Are we meat eaters or vegetarians? Part II

Meat eating made us human. The anthropological evidence strongly supports the idea that the addition of increasingly larger amounts of meat in the diet of our predecessors was essential in the evolution of the large human brain.  Our large brains came at the metabolic expense of our guts, which shrank as our brains grew.

In April 1995 an article appeared in the journal Current Anthropology that was an intellectual tour de force and, in my view, an example of a perfect theoretical paper.  “The  Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis” (ETH) by Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler demonstrated by a brilliant thought experiment that our species didn’t evolve to eat meat but evolved because it ate meat.

The ETH is an example of the kind of scientific detective work I love.  In fact, this paper is one of my all time favorites.  (An amazing bit of trivia about this paper is that it almost didn’t get published.  I had the opportunity to talk with Leslie Aiello at a meeting a few months ago, and she told me the journal was reluctant to publish the paper because the editors thought it too technical for their readers.  I suspect they also found it too controversial.  Now I’m sure they’re glad they published because I would imagine it is the most cited of all the papers ever published in Current Anthropology.)  The authors methodically lay the scientific foundation for their experiment, then, like Sherlock Holmes, progress step by step, accumulating little pieces of data until they reach the ineluctable conclusion that meat eating made us human. I would like to walk us all through their thought processes as laid out in their brilliant paper.

Let’s start with the problem.

For years anthropologists have speculated about why humans developed such large brains so quickly – from softball size to what we have now in just a short 2 million years.  Below is a graphic showing hominid/human brain growth over time.

ETH brain growth

A number of hypotheses have arisen to answer this question.  Some say that humans developed large brains because they had to contend with problems involving group size, others posit that large brains came about as a consequence of developing complex foraging strategies, others yet say the development of a social or Machiavellian  intelligence was the driving factor.  And even others say that the complexities of learning to hunt expanded brain size.

Any or all of these hypotheses may be valid, but the problem isn’t really as much a matter of why as it is a matter of how.  Other primates deal with groups and have complex foraging strategies; and many deal with social problems within their groups, and some even hunt.  Yet they still have small brains.  (Granted, their brains are larger for their size than those of other mammals, but primates sport small brains as compared to humans.)  How did the human brain grow?

This isn’t an easy question to answer because of the thermogenics involved.  Brains consume a large amount of fuel and, consequently, throw off an enormous amount of heat for their size.  The metabolic rate of brain tissue is nine times that of the average of  the metabolic rate of the rest of the body.

So what? you may say.  So we’ve got a big, hot-running, energy-burning brain.  What difference does that make?  It’s reflected in our overall metabolic rate, right?  Well, sort of, and therein lies the crux of the problem.  As we will see below, our total metabolic rate – even with our huge brains – is the same as that of any other animal our size. Or to say it another way, animals our size with much smaller brains have the same metabolic rate that we do with our huge brains.  This fact was the starting point for the authors of the ETH.  So let’s start there as well.

In keeping with a great scientific tradition, Aiello and Wheeler were able to see what they saw because they stood on the shoulders of giants who came before them.  In their case the giant was Max Kleiber, an animal physiologist working at the University of California at Davis, who published a groundbreaking paper in 1947 and a scholarly text titled The Fire of Life in 1961.  Kleiber’s work involved the meticulous measurement of the metabolic rates of numerous animals, including humans.  As he plotted the various metabolic rates, he discovered an extremely strong correlation between the mass of an animal and its metabolic rate.  Kleiber found that this relationship held constant across numerous species.  His October 1947 paper in Physiological Reviews simply titled “Body Size and Metabolic Rate” was a classic.  By using the equations Kleiber worked out, the metabolic rate of virtually any animal could be determined simply by knowing the animal’s body size.  Or, as Kleiber put it in the paper:

Does a horse produce more heat per day than a rat or do some rats produce more heat than do some horses?  Almost anybody who understands what is meant by “heat production per day” will not hesitate to give the correct answer and will even be convinced that the daily rate of heat production of men or sheep is greater than that of rats, but smaller than that of horses.  Thus most people (among those who understand the question) are convinced that in general the bigger  homeotherms produce more heat per day than the smaller homeotherms, that, in other words, the metabolic rate of homeotherms is positively correlated to body size.

The answer to the next question: “does a horse produce more heat per day per kilogram of body weight than a rat?” requires some biological training.  Most biologists, however, will not hesitate to answer that the rate of heat production per unit body weight of the big animal is less than that of the small animal.

