The Prehistory Of My Veganism

Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

Hindsight is not always 20/20 because of Whig history. Whig history, or Whig historiography strictly speaking, tells the story as one of progress from a terrible past to a wonderful present, heading in the direction of current affairs. It isn’t true. For instance, just to pluck a random example out of the air, before the imperial period, the republic of Rome was more democratic and only achieved its expansion by dispensing with the “fairer” characteristics of its polity, and it almost goes without saying that after 1979 CE everything went to shit and has been doing so fairly steadily ever since. Therefore, I’m telling this story from the position of how my diet is now and how it changed in October 1987. Although it seems unlikely that I’ll ever deliberately eat meat again, you never know, and if I do I may be able to tell another story about how I got there which, nonetheless, I manage to make look like steady progress. Also, you could probably look into the past of a lot of people who are still carnist and could tell of the same kinds of things in their childhood and early adulthood as I would, and also people who temporarily went plant-based or vegetarian before returning to eating meat. Maybe, then, these are not the real causes of my veganism, but have nothing to do with them and I’ve just rationalised them into a narrative.

I want to say one more thing before I launch into this. Although I consider veganism to be both a good thing and inevitable if the species is going to survive, or rather a plant-based diet is, I absolutely don’t judge others for not being vegan. If you think of veganism as not intentionally causing suffering or death to members of other species, the vast majority of individual organisms’ injury or death, when caused by other organisms, dwarfs the number inflicted on behalf of humans, and therefore from a utilitarian perspective it makes no sense to judge anyone for the proportionately minute part they play in contributing to this. It’s about my will and not being part of causing that pain. Other people have their own perspectives and stories to tell. I absolutely do not judge them. This is my own story. Also, although I’m talking about veganism here, for the purposes of this post I’m defining it more narrowly than I usually do because I’m only really thinking about being a party to the avoidable intentional killing and inevitable causation of suffering in non-human animals, which is not what veganism really is. I do think the wider definition of veganism is relevant, but I don’t want to define it out of existence.

In fact I will start with something wider. Going back to quite early childhood, I was very concerned about conservation, endangered species and environmental damage. One story which stuck in my mind was the treatment of American Buffalo by White settlers, officially but confusingly known as American bison. There are also Eurasian bison of course, and they interested me but I didn’t know much about them. My understanding, and I’m doing this from memory, was that in the nineteenth century CE, White people used to travel out to the Plains by train, shoot them, take their hides and tongues and leave the rest to rot. In the books I read about this, this was contrasted with the Native American attitudes towards them, where all of the carcasse was used for something and they were treated with great reverence. This issue of treating prey animals with reverence – I also remember Inuit with seals – made a lasting impression on me.

Another notable aspect of my childhood was my choice of reading matter. I used to read a lot of books on the subject of such animals as skunks, dogs and cats. For instance, I devoured ‘A Skunk In The Family’, ‘Incredible Journey’, ‘Ring Of Bright Water’, ‘The Travels of Oggy’, ‘Charlotte’s Web’, ‘All Creatures Great And Small’ and its sequels, and ‘Watership Down’. A couple of these are probably less well-known than the others. ‘A Skunk In The Family’ by Constance Taber Colby is an entertaining non-fiction book about a skunk whose scent glands were removed kept as a pet by a New York family, published in 1973 and sufficiently obscure that it has no reviews on Goodreads. ‘The Travels Of Oggy’, a 1976 book by Ann Lawrence, is surely better-known but again I can find no reviews there. It’s about a hedgehog and is fictional. I haven’t read ‘Plague Dogs’, ‘Shardik’, ‘Tarka The Otter’ or ‘Vet In A State’, which I suspect is just an attempt to cash in on James Herriot’s success. I don’t know if I’m unusual in focussing on “animal” books as a child, but basically my reading matter apart from the likes of popular science books before I got into science fiction consisted very substantially of stories about animals aimed at older children, so far as I can tell. There was never a point at which I was into fantasy or mainstream fiction, and I find it a huge struggle to read most of that. If this is unusual, it might indicate a kind of proto-vegan approach.

Another couple of incidents I remember as a child included watching a show where someone attempted to drown puppies – you probably know this, but as far as I’m aware it used to be normal to drown kittens and puppies, and in the former case just keep one, because they were surplus to requirements. Another phenomenon which seems to have disappeared is that nobody would dream of actually buying a cat because there were just so many kittens around that they couldn’t be given away. I presume this didn’t apply to purebred cats or any dogs. Anyway, I found it extremely distressing that anyone would simply drown puppies and kittens. Another companion animal related incident which stuck with me was of a man who took a dog to be put down because it’d be cheaper to buy another one than put him in kennels while he was on holiday in Spain. This probably would appal most people though.

