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.