Although meat is said to be the most highly prized category of food in the majority of human cultures, it is also, according to a recent ethnographic survey, “vastly more likely to be the target of food taboos,” than any other type of edible substance. People throughout the world display strong aversions to killing and consuming particular animals, and the choice of which animals to proscribe varies unpredictably from culture to culture, and from place to place.
The origin of these taboos has been one of the central preoccupations of anthropologists for more than a century, and the debate has gradually polarized into two opposing factions. On one side it is argued that restrictions on eating certain animals exist because there are (or there were in the not too distant past) sound practical, health-related or ecological reasons for such restrictions. In the other camp, it is proposed that particular animals are not eaten because they have acquired various symbolic connotations that render their consumption unacceptable: For example, an animal might be tabooed because it combines anomalous or non-prototypical features—such as the pig’s cloven hooves combined with its failure to chew the cud—that somehow make it unpalatable. Or the animal may symbolize the social group itself, and not eating it thus becomes a kind of gastronomic metaphor for exogamy, or simply an expression of the structural workings of the ‘the savage mind’. Rather than attempting to critique these various ideas, the purpose of this essay is merely to propose an alternative theory: That cultural proscriptions against eating particular animals represent a form of psychological coping mechanism that serves to dilute and displace individual moral responsibility for the killing and consumption of animals in general. Allow me to explain.
Humans are unusual, and possibly unique, among animals in their tendency to feel and express sympathy and compassion for the suffering of others, as well as guilt and remorse when they inflict harm without good cause. These emotions are arguably what make us moral beings. The other great apes, in contrast, appear to be surprisingly indifferent to the plight of unrelated conspecifics and, as far as anyone knows, they are entirely unmoved by the suffering of other species. According to Franz De Waal, human sympathy for other animals, “is a concern without precedent in nature,” a view he reinforces by pointing to chimpanzees, our nearest living relatives, who appear to have no compunctions whatsoever about tearing the limbs and flesh from prey animals, such as Colobus monkeys, while their victims are still very much alive and screaming. Human hunter-gatherers, in contrast, appear to be almost obsessively concerned about the possible moral repercussions of killing and eating their fellow animals.
The Koyukon of Alaska provide a textbook example of this kind of obsessiveness. According to one account, the Koyukon believe that all animals have spirits that are, “aware and watchful of people’s behavior, and which can take revenge for offenses against their material aspects…. The offender (or a near relative) may be struck with illness, even death for a severe misdeed; or he may suffer bad luck in taking that species for a time ranging from several months to many years.” To obviate these risks, the Koyukon observe a prodigious array of regulations and rituals that appear specifically designed to win the animal’s approval and deflect its ire. Hunters, for example, never boast about their hunting exploits; gestures of respect are made toward animals killed or caught in traps, and great pains are taken to avoid wasting meat or other animal products. Wounded animals are doggedly pursued regardless of the time and effort involved, and hunters are genuinely upset if one cannot be found. Even the unusable remains of slain animals, such as bones, are treated respectfully, and may be burned or deposited in remote places where they will not be disturbed.
Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, this sort of zoocentric sympathy looks initially like a mistake—something that evolved in the context of human social relationships but which is then accidentally misapplied to other species. It is, after all, difficult to imagine what adaptive benefits human hunters could derive from sympathizing with their prey, or from feeling remorse about killing and eating them. Yet this is precisely what the archaeologist, Steven Mithen, argues for in his book, The Prehistory of the Mind. According to Mithen, sometime around the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition roughly 40,000 years ago, humans developed a specialized extension of reflexive consciousness (or theory of mind) that he calls “anthropomorphic thinking” which enabled them (and us) to use self-knowledge—knowledge of what it is like to be living, sentient creature—to infer comparable mental states in other species.
Although originally a by-product of reflexive consciousness, Mithen believes that anthropomorphic thinking acquired an evolutionary life of its own because individuals possessing this ability would have been far more effective as hunters than those who lacked it. To be a successful hunter, one needs to become a sort of natural ethologist who knows where the animal is likely to be at any given time, what kind of food it eats, where it sleeps and has its territory, when it migrates and breeds, and how it can best be approached without provoking instantaneous flight or aggression. Hunters must also be sensitive of the animal’s sensory capacities since, more often than not, these will be greatly superior to his own. In addition to using straightforward factual information of this kind, the most successful hunters must also learn to think like their prey—to be able to identify with the animal so closely that they can, so to speak, enter its mind and imagine how it sees the world. Clearly, attaining this level of personal identification and empathy with an animal requires not only having a theory of mind but also the ability to infer that nonhumans think, feel and act much as humans do.