As for members of other vertebrate species who passed through our house, these would include four cats, a rabbit, two mice and three hamsters who were regular residents, a canary after I left home, and a number of others of whom we took care while people were away, including a parakeet, two gerbils and a dog. I remember getting very upset when the first cat developed a kidney problem and had to be put down, and missing that cat terribly until my parents relented and acquired another one plus a hamster. Most of the time there were two cats. And yes, my mother did indeed tell me the cat who was put down had “gone to live on a farm in Wales”. I think children remember these things and find it hard to trust their parents later. I also took some flatworms and leeches from the river and kept them for about six months, which distressed my mother because she thought they needed feeding. Flatworms actually benefit from fasting as it causes them to rejuvenate, but I used to feed them on scraps of meat. There was also a series of fish from the river, including minnows and a bullhead. There’s a possibly quite formative incident connected to the last. With some friends, I took the bullhead from a faster-flowing part of the Great Stour along with some loaches and took care of the former in a washing up bowl. This was also, incidentally, the last time I saw my elder brother, who happened to visit on that day. I still remember his Afro and attempt to bond with me over the fish, which that last time was rather successful. The next day, my “friends” poured the bowl containing the loaches off a high bridge into the river, which would’ve killed them, and threw the bullhead as far as they could up the river off the same bridge. They seemed completely oblivious of the animals’ suffering, and this along with several other incidents is the reason I don’t believe that cruelty to “animals” during childhood is a reliable marker of a psychopath or sociopath because it was just so very widespread. I lost my temper with them and tried to ‘phone the RSPCA, although my adult self realises that the RSPCA wouldn’t have cared one jot about it as they were, at least at that time, excessively focussed on mammals and to a lesser extent birds. I gained some notoriety at my school for losing my temper at their cruelty. I had another friend who used to take fish out of the water and leave them to suffocate, and on one occasion I put them all back when he wasn’t looking. He became a keen angler and proceeded to kill fish humanely after he’d caught them. It always mystified me, even back then, that people just seemed to accept angling as if it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do.

I wasn’t above capturing animals myself. I did this with water boatmen and backswimmers, and also freshwater shrimp. On two occasions I kept frogspawn and waited for it to mature. The newly-hatched tadpoles reminded me of human embryos. Most of them died but it isn’t clear to me even now whether this was due to a high mortality rate or the conditions I kept them in. They tended to fall prey to leeches, not the kind I was keeping, since they were very separate, but ones which had already been present in the water. Looking back on this now, I wonder if they were in fact nematodes. I also used to look at stream and river water through a microscope, in which there were protists such as Vorticella and Amœba. I don’t know what to tell you about this phase of my life. It shows a burgeoning interest in wildlife, biassed against mammals and birds which persisted for quite a while, but there’s also a sense of entitlement there, that I simply assumed I could take animals from their habitats and keep them captive. I also did this with a number of privet hawk moth caterpillars and one other species of butterfly whose name escapes me, and also earthworms and snails. Come to think of it, there was a long sequence of animals I caught out of interest and simply observed. The only tetrapod I remember doing this with was a slow worm. On another occasion, my mother rescued an injured house martin who died after a few hours, possibly an RTC or a victim of a cat.

This is a rather ambivalent set of activities from my now-vegan perspective, and I think it also opens up a wider issue about the ethics of childhood and parenting. Thinking about the natures of the various nervous systems involved, and the nature of the environments they’re accustomed to living in, some of these seem entirely acceptable and others don’t. For instance, the flatworms and leeches would have been accustomed to living in stagnant, low-oxygen water and that’s how they lived when they were in my jam jars. I don’t have an ethical problem there. The water boatmen and backswimmers simply flew away, which is fine. I captured them and they escaped. The shrimp died, and that’s not good. So did all of the fish, and I think this may have been because the water wasn’t suitable for them and hadn’t been left to stand to reduce dissolved air, which may have formed into bubbles in their gills and suffocated them. This is not good. The slow worm also escaped. The hawk moth flew away but I was planning to release her into the wild near some privet, which didn’t come together because she escaped into the house and ended up mating and laying eggs on the double glazing, which hatched out and then I was unable to care for the caterpillars of the next generation because they were nowhere near any vegetation and too fragile to move without killing them. My mother found the lives of the hawk moths depressing since they seemed to consist simply of reproducing and eating, and at the time I thought the adults didn’t eat, which for her made it worse. I sometimes wonder if this reflects on her perception of her own life.

I was of course also surrounded by cattle (nameless beasts) and sheep, whom I saw shorn and giving birth. My secondary school had its own sheep on which we were supposed to practice various things like inspecting for parasites. I never actually did this. I would also say that there’s a link between gender rôles and cruelty to animals or indifference to their suffering, so the fact that I wasn’t may be significant. There also seemed to be a markèd change at secondary school age in a number of ways which I would characterise as a layer of bigotry and intolerance which is maintained among boys of that age. Broadly, this issue belongs on another blog of mine, but with respect to cruelty this was also encouraged by my peers and I had the mickey taken out of me for not wanting to cause them suffering. There was also quite a lot of attachment to gore, with many boys looking forward to dissections.

At some point during my childhood, and I really cannot place this, I asked my mother if I could become vegetarian. I may have been motivated by my interest in Yoga, which would probably date it to about 1980, when I was twelve to thirteen. I remember thinking that the problem would be difficulty giving up bacon and bizarrely my mother assured me that I wouldn’t have to give up bacon to be vegetarian, an assertion I really don’t understand to this day. However, nothing came of this while I was still a child. Apart from bacon, I actually didn’t like meat and only ate it out of a sense of moral obligation, because I believed that it was better for the animals concerned to exist than not to do so. You can probably see that I was very oriented towards the idea of the interests of entire species rather than individual organisms.

