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A year ago, I stopped eating meat and became a lacto-ovo vegetarian. This year, I’ve stopped consuming eggs, and for the past few days I’ve observed a few neurons in my head engage in an increasingly decisive debate on veganism. When the argument on vegetarianism is resolved in favour of non-human animals, it is hard to defend battery farming or the condition of dairy cows. That said, it is not easy to convince oneself why one should care about an agglomeration of “living” cells. In this post I intend to raise as many issues as I can about the question of the animal, after much motivation from Peter Singer’s views here and here.

Motivation

I was brought up in an Indian vegetarian family, where meat was strictly banned on cultural and religious grounds. On a fine hot summer day, when I was around 9 years old, it suddenly struck me how weird it was that I was standing inside a temple, my hands in the Namaste position, praying for good health, prosperity and warding off demons by chanting Sanskrit mantras in front of a decorated stone idol. For one reason or another, I distinctly remember that day. I didn’t dare confront my parents about the uneasy feeling of “what the hell are we doing”, but the whistle was blown – I never again genuinely wished for anything from God even though I was made to frequent temples. Five years later, at a much too impressionable age, I read Ayn Rand, became a vocal anti-theist picking arguments constantly to my mom’s chagrin, and took the ideas of selfishness and hedonism rather seriously. I started eating meat in secrecy, outside home, and when I left for college I’d brandish a seemingly purposeful Darwinian quip against timid vegetarians at the dinner table : “I didn’t climb my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian”.

To summarize, the point I’m trying to make is that the origin of your morality is supremely important, and if it has anything to do with faith in god or spirit or soul or other collective delusions, or even deference to a culture, I’d urge you to read this or this or this or watch this or this or this, because otherwise I wouldn’t know how to argue with you. Call it prerequisites.

Darwinism

After On the Origin of Species was published, humanity, for the first time, had an opportunity to reflect on the causes of its own existence – by natural selection, and hence was enabled to attempt to understand the game it had been playing. Plants, being autotrophic, don’t care about animals fundamentally, although interesting co-dependence between species have evolved. The first animals that evolved can be viewed upon as defectors in the game plants were playing – finding efficient ways to synthesize food using non-living things. They figured they might eat nutritious plants instead and thus avoid complicated photosynthesizing machinery in cells of their body. Other than a small minority, plants, being far more numerous in number and operating at time scales that are far greater, haven’t retaliated. Inevitably, some animals defected on other animals as well, became omnivorous or carnivorous and diversified. Some became predators and some became prey, all existing in various equilibria. And thus we happened to be. One remarkable fact is that not all animals that exist in equilibrium now have evolved to survive by eating other animals. Herbivores (blue whales, elephants, deer, etc.) are still common. I can easily imagine another world where I, a member of the dominant species, am incapable of surviving on primary producers of food – plants. In that case, the “vegetarianism” argument would be vastly different and presumably more convoluted. It really depends on how many levels of irreversible defecting have taken place for us to evolve.

To summarize, Darwinism tells us that survival of the fittest de facto involves individual members of animals killing others, and that this process eventually lead to our existence. One might be tempted to conclude from this, as Benjamin Franklin did, that since other animals kill each other for survival, and we are essentially animals, we shouldn’t hesitate to do the same. A counter argument, which I first heard from Singer, is that modern biology shows that we share an overwhelming amount of genetic, chemical and linguistic machinery with other extant species to varying degrees and this discovery makes a previously unknown connection between humans and animals, dethroning us from hitherto elevated status we accorded ourselves, enabling us to extend our socially evolved strategies, like empathy, to a wider circle. In any case, when one is using a Darwinian argument one ought to keep in mind the is-ought problem.

Strategies

In our world, there are two major categories of life – plants and animals. For now, let us regard Fungi as plants, although eating mushrooms is not an obvious vegan choice. Until we’ve figured out a way to synthesize all the chemicals we need to survive, in the lab, we don’t have an option of not eating plants. The question really is, how much do you identify your “self” with animals? Who all would you be willing to kill or harm for survival? A possible range of answers include –

Cannibalistic options :

1. Yourself (degenerate case), your clones, your siblings, your parents, your relatives and others closely related genetically – the first ones you’d protect from harm.
2. Your teachers, professors, mentors, guides and others closely related memetically – going forward, as more people identify their selves with their intellect, genes will begin to matter less.
3. People of the same race or culture – Comparisons have been drawn between animal rights and the holocaust. (wiki)
4. Women and children, other human beings – In any sexually reproducing species males are cheap and expendable. Two fold cost of sexWomen and children.
5. Humans killed in car accidents – Peter Singer says it should be acceptable to eat human road kills as long as one has permission of relatives and also if doesn’t incentivize killing in accidents.
6. Anyone who wanted to be eaten after dying – PETA president Ingrid Newkirk wants to be barbecued when she dies. Her will.

