Niman’s Naturalistic Fallacy

» March 15th, 2015


In her book Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman absolves the act of eating meat from moral inquiry on the grounds that humans have always eaten animals. She explains that a “food web” in which animals and plants routinely consume each other (yes, plants eat animals) places all life in “an endless cycle of regeneration.” As a result, she concludes: “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” Please re-read that quote to make sure it sinks in.

This logic is sloppy, commonplace, and dangerous. Critics of vegetarianism or veganism routinely chant the mantra that humans “were meant to eat animals.” This comment has a “no further questions asked” tone to it.  It seems intuitively true and, unfortunately, for consumers otherwise inclined to question the moral implications of eating animals, it serves as a convenient escape hatch from a question many meat eaters are eager to avoid: is it wrong to slaughter a sentient animal for food when it’s unnecessary to do so?

By relying on the “humans were meant to eat meat” logic, Niman fails to examine the assumption upon which it rests. At its foundation, the claim implies that any adaptive quality that humans might have evolved to survive is, to quote Niman, “so fundamental to the functioning of nature” that it “cannot be regarded as morally problematic.”

The problem here is that evolutionary adaptation—the essence of the “functioning of nature”—includes untold morally disgusting behaviors that, while perfectly natural in the same way that eating animals is considered natural, are rightly deemed abhorrent by decent people living in a civil society.

Take infanticide. The adaptive advantage of infanticide for many vertebrates is well-supported. This is true for humans as well as primates. Among the !Kung hunter gatherers of Kalahari, about one in a hundred births end in infanticide. In regions of New Guinea, according to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, infanticide is “off the charts,” as mothers who wanted sons (or whose partners wanted sons) will often kill their daughters.

Rather than accept this behavior as beyond moral scrutiny due to its proven “natural” or adaptive quality, civil society rightly rejects infanticide as a totally barbaric practice. The human corrective, according to many evolutionary biologists, has been monogamy—a civilized arrangement often deemed “unnatural,” but certainly morally superior to the alternative.

Another (admittedly more controversial) example to consider is rape. In 2000, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer argued in A Natural History of Rape that the urge to rape is the legacy of an evolutionary adaptive trait (or the by-product of an adaptive trait, such as aggression in men).  Their theory (not surprisingly) encountered a firestorm of objection, much of it concerned that evolutionary psychology was being used as “excuse” for inexcusably horrific behavior.

Whether or not Thornhill and Palmer are right (their hypothesis is still debated), the regrettable fact remains that rape has existed throughout recorded human history, across human cultures, as well as throughout the non-human animal world. Evolutionary psychology, moreover, remains a powerful heuristic tool with which to understand the once (potentially) adaptive, if repulsive, mechanism underscoring rape.

As recently as 2013, a major peer-reviewed study has argued that, “forced sex is the outcome of an innate conditional strategy which enables men to circumvent parental and female choice when they experience a competitive disadvantage, or when the costs of doing so are low.” Other scholars are seeking to reconcile a feminist and an evolutionary psychological understanding of rape, negating the “men can’t help it” suggestion while preserving the evolutionary perspective that Thornhill and Palmer promote.

To clarify any misunderstanding on this point, the takeaway is not to equate the immorality of rape with the immorality of eating animals. Instead, it is to note that both behvaiors (one, of course, being far more common than the other) may have served adaptive functions that qualify them as “natural” and, according to Niman’s logic, beyond moral assessment.

Finally, take something much more common and less controversial: lying. From the perspective of natural adaptation, lying has likely been even more essential to human evolution than eating animals (for, as we know, some societies subsisted on plants, but lying has no plant-based counterpart!).

In Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith situates lying in our evolutionary past, one in which strategic deception had clear adaptive benefits. Lying is thus perfectly natural in the same way eating animals is perfectly natural–it’s an act humans have always done to foster evolutionary adaption. But that hardly makes it morally inert in contemporary life. We don’t like it when people lie.

Which brings me back to Niman. Today, of course, we consider all of these behaviors, in varying degrees, to be morally significant. Nobody in her right mind would contemplate infanticide, lying, or rape and declare, as Niman does of killing animals, that, “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” To the contrary, she would condemn these acts as wrong. It is on the basis of such condemnation that human civil society exists and, on good days, thrives.

Why killing animals for food we do not need gets an “it’s natural” pass is a question that Niman has yet to answer. Until she does, I see no reason to accept the naturalistic fallacy at the core of her justification for eating animals.

