Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Evolutionary Argument For Veganism

Lately, I have become addicted to the videos of a certain young lady named Kerry McCarpet. She's witty, eloquent, and I just love that British accent of hers - I could watch this video of hers over and over, just to hear her utter the phrase "betwixt the hand and the gob" again and again.

I also agree with a lot of what she says, even though I'd probably be much more cautious in some respects. Her mind is more speculative than mine. I think this is a good thing - it makes for inspiring and lively videos. At the very least, she does what many vegans sadly don't do - she explains her reasons for believing the way she does.

However, let's focus on the one negative thing I found, shall we?

Here, and at a few other places, she presents an argument for high-carbohydrate/low-fat veganism: Evolution shows you what we should eat; our body runs on sugar, our blood cells seem modeled on chlorophyl to some extent. Therefore, we should eat a high-carb vegan diet.

(Personally, I think the chlorophyl argument has a chemist weeping somewhere, but that's just an aside.)

There is a general problem with arguments from evolution. When you try to argue that one specific trait is good, it is of course tempting to say that this trait has survived for so long, so it has to be good - right?

Well - no, sadly. When you do that, you will always end up going in circles.

See, the theory of evolution was invented to explain how we (and all the other species) ended up where we are. But that doesn't tell you anything about whether one specific trait is "good" (i.e., well-adapted) or not. After all, (the theory of) evolution necessarily has to explain the bad along with the good - or to put it differently: In evolution, there is no such thing as good or bad.

The theory of evolution is descriptive, not prescriptive.

We evolved to love sugar and salt, and this is reflected in our taste buds. And we evolved to have a strong sense of empathy, which we may judge as a good thing. But we also evolved to be primates with a rather nasty habit of dropping bombs on each other, and we evolved to have an overweight brain that lets us to fancy stuff like cooking our food, and making hamburgers. We cannot predict, from a merely evolutionary standpoint, which ones of those traits will still be around in a million years.

If you were in possession of a time machine (or a supernatural gift of foresight), and you were to peek into the far future to tell us how this whole game of natural selection actually turned out, that would be something entirely different. Then you could tell us whether red hair will prevail (it doesn't look like it will, to my utter dismay), or whether we will become more peaceful (again, not the obvious winner... *sigh*). But as things are, evolution cannot be used to argue for or against any one lifestyle. It is entirely possible that only the most territorial and aggressive will survive. There may be lots of other arguments against this, but evolution alone just can't tell you.

I suspect that, at its heart, this is really a vitalist argument. It sees evolution not as a blind process guarded by natural laws, but as an intentional agent. It is extremely tempting to fall into this trap - I think even Dawkins once remarked that it is almost impossible to talk about evolution while avoiding it - so this is not a damning accusation at all. It's totally understandable.

After all, the situation is extremely frustrating. We're still left with a guessing game when it comes to something so fundamental as our choice of food. We just don't know enough about nutrition to give definitive answers to the most rudimentary questions.

Personally, I'm going for a "part-time vegan" style, and while I might change this in he future, I'm fairly certain about one basic principle: I will never submit to one philosophy of nutrition to the absolute exclusion of all others. There will always be some meat in my diet - probably very, very little -, some fish, some oil, some cooked and some raw foods - and probably lots and lots of fruits and veggies. But even this diet, which I consider the most rational choice I am currently capable of, is based on guesswork, word of mouth, and personal experience.

Friday, May 16, 2014


When I first saw this video on facebook, my initial reaction was a slight feeling of discomfort. I don't usually think in terms of guilt and forgiveness, and the concept has become somewhat alien to me. Next came the realization that I have no idea what christians actually mean when they talk about "forgiveness".

I know the term appears in the bible, I know the usual dictums associated with it -- "forgive 70 x 7 times" etc. -- but I am not aware of any actual definition. I'm fairly certain that I have never heard one at school (it was a catholic school), or at the christian communities of my youth.

Wouldn't you suppose that a faith community that has been in business for 2000 years, would have come up with some useful definition of one of their most dear, most basic terms, somewhere around the year 100 or so? Wouldn't you think that his was the first thing they tell you, when they're approaching you on the street?

