The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals

The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals

by James McWilliams


View All Available Formats & Editions


Just Food author James McWilliams's exploration of the "compassionate carnivore" movement and the paradox of humanity's relationship with animals.

In the last four decades, food reformers have revealed the ecological and ethical problems of eating animals raised in industrial settings, turning what was once the boutique concern of radical eco-freaks into a mainstream movement. Although animal products are often labeled "cage free," "free range," and "humanely raised," can we trust these goods to be safe, sound, or ethical?

In The Modern Savage, renowned writer, historian, and animal advocate James McWilliams pushes back against the questionable moral standards of a largely omnivorous world and explores the "alternative to the alternative"-not eating domesticated animals at all. In poignant, powerful, and persuasive prose, McWilliams reveals the scope of the cruelty that takes place even on the smallest and-supposedly-most humane animal farms. In a world increasingly aware of animals' intelligence and the range of their emotions, McWilliams advocates for the only truly moral, sustainable choice-a diet without meat, dairy, or other animal products.

The Modern Savage is a riveting expose of an industry that has typically hidden behind a veil of morality, and a compelling account of how to live a more economical, environmental, and ethical life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250031198
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/06/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

JAMES MCWILLIAMS is a writer and historian living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of five previous books on food, animals, and agriculture, including Just Food and A Revolution in Eating. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's Slate, The Atlantic, and a wide variety of other publications.

Read an Excerpt

The Modern Savage

Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals

By James McWilliams

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 James McWilliams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03120-4



The horror that stirs deep in man is an obscure awareness that in him something lives so akin to the animal that it might be recognized. —Walter Benjamin

Thinking about animals—especially when it comes to eating them—is essentially a matter of the heart. But when it comes to opening our hearts to animals, we humans tend to be emotionally arbitrary beings. We express genuine affection for some creatures but withhold it from others. We do so, moreover, with scant regard for their comparative abilities to suffer or nurture a sense of self. Typically, we tap deep emotional reserves when we've spent substantial time with a particular animal (usually a dog or a cat), having learned to recognize that this companion critter is not a robot moving through life as an automaton, without thought or feeling. By contrast, we're reluctant to expand our circle of compassion to include animals that we grill and eat. This reluctance perhaps stems from our having spent so little time with those animals we cook and our not having had the chance to form an emotional connection with them. That pigs can be as smart and as affectionate as dogs generally doesn't dissuade dog lovers from indulging in a plate of bacon.

This disconnection should not imply that bacon-eating dog lovers are psychopathic. Rather, I would suggest they are unthinking of the deeper nature of the human-animal bond, a bond that all forms of domestic animal agriculture do an excellent job of obscuring. The goal of this chapter is to demonstrate the critical role our emotions must play in thinking about our relationship with animals in general, and farm animals in particular. Through an investigation of the psychological and historical nature of the human-animal bond, I hope to illuminate our shared emotional origins, thereby suggesting that, when it comes to our feelings about animals, what we see is often what we get. We just have to learn to see animals with greater clarity and better appreciate the essential qualities we share with them.

* * *

We must get emotional about animals if we are ever going to treat them with dignity and, in so doing, start to reform the standard American diet. From emotion comes empathy. We have to imagine animal suffering. Many of us—eaters of animals or not—already do this intuitively. Unfortunately, we're guarded, even at times embarrassed, about it. Getting explicitly emotional about animals is frequently frowned upon. People who actively interpret the feelings of animals through their own experiences are, in many circles, dismissed as weepy sentimentalists, suckers for a fuzzy face. We're censured for the sin of anthropomorphizing. To project human emotions onto animals is often characterized as an intellectually soft, if not childish, way to approach the animal world. Grow up and face reality, we are told, or, as one of my bolder students once said, "Get real."