Non-Cannibalistic options :

1. Your pets, dogs, cats, chimps and other apes, dolphins etc. – Why was The Cove so sensational? Taboo foods vary considerably across cultures.
2. Cows, Swine, Poultry, etc. – For a detailed exposition of factory farming, watch Earthlings here.
3. Oysters and other creatures that do not have a central nervous system arguably don’t feel pain.
4. Eggs, Milk, Honey – Animal products that don’t necessarily result in killing. Separating vegetarianism from veganism.

The reason I list them out here is first, to remove any “shock” value from cannibalism – it is really not that different from eating meat. The second is to highlight the wide range of mutually inconsistent ethical and moral choices different cultures have made and how irresponsible one would be to make a choice purely on whimsical grounds (I’ve often heard people say “Aww, that’s cute. That shouldn’t be eaten.”). The third is to arrange the options in a somewhat decreasing order of cruelty in some sense, to point out that there is a continuum. From a utilitarian point of view, eating a human road kill is comparable to eating a slaughtered cow, if not better. Drawing rigid lines are purely for psychological efficiency – to avoid having to re-evaluate your stance every time you have a choice.

Suffering

Before we discuss why caring about any of this matters, it would be useful to explore the things that could matter. In the most broadest sense, pain and suffering can be viewed as a physiological response to a change in the internal or external environment that could be a potential threat to existence.  In humans, we can accept that some things are universally painful, ex. chopping off someone’s hand. For the more sensitive readers, the slight feeling of revulsion (“ugh”) when your neurons processed and mentally played out chopping of a hand is a form of pain too. A second order pain, if you will.

It is convenient to think of a brain as a buffer between input and output; one that processes and predicts the consequences of various combination of events, and eventually results in a reaction. It fast forwards evolution – instead of producing individuals and letting natural selection slowly affect changes, brains expend neuronal pathways to predict the future of the several probable evolutionary directions, and pick the one most likely to result in survival. If an individual is forced to choose a path that is not in its best interests, it will feel pain. The thesis is that for any consistent definition of pain one would come up with, the amount of pain felt by an individual increases with the predictive power of its brain. It is in this sense that I agree with Singer – terminating a severely disabled infant causes lesser pain than slaughtering an adult cow. To explore this further, let us bisect.

Atoms feel no pain. If you want to challenge that, you’d need an extremely broad definition of pain to claim for ex. that radiation is nuclear pain; that all radioactive nuclei tending to the more stable iron nucleus is an expression of pain. Similarly, stones or amino acids synthesized in the lab can be considered to feel no pain. It is not that I’d like to not be abstract as I can be, but theories become intractable and useless at the highest generality. Moving on, do viruses, bacteria, protista and other microorganisms feel pain? They are more a part of our environment than products of it, and other than ceasing to exist there is very little we can do about it, and even then we barely matter.

What about plants? This is an interesting case. Plants compete with each other for sunlight, they form codependent relationships with insects, self immolate to create forest fires to get rid of competitors ( I saw this in Private life of Plants ), and do many other interesting things to survive. When you chop a tree, is there pain involved? They don’t have a nervous system, don’t have a strong reaction when you run an electric saw through the bark ( although some do repair small damages ), and above all do not immediately retaliate. If there is a pain, it is a different kind. It is the pain of “knowing” that you will die without reproducing; for e.g an infertile human couple who really desired a baby, or a race horse unable to run fast enough to be selected for by humans, and so on. The pain is not physical, and perhaps need not even be mental ( Steven Pinker’s brain wishes his genes to go jump in the lake ). It is a genetic pain, not just felt by an individual but shared through the ancestry. China’s one child policy is an example with several criticisms.

Humans have only recently become developed enough to afford the luxury of avoiding constant physical pain and there’s still a long way to go. So, accounting for genetic pain will have to wait. The same reasoning applies to fungi – they’re as related to us as plants are. On the other hand, in the animal kingdom where we belong, as you move up the complexity, pain experienced by individual animals is very similar to our experience – it is felt in the body. We know this by looking at neural correlates, physical responses, and by an even more fundamental reason that we share our evolutionary history with them. We retract our hands instinctively when placed in a fire, and so do animals when their paws are introduced in a fire – it would be most surprising if the sensation that we feel is of a completely different nature than what they feel.

