Monday, August 30, 2010

Book Review: The Vegetarian Myth

By Benjamin Skipper

Even while my interest in culinary endeavors is for its own sake, I still maintain a strong interest in nutrition given its all-encompassing impact on physical well-being. Since going paleo I have never been leaner nor more fit, and am finally developing muscular growth since I've started adapting the Body by Science exercise routine. Still, my knowledge is extremely imperfect, so I continue to be on the lookout for new knowledge to help me continue to maximize my health. After reading a positive review on Dr. Michael Eades' blog, I was persuaded to pick up a copy of The Vegetarian Myth. I've found it a book worth reading, though with some major hesitations due to some major philosophical and scholarship vices.

The book is divided into four chapters of four themes: how the vegetarian and vegan moral philosophy conflicts with reality, how such views affect politics, why vegetarian and veganism are nutritionally harmful, and Ms. Keith's proposed solutions to the problems she brings up about nutrition, agriculture, and the environment. I've found that, while these themes are good, the book is inadequately classified. Each chapter is of enormous length and is only internally divided by pictures of horned animals lined up in a row, which makes me feel like I'm attempting to drink a gallon of water without breathing. Most helpful would be to divide the chapters into sub-themes. The book would be easier to read, especially after a break, when one would likely need to be reminded of the subject at hand.

From the Objectivist perspective the consumption of meat is philosophically justified. According to the Objectivist morality, humans have rights -- negative obligations on others to not use force or the threat of it against others -- because it's necessary for our survival. Men are not born with instincts (automatic knowledge) or great physical advantages; they need to think in order to survive and to be left free of any coercive interference. Other animals don't have rights because they have a different way of mentally functioning, which is largely irrelevant to their methods survival, instincts and brute force. Even if you tried to grant rights to an animal it wouldn't be able to understand them, exercise them, or respect those of others. If you told a lion that the sheep next to it has a right to life and that it would be immoral to kill and eat it, it would do it anyway despite your pleadings (or go after you since you're talking to it). Humans eating animals, then, is morally justified since non-human animals do not have rights.

[Editor's note: For a more thorough discussion of the issue of "animal rights", see this essay by Edwin Locke, and the essay "Man's Rights" in "The Virtue of Selfishness" by Ayn Rand.]

The Vegetarian Myth only serves to build on this foundation by its wonderful analysises of the vegetarian/vegan morality and resulting nutritional consequences. In fact, I would go so far as to say this book could help make a strong case as to why it should be a moral obligation for humans to eat meat, if we are to achieve life proper to human nature.

In examining the vegetarian and vegan morality Ms. Keith points out that regardless of what you eat, something is going to die. There is absolutely no way to avoid killing in choosing what to eat; carnivorism is merely an honest recognition of the fact that, for man to live, something must die. By only consuming plant products you're still killing animals indirectly through two different ways. The first is that traps and poisons are required in order to protect crops from herbi- and omnivores, otherwise animals, insects, and other wildlife would simply treat your farm as a feast and leave you without food. Secondly -- and most insightful -- is that the sheer act of agricultural farming alters the environment in a way that encourages the survival of one set of organisms at the expense of others, oftentimes leading to a population explosion of certain species and the extinction of others. If you mowed down a prairie and turned it into a farm, what's going to happen to the species that require a prairie environment to survive? You can't just throw them into another environment or keep stuffing them indefinitely into other prairies; death is their next destination.

And let us not forget the actual plant matter itself. This point exposes the blatant emotionalism that underlies vegetarian and veganism. Plants too are alive, and eating them kills them. It does not matter whether the plant is produced in order to be eaten (like fruits) or not; it's alive. Vegetarians and vegans that choose their eating lifestyle on the basis of morality are engaging in cherry picking and are choosing to consume one life form over another since it makes them feel better. Seeing animals get killed or be in pain makes such people feel bad, and being emotionalistic they draw the conclusion that eating animals is somehow bad in itself. Emotionalism in the epistemological realm entails that one chooses beliefs in accordance with how they make one feel: Things that stir up negative feelings are either viewed as false or immoral, positive feelings as true or moral, and so on. There is no justification for this method of knowledge, so it's to be dismissed as entirely arbitrary. An apple may not scream in your mouth, but it's as equally alive as any animal is.