As was normal for someone of my generation who did O- and A-level Biology, I dissected various animals including mice and frogs. I didn’t feel even slightly squeamish about this and didn’t consider it problematic that the animals had been killed. I may, however, have been less involved than average in doing this kind of thing because many years after I’d left school I learned that one of my Biology teachers was vegetarian for ethical reasons, and tried to minimise the use of animals in his lessons. I also became aware that there was an opt-out available for pupils who had ethical objections to dissection on some syllabi, but had no interest in pursuing this. Generally then, in my late childhood my interest in vegetarianism could have been just a phase.

At a point which is difficult to date, I read an article in, of all places, the ‘Reader’s Digest’ which discussed how to reduce one’s risk of cancer, and pointed out that vegetarianism would make a major difference. In fact I no longer think this is strictly true but only if one gets one’s meat from wild animals and eats the offal, which few people do. At the time, the idea of going veggie seemed a massive and undesirable step I was unwilling to take. I think I was twelve at the time, so the period between this and taking up Yoga more seriously must have been quite brief.

I became aware of veganism when I was twelve but believed it to be largely fatal because that’s how it had been presented to me. Therefore I ruled it out for many years to come. I was probably about ten when I learned of the Draize Test, which led to a long-term hostility to cosmetics and a sense of outrage that this was done. I’m not sure when I became aware of LD50, although I knew about drug testing on other species in general. The fact that I didn’t use cosmetics at a time when they were quite popular, for instance among punks, goths and New Romantics, is probably connected to my opposition to the way they were tested and not due to gender stereotyping pressures, although I also disapproved of women wearing makeup because I considered it to be an excessive focus on personal appearance rather than character. Remember, these are the views of an adolescent and there is an element of envy in them too.

It wasn’t until I left home and went to university that I began to think seriously about becoming vegetarian. This went through two phases. In my first term, a school friend at another university decided to go veggie because of tropic levels, i.e. that it’s inefficient to produce food in this manner. Oddly, although I’d been aware of tropic levels since the age of seven, I hadn’t made the connection with animal farming before. He exhorted me to do the same but I persisted in eating meat, and crucially made the point that it isn’t in the animals’ interests that they exist given the nature of their farming. I accepted the tropic levels argument on an intellectual level but it didn’t change my diet. In the second term, I began to study animal liberation in philosophy, particularly the works of Peter Singer, Tom Regan and Mary Midgley, and was persuaded that there were pressing ethical reasons for giving up meat, and also that veganism was a necessary step in the long run. I was just about pescetarian after that, in that i ate fish on one occasion and scampi on another, my justification being the phosphorus bottleneck as popularised by Isaac Asimov, but this only persisted for a few months. I actually went veggie on 9th March 1986, when I was eighteen, and regarded it as a transitional phase into veganism. Personally, I never saw lacto-ovo-vegetarianism as a justifiable permanent state. My actual precipitating event was to annoy a friend when we were about to eat out. I went vegan in October of the next year, when I accidentally ate some chilli con carne and wanted to get something positive out of my mistake.

I suppose I would describe myself as an animal lover as a child. I don’t know think of myself in that way because I simply see it as morally incumbent upon me not to be involved in their suffering and death, and I can watch a film like ‘The Animals Film’ or ‘Earthlings’ and it completely leaves me cold. This probably makes me unusual among vegans and animal rights activists, as nowadays I completely lack passion about it. I simply see it as wrong and therefore something I need to avoid doing. But the purpose of today’s post is not to examine the rights and wrongs of the position, but to look at my past and try to work out whether the events of my childhood have any link with later becoming vegetarian and vegan. It’s hard to say really. I certainly think my rage at discovering animal cosmetic testing and the behaviour of my friends towards fish are quite unusual and didn’t seem to be anticipated by others. It was enough to get me ridiculed, which strongly suggests it was abnormal, and there may also have been some gender politics involved there.

So, in yet another attempt to get some kind of reponse from my readers, I have a question to ask you, bearing in mind that this isn’t really a post about the ethics of veganism so much as the relationship between childhood and adulthood. If you eat meat, and I’m not judging here, can you recall events in your childhood which were particularly similar or unlike mine? If you chose to become vegan or veggie at some point, can you see aspects of your life as a child which pushed you in that direction or prefigured it? Are there other aspects to your value-based decisions whose seeds you can see in your childhood?

Monkey Hate

Major trigger warning for cruelty to members of other closely-related species and possible connections to human child sexual abuse.

I wanted to get that in first, before even the picture credit, but to give her her due, the above image is credited thus: Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

This is about something which currently manifests as an internet phenomenon but may have existed in human nature for longer than we’ve even been human. Before I get going, I’m going to become a bit “sciency”, but the bulk of this post isn’t about that. There is a point to this outline, relevant to the subject of this post.

