Vegetarianism & Gnosticism


Bernard G. Prusak’s review of Andrew Linzey’s Why Animal Suffering Matters (“Humane Society?” July 16) cites Nina Planck’s observation that “animal proteins and fats...contain all the essential amino acids needed for life in the right ratio,” as well as Robert P. Heaney’s argument that “we need to eat animals…because they provide what is essential for our health.” But the fact that meat provides nutrients essential to our health does not mean meat itself is essential to our health—we can get the needed nutrients from vegetarian sources as well. The fact that meat provides these nutrients in the right ratios does little to enhance the promeat position; it shows that eating meat is convenient, but it is entirely possible to create a vegetarian diet containing those same ratios. Further, the essay from which Planck’s quote is drawn is an argument against veganism, not vegetarianism, and her reference to “animal proteins and fats” includes the proteins and fats found in products such as eggs and dairy, which do not involve slaughter. The moral permissibility of using such products should perhaps be questioned—but Prusak’s article discusses only meat, so in context the use of Planck’s quote is misleading. (It is also worth noting that in her essay, Planck is discussing the appropriate diet for pregnant women, nursing women, and babies.)

Prusak uses Heaney’s argument about vitamin B12 as an illustration: “The fact that we need [it] but can’t make it for ourselves is simply a reflection of the fact that our physiologies evolved in the context of a diet that included meat.” The underlying idea seems to be that if we’ve evolved to do something, then doing it is automatically right—a weak argument in light of the fallenness of creation. Moreover, the fact that vitamin B12 is available in supplement form, as Prusak himself notes, as well as in dairy products, invalidates the idea that eating animals is an evolutionary imperative for humans.

Finally, Prusak’s portrayal of the health effects of meat is one-sided. The article implies that vegetarianism has a neutral or negative impact on the people who practice it. In fact, many studies have linked vegetarianism with lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments. True, nutritional science is still in its infancy, and it is possible that at some point it will be discovered that meat confers important benefits that other foods don’t. At this point, however, there is little evidence to suggest that this is the case—certainly, there is nowhere near enough evidence to back up the claim that we need to eat meat, which is the strongest argument against vegetarianism.

Alicia M. Holland
Bronx, N.Y.


Alicia M. Holland’s excellent letter raises important questions. One concerns what we should make of the fact that human beings, like many other animals, evolved to eat meat and various animal products. Holland appears to take this fact as evidence of the fallenness of nature—that is, as evidence that physiologically we human beings are not as we should be and so have reason to take advantage of technology, in particular vitamin supplements, to help us overcome our evolutionary legacy. Maybe so; but this judgment of nature—of how it has unfolded and how it currently works—raises a lot of other questions, some of which I mentioned at the end of my review. Fully developed, I wonder if Holland’s judgment of nature would not give rise to a new Gnosticism, a rejection of the flesh.

Another question that Holland’s letter raises is whether a vegetarian diet really can provide human beings all the nutrients, in all the right ratios, that we need, especially before birth, during pregnancy, and while nursing. Holland herself waffles a bit here; I would like to hear more on this question from nutritionists and physicians like Heaney.

Bernard G. Prusak


Read more: Letters, September 10, 2010

Published in the 2010-08-13 issue: 
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