In recent advertisements for Meat and Livestock Australia, actor Sam Neill told us, in David Attenborough-inflected tones, that ‘when our early ancestors started to eat red meat, our brains began to grow’.
‘Hunting,’ Neill said, ‘forced us to think’, and consequently, ‘red meat is a part of the diet of the most highly developed species on the planet’. Meat eating is an ‘instinct’. We are ‘meant to eat it’.
This is a very familiar origin story, one told to us from primary-school days. It makes the consumption of meat central to our evolution as a species. In this story, to eat meat is to fulfil our duty to the food chain.
But the meat that we eat today is usually raised in factory farms and killed in abattoirs. It is then presented for our consumption, sliced, minced and parsley-sprigged in our butcher, cling-wrapped and barcoded in our supermarket, or slammed into buns and sauced in our fast-food joints.
Today’s meat has little to do with the animals that humans used to hunt, and the modern processes of transforming a live animal into a piece of meat are entirely different from what they once were.
All the same, connotations of hunting, evolution and mastery over nature are still intrinsically linked in public discourse to the consumption of meat.
This rhetoric of meat eating is part of a project that can be termed ‘human exceptionalism’. It places humans apart from and above all other animals.
Part of this is the insistence that humans eat animals, and animals do not eat humans. This is despite the fact that throughout the longest period of our history on this planet, humans have been a mid-level predator. Until recently, we were beings that were both predator and prey, who both ate and became dinner.
This is something that our culture represses, and this repression is seen in a number of ways. The extreme reaction when an occasional predator dares to treat a human like meat is one example of this repression – we never fail to be surprised that a human life could be ended in this manner.
Another example is the way in which we divorce ourselves from the reality of what we eat: dead animals are presented as meat in increasingly sanitised ways, with mince, sausages and clean white bloodless chicken breast rising in popularity.
Livestock animals (both their lives and their inevitable deaths) are removed from our everyday existence, and the increased invisibility of animals that we use for food relies on brutal industrialised farming practices.
And finally, there is the way in which we deal with our own dead bodies. Even human death is hidden away in hospitals, and we cannot bear to become food for the worms once we die ‘naturally’ (whatever that may mean in these medically inflected times). Instead we are burnt, embalmed or at least buried in land which is definitively set apart from food production. In this way, humans are lost as a source of fertiliser, and our ties to the food chain are severed.
Perhaps this is why the modern human struggles for meaning, and against death. Post-humanist philosopher Donna Harraway’s recent book When Species Meet attempts to accept and foreground our connection with other sentient beings, and works against the tendency of humans to think of our own lives as the only ones which are important and meaningful.
If we remember that we are part of nature, we remember that we will die. However, we should also remember that from our death inevitably comes new life. Although that life is not human, we would not have existed without it.
Helen Addison-Smith is a tutor and researcher in Cultural Studies at University of Melbourne. She is affiliated with the Melbourne Free University and the University of Melbourne. This article is based on a lecture presented at the Melbourne Free University as part of The Naked Brunch.