In reply to: Eating animals is natural; animals eat animals, it is part of the circle of life, and we are apex predators on top of the food chain
This is the approved revision of this page, as well as being the most recent.
- 1 Context
- 2 Talking Points
- 2.1 Assertions as to what is natural are not pertinent to the validity of veganism.
- 2.2 Naturalness says nothing about rightness.
- 2.3 Animals that eat other animals do not have a choice.
- 2.4 Our natural abilities suggest we are not natural predators, much less apex predators.
- 2.5 Our physiology and anatomy suggest that flesh is not a natural food for humans.
- 2.6 There is nothing natural about how we get our meat, dairy, and eggs.
- 2.7 We shouldn't base our morality on animal behavior.
- 3 See Also
- 4 Footnotes
- 5 Meta
In objecting to veganism and animal rights, some invoke a series of statements centering around the idea that eating animals and their secretions is natural. These statements often include a reference to the circle of life, apex predation, the fact that animals eat other animals, and the assertion that humans are on top of the food chain—all in an attempt to prove that the eating of animal flesh, chickens' eggs, and cow's milk by humans is as natural as the laws of physics.
Here we show that these declarations are not germane to the case for veganism. But even if they were, they are still defeated by taking a closer look at the assertions, which we do.
Assertions as to what is natural are not pertinent to the validity of veganism.
Simply put, the case for veganism is that it’s wrong to cause unnecessary harm to animals. Eating products made from animals harms animals, and because we don't need animal products to be healthy, the harm is unnecessary. The issues of harm and necessity are covered in our introduction to veganism
So even if the practice of eating animals were natural, even if it were somehow part of some nebulous circle of life, even if we were apex predators on top of the food chain, and even though animals do eat other animals—all that still does not justify causing unnecessary harm to others.
Naturalness says nothing about rightness.
The occurrence of a behavior in the natural world says nothing about the morality of the behavior. Rape, defined as forced sexual intercourse, is not unusual in other species. Amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals engage in the practice. Infanticide is committed by dolphins, lions, and baboons. We would not say these behaviors are moral, but we could not deny that they are natural in the sense that they occur in nature.
Animals that eat other animals do not have a choice.
The animals that eat other animals do not have a choice. If they are obligate carnivores, then they must eat animals for nutrition. If they are omnivores, then they are eating what is available to survive.
Most humans reading this, on the other hand, have available a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. And humans do not need to eat animals for nutrition, as shown in our reply to the assertion that we need animal products to be healthy. The fact that in some rare situational circumstances a human might need to eat an animal for survival does not justify eating an animal when it is not necessary.
Our natural abilities suggest we are not natural predators, much less apex predators.
We may be apex predators in the sense that we are not eaten by other species, but this is a consequence of our not living in a more natural environment, such as the wilderness, as well as our ability to use our mental faculties to avoid being eaten. It is not because of physical strength or agility, as is the case with general predators or apex predators, such as the African wild dog, the lion, or the tiger.
Natural predators, apex or not, have physical characteristics that allow them to seize and kill their prey, rip and tear their prey's flesh, and then eat the raw flesh. Humans are not so good at this. Although we have developed tools that overcome our physical limitations, we don't have what it takes to do this unaided. Also, we insist on cooking the flesh we eat, which no other species of flesh eater does.
Our physiology and anatomy suggest that flesh is not a natural food for humans.
A comparative review of the physiology and anatomy of animals reveals that humans match closely with herbivores, not omnivores or carnivores. We cover this topic in more depth in our page in response to the assertion that "humans are natural omnivores—we digest meat, have canine teeth, and have front-facing eyes."
As that post demonstrates, the length of our intestines, the structure of our teeth, nails, jaw, mouth opening, and facial muscles, our digestive enzymes, our stomach acidity, our ability to detoxify vitamin A, and our urine concentration all point toward humans being herbivorous.
There is nothing natural about how we get our meat, dairy, and eggs.
Selective breeding has resulted in farmed animals that produce far more flesh, far more eggs, and far more milk than their forebears would produce in a natural environment.
Dairy cows produce more than three times the amount of milk they did several decades ago, which burdens them and results in their development of unnaturally large udders.
An egg-laying hen produces more than 300 eggs per year, but the jungle fowl from which they were bred lay four to six eggs in a year. Also, laying hens are bred to lay large eggs, which they are not evolved for; this stresses their reproductive system and causes such problems as osteoporosis, bone breakage, and uterus prolapse.
The modern broiler chicken is unnaturally large and has been bred to grow at an unnaturally fast rate and have large breasts. This selective breeding causes numerous afflictions: leg disorders; skeletal, developmental, and degenerative diseases; heart and lung problems; breathing difficulty; and premature death.
Farmed animals are far from natural—they could not survive in a natural environment. In our contrived animal agriculture system, the concepts of "natural," "circle of life," "apex predation," and "food chain" simply don't apply. And because of this, the fact that animals in the wild eat other animals in the wild is also irrelevant.
We shouldn't base our morality on animal behavior.
We humans have moral agency, meaning we can judge the consequences of our actions. This implies a degree of responsibility, or duty, to do what is right. It seems that most people believe that nonhuman animals lack the ability to fully contemplate the moral consequences of their actions.
But even if they could, that does not mean we should model our morality on the behaviors of other species. Instead, we should use our moral agency to make ethical decisions, not invoke nebulous and impertinent concepts of what is natural to justify behaviors that unnecessarily harm others.
- Palmer, Craig T. “Rape in Nonhuman Animal Species: Definitions, Evidence, and Implications.” Journal of Sex Research26, no. 3 (August 1989): 355–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224498909551520
- Thompson, Helen. “Why Some Mammals Kill Babies of Their Own Kind.” Smithsonian, November 13, 2014. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-some-mammals-kill-babies-own-kind-180953318/
- Mills, Milton R. “The Comparative Anatomy of Eating.” VegSource Interactive Inc 26 (1996). https://www.scribd.com/doc/94656/The-Comparative-Anatomy-of-Eating
- Blayney, Don P. The Changing Landscape of US Milk Production. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2002. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/47162/17864_sb978_1_.pdf?v=41056
- Cheng, H.-W. “Breeding of Tomorrow’s Chickens to Improve Well-Being.” Poultry Science 89, no. 4 (April 1, 2010): 805–13. <a href="https://doi.org/10.3382/ps.2009-00361">https://doi.org/10.3382/ps.2009-00361 </a>
- Jamieson, Alastair. “Large Eggs Cause Pain and Stress to Hens, Shoppers Are Told,” March 11, 2009, sec. Finance. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/4971966/Large-eggs-cause-pain-and-stress-to-hens-shoppers-are-told.html
- Stevenson, Peter. “Leg and Heart Problems in Broiler Chickens.” Compassion in World Farming, January 2003. https://www.ciwf.org.uk/media/3818898/leg-and-heart-problems-in-broilers-for-judicial-review.pdf
- Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. University of California Press, 2004. 152-154
This article was originally authored by Greg Fuller and copyedited by Isaac Nickerson. The contents may have been edited since that time by others.