Inequality Starts With What We Eat
The first carnivore brought something new to Earth: domination as a way of life. A new form of evolution is challenging that.
There’s a common mantra among animal rights activists: inequality starts with what we eat. The basic idea is that, in our daily life choices, we have the capacity to inflict incredible injustice and suffering on other beings. And there is some truth to the idea. In terms of both the number of beings held in captivity, and the severity of their torture, the industrial use of animals for food is, according to the philosopher and futurist Yuval Hariri, “one of the greatest crimes in history.” As Andy Greenberg has argued in WIRED, “the average lived experience of this planet is that of an animal in a cage.” The food we eat is, many would argue, the cause of that.
But, while I am an animal rights activist myself – indeed, it’s the mission of my life – I have always thought that this mantra misses the point, for two reasons. The first reason is that the focus on what we eat puts too much blame on individual consumer choice.
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Fifteen years ago, I wrote a regrettable and unpublished article titled Boycott Veganism that made this point. (The arguments in Boycott Veganism are sound; I regret the piece because its tone was aggressive and judgmental.) There has never been a successful social movement driven by consumer choices, and the failed efforts in this regard – such as the free produce movement to fight slavery in the United States, which sought to end slavery by boycotting slave-made goods – are instructive. Time and time again, the movements focused on consumer choices lost because they were perceived as exclusive and puritanical. The environmental movement, too, has begun to learn this lesson, and the results of the shift toward systemic thinking have been promising. As I wrote in Boycott Veganism, our diet is not the source of oppression (or change); it is the result. And effective movements inspire people to change far beyond what they eat.
The second and more important reason that oppression doesn’t start with what we eat, however, is that humans endanger animals in ways far more pervasive than our diets. For example, the extinction of so-called charismatic megafauna – large animals that otherwise had no predators – was driven by human migration patterns, and the accompanying predation and ecosystem damage, far before the inception of agriculture of any sort. More broadly, the damage we have caused to ecosystems – including terraforming our entire planet via habitat loss and climate change – vastly outweighs the suffering caused by factory farms.
Consider the case of the bristlemouth fish, the most numerous vertebrate animal on the planet. Their population has likely decreased by the hundreds of billions, if not the hundreds of trillions, due to the deoxygenation of oceans and climate change. And their deaths aren’t pretty, akin to slowly drowning in a room filling with water. This mass extermination of wild animals is almost certainly the greatest atrocity in human history, and perhaps the planet’s history. And all of us, vegan or otherwise, are complicit in the crime.
Given these views, which I explained in more detail in the Litowitz Lecture at Yale (below), you might be surprised to hear that I nonetheless believe there is a crucial truth to the statement that inequality starts with what we eat. But to understand why, we have to go far back in not just human but the planet’s history. We have to go back to the first carnivore on earth.
From consumptive evolution to cooperative evolution
Life is ancient, beginning 3.5 billion years ago. But the inception of carnivorous animals is relatively recent, probably occurring only 800 million years ago. The evolution of that first carnivore, which instead of taking energy from the sun, began to take energy from other sentient beings, set off an explosion of new species. For the first time in Earth’s history, dominating other living beings became a way of life. And, for nearly half a billion years, it was wildly successful, leading to the evolution of virtually every modern category of animal.
The inevitable result of domination as a way of life, however, was a planet filled with exploitation and suffering. And the most prominent land-based vertebrate species on earth, human beings, has risen to the top of that hierarchy, based in large part on what we eat. Consider the biomass of all the living beings on earth.
Human beings outnumber all the other land vertebrates on Earth combined – with the exception of livestock that we have created. Eating animals, in short, has given us immense power. Those that we did not eradicate (e.g. the Dodo bird, the gentle giant that went extinct from human hunting in 1662), we enslaved for perpetual reproduction and consumption. Modern factory farming is, in many ways, the perfection of this process; it is a system where life is created only so it can be systematically consumed. And that system now dominates all other living beings on earth. The earth’s first carnivore would be proud.
But the same logic that allowed the first carnivore to steal rather than build, and that eventually allowed human beings to dominate the other creatures of earth, is now also destroying our own species. The competitive logic of consumption, epitomized by the eating of one species by another, need not be limited to the inter-species context. Human beings can consume one another, too, i.e., intra-species conflict. That can occur quite literally, as when the Maori tribe of New Zealand consumed their defeated adversaries after a successful raid. But the more common form of consumption is now political. One party, or race, or nation-state, can eradicate and steal the power of another. Look at what’s happening in Ukraine today, including Russia’s extensive efforts to steal Ukraine’s grain.