To summarize, I’ll just say that it is important for us to realize the difference between the kinds of pain experienced by animals and plants, and recognize the similarities between pains all animals can feel. Why should we care if some other individual feels pain? In the next section…

Who are you?

Having lived in Canada for more than a year now and interacting with local people raised in the Western culture has brought glaringly to my attention a deeply rooted and highly cherished notion of the self that each individual here possesses. I’ll go out on a limb here and make an observation, perhaps much too general, that sometimes I find individuality invoked for its own sake and justified with socially accepted norms on matters such as fashion apparel, party or wedding invitations and many other seemingly superfluous (or refined depending on your outlook) tastes in food, music and wine. I’m highly critical of the conformist attitude of the Indian culture as well, and the process minimizing my cognitive dissonance in understanding both cultures made me come up with a definition of self that I find useful. Think of yourself as a weighted sum of various levels that make you up, starting at the atomic level ( C,H,O), to the genetic level (selfish genes), to the mammalian level (social/family structure matters), to the memetic level (your mental picture of the world), and to the cultural level (where you realize you’re just an instance, playing a role in a larger game ), and all the levels in between where you think selection is taking place.

$\vec{self} = a_1*atoms + \dots + a_n*genes + \dots + a_m*memes + \dots$

This is clearly motivated by Quantum Mechanics’ wavefunction, but I’m not suggesting in any way, that atoms, genes, memes etc are linearly independent of each other; in fact the “higher” vectors wouldn’t exist without the “lower” ones. At each level where Doug Hofstadter’s strange loop occurs, or Daniel Dennett’s leveling up in design space happens, perhaps one would like to introduce a new basis vector increasing the “Hilbert” space. Before I proceed, I should make it clear that these analogies are in no way meant to be an actual model of life, and any pretence of mathematical rigour is purely for amusement and is not to be taken seriously. That said, I will take the liberty of lifting the veil of caution and say that I’ve found this definition rather useful.

When my sexual urge acts up, one part of my brain realizes “Ah, $a_n$ is quite big indeed”, and for people like Pinker who don’t care about procreating, $a_n$ must have attenuated in their evaluation of self. Now, how does one value oneself? If $\vec{s_1}, \vec{s_2}$ be two self vectors, then $\vec{s_1} - \vec{s_2}$ tells you how different they are. So, a person feels unique by diffing his self vector with one that comes closest to him/her, and his/her objective is to estimate the probability of survival of each of the basis vectors and maximize it’s share. So, how do you go about increasing your total fitness or prevalence of your self? By increasing each component – working hard to find mates who’s genetic component has higher probability of survival increases $a_n$; working hard to contribute to science increases $a_m$ and so on. Note that your self vector still has a magnitude of 1 in it’s own space, but its contribution to humanity’s self vector, $\vec{s_h}$, increases. For example, I think religion will eventually die out – it doesn’t make enough sense to continue existing even though most of the world is still religious. So, the “direction” in which a self $\vec{s_1}(t)$ proceeds is to maximize $\int_0^T \! \vec{s_1(t)}\cdot\vec{s_h(t)} \, \mathrm{d} t.$ to whatever extent $T$ a self can predict the future. The more you “align” with the total vector summed up over time, the more you “exist”.

To summarize, it is convenient to think of a self, its motivation, perceived purpose of existence and so on, as composed of various forces that operate at various time scales. With this definition, we can understand and express various phenomenon including kinship, family bonds, religion and speciesism. To understand why “you” should care about animals, we should keep in mind what “you” is and why you care about anything.

You and others

Much has been said about the Golden rule : “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself”. One common argument in favour of ethical treatment of animals is that we have the ability to put ourselves in the position of animals and imagine their suffering. A favourite line for vegans in defense of killing plants : “I can imagine what it must feel like for a cow to get hurt, but I can’t imagine being a tomato”. But why should one think of someone else in the first place?

Let us look at the simplest example of any introductory course in game theory : Prisoner’s Dilemma (Go through the game if you’re unfamiliar with it! ). In the usual setting of payoffs, (CC)>(CD)=(DC)>(DD) where C = cooperate, D = defect, Nash Equilibrium occurs at DD, meaning a rational player attempting to maximize his/her benefits will Defect – a strategy which is not only not Pareto efficient, but also potentially the worst possible utilitarian outcome (depending on the actual numbers). In real life, people behave differently ( and markedly so in iterated prisoner’s dilemma ). Naive Game theory doesn’t predict or dictate people’s behaviour. I’d recommend reading game theorist Ken Binmore’s easy-to-understand essay on The origin of fair play. Consider what would happen if both players observed the Golden Rule axiomatically. Then, since CD and DC aren’t valid options, the optimal strategy for each player would be to cooperate, and CC is a Pareto optimal Nash equilibrium. Again, we should be careful about deducing or concluding anything about human behaviour from this game, but we can nevertheless make a few observations.