Cladism is the classification of organisms into groups of genetically related populations with common ancestry. This has led to some confusing descriptions of animals in particular. For instance, there’s a sense in which all mammals, reptiles and amphibia are fish, because our common ancestor is a Eusthenopteron-like species of fish, so we form a clade with bony fish, and in which birds are reptiles because they’re dinosaurs and dinosaurs are descended from reptiles. Likewise, there is a sense in which all humans and other apes are monkeys, in particular Old World monkeys. It’s like matroshka dolls. There’s a large doll called “simians” containing two smaller dolls called platyrrhines and Catarrhines. The platyrrhines are native to South and Central American only. The catarrhines originated in Afro-Eurasia and include hominoids and cercopithecids. Hominids include gibbons and their relatives, and great apes including humans. Everything is inside the big doll called simians. In other words, we’re all monkeys. This doesn’t sound right because there’s a lot of insistence on distinguishing apes from other monkeys, for instance emphasising our larger bodies, less arboreal nature, lack of long external tails and dorsoventrally compressed trunks, but we are still monkeys, and there was a time when we were all competing on a level playing field, as it were. It’s enlightening to bear this in mind in what follows.

This is where it starts to get exceedingly distasteful.

There are a very large number of channels on YouTube dedicated to torture, accidental death and serious injury to various species of simian other than ourselves, and apparently also excluding other apes and New World monkeys. I’m having to do this by hearsay because if I seek out these channels or videos myself I will be rewarding them with views and advertising revenue and thereby boosting their profile. This, in fact, is in itself a major issue because it means that if one wishes to hear from a contrary viewpoint to one’s own, one risks boosting that for the general public without foreknowledge as to the nature of the content, which encourages one to stay in one’s own reality tunnel. Nonetheless I do have secondary sources for this and so far as I can tell it is uncontroversially extremely cruel.

It’s in the YouTube creator content guidelines that causing suffering or death to animals deliberately for purposes other than food preparation or hunting (because our society perversely considers that acceptable) is not admissible content and will lead to the channel uploading it to be closed and demonetised. Closure and demonetisation of channels by regular users happens very often for apparently minor infractions, in the latter case often without informing the user. These monkey hate channels are often old and still monetised. YouTube is also aware of them, since they receive numerous complaints about them, but they simply persist, in a similar manner to how they do with Elsagate videos. This is rather baffling, since the videos don’t seem to be submitted by any of the big players, so one would expect them to be held to the same standards. This, though, is not the focus of this post.

As far as online manifestations of monkey hate are concerned, this might be traceable to a site set up in 1996 CE called http://www.ifihаdаmоnkеу.соm (obviously not that but again, I’m trying to avoid page impressions – that’s kind of a phishing link). This was just a bad-taste humour website set up in response to PETA, and although I’m vegan I’m no fan of PETA because they are no friends of animals other than humans, have an anthropocentric view of animal liberation and aren’t above rather appallingly sexist campaigns, not to mention their startlingly crass approach to publicity. For whatever motives, the person who started the site was at first rewarded by various bad-taste jokes, which however rapidly got out of hand and were hard not to believe were actually serious. The search engine result brings up the description “the Best Source for Metaphorical Violence Against The Monkey You Don’t Even Have in the Whole Wide World!”, and I’m not sure whether that description has been there since the start or not, but it was there in 2001, which is as far back as the Wayback Machine goes with it. Even back then it was hard to tell whether or not to take the submissions as jokes or not, which is of course a common online problem. It’s also hard to discern the motivation for annoying PETA, since it could be similar to mine or it could just be carnism.

You needn’t be vegan not to be disturbed by these videos though. There’s a focus on adult monkey sadness and baby monkey suffering and death, all the victims seem to be Old World monkeys, and there’s a wider context of cruelty, as with fake animal rescue channels, where YouTubers endanger or injure dogs and cats in order to film themselves “rescuing” them.

I think at this point I owe it to Cambodia to post something more general, and I hope more positive, about the country because of what I’m about to say: a large number of monkey hate videos originate from that country. Some of the channels posting them from Cambodia also post dramatised videos about underage girls being raped, which suggests a possible link between child sexual abuse and monkey hate. However, the commenters on these videos are usually either bots or apparently White Anglophone males, whose profile pictures are unique to the channels. Hence there is a hypothesis that monkey hate is a proxy for child abuse and sadistic pædophilia. There’s a further hypothesis which I don’t accept that the videos use steganography, which I shall now explain.

Steganography is a method of hiding something in plain sight. One of the rookie mistakes in using ciphers is that they are not concealed and stand out as obvious codes. Guvf, sbe rknzcyr, vf na boivbhf pvcure. It makes a lot more sense to hide the message imperceptibly in something which looks routine and ordinary, such as a jpeg or online video. This is done by altering a small portion of the data slightly, resulting in a video which is indistinguishable from the original but contains encoded data. However, I don’t think this can be done on YouTube because I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. This was a few years ago now and things may have changed, but the videos are considerably altered by the time they’ve been uploaded, or at least they used to be, and I don’t think they could be relied upon to preserve the data. In fact I doubt they ever would. Therefore I’d reject this out of hand, and in any case it doesn’t make sense to submit videos which violate the terms of service to do this. It’d make more sense to submit innocuous videos with steganographic content, and for all I know it can be done now due to improvements in video quality. I might try it again soon on YT.

