My friend Christopher often gets into friendly debates around the lab. His use of rhetoric is quite good, and sometimes he gets all ranty about language. He likes to point out that language matters. And he’s right: if two people don’t agree on what a particular term means, then they are not arguing about the same thing every time one of them uses that term.
In the same regard, science suffers from a certain amount of necessary simplification. Science is complicated! And it’s a living profession, with unanswered questions and many people pursuing evidence to support some version of “the truth.” Sometimes, the predominant view in the vegetarian community runs against my scientific opinion. An example of this is the use of animals in research. Some animal-rights activists like to argue that we can do all our research in non-animal models, such as cells growing in a dish, so we don’t need to use mice or other furry creatures any more! I disagree. Cells in a dish are a good place to start, but they are not a whole animal, and they certainly aren’t a human being. We need animal models to validate and affirm the conclusions we make from simpler models. If you don’t agree, perhaps you’d be willing to volunteer yourself as a test subject for novel drugs that have not been tested in animals? The drugs might kill you—we don’t know. But we have to have a way to find out, and it’s either mice or you. Take your pick.
Anyway, I’m digressing. I wanted to say something about a recent Veg Bootcamp newsletter. Here is an excerpt:
VEG DIET MYTH OF THE DAY:
Meat substitutes are bona fide health foods.
BUSTED: In the same way that meat wasn't meant to be a human's primary food source, neither are meat's vegetarian doppelgangers designed to be consumed in mass quantities. Like other processed foods, they should be eaten in moderation, but they certainly can play a part in a healthy diet.
I’ll be the first to say yes, meat substitutes are probably not great for health. They can be really tasty, but I think of them as an occasional treat. Soyrizo is yummy, and so are fake chicken patties, but I tend to buy a package of fake meat once a month, at the most. The longer I practice vegetarianism, the easier it is to make a meal out of “real food”—food that grows from the ground and is minimally processed. I almost hate to say it, but I suspect that real meat is healthier for us than fake meat.
But I disagree with the way that the “BUSTED” answer explains meat-eating. It says, “Meat wasn't meant to be a human's primary food source.” This statement is not an accurate description of human evolution, at least from my perspective. In evolution, there is no “meant to.” Either an organism survives and reproduces, or it doesn’t. If the organism did survive and reproduce, then whatever it ate was a successful diet, evolutionarily speaking. Evolution is not directed; it’s not intelligent design. It just is. It just happens. I’m not a cultural anthropologist, and I don’t study human evolution in a direct way, but my understanding is that hunting and gathering were the ways in which our ancestors fed themselves. Meat was probably an important part of the diet. Was it the “primary food source?” I don’t know. But I would not be surprised if there were seasons during which meat was the main source of calories, such as in extreme northern latitudes, when it’s easier to find seals and reindeer than it is to find green plants.
I still prefer a vegetarian diet, with the occasional fake meat product, but I have to recognize that for me, it’s more about a certain internal consistency and not about health. Science, including food science, is complicated and sometimes we have to walk a nuanced line, marked with caveats. I try to make peace with that level of complexity. And I keep learning.