First, people don’t always get stuck in selfish local optimums and neither are they superrationalist observants of the golden rule all the time. They are somewhere in between. One way to model this without restricting the game to superrational players would be to include in our definition of self terms that reflect one’s predilection to care for something bigger than oneself. So, every prisoner’s utility function would have a part that contributes to maximizing his “own” utility ( the individuality ), and a part that cares for both prisoners ( the commonality ). More generally, given a game of n players, any one player’s definition of self will not be independent of others, but rather include those components of $\vec{self}$ that are markedly different from those of others. Computing this difference can, of course, be done in many ways.

• “Best at everything” : For each component, “you” are the difference between your contribution to the component and the one that comes closest to you. $\forall \vec{a_i}, \vec{self_{new}}\cdot\vec{a_i} = \min((\vec{self_{old}} - \vec{self_{other}})\cdot\vec{a_i})$, where each $\vec{a_i}$ is a component and $\vec{self_{other}}$ is your evaluation of “other”‘s worth. You can then value yourself by computing the magnitude of $\vec{self_{new}}$ using some norm (e.g 2-norm). e.g : polymaths are revered because they’re good at some many things.
• “Better than everyone” : Instead of diffing component-wise, you diff yourself with a person that comes closest to you ( e.g an intellectual or your sibling ). You choose to update yourself such that $|\vec{self_{new}}| = \min( |\vec{self_{old}}-\vec{self_{other}} |)$. A situation where a valuation like this makes sense is, for example, a game where you are sure to die but by dying, you can save the life of someone you choose. Since you cannot save individual components, you will have to select a self that comes closest to you. e.g : Lily and James Potter dying to save Harry. Today, caring for ones children over others’ is considered normal, and that is historically based on genetic propagation. Time will come when people will be labeled “childist” in a most Huxlian fashion.
• “Better than average” : As a first approximation, the values of humanity can be considered to be the average of the values of each human. Instead of diffing ( component wise, or as a whole ) with the best, or the one that comes closest to you, you could opt to diff with the average, justification being that your novelty is with respect to humanity as a whole, and not just one person. For example, just because you are $\epsilon > 0$ worse than some other person ( say, in athletics ), doesn’t mean your self worth for that component has to be that small.

The reason I’m elaborately discussing $\vec{self}$ is two fold. The first is to point out that our sense of self, the singular feeling of “I” is just that – a feeling. There probably is an evolutionary/computational complexity explanation for why my feeling of sense of self is extremely localized to the body I inhabit and not “smeared” across many layers like an ant colony. Why do we find it strange that House elves like to be slaves? Or more much interestingly, why we find this bit (watch it!) in Restaurant at the End of the Universe ( read it! ) so damn amusing and oddly unsettling. Every time I have a need to use “I” in a serious conversation, I cannot help but break it down into components and therein find explanations. For example, questions like “Do I have free will?”, “What’s the purpose of existence?” and almost all philosophical conundrums cease to be mysterious eo ipso, when expressed this way.

The second point to note is that $\vec{self}$ is not calculated once and for all times, but keeps getting updated in a rather Bayesian way. The coefficients, or relative importance of components that make up your self, change when new observations are made; artificially reducing your operational Hilbert space to keep the magnitude of your $\vec{self_{new}}$ high, by showing off your superfluous tastes, only serves to flaunt your proverbial peacock’s feathers. However, lets not get into that – sex is a topic for another day.

In short, if there are two pairs of prisoners in a dilemma, the pair of prisoners that redefine their selves to include the welfare of the group over and above their previously lower dimensional individual selves has a winning advantage. I posit that this is one way to look at the increasing complexity of life. In fact, it is now a widely accepted scientific theory that eukaryotic evolution from prokaryotes was via symbiosis – instead of one prokaryote eating the other, it chose to incorporate it into its own cell to form the nucleus. The evolution of life and the corresponding increase in the dimensions of the $\vec{self}$ vector has happened concomitantly with the increase in accuracy of our map of the universe. As we live our lives, $\vec{self}$ gets updated in various obvious ways and some non-trivial ways. Although decomposition of $\vec{self}$ into components does not reveal anything new, it lends clarity to our sense of self.