The positive correlation between metabolic rate and body size, and the negative correlation between metabolic rate per unit weight and body size, establish two limits between which we expect to find the rate of heat production [basal metabolic rate] of a horse if we know the rate of heat production of a rat.  We expect the metabolic rate of the horse to be somewhere between that of the rat, and that of the rat times the the ratio of horse weight to rat weight, provided of course that we do not regard these two correlations as simply accidental.

If we are firmly convinced that the metabolic rate of horses, and other homeotherms of similar size, is never outside these two limits, then we admit to recognize a natural law between body size and metabolic rate.

This natural law, carefully calculated by Kleiber, is now known as Kleiber’s law.  Below is Kleiber’s law graphed out by him as it appeared in his seminal paper.  And this is exactly as it appeared in the journal, but with the addition here of colors for better legibility.  Since their was no Excel nor graphics software in Kleiber’s time, the graph was hand drawn and appeared in the pages of Physiological Reviews as such.  How times have changed.

Kleiber line blog

As you look along the line running from lower left to upper right, you can find rats and horses and a host of other mammals including humans.  Over the years, mammals that Kleiber didn’t have the opportunity to work on have been measured, and they all fit nicely along Kleiber’s line, following Kleiber’s law.  Because of this tight correlation, Kleiber’s equations can be used to precisely estimate the metabolic rate of any animal just by knowing its size.

Aiello and Wheeler used Kleiber’s law as the jumping off point for their grand thought experiment.

Since all animals measured have conformed to Kleiber’s law, Aiello and Wheeler postulated that animals now extinct – including our human and pre-human predecessors – would have fallen along the same line. Using skeletal remains paleontologists have been able to calculate body sizes of extinct animals along with pre-Homo and early-Homo species.  Then using Kleiber’s law, it is possible to closely estimate the metabolic rates of these creatures.  And here’s where it gets interesting.

According to Kleiber’s law, an australopithecine weighing 80 pounds would have the same metabolic rate as a human weighing 80 pounds despite the disparity in brain size between the two.  The much larger brain of the human would have 4-5 times the metabolic rate of the brain of the australopithecine, yet would have the same overall metabolic rate.  What gives?

That’s precisely what the authors of “The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis” wondered.

Because the human brain costs so much more in energetic terms than the equivalent average mammalian brain, one might expect the human BMR [basal metabolic rate] to be correspondingly elevated.  However, there is no significant correlation between relative basal metabolic rate and relative brain size in humans and other encephalized animals.

Where does the energy come from to fuel the encephalized brain?

The authors postulated a solution.

One possible answer to the cost question is that the increased energetic demands of a larger brain are compensated for by a reduction in the mass-specific metabolic rates of other tissues.

In other words, if one organ – the brain, for example – is chewing up a lot of energy and contributing a disproportionate amount of the basal metabolic rate for the animal as a whole, then maybe another organ or group of organs are consuming less energy to compensate.  The heart, the kidneys, the liver, the skeletal muscles, the GI tract – all consume energy and contribute to metabolic rate.  Maybe one of these organs became smaller as the brain became larger over time.

We can hone our analysis a little finer if we begin to look at an energy-balance equation, but an energy-balance equation of a different kind.  I have written a number of times in this blog about the energy-balance equation that applies to weight loss: change in weight equals energy in minus energy out.  That is not the equation we’ll be talking about here.  The other energy-balance equation says that the total metabolic rate is the sum of all the metabolic rates of the various organs and tissues in the body.  If you add the metabolic rates of the kidneys, the heart, the brain, the muscles, the digestive tract and so on together, you will get the total metabolic rate of the body, which makes sense because it is the sum of the parts.

Total BMR = brain BMR + heart BMR + kidney BMR + GI tract BMR + liver BMR + the remainder of the body’s tissues.

The authors of the ETH set out to look at the metabolic rates of the various organs.  By a diligent search of the literature, they found that along with the brain, the the heart, the kidneys, the liver and the gastro-intestinal tract account for the vast majority of the total BMR.  They dubbed these organs as ‘expensive tissues’ because they consume a large amount of energy as compared to their size.  (Surprisingly, muscle mass doesn’t contribute all that much to the total metabolic rate (skin and bone contribute even less), which gives the lie to that old notion — that I, myself, have fallen prey to — that replacing fat with muscle increases metabolism significantly.)

Aiello and Wheeler reasoned that if the total metabolic rate stayed the same while the energy-expensive brain grew over time some other expensive tissue had to get smaller.  There could be no other solution.

But which of the expensive tissues got smaller?