39 Responses to Niman’s Naturalistic Fallacy

  1. Tina Eden says:

    Nice analogies, replete with logic. They will go over Niman’s head and the heads of many like her, but they will resonate with a few and the goodness of those few will create a ripple effect.

  2. Objective Observer says:

    Many other animals are very structured in regards to who breeds and doesn’t, so rape in nature actually is quite rare. Wolves for example have a very strict hierarchy in the pack as to which animals breed and which do not. This insures that only the strongest and best genetically continue the breed. Though when humans got involved with domesticated dogs, since there is no pack or hierarchy (and because many dogs are kept as solitary companions), what would have been runts of any pack are bred and bred often with limited gene pools so not only do the weakest animals breed but many genetic defects are past along. Wolves can make these breeding distinctions in nature along with many other animals, yet they still eat meat. So how exactly is this a “natural fallacy?” Infanticide is very rare too. Again it only occurs when there’s a threat (often from man). Lying is also subjective. From my perspective this is something you James do quite frequently pathologically. So again what do any of your analogies prove?

    Ironically to a large degree your analogies (i.e. vegan mental masturbation) make you a speciesist who places man outside of the norms of nature. A chicken has no morals qualms about eating a worm. If a chicken gets in the way of of a large pig, the large pig will eat it. Yet that pig won’t eat a living member of its own kind. Though when man does tamper with natural processes, more often than not as the case with dogs above or with the case of removing bison on the plains or other predators, man has to interject himself even more to try to regain some semblance of balance…which he again tends to mess up further. Without predators, without instant death, the result is often long suffering painful death due to starvation from over breeding …though then again here too man has to reinsert himself to either cull via killing or, as is the case with pets, insert himself even more into the system with birth control of wild species as well. Must be nice to be so reductivist with one’s logic, but nature is a bit more complex than you make it out to be.

    And this doesn’t even get into when man introduces invasive species that further disturb the ecological world. What about python in the Everglades that are decimating indigenous species? Or Asian carp or Lion fish or feral pigs…not to mention all the non-native species of plants that man has introduced that have completely messed up the natural ecosystems? IS it not immoral to the other animals in those ecosystems to let them die due to man’s mistake? Shouldn’t man then eradicate or kill off the offender who is just doing what it would do naturally, and that is eat? Unfortunately, Mr. McWilliams, nature is again not so easy to reduce to your incongruous analogies and man has never left many things “alone.”

    • James says:

      Speciesism doesn’t apply when it comes to qualities that are uniquely human. It’s when we get into qualities that are not uniquely human–such as suffering–that speciesism applies. You should be aware of that. I have no idea what pythons in the Everglades has to do with my argument–I think your objectivity took you down a wayward path. The fact that certain awful behaviors are rare is meaningless to my larger point that they are natural in the sense that, like eating meat, they once offered some level of adaptive advantage. And I really wish you wouldn’t use words such as pathology and masturbation to describe me and my idea, Mr. Objective. That’s rude.

      • Objective Observer says:

        So you’re essentially saying speciesism is selective as to how it is applied? What a convoluted argument. Determining what is distinctively human is unto to itself, an anthropocentric fallacy….so are you’re thus claiming animals lack any sense of morality as defined by man and therefore may eat as they wish? Hmmm…

        As for pythons or any invasive species that man introduced, it’s pretty simple so not sure why you don’t understand the relevance. So let me also put it in the form of a question instead. If man creates an imbalanced ecosystem, is it not moral for man to kill the species to restore order? Or is it more moral to let the invasive species destroy the ecosystem because its immoral to kill under any circumstance? But if man kills the animal to restore order, why not eat it rather than let it go to waste? Isn’t letting something that can nourish people go to waste immoral?

        Regardless, on an even broader note, another problem with your whole idea is that you are equating the actions of individual animals to whole systems. So what if particular actions of humans are against human’s moral code? That’s why we have a penal system. So it’s obviously true of many individual actions for humans, too. Thus arguing against the system of nutrient cycling is like arguing against gravity. You may — as an individual — decide you don’t like it, but that does not mean it ceases to exist. That’s why while it’s perfectly fine for an individual to decide they don’t want to eat animal products one cannot make an argument that it’s a universal moral mandate that one should not do so. You may just as well argue that gravity is morally wrong.

