A Short Meat-Oriented History of the World from Eden to the Mattole

Start with God.

‘And [Peter] saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.’ (Acts 10: 11­13.)

The Bible is a meat-eater’s manifesto. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were vegetarian. They fed on grains, nuts and fruits. Then Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil-or at least that’s the way Adam explained it to God. They were cast forth from the Garden, plunging mankind into original sin from which redemption can come only through the grace of Christ, whose flesh is eaten periodically in the form of the Eucharist. Hardly were Adam and Eve out of Eden before God was offering ‘respect’ to the flesh sacrifice of Abel the keeper of sheep and withholding ‘respect’ from Cain the tiller of the ground. Next thing we know, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, slew him and we were on our way. [1]
Man’s Dominion

Ringing in Man’s ears was the Almighty’s edict, as reported in Genesis 1:26­28: ‘Let us make Man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominio. . .over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. . .Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it.’ Thus did the biblical God launch humans on the exploitation of the rest of the natural world, theirs for the using. [2]

Dominion over ‘Un-Christian’ nature was at the heart of it, as C.S. Lewis spelled out frankly enough: ‘Atheists naturally regard. . .the taming of an animal by man as a purely arbitrary interference of one species with another. The “real” or “natural” animal is to them the wild one, and the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing. But a Christian must not think so. Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and. . .the tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only “natural” animal-the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy.’ [3]

Such arrogance towards non-human creatures was similarly displayed towards women and human slaves. Not long after His commands in Genesis about animals we find God-in the row immediately following the Fall-telling Eve that ‘in sorrow shall thou bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’ So far as human slaves were concerned, once again the slave-owners were able to point to Genesis 9, 25­7 and God’s curse on Canaan, and the children of Ham: ‘A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.’ The early Christians never rejected slavery. [4]
The Butcher Slaves

Throughout the sixteenth century, intelligent people were having doubts about the distinctiveness of humans or their superior station in the Great Chain of Being. Montaigne wrote that there were no important differences between humans and other animals. The latter, he said, displayed powers of logic, discrimination, judgement, cunning and even religiosity. [5] Such sentiments were powerfully abetted by the growing distaste among intellectuals like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More and Montaigne for hunting, a pursuit whose refinements had transfixed the upper classes for five centuries. ‘And thus with their butchering and eating of beasts,’ Erasmus wrote in In Praise of Folly, at the start of the sixteenth century, ‘they [the genteel hunters] accomplish nothing at all unless it be to degenerate into beasts themselves. . .’ Montaigne concluded, ‘It is apparent that it is not by a true judgment, but by foolish pride and stubbornness, that we set ourselves before the other animals and sequester ourselves from their condition and society.’ [6]

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, brings together some of these themes:

Outside the city are designated places where all gore and offal may be washed away in running water. From these places they transport the carcasses of the animals slaughtered and cleaned by the hands of slaves. They do not allow their citizens to accustom themselves to the butchering of animals, by the practice of which they think that mercy, the finest feeling of our human nature, is gradually killed off.

A few pages further on, More’s Utopians ‘have imposed the whole activity of hunting, as unworthy of free men, upon their butchers-a craft, as I explained before, they exercise through their slaves.’ There was a long-running popular myth that butchers were at various periods excluded from English juries, on the grounds that their trade had coarsened their powers of moral discrimination. [7]
The Breaking of Soft Machines

From these humane sentiments of the sixteenth century we approach the seventeenth century and Descartes, who regarded humans as machinery imbued with the divinely bestowed intellectual essence. Animals were mere machinery. At Port-Royal, the Cartesians cut up living creatures with fervour and, in the words of one of Descartes’ biographers, ‘kicked about their dogs and dissected their cats without mercy, laughing at any compassion for them and calling their screams the noise of breaking machinery.’

