegan literature.
I can already hear people saying “But Tony, you have to admit that a vegan diet is more sustainable than a diet that includes factory farmed meat.” This is an argument that a lot of people use, and it’s usually a pretty decent one (in the situations it’s used) because when we first hear it, it makes sense. But it has one fatal flaw: something isn’t deemed more sustainable than something else when it’s not sustainable to begin with. The facts bear repeating: (1) Veganism is a civilized diet. (2) Civilzation is unsustainable. (3) Something that is unsustainable cannot work in the long term.
But what about the argument that we have a digestive system and teeth adapted to herbivory? I’m not sure how many times I have read that humans have the digestive system of a herbivore, but I am really curious how people came up with that.
Take a mammal of a similar size to us – deer. They are herbivores – they have a four chambered stomach for slowly fermenting and digesting cellulose. They regurgitate food that has been partially digested, masticate, and then swallow to continue the digestion. They lack upper incisors, and instead have a pad where we have our pearly whites (those teeth you show when you smile). Humans, on the other hand, have a single chambered stomach that food passes through quite fast, comparatively, the length of our intestinal tract being relatively similar to that of a raccoon, bear, or other omnivore. Humans can thrive on a diet of raw, unadulturated animal foods (meat, fat, organs), but many plant foods contain anti-nutrients (oxalic acid in greens, phytic acid in grains/seeds) or are simply indigestible without some kind of adulteration (cooking, fermenting, etc). Cultures that come closest to being total raw foodists also seem to have the highest concentration of animal foods (I am thinking Inuit). The reverse is true for those with more of a focus on plant foods (e.g. China). We are biologically omnivores. Sorry, it’s pretty much that straight forward. Humans thrive with plant and animal foods, that is what we have evolved to eat and need.
Our bodies have evolved to eat and process meat, but they’ve also evolved to the very act of hunting. Compared to many other animals, humans aren’t capable of very many amazing physical feats. If a man got in a fight with a bear (or even a chimpanzee!), he’d get his ass kicked. If he got in a footrace with essentially any other decently-sized mammal, it will leave him in the dust.
Our real difference is bipedality, which contributes to our ability to run long distances at a slower pace. While most animals are capable of running faster than a person, their bodies are only capable of sustaining that high-speed run for short bursts of time. Our upright, naked body covered with sweat glands is capable of sustaining a slower run for very long distances, conserving calories and regulating body temperature. We can chase down a group of speedy antelope for days possibly. It goes like this: The speedy animal runs away—the people catch up. It runs away again and the people catch up again. Eventually, since it never had a chance to refuel, it runs out of energy and can’t run away.
(Amendment, Jun 29: I guess bipedality/upright-ness really doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with it. Many wild dogs are also well adapted for running long distances and tiring out prey. The sweat glands do have something to do with it, though. I didn’t come up with this on my own, either [as if that wasn’t obvious], but I don’t know where I originally read/watched it and obviously I didn’t remember things entirely correct. The process is the same, though: the prey animals are adapted for short bursts of speed and we’re not, so we have to chase and chase and chase and chase. Wild cats, on the other hand, unlike dogs, are more built for stalking and ending a hunt with a quick ambush. In other words, since we’re not the best physically adapted land animals in the world, like dogs we had to learn to outrun prey. Other predators, like wild cats, have different strategies.)
“I would only eat meat if I killed it myself!”
This statement is one I have heard countless times from vegetarians and vegans. I often think: have you ever cleared a forest? Have you plowed a feild – taking the homes and lives of countless wild/feral creatures? While listening to your iPod (cause they do). Have you ever driven a massive combine harvester over and endless field of soy lit by your tractor’s headlights in the middle of the night? Have you stolen food from exotic places? Why is it okay to be alienated from some foods and the pain associated with their harvest, but not others?
One of the first things you learn about vegans, upon meeting them (in my experience), is that they are vegans. It might be on their Facebook profiles. Personally, I find this strange. After all, I don’t immediately explain my dietary intake, nor do most people who are other-than-vegetarian. Sometimes upon meeting a middle-aged woman you’ll find out immediately that she’s on a diet, but rarely do people introduce themselves and explain their foods of choice or their taboos. Vegans do, and I don’t get it.