These claims, which constitute a major obstacle to a fuller consideration of the human-animal relationship, are almost always leveled unfairly. We should never assume that an animal's experience is a mirror reflection of our own; nor should we assume that the entirety of their emotional lives could be understood by direct analogy to the entirety of our own emotional lives. But to thoughtfully and humbly anthropomorphize—to draw upon our own experience to access how another animal might feel—is an altogether different task. Not only is it based on intuition and common sense, but it's absolutely essential to evaluating the mental and emotional lives of animals about whom we routinely claim to care about. Responsible anthropomorphizing is what we must do if we are to ever understand our place among animals on the evolutionary spectrum that defines modern biological life. How else are we to grasp their wants and needs, such as the wants and needs that justify our support for free-range and small-scale alternatives? These questions are critical to consider as we think about animals as a source of food.

Anthropomorphizing might be portrayed as sappy and sentimental. But at the center of evolutionary biology one finds a decidedly unsentimental continuum of emotional experience. This continuum requires us to anthropomorphize as the only way to assess how an animal might be feeling. How else could we possibly have an opinion that a sow kept in a crate might be unhappy? That a cow wants to nuzzle the calf she birthed? That a chicken is decidedly displeased about being yanked off the ground by one foot and jammed into an inverted cone to be "humanely" slaughtered? That a baby pig might not want to be castrated or have his tail chopped off without the medical benefit of anesthesia? These are not emotionally vacant, species-specific, instinct-driven scenarios. Suffering is suffering. When we assume that animals experience it, we are anthropomorphizing. There's nothing sentimental about it. Perhaps the only reason we'd ever avoid anthropomorphizing would be to protect ourselves from what we don't want to know—that is, that animals have authentic emotional lives that are surprisingly familiar and available to us.

Anthropomorphizing thereby remains an invaluable method of maintaining our emotional connection to nonhuman animals—which is to say much of the world around us. As a culture, we've been systematically educated to suppress this connection while worshipping at the altars of objectivity, scientific skepticism, and human exceptionalism. But when we drop these protective barriers to emotional awareness, we find that the idea of eating animals, however they are raised, seems a little less normal than it once seemed. We find that factory farming and the purported alternatives have surprising similarities as well as differences. We find, if we look especially hard, that these similarities can only be appreciated when we allow ourselves to become emotionally available to the animals we claim to care about so deeply. When we imagine their pain matters start to look very different. Fundamentally so.


If we fail to nurture the fine art of anthropomorphizing, agricultural reform will be little more than a marginal endeavor. Without responsibly anthropomorphizing, we'll never appreciate, much less penetrate and understand, the authenticity of animal emotion—a prerequisite for acting according to animals' basic interests and, in turn, radically changing the broken food system. We'll never even contemplate the possibility that the animals we slaughter and eat suffer precisely because of our choice to slaughter and eat them, no matter how they were raised.

That said, a perfectly reasonable question to ask at this point would be: Why bother? If there are no obvious consequences to our current actions, if the animals aren't going to rise up and kick our ass for the way we have treated them, much less write manifestos exposing the nature of our cruelty, why should we lose sleep over their suffering? Why bother to be morally consistent in our thinking about how animals should be treated? We are Humans, after all, the undisputed Kings of the Hill, rulers of the food chain, dictators of all genetic fate. Given our power, what does it really matter if we neither acknowledge animal emotionalism nor respond emotively to animal suffering with a shift in behavior? Why not just enjoy animals' flesh and fluids and unfertilized eggs, source them from the right places to feel good about our choices, and get on with the business of living the good life? Why bother?

It's a tough question. It should be noted, for those seeking quantitative assurance, that it cannot be answered with hard data. The question requires an altogether more reflective and less measurable answer. We might start with Isaac Bashevis Singer's remark that "when a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice." This strikes me as an apt observation. With Singer, I too am consumed by the very real, if not entirely obvious, possibility that if we persist in neglecting the authentic emotional lives of sentient animals, as well as our feelings for them, the depth of our collective moral failure will quietly corrupt those aspects of our society anchored in love, compassion, and a profound capacity for decency.