Prior to the emergence of this specialized cognitive ability, it seems reasonable to assume that our ancestors felt no more qualms about killing and eating other animals than a cat does with a mouse, or a chimpanzee does with a colobus monkey. But once people began to anthropomorphize animals and think about them in human terms, they became to some extent bound by essentially the same code of morality that proscribes murder or cannibalism. Apart from a few exceptional cases, zoocentric sympathy has not prevented humans from continuing to exploit other animals for food, but it has generated a corresponding need for coping strategies that serve to absolve or exonerate us of what Joseph Campbell once called, “the primordial guilt of life that lives on life.” Hunting and gathering peoples have developed an immense cultural repertoire of techniques to alleviate the burden of guilt that attends the killing and consumption of other animals. Space constraints prevent an exhaustive review of this material so, instead, I will focus on just two well-known examples, totemism and guardian spirit belief, both of which are associated with elaborate taboos related to killing animals and consuming their flesh.
Among so-called totemic societies, affinity for particular animals is determined either by the kinship group or clan into which a person is born, or it may depend on some accidental influence of local geography. For instance, in the mythology of the Aranda people of central Australia, ancestral totemic spirits, usually represented as animals, entered the landscape at particular locations (called nanjas) during the primordial ‘dream-time’. As a result, every natural landmark is imbued with its own spirits who are able to extricate themselves unpredictably in order to enter the bodies of women and generate children. A woman who first realizes she is pregnant near, say, a kangaroo nanja therefore gives birth to a kangaroo child, or at least a child whose totem henceforth will be kangaroos.
Regardless of whether the totem is acquired through genealogy or accidents of birth, members of the same totemic group have special obligations towards the particular species of animal with which they are affiliated. In the majority of cases this involves an absolute taboo on the killing or consumption of the totemic animal. In others, the proscription is partial. Among the Aranda, each person regards his totem species as essentially the same as himself but he is not entirely forbidden to eat it. On the contrary, he is more or less obliged to eat a little of it from time to time, although never the best part. Members of the Emu Clan, for example, avoid eating the animal’s fat, as this is apparently considered to be the most delicious portion of an emu. Totemic clansmen also regulate the hunting and consumption of their totem by other members of the tribe. Through the performance of periodic ceremonies, the male members of the clan are expected to ensure that their totem species continues to flourish and reproduce, in much the same way that a shepherd is held responsible for the health and productivity of his sheep. The Aranda believe that this power to influence the fertility of the totem, and hence the continuity of the food supply, would vanish if they ate the animal without restraint. But they also believe that not eating the totem at all would have the same dire consequences as eating too freely.
At first sight, the partial or total embargo on the hunting and consumption of the totem would appear to be singularly maladaptive. After all, in a world of periodic food shortages, it would seem nonsensical for anyone to deliberately abstain from eating any potential food item, especially something as large and nutritious as an emu. On the other hand, if only one or two species are prohibited, then, by definition, all of the rest are fair game. And this may be one of the great benefits of the totemic system. Without it, every hunter without exception would be required to shoulder the moral responsibility for every animal he kills or eats. For the totemist, however, all of this responsibility is concentrated on just one species while the remainder can be slaughtered and consumed with virtual impunity; without any of the attendant risks of spiritual retribution. Seen in this light, totemism is a remarkably efficient and practical system for dividing up both the natural world and each individual’s moral obligations towards it. At birth, each person either inherits or is randomly assigned one small portion of this world towards which he or she is required to behave with scrupulous respect and consideration. And in return for keeping faith with the totem, that person effectively acquires a “permit” to kill and eat everything else with a clear conscience. In addition to drastically reducing the number of species that require special consideration, the clan system found in many totemic societies also allows individuals to share their particular responsibilities with others. This serves to further dilute each clan-member’s personal burden of guilt, and it also means that the clan as a whole shares the blame if their totem—upon which other members of the community depend for food—becomes rare or difficult to obtain.
With its characteristically clan-based social organization, totemism provides a distinctively communal solution to the hunter’s moral dilemma. Other hunter-gatherer groups, especially those of North America and northern Eurasia, opted for a more individualistic solution to the same problem. Among these cultures the concept of individual “guardian spirits” is central. Among the Ojibway, the Native Americans of Minnesota and Wisconsin, these spirits were known as manito, and were usually represented as the spiritual prototypes of particular animals. Real animals were regarded as ‘honored servants’ of their respective manito, and one such spirit apparently presided over and represented all of the earthly members of a species. Animals were also viewed as temporary incarnations of each manito who sent them out periodically to be killed by favored hunters and fishermen. For this reason, hunters invariably performed deferential rituals upon killing an animal, so that its ‘essence’ would return to the manito homeland with a favorable account of its treatment.