Man, where the heck are those missionaries, every time I actually have a serious question to ask?

The other issue is that I'm not really certain I can approve of the concept in general, even when we accept that there just is no clear-cut definition. Those folks holding up those signs, protesting in a somewhat obtrusive manner that they will forgive those who trespassed against them? Yeah sure, I respect their motives. Been there, done that.  Now it's time to follow through with your claims. For the rest of your lives. Honestly, I wish you the best... but I have my doubts.

And that's not meant to be a strike against those people there in that video. It's meant to be a skeptical note about the whole concept.

Forgiveness presupposes guilt. It builds on the concept that someone wronged you, and instead of lashing back, you... well, what? You don't just forget what has happened. Maybe you humbly accept that you might have done the same destructive thing under the same circumstances. But... no, that's not quite it. Maybe it means to accept that the other person did something wrong, stupid, and destructive, and just move on. No. Not quite right, again.

What the heck IS forgiveness?

All I can really say is that it sounds to me a lot like you're putting yourself on a pedestal. Like you're being a bit BETTER than that other person. Like you're the hero of your own victimhood.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but... it seems to me as if forgiveness were a self-refuting concept. Once you have forgiven, you should be able to just move on. But as long as you feel that there is something to forgive, you can never hope to do that. You'll be forever bound to that incidence by your need to be better.

In my experience, I have found that I am only free of the pain of someone wronging me once I have realized that

  1. I survived it.
  2. The damage is tolerable, after all.
  3. It won't happen again.
  4. I might probably act in the same way under the same circumstances, or
  5. At least I can understand their motives in some way.

In other words, it's about self-preservation first, and empathy second.

That means that there are some things that I will probably never "forgive", such as if someone killed my girlfriend, and that there are some things that I might choose to tolerate, rather than "forgive".

Overall, I think that this is a more healthy and balanced approach than the demand that a person be able to "forgive everything", be it with our without god's help. If not for any other reason, simply because it encompasses a larger spectrum of possible ways to deal with things.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Prostitution as a Metaphor

There is a subtle but very important distinction between being exploited, and being complicit and compliant in that exploitation.

It matters to me because, over the years, I've seen so many people - young people, specifically - who seem to be oh so highly motivated to work unpaid overtime, on top of earning ghastly wages to start with, in some vague hope of a minimal raise in pay or a chance - somewhere out there, far away in their lives - to finally get a piece of the cake. People who seem to have embraced the system of their exploitation with all of their bodies, hearts and minds.

To me, prostitution was always a handy shortcut description for that kind of behaviour. After all, isn't that what a prostitute does - act as if s/he likes what s/he's doing for his/her customers? Put on a show of wellbeing, maybe even ecstasy?

As it turns out, this is untrue on at least two levels.

Firstly, in my very rare encounters with prostitutes, they didn't exactly put on a big show for me. It was all very matter-of-fact. Maybe that's different if you pay for high-end sex services, but at the level I was able to afford at the time, this was clearly not part of the game.

The other problem is the assumption that sex workers get exploited in some metaphysically different, probably a more frightening way, than the rest of us. While that is surely the case whenever violence is involved (and that may, sadly, be all too often), it is not inherent in prostitution itself.

Of course, one may also interject that there is a certain moral judgment involved in this. And I most certainly agree. The way I'm using the term prostitution here, in definitely contains an accusation of dishonesty.

What I'm driving at is that there is a dilemma: On one hand, if I accuse our average pencil pusher of prostituting him/herself, everybody knows instantly what I'm aiming at. On the other hand, prostitution in the literal sense, as it happens every day in real life, is a wildly different thing than this metaphoric meaning of the word implies.

So, I see two solutions: One, we stop using the word prostitution in the literal sense altogether, and start using the more neutral term sex work instead. Two, we find a new word for the metaphorical sense.

If you agree and tend to favour the latter solution, it would be nice if you could tell me the word of your choosing.