        • James says:

          This is invasive logic that you espouse, from beginning to end. Gravity is not immoral, but it makes immorality possible–say, if I toss a person off a building for kicks. Nutrient cycling is not immoral, but it makes immorality possible–say if I harvest low IQ humans and use them for compost. Fact is, you are throwing red herrings left and right. Why not address the argument I present? Your resort to some kind of nature-fetish-relativism is just not working for me.

          • Objective Observer says:

            Actually I’d argue that you’re the one throwing around red-herrings left right and center over and over again. Your resort to convoluted analogies to some kind of anthropocentric relativism to form your epistemological framework of reasoning is just not working for me

  3. I don’t understand why Nicolette Hahn Niman’s book bothers you so much. If you’re a vegan and you’re informed and honest about your food, that’s great. I don’t think she’s telling anyone who doesn’t eat meat that they should.

    But, the sustainable meat movement is an improvement for the earth, the animals and the eater. As drought looms larger and larger on our horizon, putting animals to work healing the land is increasingly important.

    This intellectually indulgent rambling about animal rape, infanticide and lying just exposes how little experience most Americans have with animals at liberty.

    There are no tidy answers to any of it. And yes, animals do all three. They just don’t debate about it afterwards.

    • James says:

      You are missing the point of my article. But I have to ask: what is intellectually indulgent about moral consistency? I ask you, because moral consistency is what this piece is about. Niman bases her support of animal agriculture on logic that simultaneously supports a wide variety of horrific behaviors just as calamitous, if not more so, than drought. Does that not bother you? Putting animals to work on the land is one thing, but killing them and eating them is another. My article concerns the latter. (Oh, and since you raise the issue of drought, where do you think Niman’s cows get their water?) Anyway, if people want to eat animals–as I sometimes do (insects)–I simply think there should be a sound moral justification for doing so. Niman’s quote strongly suggests that she does not have one. That, to me, is a problem.

      • Objective Observer says:

        You do seem pretty fixated on her…what is this your fifth or sixth recent column about her and her book? Her book seems to have rattled your world.

        So anyhow, for sake of moral consistency it thus must NOT be okay to kill feral pigs that are rooting up all your crop lands, or pythons that are eating all the other indigenous species in the Everglades. Because to do so would be morally inconsistent, correct?

        So then what’s your opinion about almonds, almond milk, and other almond products? And what about all the salve laborers (bees) that are trucked in as pollinators that die so that you can eat your fruit and nuts?

        • James says:

          And you, anonymous person, seem fixated on me. You are grasping for marginal straws with you examples. I could respond but, really, neither of us are going to accept each other’s perspective in the end, so I’m going to better use my time than mentally masturbating over peripheral scenarios that you propose with pathological regularity.

    • Marc Bedner says:

      As James point out, the current drought in the Western US is a reason to stop eating meat, not to try to sustain meat production. The drought is exacerbated by unnatural processes such as fossil fuel use, as well as natural processes such as increasing human population.

      • Objective Observer says:

        Actually that something of a fallacy. As for actual consumption of a grass fed and grass finish steer or heifer for beef production, it helps to do some math… On the high end beef cattle depending on breed and location drink around 20 gallons a day. They live longer than grain finish feedlot cattle, so it takes longer to get to weight, so 30 months as opposed to 18 months, therefore they consume 18,250 gallons of water over their lifetime. They yield a net of approx 500 lbs of beef, so that’s 36.5 gallons of water per pound of beef. With pastured cattle a lot of that water is excreted as urine and manure with minerals that build soils by bolstering soil ecology (so the water actually stays in the ecosystem). Also a lot of that number is from forage grown without irrigation. (I believe Niman’s ranch like many STILL in N. Cal don’t use any irrigation) Thus 95% of green water numbers used in water foot print calcs are not from consumption but theoretically for growing feed or forage which can either be irrigated or from rainfall…If the green water is from rainfall, the water foot print number is pretty meaningless in terms of environmental impact. So in discussing water use, you have to look where the “green” water comes from to understand the environmental impact. Rain fall falls regardless and is retained much better in healthy soils that are built faster with properly managed livestock. Plus non-irrigated perennial poly-crop grasslands keep ground cover temperatures lower which also helps keep soils healthy since soil microbes aren’t killed off due to the heat.

        So if cattle are managed properly and help build soils, they actually may be beneficial to the environment, not detrimental, because those healthy soils with poly cultures of long rooted perennial plants will retain more water and provide ground covers which combats drought. Factory animals dependent upon irrigated feed crops are a different story. People shouldn’t eat factory raised meat for a whole myriad of reasons including poor water use and reliance on often irrigated feed crops.

