Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/December 1911/Is Vegetarianism Capable of World-Wide Application?

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VEGETARIAN'S are to be classed into four groups:

Vegetarians from motives of gustatory taste.
Vegetarians from motives of esthetic taste.
Vegetarians from motives of physiological opinion.
Vegetarians from motives of ethical opinion.

Some individuals, particularly in youth and in advanced years, dislike the flavor of flesh. Esthetic vegetarianism is common; and much that in the minds of the adherents of this exclusive diet is regarded as physiological opinion is really esthetic revulsion. The publication of the "Jungle" made many converts to vegetarianism. The centralization of slaughtering has intensified the natural aversion to the process, since, in addition to the lack of hygienic precautions that once prevailed in the large packing houses, the mass of gore as exemplified in the large establishments multiplies the esthetic revulsion. This is due to a trait in human nature familiar to every psychologist and sociologist. It has been difficult to arouse in this country a proper general appreciation of the extent of the yearly loss of life due to preventable dangers of machinery. The daily deaths among employees, here and there geographically, does not impress the public mind. But when through a defect of machinery a score of lives are obliterated in a wreck, the public is appalled.

Vegetarians from motives of supposed physiological opinion are very numerous. The physiological reasoning of the majority of these individuals is not based upon a study of physiology in any sense of the word. It is too often merely an expression of that license of democracy, according to which in this free country everybody feels the right to a definite opinion on every subject, without having studied it—a license almost as widely utilized by the college-bred as by the uneducated man, and contrary to common prejudice as widely utilized by men as by women. To the individual adherent of this school of vegetarianism, the exclusion of flesh from the diet is based upon the conviction that it is harmful to digestion or inimical to nutrition. A sense of personal experience (often purely esthetic, sometimes merely an idiosyncrasy, at times imaginary) is all too easily expanded into a generalization in the untrained mind. That the contrary experience can occur is made evident by the reported instance of a young man in the Alps who from childhood has lived solely on milk, excluding all meats, vegetables and fruits. The physiological vegetarian is usually inconsistent, in that milk, cheese, butter and eggs are not excluded, and very often meat stocks and animal fats are used in the cooking of vegetables. Reference will be made later to the physiological grounds upon which consistency in this matter is to be judged.

Philosophical vegetarianism rests upon the simple ethical proposition that man has no right to preserve his existence, enlarge his comforts or advance his material and spiritual welfare at the expense of the life of animals. Animals of all classes are to the ethical vegetarian, as in the Indian religion, as fully entitled to life as man; the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is interpreted to apply generally to all types of animal life, and the slaughter of animals for the service of man is regarded as an expression of brute force which is inhuman. There is in this proposition an ethical appeal which finds response in every heart. The historical opinion of mankind, outside of India, holds that the right of man to kill animals is one vested in the higher moral and mental position of man among the animals, grounded in a higher importance in the broadest sense. The right to kill animals is, however, quite universally confined to instances in which higher human needs are positively and directly advanced. Needless killing is by all cultivated peoples condemned (if less consistently in practise than in theory) and the advance from savagery to civilization has been characterized by progressive cultivation of the regard for life. Our societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals and the Audubon societies are the public expressions of the ethical feeling that we owe it to animals, and to ourselves, to protect animals from suffering and from indiscriminate and purposeless slaughter. But deeply rooted in the minds of the mass of cultivated ethical men and women is the conviction that mankind has the right to be fed and clothed at the cost of the lives of animals; the domestication of animals is held almost universally to include the right of slaughter as well as the right of service.

To be consistent, the philosophical vegetarian must not only abjure the use of flesh in the diet, he must also abstain from the utilization of products of animal bodies, the procurement of which entails the death of the animal. Thus his articles of clothing, personal effects, household furnishings and implements of trade and occupation may bear no stain of blood. It is wholely inconsistent in one who keeps the hands and feet warm with the skin of an animal to reproach another for keeping the body warm by the use of meat as a fuel. Other fuels are truly available; so are other means for the retention of the heat of the body; the skin of man has no privilege above the other tissues of his body. The Indian soldier who refused to use ammunition greased with beef suet was entirely consistent. That it may be easy to feed the human body on food other than flesh and difficult to clothe the human feet without leather can have no bearing on the ethics or logic of the question. If man has the right to kill animals for his use, what is to constitute necessary use will always remain a matter of more or less individual judgment, as the movement for the protection of bird-life clearly illustrates. An aigrette may seem more necessary to the woman of fashion than are leather shoes to her less evolved peasant sister. From this point of consistency therefore no departure can be permitted. Here the consistent vegetarian and the consistent anti-vivisectionist meet, both resting the ultimate argument upon the broad proposition that man has not the right to nourish himself, clothe himself or save his life at the expense of the life of an animal. On the other hand, consistency does not demand of the ethical vegetarian, as of the physiological vegetarian, the exclusion of milk, cheese, butter and eggs from the diet. Although the slaughter of animals is from the ethical point of view condemned, the domestication of animals for their service is not excluded, since it can be easily shown that domestication yields to animals security from beasts of prey, protection from the elements and provision for food beyond the natural expectations, thus tending to prolong life as well as to promote the well-being of the animals. The ethical vegetarian is not concerned with physiological opinions bearing on the healthfulness of plant as against animal albumin, just as the consistent anti-vivisectionist is not concerned with the question whether vivisection has resulted in knowledge that leads to the alleviation of human suffering, the cure of human disease and the prolongation of human life; even though animal flesh be the most healthful of foods, even though vivisection lead to the cure of human disease, man has no right to these at the cost of animal life.