The ambition of every self-respecting Ojibway hunter was to secure the personal goodwill and assistance of at least one of these spirits. Like many other Native American tribes, the Ojibway were also organized into totemic clans, but although it was considered fortunate to have the totem animal as one’s guardian spirit, such an outcome was by no means a foregone conclusion. Instead, the acquisition of guardian spirits was nearly always achieved by gaining access to their supernatural home through the medium of dreams or visions. The method for obtaining such visions varied from group to group, but it usually involved some form of physical ordeal. Plains Indians, such as the Cheyenne and Dakota Sioux pursued visions through extremes of self-mutilation and torture. Aspiring visionaries were known to chop off their own fingers or to tear out thongs inserted into their own flesh. The object in such cases was apparently to arouse the pity or sympathy of the spirits so that they would feel obliged to respond. Prolonged bouts of dancing and singing were also widely practiced, as was the smoking or consumption of psychotropic drugs. Many tribes also emphasized physical purity. Vision-seekers adopted strict dietary regimes, practiced sexual abstinence, purged themselves with medicines, took frequent sweat baths, and plunged into icy lakes or streams. Among the Ojibway, young men at puberty were expected to isolate themselves in the forest and endure long periods of fasting, sleeplessness and eventual delirium in an effort to obtain visions. Those who were successful experienced vivid hallucinations in which their ‘souls’ entered the spirit realm where they encountered one or more animal guardian spirits who offered their future patronage and protection in return for a variety of ritual obligations. Guardian spirits also imposed strict dietary taboos on their protégés, although, compared with totemism, the rules governing such prohibitions were relatively idiosyncratic.
In many of these societies it was considered virtual suicide to injure, kill or eat any member of the same species as one’s guardian spirit. It could result in the withdrawal of spiritual patronage and cause general misfortune, illness, or even death. On the other hand, and in an equally large number of cases, the guardian spirit specifically awarded its protégé the right and authority to kill members of its own species. As in Aranda totemism, hunters were also expected to eat at least some of the flesh of their guardian species, but only small amounts and only in the context of ritual feasts. Among the Ojibway, both of these seemingly antithetical attitudes coexisted. A hunter who acquired the patronage of a fur-bearing manito, such as beaver or lynx, for instance, would consider himself fortunate because the spirit would ensure that he became a successful trapper of these animals. On the other hand, some Ojibway were extremely reluctant to eat the flesh of their guardian animal, claiming that it made them sick. Some manito, especially those associated with water, such as sturgeon, were unusually inconsiderate. While conferring on their protégés exceptional prowess in catching fish, they would sometimes impose a simultaneous injunction against eating them.
Although more individualistic in flavor, the guardian spirit phenomenon clearly shares many features with totemism. In some cases it is difficult to discern a clear boundary between the two systems. As in totemism, animals are the primary objects of ritual concern, the natural world is likewise divided up into separate classes of sentient beings, and each individual hunter focuses the bulk of his attention and moral responsibilities on only one or a few of these entities. In some cases, this leads him to abstain entirely from killing and eating the chosen species, while in others the order is reversed. Instead of avoiding injury to the guardian animal, the hunter believes that he has been given a personal license to kill it with impunity. Either way, the net effect on the hunter is to encourage him to specialize—to make him less likely to embark on morally and spiritually risky attempts to kill species for which he does not possess the necessary “permits”. Whichever regulation the hunter adopts, however, guardian spirit belief, and all the ritual trappings associated with it, appears to be yet another way for the hunter to expiate or diffuse the individual burden of guilt associated with killing animals.
In summary, anthropomorphic thinking and its corollary, zoocentric sympathy, have a tendency to generate moral anxiety among people who kill animals or eat their flesh. Among hunting peoples, for whom killing and eating animals is largely obligatory, religious ideologies such as totemism and guardian spirit belief provide cultural mechanisms for alleviating some of this anxiety by focusing each individual’s moral obligations on only one or at most a small subset of the available edible fauna. The determination of which animal to focus on is also essentially random and somewhat arbitrary, although large and economically important species seem to attract more attention than small, unimportant ones. While adherence to such ideologies generally requires either partial or total abstention from the use of the chosen animal as food, it simultaneously has the advantage of enabling the person to hunt and eat other animals without moral limitations.
Whether meat taboos have the same origin in pastoral, agricultural or urban societies that do not subsist by hunting is a question beyond the scope of the current essay, but I see no obvious reason to think otherwise. Zoocentric sympathy would appear to be just as useful in the management and husbandry of captive or domestic animals as it is in the realm of hunting, and the degree of social intimacy that often exists between herdsmen and their charges would tend to imply that the moral dilemma attending the slaughter and consumption of these animals might be even more acute.
Finally, as a representative of meat-eating, urban humanity, I sometimes wonder whether all the care and attention I lavish on my pet dog and cat—not to mention my refusal to countenance eating them under any circumstances—might not also represent a kind of moral atonement; a way of compensating one group of animals for the sins I commit against others. Certainly, over the years, I have lost count of the number of pet owners I have met who claim to be “animal lovers” despite being willing to tuck into rare steaks, pork chops, or plates of chicken wings with undisguised gusto. Perhaps, in addition to their other social functions, pet animals have become the modern equivalents of guardian spirits and neo-totems whose ‘sacred’ status now gives us a psychological license to devour their less fortunate brethren.
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