  4. I’m not missing the point. I appreciate how deeply this issue bothers you. At one time, before spending my days working with cattle, chickens and pigs, I would have agreed with you.

    The entire industry cannot be easily summarized with a few incendiary words, and using vivid emotional analogies completely denies the reality of the subject you claim to be speaking for, the animals. That’s what I consider to be intellectually indulgent.

    Of course it bothers me to harvest animals for food. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t deserve to be raising them. And I don’t expect you to ever understand or applaud that, but I value honesty and accountability about the impact of my personal consumption.

    I’m simply saying that this is not a matter that can be fully understood from the shelter of a computer. If you haven’t put in the time simply observing animals at liberty, your understanding of the matter will remain two dimensional.

    And, it takes an entire book to cover all the nuances of nature and nurture, but regarding drought and the water the cattle drink? The cattle appropriate to the grazing lifestyle are not ones who consume the vast quantities of water that industrial livestock do. Within the cattle industry there is a wide range of breeds and management styles.

    In addition, the microbes added to the soil by the livestock is greatly responsible for increasing the soil’s ability to retain water. Industrial farming, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are responsible for stripping soil of it’s ability to hold water.

    But alas, full, nuanced contemplation makes for a very dull read and does not generate the types of headlines that tend to attract readers.

    • James says:

      You still haven’t addressed my argument.

      How is an animal “at liberty” if you kill that animal to sell or eat? What kind of liberty is that?

      The answer to this question hardly requires spending my life with animals. And, for what it’s worth, by what presumption do you think I haven’t spent significant time with animals?

      Were the only people qualified to comment on the morality of slavery slaveholders?

      • It seems the only way you consider me to have addressed your point is for me to agree with you. This is not a true or false question and I am not trying to change your opinion of eating meat.

        With some critically important caveats, and for many reasons, I don’t think it’s morally wrong to raise animals for food. Which doesn’t at all mean I’m unaffected or glib about it.

        I owe the animals the best life possible and the most humane death. I work hard to uphold my end of the bargain, and I take full responsibility for the outcome.

        In addition, I eat very little meat, and I do not waste anything.

        I don’t expect everyone to agree with me or do it my way, but what I have learned is that where farming is concerned, the more time I spend away from books and computer the more deeply I understand.

        Academics become blinders without real field experience, and a herd of animals allowed to feely socialize is nothing like a pet.

        • Objective Observer says:

          One may also ask how is any animal lower on the food chain “liberated” if any other animal higher on the food chain kills or eats it instead? So if a chicken is liberated by human that doesn’t consume it, when the fox, weasel, hawk, coyote or crow eats the chicken instead much more violently instead is that chicken any more free? Is the chicken even more liberated if it never existed?

          Or but wait, man is separate from all of these other omnivores and carnivores because he can morally decide whether or not to eat the chicken whereas other animals lack such higher capacity. Thus man is assigning himself a higher value than other species and thus is specieist except speciesism doesn’t apply here since speciecism only applies where humans and animals share the same feelings. Huh?

          To the chicken onto which the this human morality is projected, it most likely makes no difference as to what kind of critter eats it because the chicken really doesn’t have that much say in the matter. Its never truly liberated. There really is no moral conundrum here other than a very contrived specious specieism one.

          • Non-Humanist says:

            So, if the chicken comes before the egg, does the egg follow the chicken across the road? What do your rants and digressions have to do with objective reality?

        • James says:

          You don’t owe non-human animals a thing other than to leave them alone.

    • Tina Eden says:

      If it bothers you to be raising animals for food, I hope you will someday do something else with your time. Your writing here appears articulate and thoughtful, perhaps working with words rather than animals will come your way someday.

      The “sustainable” meat movement is something of a hoax and a justification to continue eating meat as long as it is not raised cruelly. Pedophiles feel somewhat the same about their victims whom they groom.

      It’s not too hard to go vegan, and starting as a vegetarian is quite easy and well-accepted these days. I wish you luck in the world and the ability to turn the corner of carnivorism.

  5. Thank you Tina, I wish you luck as well.

    The world of food in general is filled with hoaxes and bandwagons, but there will always be a core group of mindful, thoughtful eaters both meat eating and vegan.

    I began my farming journey ironically enough after first becoming a vegetarian, then a vegan. I stuck with it for two years, and was very diligent but it simply wasn’t for me.

    Because my diet was motivated by animal welfare concerns, raising my own mindfully was my solution. Call me a hoax and liken me to a pedophile, but I walk my talk.