You and animals

Now that we understand our $\vec{self}$ better, all that remains to be done is to diff our selves with our estimate of an animal’s $\vec{self}$. Lets get some broad perspective first before we compare.

Atoms are 13.7 billion years old (100%), while the earth is 4.5 billions years (32%) old. Soon after the earth was formed, cells arose. Miller Urey experiments demonstrate the ease with which organic molecules form. It is worth looking at the timeline of evolution : prokaryotes at 3.5 billion years (25%), eukaryotes at 2 billion years(15%), fish at 500 million years (4%), mammals at 200 million years (1.5%) and humans at 200,000 years ( 0.0015%). If the age of the universe is not apt for comparison, then consider this : Fish has lived 2500 times longer than humans. We are genetically similar to our closest living apes, chimps, by 98%. Our brains are remarkably similar to those of animals – they evolved incrementally. All big animals, including pigs, cows, chicken etc. feel pain. Their physiological responses, neural correlates are all the same; after all we evolved from them quite recently.

The only thing that separates humans from other animals is our large brain. Copying one another (watch episode 9) – nut cracking, obtaining honey, opening clam shells – started with monkeys. It was these phenotypes that had managed to communicate critical information to one another without relying on the long drawn process of embedding it in DNA. In essence, the word “copying” encapsulates all that we’ve managed to do so far. We build machines to do things over and over again. We’ve figured out that by not defecting in every prisoner’s dilemma presented to us, we can outsmart the other prisoners of earth – we’ve learned to cooperate by copying each other. Other than this fairly singular development in humans above other animals, there is nothing that we don’t share with them.

The question now is – how important is this? In terms of power – very much. We have the dictatorial capability to exterminate most major animal species ( maintaining the essential plants and other things we need ). In terms of evolutionary time – not much. If humans manage to destroy all humans, but spare a few forests with some monkeys or chimps, it is fair to expect intelligent species to evolve in a short time – even a generous 500,000 years is a blink in natural time scales. Humans as a species have become very smart, but the question of how each one of us individually compares is different and is important when one reasons for oneself.

My self assessed braininess has so far not resulted in contributing anything to pushing the periphery of human knowledge. I am, and from the looks of it, many are, just like monkeys introduced into an environment of plenty. A plenty that is a result of learning to cooperate instead of defect. Just based on this skill that our society has together figured out, I find it very hard to account for the differences in the way we treat humans from animals. I am a set of atoms in the universe that stands for an inaccurate map of the universe. And this map realizes that there are many other instances doing very similar things. Now, I don’t know why the universe is “folding” in on itself – but the differences in its solutions (i.e humans, non-human animals) are so minute that judging them differently on an existential level is like running Occam’s razor through your own neck. When I mentally diff myself with an average stranger, and that with a cow or a pig, the result is slightly in favour of the human only because he or she is a member of the human species.

Machines

As we noted above, the defining characteristic of a machine is copying. In computational parlance, we refer to it as iteration or recursion, in biological systems we call it reproduction. It started with a few carbon based molecules, to RNA, to DNA, and so on up the ladder to us, in principle, based on electromagnetic and gravitational forces. If you think of yourself as a big ass computer program ( as I sometimes do ), then the act of eating plants or animals, is essentially offloading some subroutines to other smaller computers. You are entrusting the responsibility of processing sunlight and nutrients from soil to plants, and that of converting plants ( animal feed ) to muscle and fat to animals, and thereby both profiting from them ( as their coefficients in your $\vec{self}$ are very small ), and increasing your dependence on them ( your $\vec{self}$ will not exist without them ). I’m concerned about the latter – existential risks.

If we wish to continue to exist, explore the universe and continue to grow, as we have done so far, dependence on incomprehensibly complex systems ( like a pig, or a chicken ) ought to reduce. I’m not suggesting that we’re anywhere near encoding our consciousness directly on atoms (you do want to know if the universe is isotropic, don’t you? ) or even diversifying our substrate to include silicon ( if you don’t want to end up like the Giant Panda, don’t keep eating bamboo! ). To exist longer, there is a direction ( bigger, more accurate maps ) in which we should aim to adapt our hardware ( chemical scum ) and software ( neuronal mess ); and offloading subroutines to mysterious machines is proceeding in the opposite direction.