The butchering industry has always been stoutly Cartesian in outlook for obvious reasons. ‘The breeding sow’, an executive from Wall’s Meat Co. wrote in National Hog Farmer in the late 1970s, ‘should be thought of, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine.’ [8]

As a Christian you either concluded with Descartes that animals did not suffer, that their cries were of no greater consequence than the snap of a clock spring breaking, or you reckoned God had a deeper plan, hard for humans to comprehend. John Wesley, the Methodist divine, thought that animal suffering offered ‘a plausible objection against the justice of God, in suffering numberless creatures that had never sinned to be so severely punished.’ Wesley’s answer was a sort of Pythagorean metempsychosis, whereby at the last trump they would be resurrected with human intelligence and, thus equipped, enjoy life everlasting. [9]

But the core text for Christians remained the edict in Genesis, along with the divine injunction to St Peter to kill and eat with God’s blessing. St Francis of Assisi may have had strong rapport with the birds of the air, but in the New World the Franciscans, Jesuits and Dominicans pioneered cattle ranching. [10] In 1638, the Jesuits abandoned a mission east of the Rio Plata in what is now Uruguay, leaving behind five thousand head of cattle. These and other herds multiplied at a staggering rate. By 1700, Felix de Azara reckoned the cattle in what is now Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay at 48 million, most of them feral. [11]

Further north, these religious orders founded ranches on Marajo, the island in the mouth of the Amazon, in Sonora, in Texas and in Alta California. By the early nineteenth century, the mission herds in Alta California were estimated at anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 longhorns of Spanish descent, parents of the gigantic herds later driven to the inferno of the Chicago stockyards. [12]

Christians have no dietary sanction against eating the flesh of creatures other than themselves. The many days-most notably Fridays in the old Roman Catholic calendar-of non-flesh consumption, were penitential in function. Lent was similar. Contrary to common belief, Hindus do not have a religious interdict on the eating of meat. As in More’s Utopia, the attitude is caste-based, with Brahmins (intellectuals and priests) and Vaisyas (merchants) regarding meat-eating as the province of Kshatriyas (warriors) and Sudras (labourers). Tanning and butchering are done by the Untouchables. Meat-eating is regarded by Brahmins as unclean, and caste mobility in Hindu society is often expressed by giving up meat and becoming vegetarian.

Many modern Christians do not care much for the prescriptions in Genesis and use the same sort of language one Bishop of Durham once did about the Resurrection: it was all a lot of bother about a heap of old bones. (God responded by striking Durham Cathedral with a lightning bolt, serving the Bishop right.) But the theology still has strength. In an influential essay published in 1967, ‘The Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’, Lynn White Jr. discussed the verses from Genesis 1: 26­28 about man’s dominion over the earth and concluded that ‘we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.’
An Earthly Paradise

Thus was the gauntlet thrown down. In 1991, I heard it being picked up by us Representative Bill Dannemeyer, talking to a crowd of businessmen in the Eureka Inn, in Eureka, northern California, some two hours north of where I live. ‘We should understand,’ Dannemeyer told the crowd, ‘that this environmental party has in its objective a mission to change this society, to worship the creation instead of the creator. You have to understand their theology. I can’t prove this by empirical analysis, but my gut reaction to their thoughts is simply this: if you go through life and you don’t believe in a hereafter and all you see before you today are trees, birds. . .if anybody begins to consume those things, you can get excited about that because it’s your whole world. And this is where the militancy comes.’

Five years later, at a gun rally outside Detroit, I heard similar execration heaped on environmentalists for preferring rats to humans, plus a savage attack on Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth-century English utilitarian who famously declared in his Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, published in 1780, that animals have rights and that ‘the question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ Bentham drew explicit comparisons between the rights of animals and the rights of slaves, equating the abolitionist cause for human slaves with the cause of rights for animals. Alluding to the French Code Noir of 1685, regulating the status of slaves in the West Indies and forbidding their murder by their masters, Bentham expressed the hope that animals would also thus be saved from their torturers and that one day ‘the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum’ would be equally insufficient reasons for maltreatment. Soon after the Second World War, Bertrand Russell wrote:

If men developed by such slow stages that there were creatures which we should not know whether to classify as human or not, the question arises: at what stage in evolution did men, or their semi-human ancestors, begin to be all equal?. . .An adherent of evolution may maintain that not only the doctrine of the equality of all men, but also that of the rights of man, must be condemned as unbiological, since it makes too emphatic a distinction between men and other animals. [13]