    • Can you describe the specific death you are giving your animals and what aspects of it make it humane, Jackie? I’ve watched many slaughter videos, have watched chickens slaughtered (cattle, pigs, and horses, too); am acquainted with the standard methodology as well as a former USDA veterinarian, so not uneducated about the practices. I’ve heard so many people talk about a humane slaughter. Can you tell me how this differs from the standard? Where do you slaughter your animals and using what method? Finally, what is your standard of “humane”? Thanks.

  6. Mountain says:

    Dear James,

    If we examine people’s behavior rather than their words, infanticide is not a “morally disgusting behavior.” It’s just called abortion. And while a sizable minority objects to abortion, society as a whole does not consider it disgusting. With just under 4 million live births each year, and just over 1 million abortions each year, over 20% of U.S. pregnancies end in infanticide. Americans object to infanticide as practiced in New Guinea and in the ancient world, but that’s a welfarist objection, not an abolitionist one.

    • Marc Bedner says:

      I suppose you have pseudoscience which “proves” that life begins at conception and human fetuses are sacred?
      As to the Texas A&M article which you cite as evidence for Savory, this was refuted, among other places, in the International Journal of Biodiversity

      • Mountain says:

        As far as I can see, the article you cite doesn’t even address, let alone refute, the study I linked to. So, in addition to not being aware of reputable science (peer reviewed and published) in support of holistic management, you are unaware of what “refute” means. And referring to science as “pseudoscience” because it reaches conclusions that differ from yours suggests that you don’t understand what that means, either.

        • Marc Bedner says:

          In the reference on Holistic Management I cited above, Carter conclude: “Studies supporting HM have generally come from the Savory Institute or anecdotal accounts of HM practitioners. Leading range scientists have refuted the system and indicated that its adoption by land management agencies is based on these anecdotes and unproven principles rather than scientific evidence.” I regard this as a refutation of the alleged science of Holistic Managment.

          In case you missed their mention of the Texas A&M study by Teague et. al. you cited above, Carter reference it as footnote 107:
          “Even though the ecosystems of the Great Plains states evolved with the pressure of bison, Holechek et al. [83] and Briske et al. [103] found that HM did not differ from traditional, season-long grazing for most dependent variables compared. Studies commonly held up as supporting HM [104–108] used HM paddocks that were grazed with light to moderate grazing, not the heavy grazing that Savory recommends. Further, long-term range studies have shown that it is reductions in stocking rate that lead to increased forage production and improvements in range condition, not grazing system [33, 109, 110].”

          • Mountain says:

            English, Marc Bedner… do you speak it?!


          • Mountain says:

            You claimed the IJoB refuted the Teague article, and it does nothing of the sort. It doesn’t even claim to do so. It criticizes using the Teague article to support holistic management, a criticism which is itself weak. It claims that the Teague study, and others like it, only tested light and moderate grazing, not the heavy grazing it claims that holistic management requires. Of course, flexibility is a key element of holistic management, and it does not invariably call for heavy grazing. It calls for adjusting the duration and intensity of grazing according to the condition of the land and the ecosystem.

  7. Mountain says:

    As for lying, it is more socially objectionable to adamantly refuse to lie than it is to engage in socially acceptable levels of lying.

    How are you doing? Do these jeans make me look fat? How’d you like the school play? These are all questions that demand socially acceptable, if frequently false, answers.

  8. Scott M. Smith says:

    Dr. McWilliams has presented a valid and compelling critique of Niman’s indefensible arguments justifying the human consumption of animals. Cows, the living source of the beef Niman wants to defend the use of, are what are to be defended. They are to be let alone to live out their individual lives until the species becomes extinct. This is what is moral, or in the domain of morality. Humans have no right to use animals, certainly no right to raise them for food, research, fur, entertainment, etc. The imagined right is invented, by humans, and it is fallacious. Niman’s ranching heritage has nothing to do with natural functioning systems because agriculture is not a part of nature, and the “endless cycle of regeneration” she extols will come to a catastrophic end because of such unnatural activities. Humans have always eaten animals, she points out. So what? Have humans thus always been moral? And did they become moral when they realized eating beef is not immoral? Maybe we were meant to be immoral, because some charlatan is claiming that some things just aren’t subject to moral scrutiny. How convenient. Niman is part of a desperate attempt of an industry to label itself as green, natural, sustainable, etc. It is nothing but marketing hype; the belief that it is an improvement for the earth is utterly delusional.

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