Aiello and Wheeler examined the data on the metabolic rates and sizes of the various expensive tissues and learned that for a 65 kg primate, the heart, the kidneys, and the liver were approximately the same size as those of a 65 kg (143 lb) human.  The greater metabolic rate of the large human brain was compensated for by a GI tract significantly decreased in size.  It turns out that the GI tract of a 65 kg human is just a little over half the size of the GI tract of a similar sized primate.

The combined mass of the metabolically expensive tissues for the reference adult human is remarkably close to that expected for the average 65-kg primate, but the contributions of individual organs to this total are very different from the expected ones.  Although the human heart and kidneys are both close to the size expected for a 65-kg primate, the mass of the splanchnic organs (the abdominal organs) is approximately 900 g less that expected.  Almost all of this shortfall is due to a reduction in the gastro-intestinal tract, the total mass of which is only 60% of that expected for a similar-sized primate.  Therefore, the increase in mass of the human brain appears to be balanced by a almost identical reduction in size of the gastro-intestinal tract.

Below is a graphic from the ETH showing the sizes of the different organs as based on predictions from a 65-kg primate and the observed size in humans.

ETH body comp compare

So we know that as humans evolved larger brains they simultaneously co-evolved smaller guts in order to maintain a set BMR.  And this is where the story gets interesting. Why?  Because

the logical conclusion is that no matter what is selecting for brain-size increase, one would expect a corresponding selection for reduction in the relative size of the gut.

Some researchers believe that increasingly complex activities drove the brain to enlarge.  As the authors of the ETH summarized it:

The relationship between relative brain size and diet is often mentioned in the literature on primate encephalization and is generally explained in terms of the different degrees of intelligence needed to exploit various food resources.  For example, [some] have argued that a relatively large brain and neocortical size correlates with omnivorous feeding in primates , which requires relatively complicated strategies for extracting high-quality foodstuffs.  Alternatively, [others] have suggested that frugivores have relatively large brain sizes because they have relatively larger home ranges than folivores, necessitating a more sophisticated mental map for location and exploitation of the food resources.

But it doesn’t matter whether our brains got big because our predecessors were socialized, developed complex foraging strategies, lived in and had to deal with groups or were skilled hunters, in order to obey Kleiber’s law, something had to force our guts to get smaller at the same time.  What could that be?

According to Aiello and Wheeler, it was increased diet quality that allowed the gut to get smaller while still absorbing the necessary nutrients to fuel the metabolism.  As they put it

The results presented here [in the ETH] suggest that the relationship between relative brain size and diet is primarily a relationship between relative brain size and relative gut size, the latter being determined by dietary quality.  This would imply that a high-quality diet is necessary for this encephalization, no matter what may be selecting for that encephalization.  A high-quality diet relaxes the metabolic constraints on encephalization by permitting a relatively smaller gut, thereby reducing the considerable metabolic cost of this tissue.

What the authors are saying is that it doesn’t matter how much more brain power was required, the brain couldn’t enlarge without something else giving.  What obviously gave was the size of the GI tract, and the only way a smaller GI tract could provide the fuel for the body was to have a higher-quality diet. How did the our most ancient relatives the early hominids increase the quality of their diets?

A considerable problem for the early hominids would have been to provide themselves, as large-bodied species, with sufficient quantities of high-quality food to permit the necessary reduction of the gut.  The obvious solution would have been to include increasingly large amounts of animal-derived food in the diet.

Increasing the amount of easily-digested food of animal origin allowed us to shrink our guts while expanding our brains.  Had we remained on a diet high in vegetation, we would no doubt not have been able to expand our brains irrespective of how much more thinking those brains would have needed to do.  It just wouldn’t have been possible to do so without violating Kleiber’s law.

Take the gorilla, for example, almost pure vegetarians that spend their entire ‘working’ day foraging and eating, which they have to do to get enough calories to maintain their enormous bulk.  They have large guts and pay for it by having small brains.  Even smaller than that of our most primitive ancestors, the australophthecines.

Gorilla has one of the lowest levels of encephalization of any haplorhine primate, and the much higher level of encephalization of all the australopithecines suggests a diet of significantly higher quality than that of this genus.

Which makes sense when you consider that carbon 13 isotope analysis has shown that Australopithecus africanus (the species that came right after Lucy) consumed meat.  As you go up the lineage from Australopithecus and through Homo, you find that more and more meat was consumed the higher up the tree you go.

It’s easy to see that, as compared to humans, chimps and gorillas have large, protuberant bellies, which supports the fact that they have larger GI tracts, but what about our ancient ancestors.  All we have to go on are skeletal remains, which show nicely that their heads (and brains) were much smaller than ours, but what about their guts?  How do we really know their guts were larger?  According to Kleiber, they would have to be, but how to we really know they were?