After outing themselves, if confronted about their choice by someone who is other-than-vegetarian, they’ll often try to explain it. If they’re being crafty, they’ll explain how meat-eating is bad, how veganism is commendable, and so on. (If they’re being straight-forward and honest, they’ll say they don’t like the idea of eating animals.) Often, one of the first arguments is that refusing to eat animals is better for the planet. They might bring up global warming, but I’m not going to go into this one; nobody seems to know the real details anyway, and I’ve heard some preposterous figures and downright lies. My favorite is that being a vegetarian for one day cuts down your carbon emissions more than riding a bike (instead of driving) for your entire life.
The next talking point is often the one that sticks: factory farms. Factory farms are unsustainable, yes, but anyone with empathy for other creatures will hate factory farms because of what happens in factory farms. But the reasoning isn’t usually just “Factory farms—plain and simple.” It sounds good, but that’s not it. And how do I know that’s not it? Well, for some it is. I’ve had a few non-meat-eaters tell me that they don’t have a problem with hunting. But in my experience, most do. Maybe it’s simply that in this culture vegans are usually left-leaning while hunters are often right-leaning, and that anything right-leaning people do is asinine and stupid and ignorant and backward and “fearful of change.” Or maybe it’s that the left-leaning vegans have a perceived moral superiority, and that anything that causes harm to anything is bad, and anyone who is OK with anything bad is worse than bad. Let’s just say there is a spectrum and leave it at that.
In the end, the choice to be vegan is usually a moral choice. And this is fine. However, I wish more people would be up-front and honest about the decision being a moral decision, because too many people make themselves look like fools trying to explain all the different reasons they are vegan when it comes down to something so simple: they don’t like the idea of killing animals.
I’m OK with the honest admission of moral reasoning, even though I don’t agree with it. I appreciate honesty. I’m not OK with any vegan (or non-vegan, as I’ll explain in a minute) lauding their supposed moral superiority over anyone else. Anyone who believes himself morally superior to another believes in one universal moral code. Anyone who believes in a universal moral code is a fool. This is why it’s not really off the mark to say “hardcore vegan activists” (as it’s put in the video I posted above) act like “bible-thumpers”: both want to impose their superior moral code on others to make it universal. Both are fools.
(I’ve had a funny story recounted for me second-hand a number of times. A vegan told a friend that he’d like to own a snake. When asked by the friend, “How would you feel about buying mice to feed the snake? You know, being a vegan and all …” he responded that he’d be OK with it because snakes don’t have the moral knowledge to know that eating other animals is wrong. [Insert laughs.])
Anyway, I’ve said everything I originally wanted to say. To end, I’ll post the end of the post I began quoting.
So how do we live? What am I getting at? I have no easy answer, not for myself, not for others. Factory farming is a tragedy, the industrial food system is too – agriculture itself is unsustainable and so is veganism by association. We need to learn how to live in balance, with what our land bases want to give us – to ‘live in the hands of the gods’, as Daniel Quinn put it. This is how all creatures live, it is the way of life – but how do we realistically get there? 6 billion people cannot live as forager-hunter-gardeners. But then again, 6 billion people cannot live under industrial agriculture without killing the planet (and themselves), so that is a moot point. Like all other creatures, if we weren’t farming, our landbase would determine our population.
Really, there are no easy answers. And that’s exactly what veganism can be; something that makes us stop thinking and questioning, something that is attainable because it plays into the plans of the system. There is something beyond veganism though – beyond a diet of domestication and dogma; a place based diet. A diet based on relationship, on the realness of taking plant and animal life, for the greater good of all living things.
Notes and links
I had a weird day out in the woods yesterday. I woke up at 9am, intending to spend the entire day hanging out with some trees, but ended up lolly-gagging around the house most of the day. Around 3pm I finally decided that I’d go anyway, so I packed up rather quickly and took off. I enjoyed the daylight hours, and passed them various ways: wandering around, looking for a good place to set up; figuring out how to get to the stream to get water without getting sucked into knee-deep mud; eating a few cattail shoots, which I realized just yesterday are edible further up (when they’re young) than I though, and which are delicious—they taste a little like cucumber; and collecting/cutting firewood, doing other camply chores.
Knowing that it was going to get pretty cold (40°F) I decided I would set up only half of my tent (to be used as wind protection, I guess, and to give me some small illusion of “safety”) and have a fire burning nearby all night long. Never having done this I knew it would definitely be an interesting experience. I was expecting to be a bit more comfortable with it though.
