Other Vegan Views articles
Are We Natural Carnivores? by Harry Mather, Vegan Views 80 (Summer/Autumn 1998)

Several times recently I have heard on the media people saying "I know we are carnivores but..." or even 'I know we are natural carnivores but...' and perhaps make a plea for a more compassionate treatment of animals. What shocks me is that these people are educated, well read and must be reflecting what our intellectual leaders accept as fact. But, looking at the facts we can find no reason to suppose that the human digestive system was designed for the eating of flesh and we can point to the many facts that point to the human digestive system being designed for the assimilation of plant foods. So the statement 'we are naturally carnivores' merely means 'I and the majority of people I know regularly eat meat and think that this is the basis of a good meal'. Certainly most humans are able to digest flesh foods and gain nourishment from them, but carnivorous dogs are able to adapt and thrive on a plant based diet, so this only proves that digestive systems can adapt to different diets.

The 19th Century scientist, T.H. Huxley, who was a staunch defender of Darwin's theories against the denunciations of Church leaders, made a special study of the physiology of carnivores compared to creatures with other diets and prepared a list showing that carnivores have completely different systems from humans.

I well remember being in a fishing village where I saw a fisherman throw a fish to an eagerly waiting cat. The cat caught it deftly although the fish was comparatively large, swallowed it, apparently whole and walked away, contented and happy. It reminded me of an occasion long before, when I had eaten a part of a small fish with the bones still in it and suffered pain for quite a while afterwards. I am told that carnivores have in their stomach hydrochloric acid ten times the concentration that humans have. This means they break down flesh (and even fish bones) much more quickly than we can. Another important difference is that they have comparatively shorter intestines than humans have. As a result carnivores will assimilate flesh more quickly and efficiently, and also eliminate it more quickly.

I have been told that pork is the hardest flesh food to digest and can lie in the stomach for up to 4 hours before it is completely digested, yet many cultures eat pork, although Moses, in his wisdom, banned it for his followers. What an ordeal eating meat must be for the human digestion! Other flesh foods also take longer for our stomachs to break down than plant foods do. Dead flesh begins to putrefy in a matter of hours after the death of the animal, which is why such care has to be taken to keep meat refrigerated. The long time that it takes for flesh to be digested by humans can only lead to a danger of putrefaction occurring in our digestive systems, especially during the long time spent in the large intestine. It is no coincidence that vegetarians are ten times less likely to suffer from cancer of the bowel than meat eaters are.

Carnivores kill their prey and usually eat it whilst still warm. Human hunters carry their prey home and cook it with tasty herbs before they will eat it. The 19th Century author, Charles Lamb wrote a famous essay in which he suggested that roast pork had first been discovered when a pig had accidentally been burnt in a fire. There may be a germ of truth in the notion. Humans probably used fire at the entrance of caves to keep out wild animals. Maybe one day they discovered an animal burnt on the fire and tasted it. Maybe this happened at a time when plant foods were scarces. We can only conjecture.

What is commonly accepted is that pre-historic humans were 'hunter-gatherers'. Whilst the women of the tribe gathered fruits, plants and herbs, the men are supposed to have gathered together to track and slay an animal for an occasional feast. This viewpoint has been put forward by male, meat-eating anthropologists who suggested that the cunning needed to hunt the animal helped develop intelligence and social skills. The view of a female, vegetarian anthropologist (Barbara Nolke) is that the women of the tribe, who had to identify and know where to find the various plants and herbs and study their use in nutrition and healing were the ones with the more developed intelligence. She also suggests that humans were more likely to have taken to meat by scavenging the corpses left by the carnivores who would be more efficient at hunting. Even so, there seems to be no evidence of animals being eaten uncooked, not even among cannibals and we cannot be classes as 'natural carnivores', if we had to wait for the discovery of fire before we could eat meat.

Turning to our digestive system, this starts in the mouth. Remember that the cat swallowed the fish without chewing it. It caught the fish with its jagged, interlocking teeth that hold the prey firm. Human teeth in the same back position are flat molars (that means grinders) used for the grinding of grains. Our jaws can move in a backward and forward motion and also from side to side, ideal for grinding. At the same time, our saliva produces enzymes to start breaking down the starches. 'But surely we have canine teeth?' someone invariably asks. Look at a cat or a dog's canine teeth and you will see that they project down further than the others, like those of the imaginary, blood-sucking vampire, so our cannot have any use for attacking prey and our jaws do not project forward from the face as they do with cats and dogs. Our front teeth are well adapted for biting fruit and cutting up vegetables.

