The Ecphorizer

What If We Are What We Eat?
Polly Pitkin Ryan

Issue #07 (March 1982)

In 1953 or so, McConnell and Thompson at the University of Texas discovered that if an educated planarian worm is ground up and fed to his ignorant relatives, those relatives acquire the same education as the original worm without even trying. Evidently the hard-earned experience of the victim is coded into his DNA or RNA double helices, and these chemical compounds not only survive the digestive process of the diners but are assimilated into all the right places in their bodies.

[quoteright'/>As far as I know, no one has demonstrated that DNA or RNA can survive the digestive processes of creatures more complicated than a planarian. However, some primitive human tribes believe that eating parts of their dead enemies will confer on them the admirable traits which their enemies possessed. Eating the heart of a tiger, for example, is believed to give one the tiger's strength and ferocity in battle. Makes me wonder if the cannibals who ate the Christian missionaries realized what they were doing to themselves?

Which brings me to my point. What if it is true that we acquire vicariously the experience, conditioning and traits of the animals we eat, whether coded in their double helices or otherwise? Consider what urban and suburban humans eat: The beef we buy in the supermarket comes from cattle conditioned to captivity and crowding: passive, timid, defeated, dependent, grossly overfed, and dosed with drugs. Chickens are raised in endless rows of coops, conditioned to confinement and with no reward whatever for initiative, intelligence or originality. When occasionally they escape from their prisons they are quite irrational, incapable of self-directed action. Ham and pork chops come from pigs who live in similar confinement. If we are, in fact, ingesting the psycho-chemical programming from these poor slaves of our system, is it any wonder our urban society is in the shape it is in? An increasing number of urban humans exhibit anxiety, dependency, fear of risk, depression, apathy and lack of purpose. They are distrustful but passive, panic easily, and blindly follow charismatic leaders, insane or otherwise. They flare up sometimes in ineffectual bursts of rebellion and trash the retail stores, but they have no endurance and revert to uneasy submission. They seek reassurance in the form of government promises, handouts, and regulations. To them, safety is more attractive than freedom. Is it any wonder that the living conditions created and reinforced by urban and suburban man (condominiums and tract developments, for example) grow more and more to resemble the protected and controlled pre-slaughter pens of domestic animals? Some observers blame television for this deterioration, others point to crowding. But which came first? The crowded ones seem programmed not only to accept listlessly this state of affairs, but to seek its comforting familiarity. It's enough to make one a vegetarian.

If, on the other hand, we compare these urban humans with the new pioneers and homesteaders, what do we find? These present-day country people venture forth from urban areas; some retreat from hardship, some adapt. Those who do adapt become headstrong, independent, even ruthless by urban standards, yet they are hard-working and productive, pragmatic, persevering, inventive, self-reliant, self-supporting, taking risks but providing for the future, living by the weather and keeping an eye an the far horizon. They eat wild foods, not only cattails and fiddlehead ferns, but also deer, elk, moose, raccoon, bear, squirrel, and ducks, geese, even bluejays and crows - all creatures which are programmed to survive by their wits in an unprotected and uncontrolled environment. Is it possible that this wild protein makes a difference in the ability of these "city fellers" to adjust to living in the wild? Did it contribute to the success of early American settlers?

These same traits typify the Japanese, who eat large quantities of wild fish, much of it raw. Also true of our industrial entrepreneurs, and I wonder about them. Many hunt big game for sport - do you suppose they eat it? I would. I have eaten many wild creatures in times past, and I know that properly prepared they are delicious. Do you suppose urban humans would be transformed if the government, instead of poisoning and wasting thousands of wild animals under the heading of "range management and "predator control," were to sell the meat in cities? Of course I am not proposing to banish hunger by feeding wild meat to the metropolitan masses. All the wild populations of the world are not enough to do that.

But if my notion has any merit, we ought to change the living conditions of our domestic animals, so as to develop not only the fat, pale and tender meat we seem to prize, but also the psychological attributes we want for ourselves and our posterity.

"Aha," I can hear you saying, "this is some kind of spoof of the natural organic foods fad. We are all supposed to eat alfalfa sprouts and find God." Quite the contrary. If you give my theory any harbor at all, I would conclude that we are better off eating synthetic chemicals which are psychologically neutral, than eating brainwashed cow's flesh which will modify cur behavior to resemble that of the cow.

We are responsible for the experience and conditioning of our entrees while they live, and their present-day experience and conditioning are no less monstrous for being invisible to the consumer. "That's sentimental nonsense," you say. "We can't attribute human feelings to aninals. In any case human needs come first. We have to feed ourselves somehow, and we raise domestic animals specifically to eat. So what if their experience is brief and unpleasant? They are all born to die," you say, "so what difference does it make?"

I say there is this disquieting possibility that has nothing whatever to do with sentiment. The wild experience, equally brief and perhaps equally unpleasant, contributes to survival of the species; the captive experience does not. If we are what we eat, we may be paying for our callousness in ways we do not guess. 

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Polly Pitkin Ryan

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