One Man’s Meat: Further Thoughts on the Evolution of Animal Food Taboos

Although meat is said to be the most highly prized category of food in the majority of human cultures, it is also, according to a recent ethnographic survey, “vastly more likely to be the target of food taboos,” than any other type of edible substance.[1] People throughout the world display strong aversions to killing and consuming particular animals, and the choice of which animals to proscribe varies unpredictably from culture to culture, and from place to place.

Professor James Serpell

The origin of these taboos has been one of the central preoccupations of anthropologists for more than a century, and the debate has gradually polarized into two opposing factions. On one side it is argued that restrictions on eating certain animals exist because there are (or there were in the not too distant past) sound practical, health-related or ecological reasons for such restrictions.[2] In the other camp, it is proposed that particular animals are not eaten because they have acquired various symbolic connotations that render their consumption unacceptable: For example, an animal might be tabooed because it combines anomalous or non-prototypical features—such as the pig’s cloven hooves combined with its failure to chew the cud—that somehow make it unpalatable.[3] Or the animal may symbolize the social group itself, and not eating it thus becomes a kind of gastronomic metaphor for exogamy,[4] or simply an expression of the structural workings of the ‘the savage mind’.[5] Rather than attempting to critique these various ideas, the purpose of this essay is merely to propose an alternative theory: That cultural proscriptions against eating particular animals represent a form of psychological coping mechanism that serves to dilute and displace individual moral responsibility for the killing and consumption of animals in general. Allow me to explain.

Humans are unusual, and possibly unique, among animals in their tendency to feel and express sympathy and compassion for the suffering of others, as well as guilt and remorse when they inflict harm without good cause. These emotions are arguably what make us moral beings.[6] The other great apes, in contrast, appear to be surprisingly indifferent to the plight of unrelated conspecifics and, as far as anyone knows, they are entirely unmoved by the suffering of other species. According to Franz De Waal, human sympathy for other animals, “is a concern without precedent in nature,” a view he reinforces by pointing to chimpanzees, our nearest living relatives, who appear to have no compunctions whatsoever about tearing the limbs and flesh from prey animals, such as Colobus monkeys, while their victims are still very much alive and screaming.[7] Human hunter-gatherers, in contrast, appear to be almost obsessively concerned about the possible moral repercussions of killing and eating their fellow animals.

The Koyukon of Alaska provide a textbook example of this kind of obsessiveness. According to one account, the Koyukon believe that all animals have spirits that are, “aware and watchful of people’s behavior, and which can take revenge for offenses against their material aspects…. The offender (or a near relative) may be struck with illness, even death for a severe misdeed; or he may suffer bad luck in taking that species for a time ranging from several months to many years.”[8] To obviate these risks, the Koyukon observe a prodigious array of regulations and rituals that appear specifically designed to win the animal’s approval and deflect its ire. Hunters, for example, never boast about their hunting exploits; gestures of respect are made toward animals killed or caught in traps, and great pains are taken to avoid wasting meat or other animal products. Wounded animals are doggedly pursued regardless of the time and effort involved, and hunters are genuinely upset if one cannot be found. Even the unusable remains of slain animals, such as bones, are treated respectfully, and may be burned or deposited in remote places where they will not be disturbed.

Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, this sort of zoocentric sympathy looks initially like a mistake—something that evolved in the context of human social relationships but which is then accidentally misapplied to other species. It is, after all, difficult to imagine what adaptive benefits human hunters could derive from sympathizing with their prey, or from feeling remorse about killing and eating them. Yet this is precisely what the archaeologist, Steven Mithen, argues for in his book, The Prehistory of the Mind. According to Mithen, sometime around the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition roughly 40,000 years ago, humans developed a specialized extension of reflexive consciousness[9] (or theory of mind) that he calls “anthropomorphic thinking” which enabled them (and us) to use self-knowledge—knowledge of what it is like to be living, sentient creature—to infer comparable mental states in other species.[10]