In his marvellous book on hunting, A View to a Death in the Morning, Matt Cartmill quotes Russell on the ‘too emphatic distinction between men and other animals’ and then offers this farewell to the stipulations of the God of Genesis:

Our culture offers to justify that [too emphatic] distinction by viewing human beings as separate from nature and innately superior to it. At the same time, however, we view the natural order as sacred and establish elaborate machineries to protect it from human intervention. Though different subcultures place different stress on these two views, probably most of us would assent in some degree to both. But it is obvious they do not fit very well together. Our vision of nature as man’s holy slave is both incoherent and dishonest, like the patriarchal Victorian vision of Woman as a sort of angelic chattel.

The incoherence and dishonesty inherent in that Victorian ideology were eventually corrected by recognizing that the similarities between master and chat tel had greater moral and political importance than the differences. Since there proved to be no morally interesting differences between women and men, the only way men could preserve their self-respect and integrity was to extend citizenship to women. The same was true of masters and slaves and of whites and blacks. In each of these cases, a heavily marked status boundary ultimately had to be given up because it was intellectually indefensible. And if the cognitive boundary between man and beast, between the world of history and the world of nature, is equally indefensible, we cannot defend human dignity without extending some sort of citizenship to the rest of nature-which means ceasing to treat the non-human world as a series of means to human ends.

Tomorrow, Part 2: Porkopolis

This essay appears as part of Dead Meat, presenting Sue Coe’s record, in the form of paintings and diaries, of slaughterhouses in the United States. Dead Meat is published by Four Walls Eight Windows Press, in New York, and paintings in it may be seen at the St. Etienne Gallery, 20 West 57th St, New York.


[1] God’s line is that it’s Man’s and Woman’s fault. He set up a vegetarian world, and then the founding parents, exercising free will, wrecked everything, and creatures fell to eating one another. ‘Vegetarianism was also encouraged by Christian teaching, for all theologians agreed that man had not originally been carnivorous. . .Many biblical commentators maintained that it was only after the flood that humans became meat-eaters; in the period of disorientation following the Fall they had remained herbivorous. Others, noting that Abel was a herdsman, suggested that it was the Fall which had inaugurated the carnivorous error, and that the liberty of eating flesh which God gave Noah was merely the renewal of an earlier permission. Commentators argued over whether meat-eating had been permitted because man’s physical constitution had degenerated and therefore required new forms of nutriment, or because the cultivation of the soil to which he was condemned required a more robust food, or because the fruits and herbs on which he had fed in Eden had lost their former goodness. But everyone agreed that meat-eating symbolised man’s fallen condition. ‘God allows us to take away the lives of our fellow creatures and to eat their flesh,’ wrote Richard Baxter in 1691, ‘to show what sin hath brought on the world.’ The death of brute animals to supply the wants of sinful man could even be made a paradigm of Christ’s atonement.’ Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World, New York 1983.

Stew Albert reports to me that the prevailing Jewish interpretation of Genesis is slightly different. It holds (Dominions not withstanding) that God mandated that humans not eat flesh. And that mandate was withdrawn only after the great flood. No reason is offered by God for changing his mind ­ but some theories have it, that the flood was brought on as divine punishment because humans kept fighting among themselves. So God decided (as an act of kindness) that the second time around humans would have an increased food supply and maybe they would fight less. God’s fabled powers of foreknowledge cleared faltered on this point. Of course the Hebrew tribes eventually would learn that not all meat or food of the sea was permitted to them. But that came later.