In the long run, the above objection to increasing our dependence on animals might prove to be more relevant, but for now, it pales in comparison to another completely different kind of objection – The Matrix! We are afraid that machines will take over humanity one daylengthy proposals have been drafted to create “Friendly AI“. But guess what? For animals, that time has already come – gestation crates for pigs, battery farming of chickens; the pun on the word “battery”, unintentional as it may be, cannot slip ones mind. If you pause for a moment to think what is wrong with the situation, a simple question will do the job : What is the difference between me hunting down an animal and killing it with primitive stone tools or arrows and building a machine that automatically does the job for me? Objectively, the answer is simple – the effort required to hunt needs to be exerted over and over again for hunting to continue, where as in the case of machines, once an initial investment of thought process is made on the construction of machines, efforts scale beyond proportion. It’s the same reason why software companies rise to prominence rapidly.

Copying, and more specifically, asymmetry in the effort expended versus rewards reaped isn’t evil, per se – our brains make it incredibly cheap to communicate; our computers make it incredibly cheap to think and so on. The problem comes when non-linear effects in copying are neglected. Hunters respect their prey after hunting. Predators run for their dinner while prey run for their lives, but both are living on the edge. In Life of Mammals, there’s a wonderful clip on the last human persistence hunting. It is the ceremonial gestures and the internal understanding of the equilibrium that prevent genocides like the Holocaust from occurring in nature. When that equilibrium is disturbed, as we’ve done for cows, pigs, chickens and other animals exploited by us, there are no predator prey relationships; our predation has become so wide spread that we’re not predators any more – we’re the environment; we’re nature. And the problem is much worse than the Matrix. There is no simulation to keep the mind healthy, and there’s no sanitation to keep the body healthy. Above all, the creatures imprisoned are not very different from us at all – a difference of 50 million years over 4000 million years of evolution of life.

To sum up, I’ll just point out that when something scales to a very large extent quantitatively, its qualitative nature can change so dramatically that it cannot be expressed just in its elements. As a pathological example, wavefunction of a human makes little utilitarian sense. A more realistic example – the success of our species cannot be described solely as a set of humans, without describing their interactions. A lot of people hunting $n$ animals in the wild is very different from a few people factory farming $n$ animals. Without reciprocity of effort, one should be very careful about what one automates, more so when the automaton works on lives potentially causing prolonged pain and suffering, and even more so when the lives involved are very similar to us. The human brain easily saturates in its judgement of magnitude of extremes – the death of a pet dog is tragic while the death of million equally conscious pigs is a statistic.

Legality

There is much to say here, but I’ll attempt to keep this section short. Some facts : many countries have laws preventing cruelty to animals, some countries have banned dog meat, some have restrictions on using primates for research, dog fighting is illegal in many countries, and so is cock fighting. There are no laws on how to treat animals in factory farms; the size, cleanliness of shelters, or the density of packing animals in them is solely based on industrial practice. After going through several articles, it appears to me that laws on animal welfare are rather arbitrarily drawn out.

I would highly recommend this exchange of letters between Peter Singer and Richard Posner, a distinguished law scholar. The writing is enjoyable and the arguments are sound. At various places, the debate reduces to a question of either upholding moral instinct or applying ethical reasoning. Racism serves as a running example. By comparing the mental abilities of animals to retarded people and children, and 101 chimps to a human, some notion of utility is touched upon. For the majority of the debate, I found myself agreeing to most of what Singer said, but towards the end, I agree with Posner – introducing laws to restrict animal killing would be unwelcome. I’m a libertarian – imposing any rules on a society at large, and especially ones that lead to heated arguments, is almost axiomatically wrong. The cost of a dictatorship is efficiency. The Chinese are mostly an atheistic society, but I’d much rather prefer a democratic, secular country even though its people are mostly religious, despite the ridiculousness of religion. There is a certain long term benefit reaped from having every individual work out the logic for herself – the logic sticks. It comes from within. Meanwhile, each person who feels strongly should be allowed to put his/her arguments together, get the facts right, and open up the discussion for comments and criticisms.

I don’t think we should force others to stop eating meat, or in any way restrict their freedom to interact with animals as they please, but equally important is the fact that every vote counts. Just because 99% are responsible for eating meat, and that you will make an insignificant difference by stopping does not mean at all that you should renege. The epsilons add up, and as unsatisfying as the result of your abstinence might be, that is the only way to make a difference. Any alternative legal recourse is a dictatorship time bomb.

Nutrition

I’m much less worried about not obtaining the requisite chemicals from a vegan diet than most people. This is because, I know for a fact that my ancestry, being adherent brahmins, going back to several generations have led a healthy life being lacto-vegetarians. Further, I grew up on a vegetarian diet and there were no issues. And this brings me to a point on taste – Indian cuisine offers plenty of vegetarian options. Even for a western palate, when enough people choose to go vegan, chefs will come up with recipes that aren’t awful meat substitutes or a mash up of “greens”.