Although originally a by-product of reflexive consciousness, Mithen believes that anthropomorphic thinking acquired an evolutionary life of its own because individuals possessing this ability would have been far more effective as hunters than those who lacked it. To be a successful hunter, one needs to become a sort of natural ethologist who knows where the animal is likely to be at any given time, what kind of food it eats, where it sleeps and has its territory, when it migrates and breeds, and how it can best be approached without provoking instantaneous flight or aggression. Hunters must also be sensitive of the animal’s sensory capacities since, more often than not, these will be greatly superior to his own. In addition to using straightforward factual information of this kind, the most successful hunters must also learn to think like their prey—to be able to identify with the animal so closely that they can, so to speak, enter its mind and imagine how it sees the world. Clearly, attaining this level of personal identification and empathy with an animal requires not only having a theory of mind but also the ability to infer that nonhumans think, feel and act much as humans do.

Prior to the emergence of this specialized cognitive ability, it seems reasonable to assume that our ancestors felt no more qualms about killing and eating other animals than a cat does with a mouse, or a chimpanzee does with a colobus monkey. But once people began to anthropomorphize animals and think about them in human terms, they became to some extent bound by essentially the same code of morality that proscribes murder or cannibalism. Apart from a few exceptional cases,[11] zoocentric sympathy has not prevented humans from continuing to exploit other animals for food, but it has generated a corresponding need for coping strategies that serve to absolve or exonerate us of what Joseph Campbell once called, “the primordial guilt of life that lives on life.”[12] Hunting and gathering peoples have developed an immense cultural repertoire of techniques to alleviate the burden of guilt that attends the killing and consumption of other animals. Space constraints prevent an exhaustive review of this material so, instead, I will focus on just two well-known examples, totemism and guardian spirit belief, both of which are associated with elaborate taboos related to killing animals and consuming their flesh.

Among so-called totemic societies, affinity for particular animals is determined either by the kinship group or clan into which a person is born, or it may depend on some accidental influence of local geography. For instance, in the mythology of the Aranda people of central Australia, ancestral totemic spirits, usually represented as animals, entered the landscape at particular locations (called nanjas) during the primordial ‘dream-time’. As a result, every natural landmark is imbued with its own spirits who are able to extricate themselves unpredictably in order to enter the bodies of women and generate children. A woman who first realizes she is pregnant near, say, a kangaroo nanja therefore gives birth to a kangaroo child, or at least a child whose totem henceforth will be kangaroos.[13]

Regardless of whether the totem is acquired through genealogy or accidents of birth, members of the same totemic group have special obligations towards the particular species of animal with which they are affiliated. In the majority of cases this involves an absolute taboo on the killing or consumption of the totemic animal. In others, the proscription is partial. Among the Aranda, each person regards his totem species as essentially the same as himself but he is not entirely forbidden to eat it. On the contrary, he is more or less obliged to eat a little of it from time to time, although never the best part. Members of the Emu Clan, for example, avoid eating the animal’s fat, as this is apparently considered to be the most delicious portion of an emu. Totemic clansmen also regulate the hunting and consumption of their totem by other members of the tribe. Through the performance of periodic ceremonies, the male members of the clan are expected to ensure that their totem species continues to flourish and reproduce, in much the same way that a shepherd is held responsible for the health and productivity of his sheep. The Aranda believe that this power to influence the fertility of the totem, and hence the continuity of the food supply, would vanish if they ate the animal without restraint. But they also believe that not eating the totem at all would have the same dire consequences as eating too freely.

