It may surprise many people to hear that our early ancestors lived on a semivegetarian diet for several million years. Some anthropologists have fostered the stereotype of "man the hunter," but studies of contemporary "hunter-gatherers" suggest that early humans lived primarily on a diet of plant foods, with supplementation from animal flesh. Studies of tribal Australian aborigines and the Kung-San of South Africa-groups that live under conditions similar to those of our ancestors-show that only about one fourth of their caloric intake derives from animal products. Nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables are the staple foods of these groups. A view of early humans as gatherers rather than hunters is a more accurate portrayal.
Like most good ideas in the West, vegetarianism was developed by the ancient Greeks. Pythagoras and Porphyry were the best-known practicing vegetarians, but the list of those who advocated a vegetarian diet includes Diogenes, Plato, Epicurus, and Plutarch. The Greeks favored vegetarianism for a variety of reasons. Pythagoras and his followers believed that animals as well as humans have souls, and that after death, an animal may be reincarnated as a human and vice versa. According to this view, animals should not be killed and eaten because all souls have equal worth. Plato, in The Republic, described a vegetarian diet as being best suited for his ideal society. Plant foods were preferred, according to Plato, because they promote health and because they require less land to produce than do animal foods. Other Greek thinkers felt that eating animal flesh was naturally repugnant and should be rejected on aesthetic grounds.
The Romans borrowed many ideas from the Greeks, including vegetarianism, and in spite of their penchant for feeding undesirables to the lions, vegetarian ideas survived throughout Roman times. The poet Ovid and the philosopher Seneca are examples of Romans who expounded the cause of vegetarianism.
The fall of Rome and the spread of Christianity across Europe led to a "dark ages" in vegetarian thought. During this time, Christian thinkers such as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas provided intellectual rationalizations for the killing, eating, and general exploitation of animals by humans. They argued that only people have free will, rationality, and souls, and that animals were placed on earth for the convenience and use of humans-views that are still accepted by the majority of Christians today.
However, the tradition of vegetarianism was kept alive in dark and dingy Christian abbeys where monks abstained from meat to suppress their animal passions. (The belief that meat consumption is associated with base urges that hinder one"s spiritual progress lingers on in the minds of some contemporary vegetarians, as we will see later.) The Benedictines, Trappists, and Cistercians are all examples of monastic orders that practiced vegetarianism for a period of time.
During the 15th century, Europe discovered classical philosophy, art, and science. But it took the Europeans a little longer to rediscover vegetarianism. Leonardo da Vinci, visionary that he was, stood ahead of his time in being a confirmed vegetarian. As he wrote in his notebook:
I have from an early age adjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.
The vegetarian "Renaissance" can be said to have occurred during the late 18th and 19th centuries. During this period, Darwin"s theory of evolution destroyed the notion that animals are fundamentally different from humans, and in so doing, challenged the religious and philosophical justification for eating them. The new view was that of a continuum of life, with humans and other animals separated in degree, but not in kind.
The implications of the theory of evolution so upset Darwin that he stopped believing in God. He did not, however, give up eating meat.
The new view of animals as distantly related kin was incorporated into the general humanitarian reform movements that occurred at this time. Indeed, many prominent vegetarians and animal welfare promoters were simultaneously involved in other struggles, such as the child welfare and antislavery movements. It was during this period that the first written works on vegetarianism by Europeans appeared. Leo Tolstoy and Percy Bysshe Shelley are examples of 19th-century writers who advocated a meatless lifestyle. For a while, people who abstained from eating flesh were said to be following the "Pythagorean diet." Later, the term "vegetarian" was coined from the Latin word "vegetus," meaning active or vigorous. (The term has mis-led many into thinking that vegetarians survive only on vegetables-an inaccurate view of vegetarian cuisine.)
Many Christian groups were at the forefront of the burgeoning vegetarian movement. The Bible Christian Church, founded by William Cowherd in 1809 in Manchester, England, played a major role in advocating and furthering the cause of vegetarianism. Members believed that Christ"s teachings of mercy should be extended to animals as well as to people. They also believed that a vegetarian diet was healthier than one based on meat and that Christians have a duty to maintain good health in order to do God"s work. Members of this group later formed the Vegetarian Society in 1847-the first secular vegetarian organization in the West. They disseminated information in the form of essays and lectures and taught that the adoption of vegetarianism would lead to universal brotherhood, an increase in happiness, and a more civilized society. This group still exists and is presently known as the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom.
The movement was carried on into the 20th century by vegetarian societies working at the grass-roots level, religious groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists, and prominent figures such as George Bernard Shaw and Mohandas Gandhi. Vegetarian organizations formed in most Western countries, and newsletters, books, and other publications promoting the diet became common. In 1908 the International Vegetarian Union was formed, with its main function being to organize conferences at which vegetarians from around the world meet and share information. The union continues to be active today.
This orderly but gradual progression might have continued indefinitely had it not been for the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. At this point in time, a variety of influences converged that had major implications for the course of vegetarianism: a new awareness of the importance of diet in maintaining health, an interest in Eastern philosophy and religion, a concern over the degradation of the environment through human "progress," a politically active stance in support of the rights of oppressed groups, the emergence of the peace movement, and a utopian belief in a perfectible society. All of these social trends provided pathways for new converts to the vegetarian cause. Out of this melange, the modern era of vegetarianism emerged.