Monday, May 14, 2012

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism: The Belief System That Enables Us to Eat Some Animals and Not Others, by Melanie Joy, Ph.D.

Conan Press, ISBN 9781573244619, November 2009

Melanie Joy is the leading researcher in the field of carnism, a field she invented. If that sounds a tad catty, sorry, but I'm laboring under the burden of having actually read her book.

Dr. Joy purports to give us a thoroughly researched discussion of the psychology of why we eat meat, and why we eat some animals and not other animals. This book has gotten a lot of praise, for it's fairness and respectful attitude towards people who eat meat. I'm honestly mystified by that praise. The assumption of the moral superiority of veganism is quite clear. It's true she does assume that us carnists are doing it because we're bad people. No, she assumes it's because we don't know any better, are ignorant, brainwashed, and perhaps not very bright. This book is poorly researched, poorly reasoned, and overall pretty silly.

One of the sillier and more annoying features of the book is her effort, repeated throughout the book, to suggest that eating meat is not natural--despite the fact that she concedes our ancestors have been doing it for two million years. Despite the fact that we've been eating meat since before we were fully human, we only eat meat because of an "ideology of carnism." Really? I want to read her explanation of how this "ideology of carnism" arose in Homo erectus, or among the tribes of chimpanzees who hunt, kill, and eat monkeys whenever they get the chance.

Saying that something our ancestors have been doing for two million years, since before we were fully human, is "not natural" is to strip the word "natural" of all meaning.

On the "lack of respect" point, I think it's rather hard to overlook the quotes used throughout the book, many about Nazis and how they treated the people they considered subhuman, some about slavery, some about misogyny. You're not being "respectful" when you imply that the people who disagree with you are like the Nazis. On the internet, that would be called a "Godwin violation" and the discussion would shut down. And I'll note an amusing little irony: Hitler was a vegetarian, and very concerned about humane treatment of animals. Does that make vegetarians bad? Does it make them like Nazis? Of course not! Nazis have nothing to do with this discussion, and it's a mistake for Dr. Joy to pretend that they do.

One of her basic points is that we perceive some animals as food, and some animals as family members, and still others as just icky. ("Icky" is my word, not hers.) In America, she says, we eat cows, and pigs, and chickens, because we perceive them differently than we perceive dogs. If only we were not so deluded and confused, we'd see that this difference in perception is silly, and that dogs, cows, pigs, and chickens are all really the same, sentient beings with feelings and identity. In Dr. Joy's view, it's all false perception on our part, and while she does not quite come out and use the phrase, "a rat is a dog is a boy," it's implied very strongly. There's no moral difference between eating a cow and eating a human being.

She also makes a big point of the fact that different cultures class different animals in the "animals we eat" and "animals we love" categories, implying that this proves the inherent invalidity of classing any animals as "okay to eat."

No, sorry, not true. We perceive dogs and cows and chickens differently because our relationships with them are different. Our relationships with them are very different because the animals themselves are very different. Dogs evolved out of wolves because early humans and early, proto-dog wolves had both similar social structures and complementary abilities and needs. Humans created middens of the bits of both plants and animals that were not edible to them but were edible to hungry wolves; the wolf proto-dogs who followed the human hunter-gatherer bands had better scent, hearing, and night vision, and raised the alarm when critters (human, wolf, or other) that weren't part of the established and recognized band. Everyone was better off, a little better fed and a little safer, and this evolved into a human-dog partnership--starting at least 14,000 years ago, and possibly, depending on which body of evidence and which reasoning about it you find most convincing, 250,000 years ago. If the extreme early date is at all accurate, proto-dog wolves starting partnering up with us when we were still making the transition from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens. If the latest, most recent date is correct, it was still while we were paleolithic hunter-gatherers with the beginnings of agriculture still thousands of years in our future.

Cows, on the other hand, evolved out of wild cattle that our ancestors hunted for food.

It's quite true that different cultures have different relationships with the same animals. Hindus don't eat cows; they revere them. Jews and Muslims don't eat pigs; they regard them as unclean. In China and Korea, and Dr. Joy somewhat gleefully tells us, people do eat dogs. She does note that in Korea, as more people keep dogs as pets, there's a growing movement to ban eating dogs.