There could have been incidents of monkey hate before the internet became popular, but most people wouldn’t know about them and there wouldn’t usually have been much of an audience. As such, the phenomenon may have things in common with the Targeted Individual community, where people with a sensitive cognitive style and feelings of persecution find each other online and reinforce each other’s beliefs.

A number of hypotheses have been suggested regarding this. They include:

  • People who live in areas where monkeys are common regard them as pests and celebrate their suffering.
  • Germphobia.
  • Addiction.
  • Sadism.
  • Sublimated or encoded child sexual abuse.
  • Phobia.
  • Disgust.

The first hypothesis might explain how the videos appeared in the first place but doesn’t explain the fact that their audience largely consists of English-speaking White males. They also tend to use the kind of language employed by the American Right, such as calling people “snowflakes”. This suggests a further thought, which is that it’s sublimated or encoded racism.

Germphobia is similar to the first, and in this case one must be careful not to accuse people who are germphobic of being into this too. However, the species involved are not particularly unhygienic compared to others, such as bats for example, and although there is phobia of bats it doesn’t lend itself to sadistic videos of bats being tortured, although that might be difficult to achieve.

Regarding addiction, clearly the videos are likely to be addictive whatever the appeal is, because that’s a common happening on the internet, as with pornography for example.

Sadism is very likely to be involved in one way or another. It may also reflect a lack of legislation against cruelty of this kind in Cambodia and other countries from which these videos originate, or difficulty in enforcement if they do exist. Cultural relativism may also make the subject matter seem worse to Westerners than it does to people in Southeast Asia. Also, the chances are that the financial “reward” for getting views on such videos is a motivation for the people posting them, so they may themselves not be specifically sadist although they are likely to be sociopathic or psychopathic, and the former condition may have arisen due to their upbringing. The videos appear to divide into three categories: voyeuristic, home made and what I think of as “found footage”. Voyeuristic videos involve chance recordings of monkeys suffering from events not instigated deliberately by humans, such as predation or accidents. Home made is deliberate cruelty to captive animals, actually acquired for that purpose. This can involve attempts to instigate hostility between monkeys. Finally, found footage involves recordings made surreptitiously of humans being cruel to monkeys of other species, something which is obviously a lot easier nowadays than it used to be.

The question of encoded child sexual abuse is another matter, blending into sadism. It could be that the unacceptability of child abuse videos on the internet, not to mention the personal risk in viewing them, leads people to watch or make videos which don’t attract that kind of unwanted attention from the authorities. This is of course speciesist, and there could be popular support for clamping down on them to the same extent, but the situation may not be as black and white as it appears.

I’m going to deal with the last two together, as I think they may be the most significant. Monkey haters have been interviewed and for the ones who have come forward, these two seem to be the explanation. For some people, individuals of closely related species may occupy an uncanny valley between the utterly non-human such as cats on the one hand and humans on the other. This similarity seems to be interpreted by most people as cuteness, but for some it seems to evoke disgust and horror like the undead might do for many.

This is what was revealed, or at least reported, by monkey haters who have been interviewed. One of them recounts a visit to a zoo when he was eight. Up until that point, he’d considered monkeys to be cute and cuddly, but he found the actual experience of seeing them – he mentions mating in public as an example of what triggered him – disgusting and shocking, and this stayed with him into adulthood, eventually manifesting as monkey hate. Significantly, he not only has no urges to be cruel or watch cruelty to other animals, just monkeys. He admits he became obsessed and that it was an addiction, and he feels very guilty and disgusted with himself about it. He also specifically hates baby monkeys, the reason given being that they have tantrums, although this sounds like a rationalisation. His own theory is that it’s instinctive, and surfaces sporadically in some people, but used to be widespread, and also that it’s more common than it seems. It might, in his opinion, also be an outlet for people who have underlying violent tendencies towards humans.

I have to admit this makes a lot of sense. Back in the Miocene, our ancestors were one species of many apes, to the extent that palæontologists can’t identify who they were, but sometime between 24 million years ago in the Oligocene when the first monkeys came into existence from the tarsier-like omomyids and the emergence of Proconsul, the first known ape, 21 million years ago, we would have been monkeys surrounded by possibly competing other monkeys. Since Proconsul is close to the ancestor of all apes, not just us, this raises the question of whether other great apes, and also the various gibbons, also engage in cruelty to tailed monkeys in particular. The Gombe chimpanzee community in particular is known for its violence and this is sometimes manifested in the killing of tailed monkeys such as the red-tailed monkey, although they do eat them. Bonobos and orangutan would, at least prima facie, be considered less likely candidates but this is not scientific of course.

To most people living in European societies, the tailed monkeys are unfamiliar, unlike in the places where they’re likely to live. This unfamiliarity means there is no obvious “bridge” between them and the rest of nature, and this may lead to a sense of the uncanny to a greater extent than it would for humans who live alongside them. As such, the introduction of monkeys as a novelty may come across as an affront to their distinctive identity and might also constitute a threat if they are used to the idea of human dominion over the rest of the animal kingdom. I don’t think it can be mere coincidence that the main audience for these videos is White and English-speaking, and I wonder also if it’s a manifestation of xenophobia which extends to overt and active racism, hence the use of alt-right language. The people who live with wild monkeys from day to day might see them as an economic resource such as for food, tourists or these videos, but they don’t seem to bear them animosity. They’re just doing White people’s dirty work for them. On the other hand, I’m guessing here, but I would expect some of them to regard them as “tree rats”, as the term has it, similarly to how many people in cities see rock doves.