The large gut of the living pongids gives their bodies a somewhat pot-bellied appearance, lacking a discernible waist.  This is because the rounded profile of the abdomen is continuous with that of the lower portion of the rib cage, which is shaped like an inverted funnel, and also because the lumbar region is relatively short (three to four lumber vertebrae).

The drawing below from the ETH shows the inverted-funnel shape of the ribcage of the chimpanzee on the left.  You can mentally draw the lines downward from these ribs and envision the pot-bellied look of the abdomen that these primates evidence.  Looking at the image on the right, you can see that Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy’s species) has the same inverted-funnel shaped rib cage, indicating a large belly and a low-quality diet.

The drawing in the middle is of a modern human.  If you extrapolate the lines down from the human rib cage, you can see that they lead to a more narrow waist.  Makes you think more of a lean, rangy wolf or other slim-waisted carnivore, whereas the other two don’t.

ETH rib cage

The authors conclude:

If an encephalized animal does not have a correspondingly elevated BMR [which according to Kleiber, it can’t], its energy budget must be balanced in some other way.  The expensive-tissue hypothesis suggested here is that this balance can be achieved by a reduction in size of one of the other metabolically expensive organs in the body (liver, kidney, heart of gut).  We argue that this can best be done by the adoption of a high-quality diet, which permits a relatively small gut and liberates a significant component of BMR for the encephalized brain.  No matter what was selecting for encephalization, a relatively large brain could not be achieved without a correspondingly [sic] increase in dietary quality unless the metabolic rate was correspondingly increased.

At a more general level, this exercise has demonstrated other important points.  First, diet can be inferred from aspects of anatomy other than teeth and jaws.  For example, an indication of the relative size of the gastro-intestinal tract and consequently the digestibility of the food stuffs being consumed is provided by the morphology of the rib cage and pelvis.  Second, any dietary inference for the hominids must be consistent with all lines of evidence.  Third, the evolution of any organ of the body cannot be profitably studied in isolation.  Other approaches to understand the costs of encephalization have generally failed because they have tended to look at the brain in isolation from other tissues.  The expensive-tissue hypothesis profitably emphasizes the essential interrelationship between the brain, BMR, and other metabolically expensive body organs.

I hope you are now armed with enough knowledge to be able to see through these articles and/or charts that are all too common showing how the GI tract of humans is closer to that of a gorilla than it is to that of a cat or some other carnivore.  It seems to me that Aiello and Wheeler have pretty thoroughly demolished the notion that humans are actually designed by the forces of natural selection to be vegetarians.  Based on the data and the argument they present, it is actually the opposite:  we evolved to be meat eaters.

It was our gradual drift toward the much higher quality diet provided by food from animal sources that allowed us to develop the large brains we have.  It was hunting and meat eating that reduced our GI tracts and freed up our brains to grow.  As I wrote at the start of this post, the evidence indicates that we didn’t evolve to eat meat – we evolved because we ate meat.

Lierre Keith had it right in The Vegetarian Myth:

The wild herds of aurochs and horses invented us out of their bodies, their nutrient-dense tissues gestating the human brain.

If we evolved because we ate meat, why would we want to stop now?

Note: I found the full text of this article available on Scribd.  If it gets taken down, let me know, and I’ll put it up here.  I’m just trying to save space on my server.

Painting at top: Monkey Before Skeleton by Gabriel Cornelius von Max

The Vegetarian Myth

Before I get into a discussion of the absolutely phenomenal book you see pictured at the right, I’ve got a few disclosures to make.  First, I’m not much of a believer in the notion of man-made global warming or climate change (as they now call it since temperatures have been constantly falling instead of rising).  I’m a denier, in the pejorative term used by those who are believers.

Second, I’m not particularly pro-feminist.  And I certainly don’t hang around with any self-proclaimed radical feminists.  I have a wife who is smarter than I am, who is more talented than I am, and who, pound for pound, is probably a better athlete than I am, and I’m not bad. (In my defense, I can read much, much faster than she, but, she has better comprehension.) I long ago gave up the idea (if I ever really considered it seriously) that men are superior to women in any ways other than brute strength.  Having said that, however, I do believe that men are better suited to certain endeavors than woman and vice verse, but that doesn’t mean either men or women should be denied the opportunity to give whatever it is they want to do a whirl just because of their sex.  I guess I consider myself an egalitarian.  But from what I’ve seen of radical feminists, I’m not sure that I would count myself a big fan.