No matter what you choose to eat, something is going to die.

Ms. Keith's insightful analysis of the emotionalistic morality against killing anything shows that such a morality conflicts with reality in every way and is absolutely impossible to practice. The people who try to do so are merely going to experience the same despair and frustrations as Ms. Keith did, desperately looking for a loophole in reality that isn't there.

In regards to nutrition, this book serves well to analyze how the human digestive system works, what human nutritional requirements are, what sources to obtain such nutrients, how conventional information today is invalid, and more. I was most impressed by the analysis of the invalid science and government interference behind today's nutritional theories. As unfortunate as it may be, it's important that, before asserting positive nutritional views, we must first definitively demolish the false nutritional myths in our society or else people will be incredulous. The Primal Blueprint, for instance, gives but a passing mention to the likes of Ancel Keys, which makes it all the harder for any readers to accept The Primal Blueprint's high-fat guidelines without believing they're going to do them harm. People need to know why these popular nutritional views are wrong before asserting positives, since it is, after all, literally a matter of life and death.

Aside from the obligatory mention of Ancel Keys, Ms. Keith does an excellent job drawing from a wide variety of sources, condensing them, and presenting them in a very accessible writing style. She goes through the improper experiments, the evasions of the researchers, the government interference, and the evidence that refutes these theories. She goes through so much detail that one cannot help but visualize a literal mountain of evidence in her favor. This makes for a great resource for those who are looking to do some reading on the state of nutritional science as it stands today, or for those who are looking to put their meat-eating lifestyles on firmer scientific grounds. Practical arguments are in great wealth here.

All in all, I would say that the chapters *Moral Vegetarians* and *Nutritional Vegetarians* alone make the book worth reading. Unfortunately, the other two chapters, *Political Vegetarians* and *To Save the World*, are a different matter and in actuality embody a huge amount of vice in this book. Disappointingly, the vices are significant enough that they warrant hesitation in whether or not I would recommend this book.

Throughout these two chapters -- and the whole book -- Ms. Keith too often incorporates irrelevant material into the text and absurdly tries to tie it in. For instance, it becomes apparent early on that Ms. Keith is a very angry, possible hateful, feminist. She regularly condemns males throughout the chapters, makes assertions without presenting evidence, and then moves on without missing a beat. She even goes so far as to implicitly accuse men of being rapists by nature, a claim that's never supported or made relevant to the text, except to say that humans are "raping the land." It's particularly hard to ignore these and not emotionally react to them, which is going to make it much harder for Ms. Keith to reach an audience. Why should the reader continue if the author is going to insult him so cruelly?

In fact, any time Ms. Keith ventures from the field of agriculture and nutrition does her scholarship become incredibly poor and unprofessional. Whereas in agriculture and nutrition she works exhaustively to clarify, cite, and prove her claims, everywhere else she often makes assertions out of the blue and then runs with them. For instance, she claims that our current dependence on fossil fuel will inevitably lead to catastrophic disaster since we'll be running out soon. How does she know? Does she know how much oil the earth contains in total? What about alternative fuels and technologies? No answer; she just states we're running out of fossil fuel and soon. She claims that agriculture has led to slavery since it's such back-breaking work. How does she know they're related in causality? What ideas motivated these slave masters to make such decisions? No answer; she just presents it as if it were self-evident and primary.