In the past few years I’ve made several steps outside of my (then-current) comfort zones. One of the first outdoor-related steps was buying a tent without a floor. Won’t bugs and/or, god forbid, snakes get on me? I thought. As it turned out, that wasn’t a big deal at all. Another was ditching matches and lighters altogether, preferring instead a firesteel and a few different tinder sources should I fail to find any. This, also, was not a big deal—in fact, it feels empowering and makes me feel … honest. I have to make good fires from the ground up every time.
Anyway, sleeping didn’t go very well. Fear isn’t an accurate description of what I was feeling, but it wasn’t entirely far from that. I felt very exposed, vulnerable. After it got too dark to do anything else, probably a little after 9 o’clock, I got another fire going and decided I’d try to get to sleep early. For a little while it was simply sounds that kept me up, and uncertainty at those sounds. At dusk, when there was still a little light, an animal walked by where I had set up at a distance of maybe 150 feet. It was too dark, and the animal was too far away, to tell what it was, but it was dark and I judged it at the size of a smallish medium-sized dog. But a lot beefier. One of my first thoughts was it looks like a wolverine. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, since the odds of that are incredibly small, but that’s what it looked like in the dark and at a distance.
So while things were still jumping and moving around, every noise made me think Oh shit that wolverine-like-thing is going to maul my face while I sit here wrapped up in my blanky. My heart rate jumped considerably and I was actually scared once when I heard a noise literally right behind my tent, but it was a squirrel. After that, noise stopped bothering me (and later I had the pleasing experience of hearing an owl while it did its who hooting). (And actually, I think I heard some coyotes howling later too, which briefly turned into wolves, which briefly freaked me out.)
I still couldn’t sleep though. Impossible situations kept running through my head. I felt too exposed. I considered putting on the other half to the tent, but as I thought about that realized I’d then become somewhat cold. I figured that even if I didn’t sleep, all I’d have to do was wait out the night so I could go home when the sun came up (even though my original intent was to go out for two nights). I could either build up a big fire and sit by it, or read my book by flashlight for a few hours. But as my wood got low I realized I wouldn’t be able to have a fire through the night without getting more, and, curiosity getting the best of me I checked the time. 12:59am. I’d been trying to sleep for roughly four hours, and another four hours of the same didn’t sound appealing. I gave it a little more time, and after what I assumed was another hour and a half I checked again. 1:31. Fuck it; I’m only a few miles from home, so I’m going to sleep in my bed tonight.
The decision to go home was one I had considered throughout that half-hour. I was uncomfortable (back pain), was going to get cold if I didn’t do something to change it, and I knew I wasn’t going to fall asleep. I locked my bike up about 150 paces away to the south in a straight line. Find my bike, get on the two-track that was another 40 paces or so from that (next to a huge clearing), and I’d be fine.
Well, having walked that straight line three or four times during the day, I figured it’d be no problem. At night, though, I ended up going the wrong direction, getting lost, and thinking It’s OK, because even if I can’t find my way out I only will have to sit a few hours and wait for the sun to come up. After walking further than I needed to, I turned off my flashlight and looked to the sky. I looked for where the trees thinned, figuring I could walk that way and reach the big clearing. Well, I did, but ended up reaching a small clearing (actually an area with a bunch of fallen trees and brambles). This was aggravating because it was the wrong clearing, but good; if I hadn’t stumbled across this area I would have had no idea where to go. Since I could see the stars now, I found the north star and realized I’d been walking east instead of south. (I started going south-southeast, probably, but obviously that changed). I reoriented, walked in the direction I felt I needed to go (southwest), and occasionally turned off the light to look for the trees thinning again. After about 10 minutes (I walked way too far in the complete wrong direction to begin with) I found the large clearing I was looking for and was OK.
To sum up: On the one hand I feel defeated, having failed to do what I set out to do. On the other, I feel accomplished having found my way out of the woods at two o’clock in the morning, by myself, with nothing to go by but instinct and stars (eventually). The funniest part about it, to me, was that even though I had gotten myself lost, I kept my cool. I knew that I would have no problem finding my way out, even if I did have to wait for the sun. So even though I feel defeated because I’m not cool like Mick Dundee and I can’t sleep in the middle of the bush with nothing but a hat and a fire, and even though I’m never going to have any awesome communal experiences with wolf packs, I took a pretty big step outside of my comfort zone, and that’s a pretty sweet feeling. A lesson I might have learned: It’s OK to go into the woods to “rough it” and “be badass” with other people. Had someone been with me I would have felt more comfortable with everything, and might have even got some sleep.