The Growth of Vegetarianism

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There was one problem that I wrestled with for years after I realized that the evolution of animal (human) metabolism had been predicated upon fat as the body’s primary fuel, with carbohydrates as a secondary fuel (though even this positioning may grant too much importance to carbohydrates since one can thrive on meat and fat, alone, with no carbohydrate).

The problem was this: How did it happen that the whole populace, lay people and experts alike, came to believe that the high-carbohydrate diet (grains, fruits, and vegetables) was healthy, god-like, and spiritual and that meat eating was unhealthy, pagan (if not Satanic), and unspiritual? Why was the movement toward full-blown vegetarianism supported as being the healthy way to eat?

Many years ago, in New York, I met with a retired and highly venerated university professor of anthropology, H. Leon Abrams. He directed me to the works of Dr. Marvin Harris, the Pulitzer Prize winning anthropologist and suggested that I read Harris’s many books, particularly Cannibals and Kings.

Very interested in the origins of cultures, Dr. Harris provides his readers with a realistic, eminently unsentimental, account of cultural evolution. His thesis is that reproduction-related pressures lead a species to intensify their production of goods and services, followed, inevitably, by an environmental depletion of resources.

This process repeats itself, leading to new systems of intensified production to meet demands. It’s also accompanied by predictable forms of institutionalized violence, drudgery, exploitation, and cruelty. Dr. Harris observes: “Thus reproductive pressure, intensification, and environmental depletion would appear to provide the key for understanding the evolution of family organization, property relations, political economy, and religious beliefs, including dietary preferences and food taboos (emphasis mine).”

This is a fascinating book and I recommend it to all my readers. We are interested here, however, in understanding how our culture came to believe that foods from the fruit, vegetable, and grain categories were the foods most likely to promote health.

Did facts of health and science dictate this belief? Not one bit.

In the Stone Age, Harris tells us, everyone adhered to a high-protein, low-starch diet. Today, he claims, two-thirds of the earth’s population is an involuntary vegetarian because of the scarcity of meat. Bands of people, living thousands of years ago, lived entirely by hunting animals and collecting wild plants. Recent scientific studies confirm Harris’s beliefs about the diet of pre-historic human beings, our human ancestors. 

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