Sociobiology and vegetarianism

Claude Lalanne - L'Homme à Tête de Chou

My Dear Clément,

As you may know, I am a vegetarian. I have never thought much about the reasons of my rather recent conversion to vegetarianism, though as a historian and as a postmodern constructivist, I would tend to rely on socio-cultural explanations and as an economist, on more rational justifications – whether the two are mutually compatible, I ignore. To be a vegetarian in France is not an easy task. You have to struggle with the weight of culture: foie gras, confit de canard and so on. At least, I can still enjoy the incredible range of French cheeses we have, though I have to override the fact that most contain animal rennet – but I am not against inconsistency, which is what  every non-vegetarian tries to pinpoint about you as soon as they learn about your diet, as if they did not commit inconsistencies themselves all the time. One of the reasons I turned to vegetarianism is justly because I was a bit fed up with this French cultural exception. We believe we cook better food than most of the other world citizens – and the latter often believe it to be true as well. Yet, most of our ‘wonderful’ French cuisine is about putting a piece of factory farmed meat in a frying pan with chopped shallots and pretending it is a work of art – by comparison, I would invite you to taste my wife’s bread-and-mushrooms vegetarian terrine or my own eggplant and chick-peas tajine, which are far better. When I try to make my dietary choice more ‘rational’ – because my interlocutors seem to favor rational explanations – , I tend to rely on economic arguments. The fact that we eat only 0.25% of the edible livestock, that most of the resources that could serve to feed people in developing countries are instead used for feeding factory farmed animals, that 8 to 11 % of the weight of the meat that is sold to consumers actually consists of wasted waters that the profession calls “fecal soup” and that we actually eat only a minor portion of the livestock we kill – as Jonathan Safran Foer notes in Eating Animals (p.50): ‎”Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across” – are all arguments that make me quite comfortable as a vegetarian.

At this point of my message, my dear Clément, you must wonder what this has to do with you, right? Don’t worry. I am now coming to my central question. I have never been much convinced by naturalistic/positivistic justifications for vegetarianism and anything that relies on animal suffering to claim animal rights, though striking a chord, does not seem convincing to me as a rationale – you would have, to be convinced, to compare the suffering of factory farmed pigs to that of starved children in Ethiopia or slaughtered Libyans, which is not something I want to do. But other people find these arguments perfectly suitable for grounding their claims, such as most people at PETA. I was then wondering whether sociobiology has been used by animal rights advocates. After all, sociobiology use the exact same tools to study social behaviors in human and animal populations, and by doing so, it tends to instill the idea that animals, like humans, may have rights too. [Of course, as some eminent (sic) researchers in our field have tried to show you during your first conference presentation a few years ago, it can also argue the exact contrary, that because we behave just like animals do, we can be treated the same way, hence the campaigns of sterilization of some populations, and so on.] For instance, in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, I was surprised to see some PETA member mentioning Richard Dawkins‘s research as one that helps ground animal rights. Culturally, I think it is quite interesting because people tend to think of sociobiology as kind of right-wing entrenched because of its hard scientism, positivism and probably because E.O. Wilson himself seems to fit the image of the Republican type of public intellectual. But it might not be necessarily so. I think that you would agree that sociobiology as it is currently practiced is an Anglo-Saxon invention and it is precisely where vegetarians are the most numerous and the most vocal – I would put aside religious vegetarianism, as practiced in some other areas in the world. Have you ever located in the sociobiological literature a fraction of authors that more or less explicitly advocate animal rights? Admittedly, it does not have a lot to do with the history of economics, yet I am quite interested in the question.

Kind regards,

Your friend Yann

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2 thoughts on “Sociobiology and vegetarianism

  1. Hi Yann,
    To go directly to your question: no, I am not aware of any paper in sociobiology even mentioning the issue of animal rights.

    Some random remarks now:
    – the absence of such a literature should be contrasted, as you say, with the whole genre of literature which “bestializes” humans (cf the pop ethology genre, thriving in the 1970s). This does not mean that animals are never anthropomorphized – they are! – but without a reference to PETA or so, as far as I know.

    – That animal right activists might be interested in sociobiology, which had certainly a conservative reputation in the 1970s, is not so surprising to me. Aren’t animal activists all over the political spectrum themselves? But even so: sociobiology, despite its conservative label, had always some appeal to intellectuals positioned on the left. Chomsky, for one, defended sociobiology, in a move which certainly took his friends off guard! Another example: sociobiology was used as an argument against homosexual behavior, but gay rights activists also used sociobiology as a scientific resource to legitimate their fight! Again, all of that should be of no surprise: sociobiology is not inherently left or right, and you don’t need to be a Latourian to notice that it can be recruited by different actors for different purposes.

    – just to finish (you could keep me going for hours…), a note on “sociobiology”: it evolved as a concept. You had sociobiology before Wilson, and after him – all different. Just to historicize this discussion a bit…

    – Oh and I almost forgot: given your interests, you should definitely read this. In a previous life, she wrote excellent pieces on the history of sociobiology, and now she is exploring the human-animal relationships. A perfect fit to your post!

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