The interviewee thinks there are probably a few dozen hard core monkey haters, which makes it sound like a trivial matter, but there are also thousands upon thousands of casual monkey haters, who watch the videos for entertainment regularly without commenting or engaging. Some of them clearly do get sexual gratification from it, and interestingly despite their apparently homophobic attitudes are very zealous in their defence of their right to do so. There are also two kinds of target. Babies are one, and tend to mention the kind of characteristics often attributed to human babies, such as clinginess, dependence and spoiltness. The other target is the grief of the mothers who witness the death and injury of their children. The former is particularly reminiscent of child abuse and the latter, I think, gives a clue as to the possibility of it being to do with opposition to feelings of tenderness and love. Some fans go so far as to say they’d like to kill all humans who feel positively towards monkeys in any way, and a link is also made between monkey behaviour and neurodiversity as a “justification”.

I want to close by making two observations. Most of the videos are made in Cambodia in spite of the fact that non-human primates are found all across Asia and Afrika, and also in South America. Old World monkeys are more closely related to us than New World monkeys are. In fact, cladistically we are Old World monkeys. These would’ve been the monkeys, or similar ones, with whom we would’ve been in conflict in the Oligocene and Miocene, but this fails to explain why Cambodia specifically would be the source. Could it be that in that country in particular, the terrible trauma seen as inflicted by Pol Pot has brutalised the populace and led to this tendency? Or is it more a question of economic necessity: people in particularly severe hardship will seek any source at all to support their dependents and themselves? One thing this has brought home to me is how little I know of Cambodia, and I would like to explore this on here in the near future.

Veganism As She Is Spoke

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

When I first went vegan in 1987, the internet was this thing hardly anyone had heard of which was hard to navigate and didn’t have any websites. I imagine it did have Usenet groups on veganism,vegetarianism and animal liberation, but at the time, although I was aware of it, Usenet to me meant “buy a really expensive computer and run up a huge ‘phone bill”, and I didn’t even have a ‘phone connection at the time, Nowadays many people’s experience of the internet as such consists largely of social media, podcasts and video streaming services, which is very different, but the same kind of interaction as used to happen on bulletin boards and news groups is replicated, writ large, in these places. Consequently, one sees opinions expressed which can come across as rather odd, and likewise one’s own opinions can be read similarly. In a way, this whole post could be seen as a case study of online interaction in the ’20s, but it’s also specific to veganism.

I went vegan in 1987, and lapsed a few years later because I started to become psychotic due to B12 deficiency. This made me afraid to try going vegan again for quite a while although the deliberate animal product content in my diet was always rather low. I am now vegan again, and have been for a number of years. It occurs to me now that I’m already falling into the trap of talking about veganism as if it’s a stricter form of vegetarianism. In fact the two are not necessarily that similar.

To quote the Vegan Society which was set up in 1944 and invented the word:

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Now, two things about this. One is that humans are animals. Therefore veganism seeks to exclude as far as is possible and practicable all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to humans for any purpose; and by extension promotes the development and use of alternatives for the benefit of all humans and the environment. Humans are the animals whom most of us interact with most and therefore can have the most impact on ethically, partly because humans are also moral agents. This makes veganism something like pacifism or perhaps socialism or green anarchism rather than a dietary pursuit, and this is not a new definition either, nor what the Vegan Society came up with in 1944. There was at first no definition, then in 1949 came a definition which included generic masculinity, but it was never just about diet. A plant-based diet is more along the lines of vegetarianism, and can be pursued for non-ethical reasons. By contrast, although vegetarianism is often adopted or maintained for ethical reasons, that isn’t what vegetarianism is. Vegetarianism is a diet which excludes any part of the body of an animal consumed intentionally. We do of course all eat animals, because there are animals in our food, we may accidentally inhale gnats and so forth, and of course we constantly tread on small animals and kill them and our immune systems are constantly engaged in wholesale slaughter, but there is no mens rea there.

The other thing about this is what constitutes an animal, and this seems to make me rather heterodox compared to some other vegans. My definition of an animal is “a multicellular heterotrophic eukaryote without cell walls”, and also I’m one of those nightmare caricature vegans who believes that plants have feelings. I’ll come to that. In any event, my definition of an animal seems to differ from that of some other people who call themselves vegan, and this comes out in language use.

I’m on a particular Facebook group for vegans which I find a little irritating as it seems to focus substantially on what you can buy in shops which substitutes for various animal products such as meat, cheese and eggs. Leaving that aside, nobody can really vet who joins, so it may be that many of the members are not vegan. If they do see themselves as vegan, some of them seem to fall rather short of the standard. On the group, I’ve seen animals being described as “vermin” or “hazards”, which to me is not vegan language but objectifying. For instance, there was a recent discussion started by a motorist who accidentally ran over and killed a rodent. One of the responses was along the lines of “there are people suffering atrocities in the world and publicly-funded bodies which work hard to keep you and your family safe from vermin, and you should get things in proportion”. This struck me as a deeply non-compassionate response, and it made it seem that rodents just don’t matter ethically. I have to say I don’t understand why opinions like this are expressed on the group, and I wonder if it’s because people are oriented around a plant-based diet rather than ethics.