When now we turn to the modern science of nutrition, and ask the question: Is a vegetarian diet physiologically correct, adapted to the best purposes of a normal life, capable of sustaining the highest standards of growth, health, endurance and longevity? We receive a reply couched in no uncertain terms. Yes, a properly selected and prepared vegetarian diet meets completely the highest requirements of a diet. The technical reply to the question, stated in untechnical terms, would yield something like the following elucidation of the dynamics of nutrition. The three main classes of foodstuffs are sugars (including starches), fats and albumins, using the last word to correspond to what the physiologist terms protein. Since the fats and sugars, whose role is largely that of fuel, are interchangeable to a large extent, and since the vegetable fats are in every respect equivalent to the animal fats, the question of the adaptability of a vegetarian diet resolves itself into the concrete question whether plant albumin is the equivalent of animal albumin as tissue-builder. The chemical investigations into the constitution of albumins, carried out largely during the past two decades, have taught us that albumins are composed of simpler substances, termed amino-acids; the different native albumins are composed of many amino-acids in different proportions; and all the chief plant and animal albumins are in general composed of the same amino-acids, though in different proportions. These amino-acids we term the "building-stones" of albumin, and, as stated, the plant albumins contain all the essential amino-acids, the same building-stones that are contained in the animal albumins. When an albumin is digested, it is split (torn down) into the component building-stones. These buildingstones are then absorbed, and with these the body, displaying a specific biological selection, builds or forms its own peculiar albumins. In other words, the building-stones are common to all albumins, the chemical and biological differences in the albumins rest in the architecture and not in the building-stones. Many types of houses may be constructed of brick of a common type; and so many kinds of albumin are formed of building-stones of common types; and from the common albumins of plants all the building-stones needed in the formation of the human albumins are to be obtained. It is clear therefore that it is quite immaterial to the human body whether it forms its tissue albumins from amino-acids derived from the digestion of animal or plant albumin, i. e., these are equivalent in their nutritive values. These purely physiological and chemical data, abundantly sustained by laboratory researches and animal experimentation, confirm as well as elucidate the now widely made human experience that a properly selected and prepared vegetarian diet is a complete diet for all conditions and periods of life, beyond the lactation term of infancy.

Is a purely vegetarian diet better than a mixed diet, a diet containing a reasonable amount of albumin of animal origin? To make the question physiologically fair (since meats are often hugely overeaten), the ration of albumin in the two diets must be such as scientific investigations have shown to be sufficient and normal. Possibly a gram of albumin per kilo of body weight per day (equivalent to eleven ounces of meat per day for a body of 150 pounds) may be accepted as the normal total ration of albumin. There are absolutely no data of scientific nature or reliable observations in practical experience tending to show that either of these diets is in any way preferable physiologically to the other. It is apparently immaterial to the body of a hundred and fifty pounds whether in a properly selected and prepared diet the 2.2 ounces of albumin are exclusively of plant origin or partly derived from flesh. Since all cereals and vegetables contain albumin, a mixed diet always contains both plant and animal albumin, the ration of the latter of which would naturally run six to eight ounces of meat per day. I have used the words properly selected and prepared. It is obvious that the meats must be free of decomposition and properly cooked. It is on the other hand, possible for a vegetarian diet to disagree, if, as is often the case, the attempt is made to derive the larger part of the needed albumins from the legumins, peas and beans. For the vegetarian above all others, bread is the staff of life, and cereal albumin must remain the chief dependence of the consistent vegetarian.

Modern physiology then teaches that there is no demonstrable basis for the so-called physiological vegetarianism. It teaches further, however, that the assumed distinction, made for the convenience of arbitrary vegetarians, between the flesh of animals and the albuminous products of animals (milk, cheese and eggs) is unfounded. The casein of milk and the albumin of the egg are as distinctive and specific biologically as are the muscular tissues of the animals from which they are derived. Every reason advanced, or assumed to exist, opposed to the use of beef as albumin for the human diet must hold with equal force against the use of casein of the cow's milk; every argument against the breast of chicken must hold against the egg of chicken. As a matter of fact, as stated above, there is no physiologically valid argument against either beef or casein, against second joint or white of egg.

Since it is apparent that physiological vegetarianism is merely a scientific error and that vegetarians from gustatory taste or from esthetic considerations are merely instances of arbitrary individualism, ethical vegetarianism alone remains to be considered. This is in its tenets and conclusions a logical system. Is it susceptible of consistent, world-wide application? We will not attempt to discuss the large question as to man's relations, biologically and ethically, to the lower animals, concerning which the Christian and Buddhistic teachings are diametrically opposed. Assuming that the system were rigidly and consistently applied to the entire population of the earth, two main problems would be presented.