Of course this all sounds a bit earnest and righteous. But any civilization that more or less renounces violence but tacitly excuses—or even celebrates—the depth of suffering that's at the (largely hidden) core of its existence is a civilization that's inflicting psychic wounds upon itself. Failing to acknowledge the ethical implications of killing, commodifying, and eating sentient beings erodes, with quiet banality, our sense of collective self-worth and, as Singer noted, our capacity for justice. Eating animals might make us happy as individuals. It might unite humans as communities breaking bread together. But—no matter how deeply we repress the inevitable violence required for that act—it could be compromising our capacity to tune in to life with the truest authenticity and honesty. Violence and injustice are insidious forces that surround us like air. Easily ignored, muted by the pleasures of the palate, they have the potential to undermine a society before society even realizes it's being undermined. This is part of the reason why I care so much about how we treat animals. It bears directly on how we treat each other and the cultures and communities we create. It's why I think we should bother to think seriously about animals.

Until we actively acknowledge and embrace our shared evolutionary context, until we forthrightly recognize that the emotions of a human and the emotions of a cow are, in some mysterious but not totally mysterious way, meaningfully connected, we'll continue to deny the human potential for peace, compassion, and justice. We'll continue to live below our moral potential, denying ourselves one of the greatest opportunities to do what's right while plodding through life as decent and well-intentioned modern savages.


If my appeal to emotion rings hollow, perhaps an appeal to a more scientific perspective will have greater resonance. While the meaningful emotional connections we forge with animals might seem vague and intuitive, they've been of tremendous interest for decades to experts in the fields of animal thought and behavior. Darwin's affirmation of the human-animal emotional connection is even more valid today than it was in 1871. Most animal experts avoid positively affirming the existence of animal consciousness, or attempting to ground it in empirical evidence. Still, prominent scientists and philosophers widely espouse the idea that animals experience feelings comparable to our own. Donald Griffin, a retired Harvard University biologist and the father of animal ethology (the study of animal minds and behavior), notes that the central nervous systems of complex animals "operate by the same basic processes regardless of the species." This means, Griffin explains, that "conscious thinking" in humans reflects conscious thinking in other species. Anyone who believes otherwise should recall, as Griffin writes, that "when animals live in complex social groupings, where each one is critically dependent on cooperative interaction with others, they need to be 'natural psychologists.'" They must, in essence, think and emote to protect themselves and to reproduce. These expressions, as with our physical features, are the direct result of an evolutionary process that includes you and me, humans and nonhumans, in the steady flow of biological time.

Griffin's pivotal book Animal Minds further delves into the idea that cognition "takes place in any animal with a reasonably well-organized nervous system." Moreover, Griffin continues, animal cognition means that animal behavior is driven not by instinct alone, but by thoughts and feelings to which the human mind can and should attempt to engage. Griffin concludes that consciousness "confers an enormous advantage by allowing animals to select those actions which are most likely to get them what they want and to ward off what they fear." These acts both draw upon and hone emotional awareness. By making situational decisions to improve the quality of their lives, animals, in their exhibited behavior, are perfectly recognizable to humans, who also have something of a knack for acting on our feelings to get what we want.

Bernard Rollin, a pioneer in the field of veterinary ethics, further establishes the idea that animals experience emotions familiar to humans, relying on them to guide behavior. He writes, "If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones." What this continuity suggests is that "the learning behavior of animals is based on the implicit assumption that human cognitive behavior bears significant analogies to animal intellectual processes." For this reason—this analogous evolutionary continuity—animals remain emotionally receptive to our anthropomorphism. They may be even more emotionally open to us than our fellow humans, unburdened as animals are by the arts of denial and suppression. Their feelings, unlike ours, are expressed with rawness, unmediated by artifice. They can even make us uncomfortable. Any pet owner can attest to this quality. Animals might lack a formal language, but they are speaking. And they do this with the purest intentions. Rollin's work reminds us that we ignore their expressions at great peril to the noble project of improving the human condition while, at the same, reforming the agricultural system that currently downgrades it.