It is the logic of the carnivore, epitomized. And as with the existential threat posed by the Ukraine war, this logic will inevitably end with our demise because in the battle of all against all, everyone dies. Consumptive evolution, which allowed the first carnivores to rise and propagate, functions as long as two conditions are met. First, no one species has the power to consume everything and everyone. If any one species or being has this power, in contrast, it will destroy all other species (and eventually itself). Second, there are sufficient resources that the consumptive behaviors do not destroy the common pool of resources that we all depend on to survive, e.g, clean air, water, and light. If resources are limited, in contrast, the ecosystem cannot survive because too many of its inhabitants rely on stealing to survive, rather than nurturing or growing.
Those conditions for consumptive evolution, however, are no longer being met. Human beings have the power to destroy our planet – with nuclear weapons, climate change, and habitat loss. And the total pool of resources is shrinking, to the point that the system cannot tolerate beings that live only by stealing. For the future of our planet, and all living beings, we need to find another way. I call this new way cooperative evolution and, to understand why it works, we have to understand the difference between genes and memes. And the rise of memetic selection, i.e. competition over ideas, as a replacement for the genetic selection (and consumptive evolution) that has dominated life for 800 millions years.
From genes to memes
Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist, predicted the shifts from genes to memes in his canonical book, The Selfish Gene. While for hundreds of millions of years, life on earth had depended on the brutal logic of competition, most starkly demonstrated when the first species evolved to consume other animals, a new form of selection could arise that depended on the power of ideas.
The basic intuition is this: for billions of years, natural selection operated in the physical world because the physical world gave beings the ability to reproduce. That physical drive to reproduce, in turn, was fueled by consumption, often of one species by another. But as consciousness evolved, a new source of replication and power emerged: the power of the idea. And unlike the brute struggle of biology, the power of ideas is not fueled by consumption – the propagation of an idea does not depend on destroying other ideas, or using scarce resources – but by the ability of an idea to compete in the metaphysical realm.
While the gene’s propagation depends on the limited physical capacity of the beings who carry its DNA coding, the reproductive idea, or what Dawkins called a meme, works in the digital realm, and can propagate exponentially without the need for a physical body. (This is related to a concept in economics called “non-rivalry”; the growth of memes, such as an mp3 that can be copied over and over without any physical cost, does not depend on the use of limited resources.)
A concrete example of the power of the meme can help illustrate the point: religion. The power of religion does not come from the advantage it provides to individual biological beings, much less their selfish genes. It comes, instead, from the religion’s ability across many biological beings, and convince them to act cooperatively towards the religion’s goals. In other words, religion does not strengthen individuals — it strengthens entire communities, sometimes at the cost of the individual.
Religion is a powerful idea, and not a powerful gene. Many individual human beings will sacrifice immensely, in ways that do not seem in their individual self-interest, for a religious faith; for example, people will often save a lifetime of funds to make a simple trip to Mecca to pray. Yet their faith has allowed civilizations that have religion to dominate those that do not. In a very real sense, power no longer primarily comes from people consuming resources (or animals); it comes from ideas “consuming” people and turning them into fuel for the further growth of the idea.
But what if the ideas don’t actually have to “consume” or otherwise harm the person in order for them to spread? What if the ideas that thrive and grow operate on cooperation and compassion, rather than consumption? The battle of ideas, after all, is very different from the battle of biology. As noted, it’s not limited by physical resources or energy, in the same way that a biological being is.
It turns out there is compelling research that shows that the ideas that compete most effectively – that allow societies to thrive rather than fail – have exactly this attribute: they expand the scope of our empathy and consideration to other beings. Instead of consuming others, we welcome them into our community.
From exclusive to inclusive institutions
Daron Acemoglu was one of the reasons I dreamed of being an economist in the early 2000s. A Turkish free thinker who studied in the United Kingdom, then became a superstar professor at MIT in the 1990s, Acemoglu has already won the Bates Medal, a prize given to young economists which is twice as hard to win as the Nobel Prize, and has revolutionized the way we think about development and growth. And the most important idea he put forward, in a profession that was almost entirely focused on analyzing human society from the individual lens, is that institutions matter.
Acemoglu has sifted through an enormous amount of data on global development. He has looked at the rise and fall of civilizations through the millenia. And what he has found is that no matter what resources a society or individual has. No matter the quality of the people or the education. If the institutions are bad, the society will fail. If they are good, the society will probably thrive. It is the thesis of his groundbreaking book, Why Nations Fail.