Is the production of plant albumin on the earth sufficient to meet the albumin needs of the earth's inhabitants?

What transformations would result in the customs, industry and commerce of the world, in the sociology and economics of the nations of the earth?

Before these two questions can be discussed we must be clear as to exactly what would be demanded in the carrying out of consistent ethical vegetarianism. It would be permissible to domesticate animals, to employ them in service and to utilize the products of their life. It would not be permissible to kill animals either for food or for the products of their bodies. The use of milk, butter, cheese and eggs would be permitted; the utilization of fur and leather would be excluded. An exception might be claimed in the case of leather, that it would be permissible to use the pelts and hides of animals that had died of old age and of natural disease. Practically, however, this would be of little difference; the leather made from the hides of animals dead of old age would be of so low value as to be almost worthless; and the use of the hides of animals dead of disease, many forms of which are infectious and communicable to man, would be fraught with danger and difficult of execution. Mankind would have to face the problem of clothing without the aid of leather and fur.

Can the surface of the earth (for the fishes of the sea would have to be excluded) raise enough grain, fruits, nuts and vegetables, added to dairy products, to meet the albumin needs of the present earth's population? Unhesitatingly it may be stated that the area of the earth's surface now under cultivation could not, with the present methods of agriculture, dependably produce enough plant albumin to meet the needs of the present population. Very large areas of the earth's surface at present produce only grasses, shrubs and trees. Man can neither graze nor browse. At present these plants are consumed by cattle, goats, sheep and swine, whose albumin is utilized in turn by man. It is through the mediation of these animals that the vegetation of enormous areas of land is made available for mankind. At present probably one half of the albumin needs of mankind are met by animal albumin. To meet these needs with plant albumin and dairy products the world's production of grains and legumins would need to be doubled at the least. It is quite certain that this could not, with the uttermost efforts of the world's population, be dependably accomplished at present. It is possible that it might be accomplished, with the present methods on the present acreage of tillable soil, if no untoward manifestations of the elements occurred (such as severe winters, unseasonable frosts, floods, droughts, storms, excessive heat), with a dependable rain-fall in both time and space. But mankind would be yearly at the mercy of the elements. To meet fully and safely the needs of the growing population, four scientific advances of monumental magnitude would need to be attained.

The methods of the cultivation of the soil must be so intensified and revolutionized through scientific investigations as to make the yield of the soil less disproportional to its potential.

The conservation of water must be accomplished on a scale never before dreamed of.

The world-wide ravages of the parasitic diseases of plants must be checked.

The conversion of inert atmospheric nitrogen into potential soil nitrogen must be accomplished upon a vast scale through microbic and electro-chemical agencies.

The results of the accomplishment of these four advances, judged merely from present scientific knowledge of the possibilities in the four directions, would result in quadrupling the yield of the present area of cultivation, and in transferring to the state of cultivation vast tracts now untillable or even waste. The difficulties would not be technical, but human. To accomplish them the present intelligence of the human race, the dependable intelligence of the working race of mankind, would be wholly insufficient; the race has not attained to-day the scientific stature necessary to reach and pluck these fruits of knowledge. For the present, therefore, it is certain and beyond speculation that to place the human race upon the basis of ethical vegetarianism would be to expose the race to the mercy of nature, just as the vegetarian population of India is yearly at the mercy of the yield of grain.

To dispense with the products of animal bodies would be a task trivial in comparison with the problem of feeding. With wools, cottons, linens and the other plant fabrics, with metals and woods, all could be accomplished without great technical difficulties, were preconceptions once obliterated. From the standpoint of ethical vegetarianism, the wearing of fur, kid gloves and leather shoes constitutes fratricide. The number of animal and bird lives sacrificed to-day for purposes of superfluous comfort and for compliance with the vanities of fashion makes a striking numerical showing contrasted with the number of animals slaughtered for the supply of food. The difficulties would lie in clothing the extremities of out-door workmen; but the problem would be solved without difficulty in a world rich in inventive devices though poor in large scientific conceptions.

The results of the world-wide installation of vegetarianism to the sociological and economic institutions of the world need but to be sketched to be appreciated. The race of swine, as a domesticated family would be obliterated, and the number of cattle regulated by the requirements for dairy products. On the other hand, the number of horses would need to be augmented to meet the needs of enlarged agriculture; and the number of sheep to meet the increased demands for wool. The population of the world would tend to shift in latitude, and the commerce of the world would be revolutionized to meet the alterations in the currents and articles of trade. Fashions in dress and house furnishings would be strikingly changed. There is no need to dilate further upon these features. Man is to-day a beast of prey. Just as the whole map of biology would be changed in the day when "the lion and the lamb shall lie down together," so the whole face of civilization would be given transformed features in the time when man regards the animal as a brother and not as a prey. Man is a beast of prey because thus the preservation of existence is made easy; vegetarianism would make it difficult, and will therefore not be adopted. This carries its personal lesson: I, the vegetarian, must not be vain; because it is the meat-eating of my brother that makes vegetarianism possible to me.