Animals Are Not Brain Food


OPINION: Contrary to the popular claims, eating meat did not make our brains bigger or our species smarter, writes Geoff Russell.

Marianne Thieme has been in Australia delivering the Voiceless Animal Law lectures around Australia. Marianne was elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2006 as the first representative of The Party for the Animals.

If I was going to write about Ms Thieme, it should have been before she arrived rather than after she’s left, but I hadn’t attended her talk before she gave it. So now, having done so, all I can say is how fortunate Holland is to have her. Humour, compassion and brains don’t always go together, but she was dealt a full house.

You especially need a sense of humour to handle being the butt of jokes from what she calls the ‘single species parties’; but when Holland’s Queen Beatrix served fois gras at a banquet, nobody laughed. Instead she got apologies from fellow MPs shocked by the behaviour of their Queen. Beatrix got the message and subsequently banned fois gras at Royal events and announced she was giving up meat one day a week. The woman with the carrot ammo-belt had pricked the conscience of Dutch Royalty.

Thieme’s lecture began with images of the Earth and Mars. Our planet is rather beautiful seen from a distance, Mars less so. She remarked how excited scientists are over discoveries of things that indicate the possibility of life on the Red Planet. What sort of life? Any life would be considered thrilling to those in the ET business.

Marianne Thieme.
Marianne Thieme.

But what, Thieme asked, if they had found something a little more life-like than some thin organic smear. What if they found something more like a pig? Something smart, playful, curious; would they be equally excited? Would the follow up missions include a team of psychologists, linguists, animal behaviourists … or would they just send in Pete Evans and Richard Di Natale with a cleaver and a spit?

Have we progressed as a species from our behaviour upon “discovering” Australia or the Americas? Back in those days, any discovery, be it human, animal, vegetable or mineral was just another plunderable resource; slaves, sugar, pasture, gold.

There is no doubt that most of us have worked out that many things often described as natural, including many so-called instincts, really suck. We don’t confuse our awe of natural wonders like coral reefs and the bond between a cow and her calf with muddle headed romanticism about nature being a mum or giving a damn; about anything. In the battle between us and bacteria, mother nature doesn’t take sides because there is no mother nature. The result is pain, suffering and frequently death.

So we invariably prefer the products of big pharma, like pain killers, anaesthetic and antibiotics. Likewise, we favour flying vast distances between cities rather than being limited to walking to the next village as our ancestors did. And vegans have worked out that getting B12 from tablets is easily the most animal and planet friendly way to get it; animals don’t die and the synthesized stuff is more readily absorbed. As for those so-called instincts … for tens of thousands of years we’ve been waging war, bullying the weak, and engaging in rape on an individual and industrial scale. But we are not our ancestors and are not constrained by their barbarism. Steven Pinker has chronicled the decline of violence in both an 800 page book and, for the attention deprived, a TED talk. It’s an uneven decline, to be sure, but real and rapid.

Pinker has a chapter on the animal rights movement. But he missed the politicisation represented by Thieme and the chapter is marred by the common habit of suspending one’s critical faculties when dealing with stuff you like to eat. So he’s swallowed the idea of something special about meat which enabled the evolution of our big brain. The attempt to connect meat eating with brain size marks a low point in pseudo science and Pinker swallows it without his usual perspicacity. A human baby’s brain grows most rapidly during the first 12 months, generally before it’s first steak and when protein levels in mum’s milk are about half those many adults eat. Food, except in the case of extended and extreme deprivation, isn’t a limiting factor on intelligence or brain growth in infants; even the famous  Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944, when a whole cohort of children endured a period of severe malnutrition. These children have been extensively studied and have suffered on-going health problems, but there is no sign of a dip in the IQ graph.

If dismal diets can fuel our large brain, then they could certainly have fuelled both its small predecessor and everything in between. While those with few hard scientific skills make up these just so stories, geneticists are actively researching the real, but far more complex, story about which random mutations in which genes gave us our big brains.

One of the candidate genes is ASPM; there are many others. Homo Florensis was a meat eater with a small brain (relative to body size); as are tigers, antechinis and even chimps from time to time. They didn’t get the right mutations … that’s all; and no amount of meat will ever make their brains expand without those chance events. If you want a fairly complete treatment of this and other meat advertising memes, you really need to shell out for a specialised book; Man the Hunted.

Nevertheless, Pinker’s doubts that the animal rights revolution will follow the line of other liberation movements, like those for women and children, may still be warranted; but for different reasons. Many commodities are given value by extensive advertising rather than any intrinsic need and the massive advertising budgets and political dirty tricks of the meat industry indicate that the same is true of meat. Would the processed meat industry, for example, survive without additives? If it really served some deep human need, the industry wouldn’t be riddled with angst about getting rid of the junk they add to make it taste good. So challenging meat’s position in people’s brain space will be a war against false advertising rather than an attempt to change human nature; but that won’t make it any easier.

Predicting the future of the animal rights movement is fraught, but we do know that inter-human violence has declined and that explicit animal cruelty is regarded with disgust in more and more societies. I’d certainly love to have a tardis to see how it pans out in 100 years.

But even today, the signs of change are clear, so I agree with Marianne, that the discovery of a new life form or species either here or on another planet won’t make too many people salivate. The 19th century has gone; and the 18th, and all the rest. We can and should wipe their attitudes off the bottom of our better-than-leather shoes.

Have we purged our genes or just realised that we were never hostage to them in the first place? The long propagated fiction of man the brute was just propagated, by force, by men who were brutes … most aren’t. Through most of our evolution we were more aggressed upon than aggressing, we were cat food. We might posture like carnivores, but the signs of the better angels of our nature are clear even as we observe the worst of current behaviour. Watch closely the people firing weapons in current conflicts on TV news footage.

If you want to kill, then you aim at someone. Most combatants don’t. Some people are certainly vicious to the core and many can become violent and barbarous given the right circumstances; alcohol comes to mind.

But the sins of the minority don’t define us and nor does killing animals. The politicisation of this fundamental truth is something whose time has come. Queen Beatrix may well have a more well developed conscience than many of our politicians, but I am confident there is a spark of compassion in many. All we need is a little moral accelerant; by which I mean politics and people like Marianne Thieme.

Geoff Russell

Geoff Russell qualified in mathematics and has written software all of his working life, but in the past decade has devoted increasing time to writing non-fiction with a simple goal... make the world a better place. A three decade vegan and member of the Animal Justice Party, his first book in 2009 was 'CSIRO Perfidy', a critique of the high-red-meat CSIRO 'Total Wellbeing diet'; the most environmentally destructive diet on the planet. His concerns about climate change and the ineffectiveness of renewables led to a re-examination of his lifelong opposition to nuclear power. After considerable research he realised that the reasons people fear nuclear are built on obsolete knowledge about DNA and cancer. His second book 'GreenJacked! Derailing environmental action on climate change' is an e-book available on Amazon. He has been a regular contributor to since 2008 and has had pieces published in The Monthly, Australasian Science and a number of Australian newspapers. He is a regular contributor to New Matilda.