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On a Facebook post extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, a fellow named Bryan made the following comment:

Viewing human dentition, arrived at after about 7 million years of evolution (based on the new fossil finds last year), it would appear that meats were always part of the Almighty’s diet plan for our species. The veggie-only folk are certainly entitled to their opinion about how to feed THEMSELVES, but their argument that it is the preferred method for the species is both inaccurate and self-serving.

My response:

Bryan, we evolved as animals adapted to the African savanna, following the logic of evolution, which is that those genetic variations which continually reproduce successfully are perpetuated into the future. One of the products of that process was the human brain, mostly evolved to manipulate the complex small muscles of our fingers, but incidentally facilitating the development of language, which set into motion a similar evolutionary process: Those cognitive variations which continually reproduce successfully are perpetuated into the future.

In other words, we are not just anatomical beings, but also conscious beings. Citing our anatomy as though we are under some obligation to choose behaviors and customs suggested by it sounds reasonable to people who aren’t, because we defy our anatomy all the time, and to marvelous effect. We train some among us to perform complex surgical procedures, or apply other medical treatments, to combat perfectly natural deadly or debilitating diseases or conditions. We invent instruments to enable us to do things that our anatomy does not enable us to do.

Our craving for fat and sugar is probably due to the combination of our need for some small amount of both and their relative scarcity or difficulty of obtaining in the African savanna, such that our primal predecessors could never get too much of either. Should we abide by that anatomical dictate, and eat as much fat and sugar as we are anatomically predisposed to desire?

No, of course not. Anatomy is what formed us; consciousness is what guides us. The latter does not have to acquiesce to the former in ways that the latter discovers to be dysfunctional or otherwise undesirable.

Having said all that, I don’t tend toward high-minded moralism, and don’t seek some morally perfect universe. If I did, I would probably be adamantly opposed to the consumption of meat. There are many reasons why, as conscious beings, that is a sensible position. The healthiest of all diets, if one is careful about satisfying all nutritional requirements, is one without meat. Food production maximization per acre of land excludes raising animals for meat (which is a nutritionally inefficient use of land). The slaughter of animals that feel fear and pain to satisfy a mere desire of our own should give us pause. It’s really a very reasonable position. And we are capable of reason, regardless of how our teeth are shaped.

By the way, I eat meat.

This isn’t the kind of thing that I would usually reproduce here as a post, except that there’s something about it that strikes me as getting to the crux of the matter (“the matter” being the continuing development and implementation of human consciousness, in all matters): We need to be careful to distinguish reason from rationalization. And the way to do that is, like the delightfully relentless child, to keep on asking “why?”

Bryan cited human dentation as proof that we are “meant” to eat meat. Why? What does it mean that “we are meant to” do or be something in particular? Who meant it? (Bryan, apparently, would answer “the almighty.”) Why do we have to acquiesce to what that real or imagined “meaner” meant for us? How does it stack up against what we, individually or collectively, “mean” for us to do here and now? Are our concerns for optimal use of available land, compassion for creatures that feel fear and pain, and human health all irrelevant if someone can argue that we are anatomically constrained to disregard all of those concerns?

This is one more incarnation of the tension between reason and rationalization, between analyses based on minimal assumption and assumption supported by minimal analysis. And that, I believe, is the tension that defines the distinction between much of progressive and conservative thought. (I’ll add one caveat: There are some aspects of progressive and conservative thought in which the roles are reversed; the optimal “ideology” is one which captures the reason that appears in each while weeding out the rationalization that appears in both.)

What serves us better than rationalizing preferred conclusions, entrenched habits of thought, on the basis of irrelevant or cherry-picked or fabricated supporting evidence, is to recognize that our current understandings and knowledge is less dispositive than we would like to believe, and to strive to apply reason to evidence, leavened with and inspired by disciplined imagination, in service to humanity. When we do that, we aren’t likely to argue, for example, that human dentation prevents us from changing paradigms in a way which better utilizes available land, better serves our health, and better exercises our compassion.

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