A final animal ethologist worth noting is Marian Stamp Dawkins. Dawkins, professor of zoology at Oxford University, is especially cautious about asserting with hard scientific confidence the precise nature of animal consciousness. She freely admits that we'll never fully grasp the mysterious nature of an animal's mind. This skepticism, however, makes her ultimate assessment of animal thought and feeling all the more worthy of attention. The bulk of the extant evidence regarding animal consciousness, she writes, provides "an awkward irritation to anyone who tries to maintain that only one species in the whole history of the earth has ever felt and experienced an inner, conscious life." Dawkins argues, "Consciousness can and should be studied by scientific methods and thought of as a biological phenomenon." She further acknowledges that humans and animals "share a common evolutionary heritage," thereby challenging the species barrier that we too often assume to be more divisive than unifying. More than that, she explores the prospect of a nonhuman consciousness just as open to interpretation as the consciousness of another human person. Weighing the implications of hundreds of documented cases whereby animals have demonstrated compelling evidence of conscious decision making, Dawkins writes, "If we accept the argument from analogy to infer consciousness in other people on the grounds that they are like in us in certain key ways, then it is going to be very difficult to maintain that consciousness should not be attributed to other species if they have at least some of those same key characteristics."

Through these prominent scientists, of which I've only offered a small sample, Darwin's 1871 message lives strong, reminding those willing to listen that humans and animals share the same rich evolutionary heritage of consciousness and emotional awareness.


If the only way to make a meaningful emotional connection with a nonhuman animal is to responsibly anthropomorphize, and if that process has sound scientific grounding, then we should have some appreciation of where and how this connection originated. The bond is ancient and time-honored. Some evolutionary anthropologists posit that meaningful human-animal connections began to solidify at least forty thousand years ago, leading to a notable upsurge in human curiosity about the nonhuman world. When humans realized, in the words of one animal psychologist, "that a ball of fur could be a friend rather than a meal," they worked to grasp the mental status of that alien ball of fur. This self-interested quest for mutualism necessarily assumed some level of emotional similarity between humans and animals. It also sharpened the human mind while keeping humans increasingly inquisitive about the nature of animal thought. Humans observed. They probed animal behavior. They asked questions and entertained hypotheses. Animals, in their own ways, did much the same. Over thousands of years of collective investigation, human minds came to evolve in tandem with nonhuman minds. The "neurobiology of bonding" linked us to the animal world in ways we're only now starting to grasp. The roots of biophilia, to use E. O. Wilson's famous term, thus run to prehistoric depths. These roots, moreover, were watered in floods of emotion.

The connections that resulted between humans and nonhumans established a foundation for animal domestication. With domestication came a delightful boost in oxytocin to the human brain. Oxytocin is pleasure-inducing endorphin that often accompanies affectionate and nonexploitative human-animal interactions. (It is also, do note, released during orgasms.) Meg Daley Olmert, author of Made for Each Other, writes, "The satisfaction that washes over us as we watch our pet sleep is the ancient reminder that when all is well in their world, all is well in ours." James Serpell, a professor of ethics and animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, probes even deeper into the core of this "ancient reminder," suggesting that the human ability to consider animals the way we consider other humans was integral to "taming wild creatures and forming bonds with them." Other scholars have elaborated on Serpell's work to argue that the emotional relationship that formed between domesticated animals and humans may have inspired humans to treat other humans with empathy. Although only a hypothesis, it's intriguing, and one that highlights the enormous social implications of the human-animal emotional connection, not to mention the social benefits that can derive from it.


Excerpted from The Modern Savage by James McWilliams. Copyright © 2014 James McWilliams. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Agenda

1. Getting Emotional

2. The Omnivore's Contradiction

3. The Delusion of Humane Slaughter

4. Backyard Butchery

5. The Real Cost of Humane Chicken

6. Beef Mythology

7. The Pain behind Pork

Takeaway: The Frontal Lobe and Food Politics

Customer Reviews