In fact, in US and other developed countries, excessive indulgence in meat is resulting in significant health problems for its citizens. Food that kills, provides many numbers tackling issues including coronary diseases, obesity, and whether human physiology evolved to survive on meat or leaves. The jury is, however, out on that one. David Attenborough is of the opinion that human incisors constitute enough evidence to make the case. It is interesting to note that chimps and other great apes are not exclusively vegetarians but derive 1-3% of their diet from other animals. Members of genus Homo are opportunists, and there is no reason to believe that meat is essential for humans.

Diary is an essential part of the Hindu diet, and presumably, that’s why Hindus respect cows and abstain from eating them. In any case, we are now aware of most of the vitamins and minerals needed for growth and maintenance, and can scientifically evaluate our diet for completeness. I’ve switched to almond milk, and am able to avoid all diary products except yogurt. My meals include a generous serving of Indian pickle, which causes “internal body heat” – don’t know the technical word for it – and yogurt helps cool it down. I’m still looking for a yogurt substitute, but other than that I’m a vegan.

(Update 29/3/2012) – Over the past two months, I started experiencing symptoms of dry mouth and reduced stamina. I couldn’t sleep for 8 hours without waking up 4 times to drink water. And I couldn’t run my usual 5k without stopping at least once to drink water apart from increased tiredness (anemic?). Got a blood test done which showed Vitamin B12 deficiency – popping supplements now. Just an FYI.

Conclusion

We started with Darwinism to point out that the observation of animals killing each other in the wild does not directly provide a justification for us doing the same. We then went on to note that it is not yet possible to cut ourselves off fully from organic beings – eating plants in unavoidable. Then we listed in a somewhat increasing order of preference, various places where we could draw the line. Knowing what we share with other animals is important, and we dedicated a section on understand pain and suffering. The analysis naturally proceeds to ask why you should care about suffering of others, but before it would help to obtain a deeper understanding of what we mean by a self. So, we devoted a section to breaking down our self into various components, against the unifying feeling of “I” we consciously possess, to better appreciate our internal motives. Using a simple game, we went on to explore the causes and benefits of caring about other players, and noted that from an evolutionary perspective, there is a feedback loop between broadening our definition of self and the increase in complexity of life.

The next three sections apply the abstraction to animals. First we observe that our success as a species is almost exclusively a result of cooperating as a society, and that taken individually, the difference between humans and animals is very small. This asymmetry of success as a result of interaction is a double edged sword – we can bring about a lot of constructive change by pooling our efforts in one direction, and also cause tremendous destruction by neglecting to account for scaling of minor unpleasant deeds. Machines have already spelled doom for many lives.

We then touch upon legality, to point out that our current system, formed out of a combination of evolutionary inertia and an intermittently growing sense of responsibility to other creatures, has drawn seemingly arbitrary lines. I am, however, of the opinion that forcing a change will potentially cause more trouble in the long run outweighing the result of adding up all short term benefits, and in this regard, I differ with Peter Singer. We finally conclude with a short section on nutrition to state that it isn’t much of an issue, even practically.

I write about this subject at length, because I think we have a responsibility to investigate the cost of keeping our bodies running. The analysis becomes even more important when its conclusions are shared by a minority. During my meat eating years, I knew of no one else who argued against vegetarianism more strongly than I, and now that, after reading, watching, and acquiring more evidence, my stance has changed, I find it imperative that I defend my position. Of course, I’m open to revision, and welcome critics who can point out holes in my argument, but until then I rest my case.

My primary reason for reading Origin is its historical significance. It bothers me that humans, until as recently as Darwin, did not seriously ask about the origin of species despite interacting with its members every day. That this revolutionary idea should have occurred to one person as opposed to many in an incremental fashion, is far from obvious – and extremely interesting retrospectively. Are there any other such revolutionary ideas that’ll later be trivial to everyone?

Darwin supported his argument meticulously by observations, made by him and others, and their sheer number is so mind boggling that I fell asleep more times reading this book than any other. It amazes me how he summoned up so much enthusiasm to study and compare the most boring habits of some of the dullest creatures.

There is no reason to read this book to understand natural selection – our knowledge now is a far more superior and complete. I had already read The Selfish Gene, had already experienced the profound “OMFG! That’s Brilliant!” reaction that rapidly morphed into a “Duh! Isn’t that obvious?” . Yet, Origin was an enthralling read for the most part, with many opportunities to pause, wonder, daydream, extrapolate, apply the theory to modern humans and computers, and so on.