Given the above, you wouldn’t think I would enjoy and recommend a book written by a self-proclaimed radical feminist who is obviously a believer in global warming and the impending end of the earth as we know it.  I wouldn’t think so, either. Not my cup of tea even when it is sort of preaching to the choir.

But I can tell you that Lierre Keith’s book is beyond fantastic.  It is easily the best book I’ve read since Mistakes Were Made, maybe even better.  Everyone should read this book, vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike.  If you’re a radical feminist, you should read this book; if you’re a male chauvinist, you should read this book; if you have children, especially female children, you should read this book; if you are a young woman (or man) you should read this book; if you love animals, you should read this book; if you hate vegetarians, you should read this book; if you are contemplating the vegetarian way of life, you should definitely read this book; if you have a vegetarian friend or family member, you should this book and so should your friend.  As MD said after she read it, “everyone who eats should read this book.”

Anyone who has ever read a book on writing has come across the hackneyed piece of advice to cut open a vein and bleed on the page.  Lierre Keith, the author of this book, has come closer to literally doing that than almost any writer I’ve ever read.  Not only does her passion for her subject bleed through in almost every sentence, she is a superb lyrical prose stylist.  My book is dog eared, underlined and annotated from front to back – I can’t remember anything I’ve read that has contained so many terrific lines.

In fact The Vegetarian Myth is filled with so many good quotes (most by the author but some from other authors) that I was reminded of the old joke about the redneck who went to see a performance of Hamlet.  When the show let out, someone asked him what he thought of it.  Replied he:  It wasn’t nothin’ but a whole bunch of quotes all strung together.  As you’ll see when I ‘quote’ them below, The Vegetarian Myth contains quotable lines and paragraphs at about the same rate Hamlet does.

Ms. Keith was a practicing vegetarian (vegan) for twenty years, driven by her passion for kindness and justice for all creatures.  She couldn’t bear the thought of even killing a garden slug, or, for that matter, even removing a garden slug from her garden to a place where something or someone else might kill it.  Her years of compassionate avoidance of any foods of animal origin cost her her health.  Her story of coming to grips with the realization that whatever she ate came as a consequence of some living being’s having to die form the matrix onto which her narrative hangs.

You can read the first 14 manuscript pages of the book on the author’s website.  I have quoted from these 14 pages liberally below.

The introduction to The Vegetarian Myth explores Ms. Keith’s rationale for writing such a book, a book that, given her years of walking the vegetarian walk, must have been incredibly difficult to write.  She says as much with her first sentence.

She ponders the idea of factory farming, which she loathes, and the misbegotten idea that most people hold (not most readers of this blog, but most of the people in the world) that grains are good, not only for people, but for many animals as well.  And the common misconception that agriculture, the growing of annual grains and plants, is a wonderful, kind, sustainable activity.

This misunderstanding is born of ignorance, an ignorance that runs the length and breadth of the vegetarian myth, through the nature of agriculture and ending in the nature of life. We are urban industrialists, and we don’t know the origins of our food. This includes vegetarians, despite their claims to the truth. It included me, too, for twenty years. Anyone who ate meat was in denial; only I had faced the facts. Certainly, most people who consume factory-farmed meat have never asked what died and how it died. But frankly, neither have most vegetarians.

The truth is that agriculture is the most destructive thing humans have done to the planet, and more of the same won’t save us. The truth is that agriculture requires the wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems. The truth is also that life isn’t possible without death, that no matter what you eat, someone has to die to feed you.

I want a full accounting, an accounting that goes way beyond what’s dead on your plate. I’m asking about everything that died in the process, everything that was killed to get that food onto your plate. That’s the more radical question, and it’s the only question that will produce the truth. How many rivers were dammed and drained, how many prairies plowed and forests pulled down, how much topsoil turned to dust and blown into ghosts? I want to know about all the species—not just the individuals, but the entire species—the chinook, the bison, the grasshopper sparrows, the grey wolves. And I want more than just the number of dead and gone. I want them back.

After she had seen the error of her ways as a vegan and had been eating meat for two years, for reasons unknown to her, the author continued to surf the same vegan websites and message boards she had for years.  Until she read one post that was so bizarre that she finally realized the large intellectual gap that had widened between her rationale thinking and the cult like thinking of, well, a cult.  It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.

