Two years ago, I wrote about the Hormel Corporation's effort to control the use of the word “natural” on product labels. One of my main points was that there's no such thing as “natural,” per se, only a hotly contested area as gray as the meat you eat, where corporations, government agencies, consumer advocates and others battle to decide who gets to define the word.
One of Hormel's arguments was that anything you do to an animal before it becomes magically transformed into chili should be considered natural. So, for example, if you add chemical preservatives to beef chili, that's not natural, but if you feed those same chemicals to a cow and then kill it and stuff it in cans, well, now, that's natural.
When it comes to animals, people really like to think they know what's natural. That might be because animals don't speak human very fluently and can't tell us in their own languages what they consider natural. I suppose if baby cows started begging us in, say, Italian, to spare them the slaughter, the veal market would take a hit.
A British man named Hugh Lofting wrote a series of books based on this sort of speculation, beginning in 1920 with, The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed. Most of us know Doctor Dolittle from the popular movies that were made based on Lofting's character, a veterinarian who can understand and talk to animals. Not many people remember that one of the things Doctor Dolittle did when he gained the power to communicate with animals was become a vegetarian.
But anybody who has a pet or spends any amount of time around non-human animals can tell you that they try their best in spite of the language barrier to communicate with us, and often in the form of letting us know what's cool with them and what isn't. One of my friends is a parrot, so I can assure you, for example, that, yes, a parrot does want a peanut, thank you very much, and, no, he does not want to have his nails clipped or, I suspect, be murdered.
Probably more than any other comment I hear when people find out that I'm a vegetarian is something along the lines of: “It's natural for humans to eat meat” or “Humans are naturally omnivorous.” Now and then someone will even go so far as saying, “It's natural for humans to eat animals.”
Just a hunch, but chalk up the popularity of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma in part to the fact that the title implies that we are naturally omnivorous and that what we eat is a dilemma rather than a travesty. The mere existence of that book promises a measure of relief to the guilty consciences of animal eaters in the same way that people believe in an ancient, primitive zombie myth as literal truth because “it is written.”
But when omnivores really get to defending the naturalness of their food choices, notice how quickly the religious principle of non-violence is compromised based on pseudo-science or the non-believer so willingly takes it on faith that animals were designed for his or her selfish pleasure.
The argument goes like this: Animals are food because we need to eat them for good health, or our teeth are designed for eating flesh, or there is some magical ingredient in animals not available in non-animal foods, or God wants us to eat animals, or humans are born hunters who own the top of the food chain. In other words, some form of “it's natural.”
Well, let me reiterate that naturalness is not self-evident and that these arguments are spurious. Let's turn once again to nature itself to see how even the most entrenched notion of what is natural can be confounded:
It was recently reported in the journal New Scientist that a new and remarkable species of spider has been discovered in Costa Rica: Bagheera Kiplingi, the first vegetarian spider ever identified.
Think about that: Until B. Kiplingi, more than 40,000 species of spider had been found, studied, classified and named, and all of them were insect eaters. If, as recently as last month, you were to have told any scientist who studies insects (shout out to my cousin Marc Klowden, author of Physiological Systems of Insects, woot, woot!) that there exists a spider that eats only the protein-rich tips of Acacia plants, you probably would've been laughed at. And yet, in fact, B. Kiplingi are such devoted plant munchers that they spend all their time trying to outwit the ants that guard their favorite food source—and they don't eat the ants.
“It is utterly surreal,” said Christopher Meehan, a biologist who studied the vegan spider in Central America, quoted in New Scientist. And retired Swiss arachnologist Rainer Foelix told ScienceNOW Daily News that it's like finding “a tiger who eats mainly grass.”
B. Kiplingi is clearly instructive of how diverse, how flexible, how freaky and unnatural nature can be.
Of course, we veggies could play the “It's natural” game with you and point out that we are more closely related to very powerful vegetarian primates like gorillas than we are to carnivores like tigers, or that our digestive systems bear little similarity to those of carnivores, or that our teeth are better for tearing open an avocado than a lobster, or that all the nutrients you need to live well are in non-animal sourced foods, or that studies have shown that vegetarians, and vegans specifically, are healthier than animal consumers.
But rather than worry about what's natural, let's instead turn to the stories of Doctor Dolittle and B. Kiplingi as food for thought: The freaks of nature and of imagination are here to remind us that the most natural thing of all is possibility.
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