This is a fairly long book about a seemingly tautological argument. I highlighted a large number of lines and took down a few notes on my kindle. A short summary of my observations, and a few quotes to give you the taste of what most of the book is like, follows.

1. Variation – Darwin appreciated that variability exists in nature,
but he did not seem to explore the causes or consequences – which is understandable as genetics was ahead of his time.

“It may seem fanciful, but I suspect that a similar parallelism
extends to an allied yet very different class of facts. It is an old
and almost universal belief, founded, I think, on a considerable body
of evidence, that slight changes in the conditions of life are
beneficial to all living things.”

“Again, both with plants and animals, there is abundant evidence, that
a cross between very distinct individuals of the same species, that is
between members of different strains or sub-breeds, gives vigour and
fertility to the offspring.”

“Dominant species belonging to the larger groups tend to give birth to
new and dominant forms; so that each large group tends to become still
larger, and at the same time more divergent in character.”

“Widely ranging species vary most, (…) and varieties are often at
first local,–both causes rendering the discovery of intermediate
links less likely. (…) And if there be any variability under nature,
it would be an unaccountable fact if natural selection had not come
into play.”

2. Cooperation – Darwin appreciated that environment in the form of
sunshine, water, temperature ( non living stuff ), wasn’t the primary
reason for success of life in its complexity, and that inter-species
interaction is a large cause. However, he talks about competition,
much like Dawkins, but not much about cooperation, like Lynn Margulis. I
think cooperation is much less apparent when you just look at the
phenotype. It seems to me that it is more widespread on the smaller
gene level with microbes and viruses exchanging chemicals frequently, and
hence completely understandable why Darwin was unaware of it.

“This long appeared to me a great difficulty: but it arises in chief
part from the deeply-seated error of considering the physical
conditions of a country as the most important for its inhabitants;
whereas it cannot, I think, be disputed that the nature of the other
inhabitants, with which each has to compete, is at least as important,
and generally a far more important element of success.”

“Bearing in mind that the mutual relations of organism to organism are
of the highest importance, we can see why two areas having nearly the
same physical conditions should often be inhabited by very different
forms of life; for according to the length of time which has elapsed
since new inhabitants entered one region; according to the nature of
the communication which allowed certain forms and not others to enter,
either in greater or lesser numbers; according or not, as those which
entered happened to come in more or less direct competition with each
other and with the aborigines; and according as the immigrants were
capable of varying more or less rapidly, there would ensue in
different regions, independently of their physical conditions,
infinitely diversified conditions of life,–there would be an almost
endless amount of organic action and reaction,–and we should find, as
we do find, some groups of beings greatly, and some only slightly
modified,–some developed in great force, some existing in scanty
numbers–in the different great geographical provinces of the world.”

3. Ontology of god – Darwin did not comment much on Man, but he did
make strong rational arguments against creation, and understood the philosophy of science.

“Why should all the parts and organs of many independent beings, each
supposed to have been separately created for its proper place in
should not Nature have taken a leap from structure to structure? On
the theory of natural selection, we can clearly understand why she
should not; for natural selection can act only by taking advantage of
slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must
advance by the shortest and slowest steps.”

“But many naturalists think that something more is meant by the
Natural System; they believe that it reveals the plan of the Creator;
but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what
else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing
is thus added to our knowledge.”

4. Altruism – Darwin identified and seemed to have understood the
conundrum posed by “selfless” individuals of the ant of the bee
communities. Since his argument is at the species level, it was easier
for him to reconcile the selfless acts of a few “slave” members as
beneficial to the species. Dawkins’ must have had a tougher time as
his arguments were at the genetic level, but even that was resolved
when it was shown that slave members had a different gene composition
that made it advantageous for their genes to die in the service of the
queen’s genes.

“Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it
is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo
ejecting its foster-brothers,–ants making slaves,–the larvae of
ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars,–not as
specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of
namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

“for if on the whole the power of stinging be useful to the community,
it will fulfil all the requirements of natural selection, though it
may cause the death of some few members.”

5. Falsification – I think it is important to note that when a
groundbreaking theory is introduced, it should make some substantial claims
that are against common knowledge. Although Darwin did not tackle all
the implications of his theory in this book, he did make remarks
which, at that time, would perhaps have been considered quite bold.

“hence there seems to me to be no great difficulty in believing that
natural selection has actually converted a swimbladder into a lung, or
organ used exclusively for respiration.”