But one post marked a turning point. A vegan flushed out his idea to keep animals from being killed—not by humans, but by other animals. Someone should build a fence down the middle of the Serengeti, and divide the predators from the prey. Killing is wrong and no animals should ever have to die, so the big cats and wild canines would go on one side, while the wildebeests and zebras would live on the other. He knew the carnivores would be okay because they didn’t need to be carnivores. That was a lie the meat industry told. He’d seen his dog eat grass: therefore, dogs could live on grass.

No one objected. In fact, others chimed in. My cat eats grass, too, one woman added, all enthusiasm. So does mine! someone else posted. Everyone agreed that fencing was the solution to animal death.

Note well that the site for this liberatory project was Africa. No one mentioned the North American prairie, where carnivores and ruminants alike have been extirpated for the  annual grains that vegetarians embrace. But I’ll return to that in Chapter 3.

I knew enough to know that this was insane. But no one else on the message board could see anything wrong with the scheme. So, on the theory that many readers lack the knowledge to judge this plan, I’m going to walk you through this.

Carnivores cannot survive on cellulose. They may on occasion eat grass, but they use it medicinally, usually as a purgative to clear their digestive tracts of parasites. Ruminants, on the other hand, have evolved to eat grass. They have a rumen (hence, ruminant), the first in a series of multiple stomachs that acts as a fermentative vat. What’s actually happening inside a cow or a zebra is that bacteria eat the grass, and the animals eat the bacteria.

Lions and hyenas and humans don’t have a ruminant’s digestive system. Literally from our teeth to our rectums we are designed for meat. We have no mechanism to digest cellulose.

So on the carnivore side of the fence, starvation will take every animal. Some will last longer than others, and those some will end their days as cannibals. The scavengers will have a Fat Tuesday party, but when the bones are picked clean, they’ll starve as well. The graveyard won’t end there. Without grazers to eat the grass, the land will eventually turn to desert.

Why? Because without grazers to literally level the playing field, the perennial plants mature, and shade out the basal growth point at the plant’s base. In a brittle environment like the Serengeti, decay is mostly physical (weathering) and chemical (oxidative), not bacterial and biological as in a moist environment. In fact, the ruminants take over most of the biological functions of soil by digesting the cellulose and returning the nutrients, once again available, in the form of urine and feces.

But without ruminants, the plant matter will pile up, reducing growth, and begin killing the plants. The bare earth is now exposed to wind, sun, and rain, the minerals leech away, and the soil structure is destroyed. In our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything.

On the ruminant side of the fence, the wildebeests and friends will reproduce as effectively as ever. But without the check of predators, there will quickly be more grazers than grass. The animals will outstrip their food source, eat the plants down to the ground, and then starve to death, leaving behind a seriously degraded landscape.

The lesson here is obvious, though it is profound enough to inspire a religion: we need to be eaten as much as we need to eat. The grazers need their daily cellulose, but the grass also needs the animals. It needs the manure, with its nitrogen, minerals, and bacteria; it needs the mechanical check of grazing activity; and it needs the resources stored in animal bodies and freed up by degraders when animals die.

The grass and the grazers need each other as much as predators and prey. These are not one-way relationships, not arrangements of dominance and subordination. We aren’t exploiting each other by eating. We are only taking turns.

That was my last visit to the vegan message boards. I realized then that people so deeply ignorant of the nature of life, with its mineral cycle and carbon trade, its balance points around an ancient circle of producers, consumers, and degraders, weren’t going to be able to guide me or, indeed, make any useful decisions about sustainable human culture. By turning from adult knowledge, the knowledge that death is embedded in every creature’s sustenance, from bacteria to grizzly bears, they would never be able to feed the emotional and spiritual hunger that ached in me from accepting that knowledge. Maybe in the end this book is an attempt to soothe that ache myself.

How anyone who can read these 14 pages and not purchase and read this book is beyond me.

After the introduction which deals with why the author wrote the book, The Vegetarian Myth is divided into four sections: Moral Vegetarians, Political Vegetarians, Nutritional Vegetarians, and To Save the World.

The first three of these sections are the author’s in-depth refutations of the moral, political and nutritional arguments that vegetarians are constantly putting forth.  She does a masterful job.

In the Moral Vegetarians chapter, the author addresses the moral issue of killing animals for our own food.  She beautifully makes her case by cutting to the heart of the matter:

What separates me from vegetarians isn’t ethics or commitment.  It’s information.

And while she was in her 20-year trek in the vegetarian wilderness, she shielded herself from information as most cultists do:

I was on the side of righteousness, and like any fundamentalist, I could only stay there by avoiding information.

She finally realized the truth about agriculture; she figured out that the amber waves of grain are as death dealing as any slaughterhouse.