There was also a discussion about plant consciousness, because as I’ve said I do believe plants are conscious because I’m panpsychist and probably hylozoist too. I’ve been into more depth on that link. Going into more scientific-style detail, I’ll begin by mentioning a few obvious examples of plants responding noticeably to stimuli. The most evident ones are Mimosa pudica, a plant which wilts when touched, the various heterotrophic plants such as the Venus fly trap and sundew, plants such as sunflowers, whose inflorescences follow the Sun and the numerous plants whose flowers and inflorescences open during the day and close at night. There are also the swimming microscopic unicellular algæ such as Chlamydomonas or Volvox, and plants such as liverworts producing semen rather than pollen. All of this, though, is biassed towards movement because we happen to be errant animals. Many animals are sessile and much of what we do has little to do with moving. In a sense this is an anthropomorphic view, and in fact our brains themselves, often understood to be seats of consciousness, don’t move of their own accord but are transported around in the vehicle of one’s body.

Over two dozen years ago, it was found that forest trees share and exchange nutrients such as minerals and sugar via a symbiotic underground network of fungi nicknamed the Wood Wide Web, also known as the mycorrhizal network. They are unable to thrive without this network and use it to gather their own water and minerals. Conifers at least, if not broadleaved trees, also share their carbon via sugar with related seedlings. Radiocarbon labelling of carbon dioxide built into sugar by the photosynthesis of trees has resulted in the labelled carbon showing up in closely related seedlings nearby but not more distant relatives, after the seeds have left the tree. The topology of this mycorrhizal/tree network is the same as that of a brain, with modules like the lobes of a brain, and at least one substance used as a neurotransmitter, glutamate, is also used for communication in this symbiotic network. If a tree is sufficiently injured that it’s likely to die, it will give up its own nutrients and distribute them via the Wood Wide Web to nearby trees and boost their health. If one is attacked by parasites such as aphids or caterpillars, it again signals to other trees in the vicinity and they will boost their resistance to these parasites. Orchids also fool this system to redirect nutrients to themselves from trees. I always see orchids as flowers who think they’re fungi.

Although this doesn’t mean individual trees are conscious, it does suggest entire forests are. The differences between them and brains is more to do with scale and time than anything real, and since we don’t know why we’re conscious it seems presumptious to posit that trees are not, particularly given this mountain of evidence of their similarity to brain cells.

A vegan who does not wish to acknowledge plant consciousness may opt for a solution to the mind-body problem which allows them to do this, because this is how metaphysics tends to work. It manufactures spurious excuses for ignoring real ethical issues, as I found when I was at Warwick and Christine Battersby denied that other species were conscious because they didn’t use language. How very convenient that their voicelessness allows the voiceless to be disregarded and ignored. And this from a major feminist thinker.

Back to the subject of fungi. I asked someone on the group if he ate fungi and he replied that he did not. The relevance of this is of course that fungi are not plants. This may or may not be a technical distinction. Trivially speaking, he almost certainly does eat fungi because their spores are ubiquitous and therefore all over much food just as bacteria are. Moreover, not only does this imply that he doesn’t eat mushrooms, but also anything with yeast in it, and that’s a tall order, as many observant Jews would tell you. It doesn’t just mean not eating bread, yeast extract and fermented beverages. Many fungi occupy what I consider a confusing place in the food chain. My initial motivation for becoming vegetarian was based on tropic levels. Eating animals is inefficient because they eat either other animals themselves or plants (or in a few cases just bacteria or fungi) and then run some of the energy gained off, but they may eat things we can’t get nutrition from ourselves. In general, though, it makes more sense to eat the producers rather than the consumers because that way, more people can be fed and less land or water, or just area, needs to be used. This is why the world does not have a population problem regarding food. It has a capitalism and a “people not being veggie” problem. Fungi, however, don’t fit neatly into this because they’re the organisms who complete the cycle, so it’s harder to work out how efficient they are. Incidentally, psychologically my vegetarianism worked as follows. Once I’d accepted the tropic levels argument, I mainly gave up meat on that basis, but having done so I no longer needed the rationalisations often employed by people who wish to continue their carnism, so I dropped them and it became primarily about animal liberation. Fungi, though, are potentially problematic for another reason. Slime moulds are, well, I hesitate to say “intelligent enough”, but are capable of navigating mazes and solving the Travelling Salesperson Problem. This last capacity puts them in that respect beyond the capacity of human intelligence, because we can’t. However, slime moulds are technically not fungi but amœbozoa, which are protists, formerly classified as animals. It should probably also be borne in mind that the forest communication system just mentioned is genuinely fungal.

The way I reconcile this, because it means that whatever I eat, sticking with that for now, will cause death and suffering, is to consider the larger number of organisms harmed on a higher tropic level, and this applies to arable farming as well as livestock farming, so the excuse that vegans are responsible for more animal deaths doesn’t hold together either.