[2] Man is ‘this thing,’ Francis Bacon wrote in The Wisdom of the Ancients, as he proposed his principles of scientific investigation in the early seventeenth century,’ in which the whole world centres, with respect to final causes; so that if he were away, all other things would stray and fluctuate, without end or intention, or become perfectly disjointed and out of frame; for all things are made subservient to man, and he receives uses and benefits from them all. . .so that everything in nature seems made not for itself, but for man.’ In Bacon’s view, the Fall had suspended man’s sovereignty over nature; and to restore this prelapsarian dominance was the proper aim of all science, whose true aim, as he put it in the Novum Organum, is ‘to extend more widely the limits of the power and greatness of man,’ and to endow him with ‘infinite commodities.’ Tyson or Purdue should have Bacon’s portrait on every chicken shed. Always alert to the possible utility of nature to man, Bacon was riding along in his coach in the early English spring of 1626, when the notion of experimenting with frozen chicken crossed his mind. He stopped the coach, descended, bought a fowl and stuffed it with snow thus contracting the chill from which he soon died in Lord Arundel’s house a few weeks later.

Bacon discusses vivisection in somewhat muffled terms: ‘To prosecute such inquiry concerning perfect animals by cutting out the foetus from the womb would be too inhuman, except when opportunities are afforded by abortions, the chase, and the like. There should therefore be a sort of nightwatch over nature, as showing herself better by night than by day. For these may be regarded as night studies by reason of the smallness of our candle and its continual burning.’ Novum Organum, Book ii, 41. But while Bacon was indulging himself in these niceties, his doctor, William Harvey-who also looked after Arundel-was busy vivisecting. Bacon published the Novum Organum in 1620. Harvey published his treatise on the circulation of the blood, De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Frankfurt in 1621. It began with the words, ‘When, by many dissections of living animals, as they came to hand. . .I first gave myself to observing how I might discover. . .’ He presumably discussed his work with Bacon, who did not feel affronted enough to change doctors.

On the other hand, see the extraordinary passage on vivisection, amnesia and pain, ‘Le Prix du Prográs’, in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso, London 1979 (this was presumably Adorno):

A recently discovered letter by the French physiologist, Pierre Flourens, who once enjoyed the bittersweet fame of having been elected to the French Academy in competition with Victor Hugo, contains the following striking passage: ‘I still cannot decide to agree to the use of chloroform in general surgical practice. As you probably know, I have devoted extensive study to this substance and was one of the first to describe its specific properties on the basis of experiments with animals. My scruples are founded on the simple fact that operations with chloroform, and presumably also with the other known forms of narcosis, have an illusory success. These substances act solely on certain motor and coordination centers and on the residual capability of the nervous substances. Under the influence of chloroform, the nervous substance loses a considerable part of its ability to absorb traces of impressions, but it does not lose the power of sensation as such. On the contrary, my observations suggest that in conjunction with the general innervation paralysis, pain is experienced even more strongly than in the normal condition. The public is misled by the fact that after an operation the patient is unable to remember what he has undergone. If we told our patients the truth, it is probable that not one of them would wish to have an operation performed under chloroform, whereas they all insist on its use now because we shroud the truth in silence. ‘But quite apart from the fact that the only questionable gain is a loss of memory lasting for the duration of surgery, I consider that the extended use of this substance entails another serious risk. With the increasing superficiality of the general academic training of our doctors, the unlimited use of chloroform may encourage surgeons to carry out increasingly complex and difficult operations. Instead of using these methods on animals in the interests of research, our own patients will then become unsuspecting guinea pigs. It is possible that the painful stimuli which because of their specific nature may well exceed all known sensations of this kind, may lead to permanent mental damage in the patient or even to an undescribably painful death under narcosis; and the exact features of this death will be hidden for ever from the relatives of the patient and the world at large. Would this not be too high a price to pay for progress?’ If Flourens had been right here, the dark paths of the divine world order would have been justified for once. The animal would have been avenged through the suffering of his executioners: every operation would have been a vivisection. The suspicion would then arise that our relationship with men and creation in general was like our relationship with ourself after an operation-oblivion for suffering. For cognition the gap between us and others was the same as the time between our own present and past suffering; an insurmountable barrier. But perennial domination over nature, medical and non-medical techniques, are made possible only by the process of oblivion. The loss of memory is a transcendental condition for science. All objectification is a forgetting.