And agriculture isn’t quite a war because the forests and wetlands and prairies, the rain, the soil, the air, can’t fight back.  Agriculture is really more like ethnic cleansing, wiping out the indigenous dwellers so the invaders can take the land.  It’s biotic cleansing, biocide. … It is not non-violent.  It is not sustainable.  And every bite of food is laden with death.

There is no place left for the buffalo to roam.  There’s only corn, wheat, and soy.  About the only animals that escaped the biotic cleansing of the agriculturalists are small animals like mice and rabbits, and billions of them are killed by the harvesting equipment every year.  Unless you’re out there with a scythe, don’t forget to add them to the death toll of your vegetarian meal.  They count, and they died for your dinner…

Soil, species, rivers.  That’s the death in your food.  Agriculture is carnivorous: what it eats is ecosystems, and it swallows them whole.

In Political Vegetarians she refutes the politics (predominantly liberal) of the vegetarian movement and describes the dark side of political meddling in our ecosystem approved of in the main by PETA and other vegetarian groups.  She follows the money.

Rice, wheat, corn – the annual grains that vegetarians want the world to eat – are thirsty enough to drink whole rivers.

The result has been an unending river of corn, drowning our arteries and our insulin receptors, our rural communities, and poor subsistence economies the world over.  The corn comes at a huge environmental toll: there’s a half gallon of oil in every bushel.  And it’s essentially a massive transfer of money from the US taxpayer to the giant grain cartels, who are able to command the price of grain to be lower than the cost of production, with all of us making up the difference – five billion dollars in subsidies for corn alone, straight into the pockets of Cargill and Monsanto.

Nutritional Vegetarians is about the nutritional inadequacies of a vegetarian and especially a vegan diet.  And she does an absolute bang up job of laying out the rationale for following a no-grain, low-carb diet.

I have a disclosure to make here.  Much of the information in this chapter is based on Protein Power and The Protein Power LifePlan.  MD and I are listed in the acknowledgments, but I swear I didn’t know this until I bought the book.  We aren’t the only ones, but there are plenty of quotes from us in this chapter.  Gary Taubes, Malcolm Kendrick and (dare I say it) Anthony Colpo are quoted liberally as well.  I would have loved this book just as much if we had never been quoted.

Ms Keith has made a few minor innocuous errors in this chapter, but, all in all, she has done a tremendous job of synthesizing the scientific information into an easy to read, informative format.

The Nutritional Vegetarians section isn’t just about the science of why vegetarianism is bad and meat eating is good, it gets into the nutritional politics (as opposed to the vegetarian politics in the previous section) as well.  Ms Keith shows how we got to where we are by the nutritional strong arming by the McGovern committee back in the late 1970s.  George McGovern (a senator from a grain-producing state) and his cronies basically set the nutritional standards under which we are still oppressed.  They have been a disaster, as some scientists at the time predicted they would be.

And some scientists knew ahead of time that they would be.  Phil Handler, the president of hte National Academy of Scientists asked Congress, “What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?”  Dr. Pete Ahrens, an expert on cholesterol metabolism, told the McGovern committee that the effects of a low-fat diet weren’t a scientific matter but “a betting matter.”

It’s twenty-five years later and we aren’t winning this bet.  Each US American now eats sixty pounds more grain per annum and thirty pounds more cheap sugars, mostly from corn.  [Is it any wonder we’re all fat?]

The result, Dietary Goals for Americans, set in motion a cast sea change in the public’s beliefs and behaviors. … Dietary Goals was a predictable victory in a war that started ten thousand years ago.  What really won were those annual grasses that had long since turned humans into mercenaries against the rest of the planet.  We would now enshrine them like demi-gods, those whole grains and their sweet, opiate seductions, believing in their power to bestow health and long life, even while they slowly ate us alive.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book review that was positive from beginning to end, and this one is no exception.  Based on the many comments I’ve gotten on this blog and my response to them, I’m sure many of you will find my main objection surprising.  There is too much politics in the book.  Not nutritional politics, but feminist politics.

I know, I know, I let my libertarian leanings come through in all kinds of blog posts and comment answers, but there is a difference.  My blog is just that – a weblog of things I find interesting or informative.  And it’s free.  I don’t particularly like to pay for a book (and I paid full price for this one plus shipping) on a given subject then be beaten over the head with a political viewpoint.  I guarantee you that our new book has zero politics in it.  And if people bought our book expecting to learn about getting rid of their middle-aged middles and were fed a generous dose of my politics mixed in with the information, I would expect them to be flamed.