At first sight, the partial or total embargo on the hunting and consumption of the totem would appear to be singularly maladaptive. After all, in a world of periodic food shortages, it would seem nonsensical for anyone to deliberately abstain from eating any potential food item, especially something as large and nutritious as an emu. On the other hand, if only one or two species are prohibited, then, by definition, all of the rest are fair game. And this may be one of the great benefits of the totemic system. Without it, every hunter without exception would be required to shoulder the moral responsibility for every animal he kills or eats. For the totemist, however, all of this responsibility is concentrated on just one species while the remainder can be slaughtered and consumed with virtual impunity; without any of the attendant risks of spiritual retribution. Seen in this light, totemism is a remarkably efficient and practical system for dividing up both the natural world and each individual’s moral obligations towards it. At birth, each person either inherits or is randomly assigned one small portion of this world towards which he or she is required to behave with scrupulous respect and consideration. And in return for keeping faith with the totem, that person effectively acquires a “permit” to kill and eat everything else with a clear conscience. In addition to drastically reducing the number of species that require special consideration, the clan system found in many totemic societies also allows individuals to share their particular responsibilities with others. This serves to further dilute each clan-member’s personal burden of guilt, and it also means that the clan as a whole shares the blame if their totem—upon which other members of the community depend for food—becomes rare or difficult to obtain.

With its characteristically clan-based social organization, totemism provides a distinctively communal solution to the hunter’s moral dilemma. Other hunter-gatherer groups, especially those of North America and northern Eurasia, opted for a more individualistic solution to the same problem. Among these cultures the concept of individual “guardian spirits” is central. Among the Ojibway, the Native Americans of Minnesota and Wisconsin, these spirits were known as manito, and were usually represented as the spiritual prototypes of particular animals. Real animals were regarded as ‘honored servants’ of their respective manito, and one such spirit apparently presided over and represented all of the earthly members of a species. Animals were also viewed as temporary incarnations of each manito who sent them out periodically to be killed by favored hunters and fishermen. For this reason, hunters invariably performed deferential rituals upon killing an animal, so that its ‘essence’ would return to the manito homeland with a favorable account of its treatment.[14]

The ambition of every self-respecting Ojibway hunter was to secure the personal goodwill and assistance of at least one of these spirits. Like many other Native American tribes, the Ojibway were also organized into totemic clans, but although it was considered fortunate to have the totem animal as one’s guardian spirit, such an outcome was by no means a foregone conclusion. Instead, the acquisition of guardian spirits was nearly always achieved by gaining access to their supernatural home through the medium of dreams or visions. The method for obtaining such visions varied from group to group, but it usually involved some form of physical ordeal. Plains Indians, such as the Cheyenne and Dakota Sioux pursued visions through extremes of self-mutilation and torture. Aspiring visionaries were known to chop off their own fingers or to tear out thongs inserted into their own flesh. The object in such cases was apparently to arouse the pity or sympathy of the spirits so that they would feel obliged to respond. Prolonged bouts of dancing and singing were also widely practiced, as was the smoking or consumption of psychotropic drugs. Many tribes also emphasized physical purity. Vision-seekers adopted strict dietary regimes, practiced sexual abstinence, purged themselves with medicines, took frequent sweat baths, and plunged into icy lakes or streams.[15] Among the Ojibway, young men at puberty were expected to isolate themselves in the forest and endure long periods of fasting, sleeplessness and eventual delirium in an effort to obtain visions. Those who were successful experienced vivid hallucinations in which their ‘souls’ entered the spirit realm where they encountered one or more animal guardian spirits who offered their future patronage and protection in return for a variety of ritual obligations. Guardian spirits also imposed strict dietary taboos on their protégés, although, compared with totemism, the rules governing such prohibitions were relatively idiosyncratic.

In many of these societies it was considered virtual suicide to injure, kill or eat any member of the same species as one’s guardian spirit. It could result in the withdrawal of spiritual patronage and cause general misfortune, illness, or even death. On the other hand, and in an equally large number of cases, the guardian spirit specifically awarded its protégé the right and authority to kill members of its own species. As in Aranda totemism, hunters were also expected to eat at least some of the flesh of their guardian species, but only small amounts and only in the context of ritual feasts. Among the Ojibway, both of these seemingly antithetical attitudes coexisted. A hunter who acquired the patronage of a fur-bearing manito, such as beaver or lynx, for instance, would consider himself fortunate because the spirit would ensure that he became a successful trapper of these animals. On the other hand, some Ojibway were extremely reluctant to eat the flesh of their guardian animal, claiming that it made them sick. Some manito, especially those associated with water, such as sturgeon, were unusually inconsiderate. While conferring on their protégés exceptional prowess in catching fish, they would sometimes impose a simultaneous injunction against eating them.