Given a certain scientific field, one is bound by certain methods of research and proof. What's appropriate for a physical science is not appropriate for mathematics. Any attempt to do research in one field with the methods of another simply leads to absurdities. Take Leonard Peikoff's example (in OPAR) of the inappropriateness of mathematicians trying to explain history in terms of numbers. It doesn't work that way since men are men, not numbers, and are motivated by ideas. Not enough emphasis can be added to simply how poor her scholarship is when she embarks out of her research specialty. Near the end of the book, in the chapter *To Save the World* (page 251), she presents two line graphs that indicate that human impact on the climate has increased exponentially in recent centuries. As the lines progress near the right side of the graphs they suddenly shoots upward nearly completely straight. However, the lines are completely arbitrary. On the left, vertical side of the graphs there are no units of measurement for the lines, so literally nothing is being measured. It provides no useful information at all and only serves to make Ms. Keith look unprofessional and unscholarly. She obviously has another set of ideologies she'd like the reader to adapt, which isn't wrong in itself, but does a horrendous job at it, not to mention this isn't the appropriate book for it. As such, I consider Ms. Keith's views outside of agriculture and nutritional science to be without proper, adequate evidence and so should be dismissed.

Speaking of ideology, this book is both bad philosophically and vulnerable on its own terms. Ms. Keith has stated explicitly that what separates her from vegetarians and vegans is information, not morality. She has given the moral high ground to her opponents, a deadly mistake for her arguments. No matter how right or practical she may be, any opponent can quip, "Yes, but my view is right." To paraphrase a quote from Noodlefood, humans are willing to create hell on earth -- if they think it's moral. Even if Ms. Keith could manage to convince a significant number of vegetarians and vegans that her nutritional and environmental views are the most practical and healthy, vegetarians and vegans could still espouse their theories without batting an eyelid since they believe it's the moral thing to do. "Man's digestive system is made for meat? Well, then he's innately evil. The right thing to do would be to slowly kill ourselves on plant matter since man does not deserve to live." This is why I stated above that this book would be a good resource for those looking for practical arguments; in honesty it would be a terrible resource to introduce the paleo diet. You will have to seek a proper philosophical foundation for these nutritional views elsewhere, but this book is good for practical considerations.

Additionally, through her irrelevant tangents, such as on feminism and business, we can observe that this book has rather bad philosophical elements. From what I can gather, Ms. Keith seems to be an anti-business environmentalist who's in favor of technological retrogression for the sake of the planet. She states at one point that the free market cannot provide basic food necessities -- another bolt from the blue that's unsubstantiated -- equates capitalism with a mixed/statist economy (which is dishonest), and states that it is required of us to stop using fossil fuels, stop having children, demolish our road structures, and simply leave nature alone in order to allow the planet to heal. This indicates that she's an environmentalist of the type who believes man's altering of nature is somehow "unnatural" and that we must somehow leave it alone in order for things to work as they should. Literally anything a man could do to nature, from pulling up a clump of grass to building a house, alters it in some way, so the only way man could not have an impact on nature is to not exist at all. I know Ms. Keith isn't against the human race as some environmentalists are, but her view that we can somehow technologically retrogress and survive is naive. Again, man needs to use his mind to survive; if he doesn't, he dies. What she is truly calling unnatural, then, is man's conceptual faculty, the faulty that allows him to identify reality in a way no other animal can and bring into existence new technologies.

Consequently, anyone who doesn't have a firm understanding of what constitutes proof, whether for a scientific or philosophical statement, risks becoming confused or adapting bad ideas. It is astounding just how two-faced the quality of the book is.

Overall, I recommend the book only on certain terms. It's good for those looking to add more practical arguments to their arsenal or for those looking to put their nutritional beliefs on firmer ground, but not encouraged for those that are investigating paleo for the first time or not knowledged in what constitutes proof. This book has beyond great information in it, but tragically undermines itself with its flaws. Absent alternative morals, this book presents no match to the vegetarian/vegan morality.

Edit: Polished and changed some wording; added new content.
Update: Here's Dr. Eade's review

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