I first heard the word carnism about a year ago, along with a brief definition: “a term used by psychologist Melanie Joy and others to describe the ideology that supports the use of animals for food, including meat. The argument holds that carnism is a dominant belief system supported by a variety of defence mechanisms and mostly unchallenged assumptions.”
At the time it was easy for me to dismiss. As an enthusiastic omnivore I had little patience for what appeared to be an attempt by vegans to stigmatise something I consider to be entirely natural.
More recently I was reminded of the concept and something (probably that the reminder came via someone that I like and know to be both sincere and humble) made me reflect on the concept for a while.
Research suggests that beginning to eat meat 2 to 3 million years ago was what triggered an increase in the brain size of early hominids and made possible the evolutionary jump to homo-sapiens. The excellent “The Story of the Human Body” by Daniel E. Lieberman clearly describes this element of our evolutionary trajectory. Interestingly, other research also suggests that raw diets cannot grow or sustain big brains in a species, thus cooking also made us human.
The concept of meat eating as a belief system seems like quite a big idea. One that separates the behaviour from instinct or socialisation and proposes that viewing animals as food is akin to a religion. A religion that most of us have unconsciously subscribed to.
I’m assuming that the term carnist (a follower of the carnism belief system) is usually intended as a perjorative. Carnivore seems to be a perfectly adequate word to describe a meat eater. That said, if you describe yourself as a vegan it carries a meaning beyond ‘herbivore’ and suggests a belief system – if you base your diet and lifestyle choices on a belief system I guess it’s natural to frame other choices in the same way. So perhaps my knee jerk initial rejection was unreasonable.
Here’s what I’m left with: If the research can be trusted, our brains are as big as they are and thus able to wrestle with philosophical and ethical problems (that our primate cousins appear not to have time for) because our ancestors ate meat. So we owe our very existence, and our capacity (never mind the luxury of time spent doing things other than gathering and chewing) to think deeply about our behaviour, to the practice of eating meat.
Could anyone have coined the term ‘carnism’ without the hominid and human practice of eating meat? Framing language and philosophies to critique meat-eating our actually a luxury afforded to our species by meat-eating. Ironic, no?