Anti-meat propaganda has become a rampant narrative that continues to grow in strength; I see far more of my family and friends being ‘swayed’ to eat less and less meat, claiming it the healthier choice. These dietary shifts just so happen to correspond with having watched one of the many pro-vegan documentaries on Netflix (Game Changers *cough *cough).
However, the dietary change towards eating less meat does not make sense in the light of human evolution. And even those people who believe in the evolutionary argument but still opt to eat a modern western diet are stuck in doublethink: believing in human evolution, accepting we were hunter-gatherers but then promoting and consuming low fat, plant-based diet that shuns red meat and saturated fat. It is a diet that is antithetical to that which we evolved on for 99% of our species history.
Evolving from harsh to post Darwinian conditions
Our ancestors and our close pre-human ancestors have consumed meat for around five to six million years; firstly as scavengers but then as hunters as we evolved. In the one million year transition from a scavenger species to a hunting species, saw a dramatic increase in the brain size of our ancestors, which peaked around 400,000 years ago. Not only did our brains evolve but the composition of our digestive system evolved concurrently to resemble a carnivorous animal's digestive system.
Thus, when contrasting our evolutionary timeline against primate species who still eat or ate a predominantly plant-based died and whose brain sizes are smaller and digestive systems vastly different from ours, clearly shows meat has been a significant part of our diet for a very long time. Milton explains"that the incorporation of meat into the diets of early humans was a key element in enabling them to maintain a high quality diet while increasing body size, sociality, and levels of physical activity."
The industrialised western world is a wonder for human flourishing, and for most, it has gotten so good that they don’t realise the harsh realities of Mother Nature, which is a truly Darwinian environment. Our ancestors only up until 200 years ago were faced by the harsh unapologetic conditions of Mother Nature and a meat-based diet is one that allowed our ancestors to survive these harsh Darwinian conditions.
Isotope data collected from our ancestors shows that those who ate a higher plant-based diet (Paranthropus) died out as a species, whereas, our ancestor species (Homo habilis) who ate more meat survived. Furthermore, the ice age is a significant period in our human evolution and plant food is not readily available in extremely cold conditions - but mammals are. It is therefore quite clear the hunting of mammoths and other animals for their calorie dense meat allowed humans to survive extremely harsh environmental conditions.
Even today, if you visit or study the Inuits of Northern America, or the Sami of Northern Europe, or the nomadic pastoralists of Mongolia, all continue to survive extremely harsh conditions by eating a meat-based, high-fat diet. It is only in an industrialised super safe environment that allows people to ‘survive’ on a plant-based diet.
For more on our evolutionary past - read my previous post
During a recent trip I took to Lapland where I visited a husky farm, I asked what the dogs were fed and I was told they are fed a 100% raw meat diet. I asked why this was, and why they didn’t feed them dried dog food, as it seemed like it would be the more economical option and easier logistically as well since they were located 50km from the nearest shop/town. I was told the dogs have to eat a diet of 100% raw meat otherwise they do not grow up strong enough to pull sleds and survive -40 degree conditions. This is analogous to the human diets of today. The more our diet is low-fat plant-based the weaker we are as humans. Look what happens when, for example, native populations move from their ancestral diets of meat and fat to western diets, they become sick, fat, and unable to survive in the environments they once thrived in.
Drawing parallels with dogs is not fallacious. We co-evolved with dogs and there is a lot we can learn from them about our past. Also, given that the paleontological records of canid evolution are rich compared to human records, we can get good insights into our ancestral dietary habits by comparing against canid evolution. Schleidt and Shalter explain:
“Sometime during the last Ice Age, our ancestors teamed up with pastoralist wolves. First, presumably, some humans adopted the wolves’ lifestyle as herd followers and herders of reindeer and other hoofed animals. Wolves and humans had found their match. We propose that first contacts between wolves and humans were truly mutual and that the subsequent changes in both wolves and humans are understood best as co-evolution”.
Our ancestors survived the last ice age by copying pastoralist wolves. Copying was a near-perfect match since wolves and humans share many of the same physical and social hunting styles. Applying then human intelligence and ingenuity to the wolves pastoralist hunting methods, early humans transitioned from hunting wild herds to farming and living off the herds instead - they became nomadic pastoralists.
By the end of the ice age, early humans had tamed wolves or in reverse, some canny canids may have conned humans out of their prey by being nice and obedient - the evolutionary emergence of puppy dog eyes. Other habits that are unique to humans and wolves which differ from other carnivores like the large cats of Africa, is that both humans and wolves hunt small rodents, consume birds and their eggs, and when available will eat various berries - showing a degree of omnivorousness, like humans. This supports the dietary history of wolves and humans is one that is predominantly meat-based, supplemented by plant food.
Exploring our ancestral past for dietary insights
Building on the evolutionary narrative is the anthropological works of Dr. Weston A. Price and Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The works of Dr. Price and Vilhjalmur Stefansson are seminal because their fieldwork was done at a perfect point in time where there was still an abundance of ancestral communities untouched or influenced by western society; it was also at a time where the efficacy of science was higher than it is today, being less influenced by state and corporate interests - Bruce Charlton aptly writes:
“the vast structures of personnel and resources that constitute modern ‘science’ are not real science but instead merely a professional research bureaucracy, thus fake or pseudo-science; regulated by peer review (that is, committee opinion) rather than the search-for and service-to reality.”