What I think she's missing is that these differences are not random or accidental. Differences in food preferences and beliefs about food don't just happen. Judaism has some complex food rules that had the cultural benefit of differentiating them from their neighbors and keeping a small culture intact and cohesive, but the ban on pigs is different. There are real ecological reasons for pastoralist and subsistence agricultural cultures in the Middle East to avoid keeping pigs, no matter how tasty they are. That's why Muslims and Jews share that ban. (Note: I am talking about the practical origins, not the religious meaning it has to practicing believers.)

As for dogs and the eating and non-eating thereof: Even large dogs are much smaller than cows or pigs or horses, on the one hand, and not nearly as prolific and quickly-maturing as chickens. They're not an economic source of food, and they are eaten, where they are eaten, either as a delicacy or out of desperation.

Another area of silliness is her claim that we use different words for live animals (sheep, cows, pigs) and for the same animals when we eat them (mutton, beef, pork.) A minimal effort at research would have revealed to her--something she probably already knows, if she just stopped to think about it. This vocabulary difference comes from post-Norman Conquest England, where English peasants raised cows, pigs, and sheep, and talked about them in their own English language, while the meat was eaten by the Norman overlords--who spoke French. This vocabulary difference doesn't exist in, at least, most Western languages.

Meanwhile, Dr. Joy is overlooking two little details that undermine her point even without the linguistic history. First, when we eat chickens, we normally refer to the meat as "chicken." The same is true of turkeys and turkey. Rather an odd discrepancy, if the word differences have the "purpose" of making us forget that the meat on our plates used to be live animals. The other point is that, while the English eat mutton--the meat of adult sheep--Americans rarely do. When Americans eat the meat of sheep, we eat the meat of  baby sheep--lambs. And we call that meat "lamb." Lamb chops. Leg of lamb. Rack of lamb.

It's hard to look at that fact and claim we're trying to hide the truth from ourselves because we couldn't bear to eat them otherwise.

Where her book is stronger is on the abuses of our meat production industry. Factory farming of cows, chickens, pigs, and sheep has produced terrible abuses, imperfectly and often ineffectively "regulated" by a USDA that is essentially a captive agency, charge with both regulating the industry and promoting its products. The conditions in factory farms are often appalling, and a typical slaughterhouse can be horrific. Our food animals generally don't live normal lives, and despite regulations intended to prevent it, often die in terror and pain. I try to make the best choices I can on the source of my food; I know people who are vegetarians, or effectively vegetarians, because they can't afford meat that meets their standards for humane production. This is a real issue. Our tax dollars are going to "farm" subsidies that in reality promote CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) that are abnormal and unhealthy for the animals, compromise the safety of our food supply, and create environment-destroying pollution from runoff of animal waste and chemicals on a scale more traditional manufacturing factories are no longer permitted to do. There is absolutely nothing positive to be said about CAFOs; whether from animal welfare, human nutrition, or environmental safety, they're bad news.

Stop the subsidies, stop tilting the playing field in favor of these travesties, and our food would cost a bit more, but be dramatically healthier and more secure, while our environment would suffer much less damage.

But this brings us back to another silly claim: that locking up food production behind walls where most of us never see how our food animals are treated makes it easier for us to eat meat without picturing the live animals it came from and thereby being repelled by it. It seems a superficially reasonable argument, but it stumbles on reality. If this argument were correct, there should be more people eating meat, and eating more of it, than in past generations, most of human history, when people lived side by side with their food animals, their cattle, their sheep, their chickens, their pigs, when every animal was an individual, usually with a name. Or else deer and pheasants and rabbits were hunted, and had to be killed by the hunter and butchered by him or his wife so that they could eat. Vegetarianism should be on the decline, if Dr. Joy were correct about this.

But vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise, not on the decline. I think it's because people know, at a gut level, that there's something wrong with not knowing how your food animals are raised. We evolved as a species that knew, in the most visceral possible way, that the meat we ate came from living animals who valued their lives as much as we value our own. Most cultures have had rituals to respect the life of the animal killed, and the sacrifice being made when that life is taken to provide food for the humans. The reason we have more vegetarians and vegans, and many people who still eat meat eat less than they would have in the past, is because it's abnormal for meat to come in neatly wrapped packages bearing no resemblance to a living animal, and we know intuitively the dangers of not knowing how your food is raised. It's why urban farming is on the rise--the natural human drive to not be so disconnected from your food, and unaware of the lives of the animals you eat.

I cannot recommend this book, except for the advantages of knowing what otherwise-sensible people are saying and thinking.

I purchased this book.