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Is Meat-Eating A Conservation Tactic?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about wildlife conservation psychology, especially in light of last month’s TEDxDeExtinction event. How do we convince human animals that other animals are worth protecting? Modern, ethical zoos have long made claims about the effectiveness of zoo visits and their in-house educational programs on learning outcomes and on conservation attitudes. Does the presence of live animals at a zoo result in better learning outcomes compared with the stuffed animals at a natural history museum? Or filmed animals on a movie screen displaying their natural behaviors in high definition and in a million colors? These are empirical questions, and they are ones that deserve the attention of researchers from the psychology, conservation, and science communication worlds.

But this week, I stumbled across a post that chef and writer Michael Ruhlman wrote in May 2012: Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat. It takes – perhaps unintentionally – a very different approach to the question of conservation psychology.

The crux of his argument seems to be that humans evolved to eat meat. And indeed we have. Cooking, as Richard Wrangham has argued, may have been among the more critical advances in human culture that allowed us to become the species we are today. The reasoning goes that cooking meat allows the human digestive system to capture more calories per bite of meat than it would be able to metabolize from raw meat. That, Wrangham says, allowed our brains to grow, which in turn allowed our societies to grow, since bigger brains meant that we were able to keep track of our friends and enemies more efficiently. Here’s Ruhlman:

…the cooking of food may well have been the mechanism that tripped our ancient genes into our current human ones. He suggests convincingly that consuming calorie-dense food (attainable only by cooking it) grew our brains, gave our ancestors the health needed to spread their genes, and socialized us (cooking food required cooperation, which led to small societies that could organize and protect themselves). Meat was a main source of this calorie-dense food.

To put it as simply as possible, then, to give up eating what made us who we are possibly endangers us genetically and socially.

As a self-described meat eater, I’m not sure I buy this argument. For one thing, it relies on the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something occurs in nature does not make it ethically permissible. Moral or ethical questions of this sort are the result of culture (they might be better thought of as “conventions” rather than “morals”), not of biology.

But Ruhlman goes on to make another argument: “If spit-roasted dodo bird had been delicious to eat, I’d wager the dodo bird would still exist.” And, further down in his post, “…provided the animals are treated with care, our eating them ensures their survival, life’s ultimate impulse, no matter the form.”

I suspect he’s basically right here, at least from a pragmatic gene’s-eye-view perspective.

Ignore, for a moment, the horrific way that a large proportion of factory farming is practiced, at least in America. Pretend that the animals we eat are raised and slaughtered ethically and sustainably. Would “farming” tigers, or elephants, or chimpanzees for human consumption* be an effective conservation tactic? What about critters that were less intelligent (measured against human intelligence, which is admittedly a problematic metric to use), like endangered bats or tree frogs or California condors?

Here’s one thing I know: if it were profitable and they could be ground up and shaped into burgers, McDonalds would have de-extincted the woolly mammoth long ago.

Image via Flickr/Marji Beach.

*Note: Let me be perfectly clear, in order to discourage any wild accusations in the comments, that I’m not advocating for this approach; just engaging in an interesting thought experiment.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. M Tucker 5:10 pm 04/12/2013

    I saw a video of a chimpanzee troop on a hunting trip. They were after monkeys. It didn’t look too ‘humane’ if you can apply that word to chimps. After seeing evidence for the buffalo jumps used by Native Americans I have always wondered if the buffalo was not traumatized. I have to believe that if our ancestors 200,000 years ago could have created large cattle farms and turned meat gathering into a factory process they would have been delighted.

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  2. 2. N a g n o s t i c 7:11 pm 04/12/2013

    Ethics shmethics. I eat meat because it’s tasty.

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  3. 3. jplatt 7:25 pm 04/12/2013

    “If spit-roasted dodo bird had been delicious to eat, I’d wager the dodo bird would still exist.” Not the strongest argument. Heirloom tomatoes taste much, much better than beefsteak tomatoes, but what can you get at the grocery store? Many meats fit the same model. The foods we raise and sell in this modern world are chosen not by taste but by ease of growth, husbandry, transportation and storage.

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  4. 4. Left Flank 7:37 pm 04/12/2013

    What about the schmuck argument: certain animals just became dinner. Some wolves discovered the benefits of living with humans; others stayed wild. What if the ancestors of cattle and chickens lost the same lottery, not because they were tasty or nutrition-rich, but because they were no match for human hunters and were forced into domestication. As far as I know every domesticated animal species has wild cousins, some of which are just as tasty. And, there are wild species that taste good, but whales are really hard to domesticate and snakes don’t like people at all.

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  5. 5. Baresark 9:32 pm 04/12/2013

    This is a fascinating perspective. I never really thought about it, but admittedly don’t consider the ethics of eating meat. The fact is that people need so much protein to live and prosper, and not all vegetable exclusive macrobiotic diets could provide the necessary protein. That said, the theory of human persistence hunting also proves that we don’t need to have 30-40% of our caloric intake come from protein. Humans still prosper the most with a plant based diet where the bulk of calories comes from carbohydrates. 100k years ago, meat was a rare treat as it was not as readily available as plant sources of food, but it was sought after and they knew that the meat as well as the fat is a valuable food source.

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  6. 6. reedwade 12:41 am 04/13/2013

    We change (by selective breeding) the animals we raise for food — so, not a perfect scheme if we’re wanting to actually preserve endangered species as a side effect.

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  7. 7. b sci 9:49 pm 04/13/2013

    Who needs thought experiments when there is a real world example? The passenger pigeon is extinct and hunting for its meat played a major role in extinction. Same for the near extinction of American Bison, which only survived due to preserves in the wilds & in zoos that prevented hunting until the population sufficiently grew back.

    Also, the calorie argument is just thin. Assuming it was practical, what would one “farm” carnivores, like tigers, on? It would be more calorie rich to just eat the animals one would have fed the tigers.

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  8. 8. Kren L 12:28 am 04/14/2013

    I seems The crux of the argument is based on when we began cooking. While the first forepits were from about 3-400,000 years ago it wasn’t until 125,000 years ago that fire pits were universally found around human habitation around the world.
    A fire pit which demonstrates a mastery of fire and the possibility to cook.
    By this time the brain had already reached its largest size and around 80,000 years ago reduced in size.
    Basically his argument against not cooking is flawed and we may have harmed ourselves by beginning to cook.

    Cooking is a good way to avoid disease.

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  9. 9. naya8 2:19 am 04/14/2013

    I am convinced that humans should not abandon eating meat just because there are a few people in the world calling for a new “religion”.It’s very plausible that our brains were evolved and reached this form of complex structure due to eating cooked meat. However; I seek to get that meat not through causing any pain to the slaghtered animal, and we should do our best to eat them without leting them feel the death.

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  10. 10. augustogr 11:17 am 04/15/2013

    That’s the same reasoning why saying using paper damages forests and environment: a good amount of forest trees are there, and do their job cleaning our air, only so they can be turned into paper. I guess the world horse population was larger at the middle of the 19th century than now. We needed them to move our goods and ourselves. We should find ways to healthy win-win strategies if we mean to really help saving this planet. Augusto

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