Thus the fieldwork of both Dr. Price and Vilhjalmur Stefansson gives us great insight into the dietary habits and preferences of those still living closest to our evolutionary norm and studied as a service to reality.
Dr. Price was a dentist from Cleveland, OH, who instead of opting for a career researching dental decay and physical degeneration from a laboratory, he opted instead to explore the world and discover what factors were contributing to those with healthy teeth - the evidence was to be found in native populations of the world. Dr. Price visited isolated villages in Switzerland, Gaelic communities in the Outer Hebrides, Eskimos, and Indians of North America, Melanesian and Polynesian South Sea Islanders, African tribes, Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maori, and the Indians of South America.
In these places where the natives had not been influenced by western societal norms, he found populations with wide jaws, straight teeth, and teeth free from decay. He also noticed these people had robust bodies, were far more resistant to disease, and did not suffer the degenerative conditions that did westerners. Dr. Price theorised that the physical degeneration he saw in the west resulted from nutritional deficient diets. The diets of the native populations stood in stark contrast to western diets; their diets were composed of nutrient-dense animal and animal-derived foods. Dr. Price concluded “humans achieve perfect physical form and perfect health generation after generation only when they consume nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats”.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson was an arctic explorer and ethnologist and similarly to Dr. Price decided to leave the comfort of western laboratories and venture into the world - in Vilhjalmur’s case a very cold world. He spent over 12 years living with Eskimos as a hunter among the hunting Eskimo people in Northern Canada. A testament to his character he followed the rule of ‘doing in Rome as the Romans do’ which meant he ate as an Eskimo ate. Vilhjalmur wrote that during this initial adjustment his whole dietary belief system changed; he had to rethink his western food tastes and beliefs - realising that his dietary concepts were “social and not of biological inheritance.” He realised he could be healthy on a diet of fish and water and lived on this diet for several years. He knew no one who got scurvy, who had hardening of the arteries, had high blood pressure, breakdown of the kidneys, or rheumatism while eating a meat-only diet.
The Eskimos he lived with ate the majority fat (80%) with lean meat (20%). The fat of seals was the most prized and when the Eskimos moved inland they would render the seal blubber into seal oil and use it to supplement other lean cuts of meat which they hunted such as caribou, rabbit, and birds. An Eskimo family would try to accumulate in spring around 900 - 2,000lbs of seal blubber to last them the autumn-winter months. A single seal produced around 300lbs of blubber.
Vilhjalmur highlights in his travels the importance of a majority fat diet supported by lean meat. When at times in his explorations fat became scarce he wrote despairingly of the effects of a lean meat only diet in a cold climate “the symptoms that result from a diet of lean meat are practically those of starvation.” They had ample amounts of lean meat but despite how much they ate he and his companions continually felt hungry. All that was needed was some fat, even just a tablespoon to go with the meat and this would transform their energy levels and feelings of satiation.
After exploring, Vilhjalmur carried out an all meat diet experiment at Bellevue Hospital, New York City; the experiment lasted over a year and consisted of Vilhjalmur and fellow experimentee Charlie Andersen. The experiment was confirmatory of what he lived and observed during his time with the Eskimos, showing you could live healthy on a meat-only diet. During the experiment Vilhjalmur and Charlie Andersen, averaged around 2,600 to 2,800 calories per day, of which 80% of the calories came from fat and 20% from lean meat. Over the course of the year both participants were continuously monitored by a variety of physicians. The experiment was written up by Dr. Lieb in The American Journal of Digestion and Nutrition, titled “A Year’s Exclusive Meat Diet and Seven Years Later.” The conclusions showed you could maintain physical and mental wellbeing eating a meat-only diet in times where physical activity was low or high or where the weather was hot or cold.
To sum up, then, the evolutionary narrative is important to understand because the world we currently live in is not the norm - the time in which we have lived outside of harsh Darwinian conditions is nothing in comparison to the all the time we have lived under harsh Darwinian conditions. Looking at the evolutionary story and our ancestral roots are important because Western society over the last 100 - 200 years has experienced a change in diet so profound and all in a very short space of time which has not permitted evolutionary adaptation.
How then do modern dietary recommendations make sense looking at the totality of our history? The idea of dietary recommendations is to lead people to greater health and wellbeing, however, the health and wellbeing of western societies are heading in a negative direction. If western dietary recommendations are correct we should be seeing fewer cases of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and other metabolic conditions; we should be seeing a trend towards eugenic not dysgenic outcomes in western societies - but sadly this is not the case.
Most people have outsourced their health and wellbeing and their understanding of those concepts to political institutions, where scientific hubris and public policy careerism has supplanted a common sense history of health and wellbeing. Your health and wellbeing are fundamentally an individual responsibility - eat meat, feel great and supplement with ‘modern food’ to the extent you individually tolerate them.