To give the author her due in this matter, the vegetarian ideology that had her in its grasp for 20 years was intertwined with her feminist politics, so a bit of said politics are necessary to describe how she was so taken in for so long.  But I think she went a little overboard with it.

And, I think the last section of the book – To Save the World – is the weakest part of the book.  The author makes several recommendations, all of which (save one) are, in my opinion totally unrealistic.  But I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions after you’ve read the book.

I’ve read that when people are asked to recall what they remember of something they read, they tend to remember the first thing in the piece and the last thing.  Most of the middle melds into a vague memory of what the article was about.  I certainly don’t want people to remember this last negative part I wrote and let it dissuade them from reading this book.  The good parts of the book so far outweigh the not-so-good parts that there is really no contest.

At a time when PETA and other vegetarian groups are mobilizing and ramping up their activity levels, a book such as this one bringing sanity to the debate is more important than ever.  And don’t think these groups aren’t becoming more active.  In the past, PETA and PETAphiles pretty much devoted their educational efforts toward the idea that eating animals was cruel.  Now they are starting to make the case that a vegetarian diet will solve the obesity epidemic.  Take a look at this billboard in Jacksonville, Florida.


If you find this sign annoying, buy The Vegetarian Myth and do your part to fight back. And if you have or know anyone with a daughter who is contemplating going vegetarian (young females are the most common victims), please make this book available.  It could be the most important thing you ever do for the long-term mental and physical health of a young woman.

If you’ve made it this far in this long review, take a couple of minutes and watch this YouTube of Lierre Keith at a book event; she’s as fascinating to listen to as she is to read.

Bestseller list for 2008

While looking for an old post for a reader, I came upon one of the bestseller lists I did last year, which reminded me that I hadn’t posted one of these in a while.  I had been trying to keep them up quarterly so that readers of this blog could see the books other readers were buying, but, what with all the links required, these posts are a real hassle to put up. So, since I, like most everyone else, gravitate toward pleasure and away from pain, I’ve not kept up with my quarterly timetable.

I can probably muster up the gumption to do it annually, so here is the list of the bestselling books from 2008.  These are the books that readers of this blog purchased through Amazon by clicking on the links or book icons on my blog, MD’s blog and the home page of the website.  I’ve listed only books not written by MD and/or me.

The number one bestselling book was Mistakes Were Made, which is one of the better books that I’ve read in a long, long time.  It’s now out in paperback, so if you haven’t read it, get a copy.  It explains in an easy-to-read way how the confirmation bias works and why we all need to carefully examine why we believe what we believe.  And it shows the validity of Stuart Chase’s famous quote:

For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.

I’ve read a slew of books on the confirmation bias and why we believe what we believe, but, in my opinion, Mistakes Were Made is by far and away the best of them all.

Here are all the books in descending order of sales:

#1. Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (my full review)

#2. Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes (my review)

#3 Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al (my review)

#4 The Brain Trust Program by Larry McCleary, M.D. (my review)

#5 500 Low-Carb Recipes by Dana Carpender

#6 The Great Cholesterol Con by Malcolm Kendrick, M.D. (my review)

#7 200 Low-Carb Slow Cooker Recipes by Dana Carpender

#8 Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution by Richard Bernstein, M.D.

#9 How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (MD’s review)

#10 The Low-Carb Baking and Dessert Cookbook by Ursula Solom

As always, I appreciate all of you who have supported this site by purchasing your books, CDs, DVDs, clothing, electronics and all the other stuff you’ve purchased through the Amazon portal on this site.

For those of you who don’t realize how this all works, you can click on one of the above links or one of the book icons on the front page of this blog or the home page of the website and you will be taken to that particular book’s page on  Once there, you can search for anything Amazon has available, and if your purchase it, I get a little kickback for providing the entry portal.  It is one of the few truly win-win deals out there.  You get your book (or whatever) at the regular (usually heavily discounted) Amazon price, and I get a little dinero to help pay the web guys who keep the site updated and running.  In looking over last year’s records, I was able to pay about two thirds of my tech bills with my Amazon kickback (I hate that word, but I can’t think of a better one), so thanks very much to all those who helped.

I’m constantly telling my own family members, most of whom order a lot of stuff from Amazon, to go to Amazon through the portal on this blog instead of just logging in on and buying away.  But it often falls on deaf ears, so maybe I’ll have a little better luck with readers here.  I know it’s a little extra hassle to pull up this blog and click on one of the books to get to Amazon than it is to simply click on Amazon directly, but if you do take the extra couple of seconds, you’ll make an old man very happy.