Hooked on Meat: Evolution, Psychology, and Dissonance

Marta Zaraska's new book called "Meathooked" analyzes our obsession with meat

Posted Mar 05, 2016

"Even after reading the book and confirming the sordid details about my destructive habit, I’m still not ready to go vegetarian – I just really love to eat meat." (Caroline Morley, Meathooked: How eating meat became a global obsession)

Marta Zaraska's new book called Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat (the Kindle edition can be seen here) is an outstanding analysis of why the vast majority of humans make the choice to eat nonhuman animals (animals) knowing well that it isn't good for them or the planet. I really want as many people as possible to read Ms. Zaraska's book, not because it will make them go veggie or vegan -- indeed that is not her mission -- but rather to gain a deeper and comprehensive understanding of why their meal plans look like they do. Excerpts from the book's description capture what Meathooked is all about.

What makes us crave animal protein, and what makes it so hard to give up? And if all the studies are correct, and consuming meat is truly unhealthy for us, why didn’t evolution turn us all into vegetarians in the first place?

In Meathooked, Zaraska explores what she calls the “meat puzzle”: our love of meat, despite its harmful effects. Scientific journals overflow with reports of red meat raising the risk of certain cancers; each hamburger contributes as much to global warming as does driving a car 320 miles; and the horrors of industrial meat production are now well-known.

None of these facts have prompted us to give up our hamburgers and steaks. On the contrary, meat consumption has only increased over the past decades. Taking the reader to India’s unusual steakhouses, animal sacrifices at temples in Benin, and labs in Pennsylvania where meat is being grown in petri dishes, Zaraska examines the history and future of meat and meat-eating, showing that while our increasing consumption of meat can be attributed in part to the power of the meat industry and the policies of our governments, the main “hooks” that keep us addicted to meat are much older: genes and culture.

An original and thought-provoking exploration of carnivorousness, Meathooked explains one of the most enduring features of human civilization—and why meat-eating will continue to shape our bodies and our world into the foreseeable future.

An interview with Ms. Zaraska

I learned about Meathooked when Ms. Zaraska asked me to do an interview on play in non-human mammals and I was hooked. I did a brief interview with her that I found very informative. 

Why did you write Meathooked and what do you hope to accomplish?

I wrote Meathooked because one question kept bugging me, a question I just couldn't find an answer to anywhere. I've read over and over that meat was bad for us (because of health, environment, ethics), yet I started wondering why do we eat meat at all if it's so bad for us and the planet? Why is this such a special food to so many people? Why is it such a touchy, charged topic? So in part I wrote Meathooked for myself, because I wanted to learn more why people crave meat so much. But during the process I also came to believe that if we are to reduce meat consumption (and we really must if we want to avoid major climate trouble - which for the sake of my daughter I hope we will), then we need to understand why we eat it in the first place. Without comprehending why meat is so important to us, it'll be really hard to give it up. 

For whom is it written?

It's both for meat lovers and for hardcore vegans. For meat lovers because it can shed some light on why they enjoy and crave meat so much, and for vegans because it can help them understand why vast the majority of people is not joining them and happily ditching meat. 

What is your own meal plan?

Complicated. 90% vegetarian. I eat fish from time to time (once every few weeks) when I go out to a restaurant and there is nothing else on the menu but meat (I live in rural France, it's not a vegetarian heaven, believe me). But then I eat only vegan on Mondays (in parallel to "Meatless Mondays"). And sometimes, maybe twice a year, I will nibble on a piece of bacon or a slice of pepperoni, stolen off a friend's pizza. 

What did you think of the last sentence of the New Scientist review?

(The review to which I was referring by Caroline Morley contains the quote with which I began this essay, namely, "Even after reading the book and confirming the sordid details about my destructive habit, I’m still not ready to go vegetarian – I just really love to eat meat.") It reminded me of what a number of my friends say to me when I ask them why they continue to eat meat knowing about the animals' deep and enduring suffering. Their usual response goes something like, "I know they suffer but I love my burger." Clearly there is a good deal of dissonance here.) 

I thought: wow, that's precisely why I wrote Meathooked - to explain that there is so much more behind our obsession with meat than "I just really love to eat meat". Although, admittedly, it's easier to say "I just love it" than explain that: "I love the unique mixture of meat's flavors of umami and fat and the products of the Maillard reaction, and I enjoy the fact that meat symbolizes power and wealth, and I've likely inherited my propensity to like protein foods from my parents," and so on. To be honest, to really explain why we love meat, you need about 75,000 words (that's how long my book is, more or less).

In her review Ms. Morley also writes, "Zaraska’s tone is light and she does well putting facts and figures to ideas we are familiar with – such as how powerful the meat industry is. 'In 2011, in the US alone, the annual sales of meat were worth $186 billion,' she writes. And she has a truly alarming figure up her sleeve: 'During the 2013 election cycle, the animal products industry contributed $17.5 million to federal candidates.'”

Going "Cold tofu"

Ms. Morley also writes, "But non-vegetarians can take heart: her vision of the short-term future is not entirely meat-free. After a whole book exploring our 'addiction', she concludes that going cold turkey (pun intended) could backfire. 'Even though I do believe that in the future humanity will eat mostly plant-based foods, I also believe that pushing for dietary purity is not the way to go,' she writes."

Shaming and forcing people to change their meal plans doesn't usually work at least in the long-term, and I feel Ms. Zaraska's non-preachy tone is rather effective. In an essay I wrote called "Going "Cold Tofu" to End Factory Farming," I noted that step-by-step decreases in whom we choose to eat, not what we choose to eat (please see "Who we eat is moral question: Vegans have nothing to defend") will be better for ourselves, the planet, and future generations. 

Along these lines, the last paragraph of James McWilliams' The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals says it well: "What I'm asking you to imagine is thus a movement that requires us to become more emotionally in tune with animals, ethically consistent in our behavior, and better informed about the evolutionary heritage we share with sentient creatures. This movement, whether we join it all at once or gradually, with immediate zeal or reluctantly, will, in the end, triumph over industrial agriculture because it will be, above all else, a bloodless revolution based on compassion for animals, the environment, and ultimately ourselves." (For more on the underlying reasons for our meal plans please also see "The Psychology Behind Our Meal Plans: Why We Eat Whom We Eat", an essay about Dr. Melanie Joy's excellent video called "The Secret Reason We Eat Meat.")

Leaving the "meatingplace" mentality behind and moving on with more humane meal plans and fewer animals on the plate

There are a number of excellent books and videos that focus on whom we choose to eat and Meathooked ranks right up there with the best of them. People working on what's called "meat science" have a place where they talk about their research called the "meatingplace" (they really do!), and Meathooked provides an excellent opportunity for people to reflect on why they are addicted to meat. My recommendation is to read Meathooked and share it widely. It could well be a win-win for all involved. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

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