Meat Eating and Animal Intelligence

Remember when cans of tuna used to say they were dolphin friendly? Some wise guy would always say, “They’re not friendly to tuna, though, are they?”

Of course, we all knew what that was about.

Dolphins are intelligent. They form social groups. They communicate with sound. They pass the mirror test.

A dolphin can learn how to do tricks, perform in front of an audience or in front of a camera.

Dolphins have names.

Tuna, on the other hand, are just fish.

But it gets more complicated.

A recent study suggests that an animal’s perceived intelligence is the main factor in determining whether or not we will be disgusted by the thought of eating it.

The key word here, though, is “perceived”.

According to this study, people tend to ascribe lower levels of mental functioning to animals that they are about to eat.

So do we eat tuna because tuna aren’t very intelligent, or do we tell ourselves that tuna aren’t very intelligent so that we can eat them?

What about cultures where eating dogs or horses is considering normal? Would the people who eat these animals ever think about training them to perform in front of an audience?

The thing is, our beliefs about animal intelligence don’t always mesh with scientific observations.

This paper reports on experiments suggesting that chickens might have a primitive form of self-consciousness (an understanding that one is an individual separate from other individuals), have a limited sense of time and delay gratification in exchange for a greater reward.

Some fish seem to be able to recognize other individuals within their shoals, to work together to catch food, to form long term memories, and to use tools.

It seems that the more we learn about animal cognition, the more we are surprised by how intelligent familiar animals can be.

If the thought of eating an intelligent animal is repulsive to you, then the obvious solution is to become a vegetarian.

In fact, vegetarian organizations go out of their way to publicize research suggesting that animals are smarter than most people think.

That’s a simplistic answer, though. Although it is certainly possible to live one’s life as a vegetarian, the health benefits of vegetarianism vs. omnivorism are in dispute – and like any other topic that touches on ethical beliefs and cultural traditions, research on the topic is subject to confirmation bias.

When looking at meat eating from an ethical standpoint, it is important to understand that ethics is never about deciding between absolutes – it is about making tough decisions and understanding the necessity of compromise.

Behaving ethically means considering whether it is better to lie or to hurt someone’s feelings, or whether you should report the poor old woman who has hidden food in her handbag to the store manager or pretend to look the other way.

If you believe that an omnivorous diet is essential for optimum human health, then you have to make some difficult choices.

7 Responses to Meat Eating and Animal Intelligence

  1. Leonard August 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

    Who actually says there is a dispute about the health benefits of vegetarianism? How many times do we need doctors to tell people to cut the meat out of their diets?

  2. marciamalory August 4, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    Look up paleo diet. There are many people who think that the human digestive system has not had time to evolve to properly digest grain (agriculture has not been around that long) and that meat provides essential nutrients not found elsewhere (More primitive cultures that have vegetarian lifestyles are really omnivorous because they eat insects and other small creatures that are found in soil around plants.) Vegans are advised to take B12 supplements.

    There is research that shows that a large intake of carbohydrates leads to diabetes,heart disease, etc.

    Most processed meat has sugar added – look at the label on a pack of cold cuts or on premade burgers or meatballs.

    So it’s possible that when studies show that people who eat meat have higher risks of certain diseases, the problem is not the meat but the sugar and other additives added to the meat. Scientists would have to do studies of people who buy all of their meat raw and prepare it themselves without adding any sugars.(No buns for the hamburgers, either, and no sausages, which often have grain fillers).

  3. Thaís Imbassahy August 6, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    The point here is an ethical position, I think, and not what humans originally used to eat. As author says, an ethical standpoint is about make tough decisions based on what you think is right and wrong. If vegans are advised to take B12 supplements, they take it with pleasure, knowing they are making their choices in an agreement with their conscience and ethical principles.

    Indeed, it is more likely that humans are originally omnivorous and not vegetarians, but also people are originally hunters and not farmers. If the concern here is what is natural, we all should stand against how we “produce” meat nowadays.

  4. Thierry May 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    Pretty much sums up my point of view and why I don’t eat pork, yet eat cows and chicken…author express it better than I could.

  5. Virag Padalkar March 28, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    A very well written post. Thanks. Glad I found this.

    I’m grappling with the thought of turning vegetarian since some time now and your post above has definitely given me food for thought.

  6. Sam January 6, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

    Who says plants have no intelligence? Root systems actively seek out and grow toward nutrients. Studies are beginning to find plants may be intelligent in some sense and even display conscience.

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