Would the world be a better place if humans stopped eating things with faces? Indubitably, asserts English food-writer Spencer in this lively if sometimes debatable treatise.
Vegetarianism “is the diet which Gaia approves of and, if the human race are her infants, it is the only one by which she will suckle her brood,” writes Spencer (The Heretic’s Feast, not reviewed, etc.), taking for the purposes of argument the point of the view of the true-believer, extreme “vegetarian lobby”—a stance that he does not deliver from “the image of the morally earnest and the downright cranky.” More prosaically and less annoyingly, Spencer observes that as omnivores with a broad range of dietary choices, modern humans do not need meat in order to survive, except in extreme conditions where food plants cannot grow; a meatless diet is both healthier and more humane. Much of this attempts to provide that thesis with a pedigree, an effort in which Spencer is only partly successful. At the outset, for instance, he advances sketchy claims about what our hominid ancestors did and did not eat, ignoring or brushing aside such inconvenient evidence as the dentition pattern of ancestral and even modern humans, with incisors developed for the tearing of flesh, not the gnashing of grain. His examination of the role of vegetarianism in utopian thought is much more interesting. Plato’s ideal Republic, for instance, was meatless, and so is the heaven of the Jains and some Hindus and Buddhists. As for Hitler’s supposedly vegetarian regime, Spencer notes that though the Führer believed meat-eating was harmful, he did not force that particular view on his subjects and even outlawed vegetarian societies. Even so, after Hitler, vegetarian literature no longer claims that “war would be ended if only humanity abstained from meat and the slaughter of animals.”
A capable blend of dietary, religious, and political history that will please like-minded readers—but perhaps prompt contrarians to cook up a cheeseburger, rare.