That’s one issue. There’s another regarding eating bivalves which I’ve gone into some time ago. But there’s a third which is quite far-reaching and has been bothering me since childhood.

There’s a well-known adage about psychopaths and serial killers that in childhood they were cruel to members of other species, which doesn’t seem to work at all. Many tales are told of people who became serial killers as adults who were notably cruel to “animals” when they were young. For instance there’s this article (plus one by PETA which I shall studiously ignore because they suck). Jeffrey Dahmer and Ian Brady are examples given in that article, which seems not be publicly accessible, and talks about cats and dogs – placental mammals. I sometimes wonder if this is an artifact of other aspects of antisocial personalities, not that they are cruel, but that their cruelty is discovered. In a survey of Romanian teenagers, 86% said they thought it was normal to see animals tortured or killed, which is because there are many feral dogs in that country. Those who witnessed these incidents were more likely to kill themselves or self-harm, and again I feel this is a crude understanding of self-harm.

However, as a child I was aware that boys in my village routinely killed and tortured animals, particularly fish, and I think that there is a conceptual chain of being involved here where those incidents of cruelty are discounted compared to cruelty to birds or other mammals. Now we live in a society where there are serial killers who may have been unusually cruel or murderous to dogs and cats as children, but the question arises of what kind of society we’d be living in if similar cruelty against other classes of animal than just birds and mammals was taken as seriously. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations with people who seem to think that veganism is about avoiding cruelty to “animals”, when in fact they are at most including birds, mammals and sometimes other vertebrates, and as the conversation mentioned above has it, apparently not even other members of our own superorder such as rodents. As I say, it’s hard to interpret what’s going on here because nobody knows who is actually vegan, and I suspect there are quite a few plant-based diet followers on that group who don’t actually care about the ethics.

It would be remiss of me to ignore a notorious YouTube video about veganism being incompatible with socialism.

More views for her of course. In this video, Unnatural Vegan confuses neoliberalism with social democracy, which isn’t a good look and doesn’t inspire confidence in her other opinions. She is of course 100% wrong. One notable aspect of this video is that she appears to be arguing from a utilitarian perspective – actions are right in proportion that they tend to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. She describes herself as a consequentialist. Her opinions are in fact so at odds with consistent veganism that I almost wonder if she’s actually advocating for veganism or is some kind of “plant” (pun unintentional). But that’s just paranoia and not productive. Just looking at her ideas and arguments is a better approach. Her consequentialism is significant because she argues that injustice is only wrong when it harms people, which is the utilitarian problem with justice. Utilitarianism does not seem able to account for justice per se. To a utilitarian, two situations with the same degree of happiness and unhappiness, one of which is fair and the other not, are morally equivalent, which is widely seen as a major flaw in that ethical theory. The reason this argument is made is that animal “rights” have historically often been understood as following from utilitarianism, which incidentally is why those quotes are there – utilitarians don’t believe in rights as real or meaningful – “nonsense on stilts” is the phrase. Thought Slime has done a thorough job on this, so I’ll just embed his video instead of continuing further:

Having said all that, there is another interesting perspective on animal liberation which is not left wing. If you believe human nature is broken and either unfixable or that we should take advantage of that brokenness to the general benefit of society, your view of other species might well be that they do not suffer from this brokenness. For instance, they don’t know right from wrong, they’re not selfish, not scheming and so forth. As such, it’s a valid view that they should not suffer from our natural tendency to exploit them and willingness to turn a blind eye to their suffering and death, and therefore you can actually perfectly validly be both right wing and in favour of animal liberation. At some point I’m going to have to address the issue of politics vs. people, but once again this is beyond the scope of this post.

There is one final thing I think I should say about veganism as a diet. Nowadays it’s been assimilated by capitalism, with the result that all sorts of products are marketed at us, often in the form of meat and dairy substitutes, and this probably contributes to the perception that veganism is a luxury for the rich. This is not the case. It is the case that companies are trying to market this idea and get us to spend lots of money on a plant-based diet when we needn’t. That said, there might be a problem in the form of food deserts. There is a branch of Spar near where I used to live in Leicester where I used to go occasionally trying to find something to eat, and it was seriously full of practically useless, non-nutritional foods and other products. I can imagine this is the case in horribly wide areas in some parts of the country, and part of the solution would be to grow food on brownfield sites, which often coincide, but the will has to be there along with a reluctance to trash them from the authorities and others. There are various factors involved in food deserts, including the sheer absence of outlets of healthy food, the affordability of any food of that kind which does exist and the availability of fresh produce. Against this one might set the fact that supermarkets deliberately make unsold food inedible, the existence of product “mountains” and the difficulty of getting local authorities to agree to allotments and other means of growing healthy food. Leaving all this aside though, if you can get the food, and we’re only really talking the likes of rice, baked beans, lentils, bananas and so forth, it is undoubtedly affordable and probably cheaper than a meat-based diet. Veganism is being saddled with an undeservèdly privileged image. What you do when you go vegan is not to replace all the things you ate before with a vegan alternative: you redesign your entire diet on nutritional principles and you research the sources, which incidentally very often include what people think of as weeds such as stinging nettles and dandelions. It isn’t hard, and it’s a moral imperative.