Despite these admirable remarks, Adorno and Horkheimer do not seem to have had much empathy with animals, if ‘Man and Animal’-which comes a few pages later in the book-is anything to go by. Walter Benjamin’s paragraph on ‘Gloves’ in One-Way Street, Verso, London 1979, expresses a positive revulsion towards animals. Like Adorno and Horkheimer, he was better at describing domination than affinity.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, New York 1962. Cited in Matt Cartmill, A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History, New Haven 1993. Christian and Marxist shook hands over this deal. Cartmill reports that in the 1930s ‘some Marxist thinkers . . .urged that it was time to put an end to nature and that animals and plants that serve no human purpose ought to be exterminated.’

[4] The historian Geoffrey de Ste. Croix declared that he was not aware of any general Christian condemnation of slavery before the petition of the Mennonites of Germantown in Pennsylvania in 1688, and the Mennonites were founded by a sixteenth-century Anabaptist, whose attitude to property was communist in outlook. See G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. London 1981.

[5] ‘Presumption is our natural and original malady. The most vulnerable and frail of all creatures is man, and at the same time the most arrogant. He feels and sees himself lodged here, among the mire and dung of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst, the deadest and most stagnant part of the universe, on the lowest story of the house and the farthest from the vault of heaven, with the animals of the worst condition of the three [i.e. those that walk, fly and swim], and in his imagination he goes planting himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the sky down beneath his feet. It is by the vanity of this same imagination that he equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine characteristics, picks himself out and separates himself from the horde of other creatures, carves out their shares to his fellows and companions the animals, and distributes among them such portions of faculties and powers as he sees fit. How does he know, by the force of his intelligence, the secret internal stirrings of animals? By what comparison between them and us does he infer the stupidity that he attributes to them?’ Amplifying his essays a few years later, Montaigne added after the passage just quoted, the famous sentence ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’ From ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond,’ The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame, Stanford 1965.

[6] By the mid sixteenth century Giovanni Battista Gelli, a Florentine scholar, was writing Circe, a dialogue in which the enchantress of the title tells Ulysses she will restore the animals she transmogrified back into his original crew, so long as he can secure their agreement. The animals remain unpersuaded. You men, the doe replies to Ulysses’s invitation to resume the form of a woman, ‘make mere slaves and servants out of us. . .Among animals, any animals you want to name, the female partakes equally with the male in his pleasures and diversions.’ Only one, an elephant, makes the return journey and shouts triumphantly, ‘What a marvelous sensation it is to be a man!’ But he was a philosopher. R. Adams, ed., The Circe of Signior Giovanni Battista Gelli, Ithaca 1991. Cited in Matt Cartmill, A View to a Death in the Morning.

[7] Sir Thomas More, Utopia, edited by Edward Sturz, Yale 1964. Keith Thomas discusses the legend of jury exclusion of butchers in Man and the Natural World.

[8] Quoted in Animal Factories by Jim Mason and Peter Singer, New York 1990.

[9] See Cartmill, A View to a Death in the Morning. This concept of eighteenth-century promotion was resumed by a French biologist, Charles Bonnet, who thought that man would eventually move on ‘to another dwelling place, more suitable to the superiority of his faculties’, and then the beasts would be elevated accordingly: ‘In this universal restoration of animals, there may be found a Leibniz or a Newton among the monkeys or the elephants, a Perrault or a Vauban among the beavers.’

[10] Christians were deeply involved in the development of the human slave trade between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, since enslavement could be the prelude to conversion, just as the ‘beef Christian’ Indians of the Californian ranchos run by the Franciscans took on board spiritual grace along with their ribeye. The vaqueros tending these Western herds could maybe trace some of their skills in part back through Andalucian and Marisman herders to the West African Fulani of the pre-Columbian era, some of whom may have been taken as slaves to Spain. See Terry Jordan, North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers, Albuquerque 1993.

[11] Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Cambridge 1986.

[12] See Terry Jordan, North American Cattle Ranching Frontiers. Jordan suggests this in the context of his estimate that cowboys of African descent were extremely uncommon on the western cattle frontiers.

[13] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, New York 1945.


















Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.