As previously mentioned our gastric juices contain less hydrochloric acid than with carnivores, but are well adapted for the digestion of starches. Our longer colon is suited for a slow process of digestion extracting a great variety of essential nutrients. The study of human nutrition has advanced greatly in recent years and continues to discover the importance of minute quantities of certain minerals and vitamins, their interconnectedness and the role of various enzymes in the digestive process. Plant foods show themselves to be well adapted for providing the wide range of minerals and vitamins that our bodies require, unless perhaps when they are over refined or overcooked. We should be more conscious of the importance of sound nutrition, rather than the crude notion of filling the hunger gap with a steak or sausage. By the comparative study of populations eating different diets, modern nutritionists have pointed out the benefits of the 'Mediterranean diet' which is very low in animal fats, but high in vegetable oils, relying on pulses and grains (such as pasta) and consuming many fruits and vegetables. A comparison of people in the South of Italy where plant foods abound with the unfortunate Finns who have to depend more on animal products and fats show that these are massively prone to heart disease. Those living in the frozen Arctic wastes, such as the Inuit or Eskimos, and have to rely exclusively on animals for their food, die in their forties and suffer from osteoporosis (weak bones due to a shortage of calcium). Vegans, contrary to popular expectation, have a plentiful source of calcium in plant foods, providing they eat a varied diet, and are less prone to osteoporosis.

Vegans do not have to depend on cooking. Some foods which vegans eat may be digested after being cooked, but a surprising quantity and diversity of foods can be eaten raw and are probably more nutritious, in their raw, fresh state. Fruits and nuts, obviously can be eaten raw and also the vegetables we eat in salads, including grated carrots and beetroot, also other vegetables not normally included in salads. Onions and garlic can be eaten raw, but maybe you should experiment with the latter only when you will be alone for a while afterwards. Grains can be flaked and eaten raw as in a Muesli. Pulses in their raw state would appear to be a problem but many of them may become easily digestible if you first allow them to sprout (as in Chinese mung bean sprouts). They will sprout after being soaked and kept moist and warm for a few days. Peas and lentils sprout readily and are surprisingly sweet.

Our imagining ourselves to be carnivores may spring from our idea that carnivores are the most successful animal group; that the lion is the 'King of the Jungle'. This is far from the case. Deer with their antlers and swift movements can fend off an attacking lion or tiger. I have seen a cat flee from a solitary attacking bird. Herbivores are by far more numerous and can therefore arguably be considered as far more successful, which is just as well for the carnivores who could not exist without the herbivores they feed on.

Carnivores attack a herd of grazing herbivores and only catch the slowest and weakest. This action results in culling the weaker members of the herd, leaving the fitter ones to breed and maintain a higher level of fitness in the herd. The role of carnivores, far from being some dominant species, is that of one dependent on and subservient to other animals - playing a useful role but not supreme.

Neither, of course, can humans be classes as 'natural herbivores' for again these have quite different digestive systems, which include multiple stomachs, as with cattle and sheep, and these can efficiently digest the coarse grasses. Donkeys even eat thistles with great delight, but I would not recommend them as a suitable diet for humans. Ruminants first swallow their food into one stomach, then later sit calmly and chew it again for a second digestive process. I am sure that some humans would like to eat their food twice over, but unfortunately we are not adapted for that.

Some people claim that we should be classed as omnivores, because we can subsist on a wide variety of foods. This suggestion could lead us into the false notion that we could live by eating just the stems of grasses as herbivores can, I doubt whether anyone would agree with that, although we can of course digest the grains of grasses, such as oats, wheat, etc. Since certain herbs and berries are highly poisonous to humans, the classification of omnivore would appear to have a limit somewhere.

However, there is a group of animals that we closely resemble and that is the primates or apes. It is said that we share 99% plus of our genes with chimpanzees, and it would be difficult to get closer than that. Chimpanzees, like many apes, rely mainly on fruit and green shoots for their nutrition. Most apes have been classified as frugivorous, which means eaters of fruits and nuts, and they also eat some vegetation. Japanese soldiers, who had to survive in the jungle, watched what the apes ate and did the same, and they survived because of that. Those who watch Nature Films may point out that they have seen apes scooping out ants and eating them (would you fancy that?) and even hunting other apes in order to eat them. Perhaps these are on the way to developing the bad habits we can find in some humans, but, as hopefully with humans, we can assume that this is not connected with nutritional needs. Many of the great apes, such as gorillas, are also frugivorous. They are very strong and powerful but have a gentle and caring disposition. With their superior intelligence and great strength, these great apes can surely claim the title of 'King of the Jungle' and be worthy of our admiration and emulation. The scavenging lions and tigers can be relegated to their roles of refuse collectors.

One thing is clear in my mind: we are not 'natural carnivores' and until we understand this, our bodies and our minds will not find true health, nor will we attain the civilised standard that we deserve as from our position at the top of the Primates League, nor will our planet attain the order and harmony necessary for it to thrive and remain functional; for what we eat affects not only our bodies and minds, but, owing to the vast proliferation of humans on the globe, what we eat has a great impact on the whole of the earth - but that would lead to a whole new chapter to explain.

Related Vegan Views articles...
Cross-reference: Nutrition and Health