And what makes the institutions of a society “good”? There is one simple attribute, more than any other, that is crucial: whether its institutions are inclusive. Societies that prevent people from voting, from working, from trading, or from even being seen as sentient beings inevitably collapse. What I have called consumptive evolution is disastrous and self destructive within a species as powerful as human beings. Resources are overtaxed. People, even the “weak,” rise up and fight when they are being consumed (physically or economically). And even the greatest civilizations, such as ancient Rome or imperial China, collapse in ways even more spectacular than their rise, when their institutions fail to consider the interests of all members of their society. These societies are poisoned by a dangerous idea: that some lives matter less than others. The bonds of trust that allow for human beings to cooperate, in a world where resources are scarce, are destroyed by the exclusion of some beings.
While Acemoglu does not reference animals in his work, the logic applies just as much to inter-species inclusivity (that is, do we consider other beings in our decision, even if they are not of our species?) as it does intra-species inclusivity. A world where we disregard the lives of other species, simply because of their species membership, is one that is fundamentally imbalanced. The reason is not just moral (i.e., it’s wrong to discriminate) but political. A society that allows some beings to be exploited, simply because they are different, will never be one where we can trust our political institutions to act fairly. After all, while it might be the pig in a factory farm who is caged today, what is to stop our institutions from caging me tomorrow, if I happen to be the one who is politically weak? The only way to ensure basic fairness for everyone, in the operation of the most powerful institutions and technologies on earth, is for us to ensure that even the most vulnerable are treated with kindness.
This is what I called the “moral stress test” in the Litowitz Lecture at Yale. And it is, in my view, the defining challenge of our species. Even when we have nothing to gain from compassion, and much to gain from exploitation and consumption of another being’s freedom (or, as with farm animals, their very body and being), can we still act fairly to them? Can we act with kindness even towards those who are weak? If the answer to this question is yes, then we have passed the moral stress test, and developed a set of institutions that will allow all beings to thrive. If the answer is no, Acemoglu’s theory predicts a dismal future: our society will fail.
Eating our way to liberation
There’s so much more that could be said on this subject. (If I had time, I’d write a book on the idea of the moral stress test!) But let’s try to wrap and summarize what I’ve argued today.
First, while consumptive evolution functioned in a world with low power beings, and high resources, it is failing in a world with high power beings and low resources.
Second, a new form of evolution is developing where ideas are more powerful than biology. Partly because of the dangers of consumptive evolution, this new form of evolution is replacing the classic model of genetic selection: what Dawkins calls memetic selection. And unlike the competition of genes, the competition of ideas is non-rivalrous. One being’s gain does not necessarily cause another being’s pain.
Third, as we move towards memetic selection, or the battle over ideas rather than the battle over biology, one idea matters more than any other, for the success and survival of the human species: whether our institutions are inclusive or exclusive.
The first carnivore, of course, could not have seen all of this unfolding. The tiny creature that decided to use its filter feeding capacity to eat other animals, instead of harvesting sunlight and plants for power, did not realize that she was setting our planet down a path to collapse. But we, as beings infinitely more powerful than she was, can see this. We can see that not just inequality, but our species’ survival, starts with what we eat. And if we can convince enough people to see this – to see that the logic of consumption must be replaced by the logic of cooperation and compassion – we can not just make change, but save, the world.
I end the Friday blog posts with some random musing and updates and requests for feedback.
These Friday blog posts, chosen by you, may no longer be on Fridays! I’m considering shifting to Thursdays, as Fridays are not a great day to publish. Stay tuned for more on that.
Our Friday night discussion at my space in San Francisco, however, will continue, including tonight at 7 pm. The best way to engage is to join in person, especially since we’re providing plant-based burgers, chips, and cookies. Here’s a link to the event page. But we also invite a select group of people to the Zoom call. Let me know if you’d like to be added to the WhatsApp chat for that.
The survey for next week’s topic is here. Fill it out if you get the chance. Every Friday (maybe Thursday, very soon), I propose three topics that you’d like to see something written on, and discussed. This week’s possibilities include an examination of how lying has become a way of life (using animal ag as an example), and a deep dive into my surprising friendship with the owner of one of the largest factory farms in the world. Let me know what you think!
The judge in the Utah Smithfield trial denied some of our key motions this week. The judge refused my request to represent myself, with co-counsel, and also our request to strike down the livestock exemption to the Utah animal cruelty laws. I break it down in a short livestream here.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Looking forward to seeing some of you tonight!
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