Although more individualistic in flavor, the guardian spirit phenomenon clearly shares many features with totemism. In some cases it is difficult to discern a clear boundary between the two systems.[16] As in totemism, animals are the primary objects of ritual concern, the natural world is likewise divided up into separate classes of sentient beings, and each individual hunter focuses the bulk of his attention and moral responsibilities on only one or a few of these entities. In some cases, this leads him to abstain entirely from killing and eating the chosen species, while in others the order is reversed. Instead of avoiding injury to the guardian animal, the hunter believes that he has been given a personal license to kill it with impunity. Either way, the net effect on the hunter is to encourage him to specialize—to make him less likely to embark on morally and spiritually risky attempts to kill species for which he does not possess the necessary “permits”. Whichever regulation the hunter adopts, however, guardian spirit belief, and all the ritual trappings associated with it, appears to be yet another way for the hunter to expiate or diffuse the individual burden of guilt associated with killing animals.

In summary, anthropomorphic thinking and its corollary, zoocentric sympathy, have a tendency to generate moral anxiety among people who kill animals or eat their flesh. Among hunting peoples, for whom killing and eating animals is largely obligatory, religious ideologies such as totemism and guardian spirit belief provide cultural mechanisms for alleviating some of this anxiety by focusing each individual’s moral obligations on only one or at most a small subset of the available edible fauna. The determination of which animal to focus on is also essentially random and somewhat arbitrary, although large and economically important species seem to attract more attention than small, unimportant ones. While adherence to such ideologies generally requires either partial or total abstention from the use of the chosen animal as food, it simultaneously has the advantage of enabling the person to hunt and eat other animals without moral limitations.

Whether meat taboos have the same origin in pastoral, agricultural or urban societies that do not subsist by hunting is a question beyond the scope of the current essay, but I see no obvious reason to think otherwise. Zoocentric sympathy would appear to be just as useful in the management and husbandry of captive or domestic animals as it is in the realm of hunting, and the degree of social intimacy that often exists between herdsmen and their charges would tend to imply that the moral dilemma attending the slaughter and consumption of these animals might be even more acute.[17]

Finally, as a representative of meat-eating, urban humanity, I sometimes wonder whether all the care and attention I lavish on my pet dog and cat—not to mention my refusal to countenance eating them under any circumstances—might not also represent a kind of moral atonement; a way of compensating one group of animals for the sins I commit against others. Certainly, over the years, I have lost count of the number of pet owners I have met who claim to be “animal lovers” despite being willing to tuck into rare steaks, pork chops, or plates of chicken wings with undisguised gusto. Perhaps, in addition to their other social functions, pet animals have become the modern equivalents of guardian spirits and neo-totems whose ‘sacred’ status now gives us a psychological license to devour their less fortunate brethren.


[1] Fessler, DMT and Navarette, CD. 2003. Meat is good to taboo: Dietary proscriptions as a product of the interaction of psychological mechanisms and social processes. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 3: 1-40.

[2] Harris, M. 1985. Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster. Ross, EB. 1978. Food taboos, diet, and hunting strategy: The adapation to animals in Amazon cultural ecology. Current Anthropology, 19: 1-36.

[3] Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[4] Radcliffe-Brown, AR. 1922. The Andaman Islanders: A Study in Social Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Lévi-Strauss, C. 1963. Totemism. Poston: Beacon Press.

[6] Wright, J. 1994. The Moral Animal. New York: Pantheon.

[7] De Waal, F. 1996. Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 84.

[8] Nelson, RK. 1986. A conservation ethic and environment: the Koyukon of Alaska. In: Resource Managers: North American and Australian Hunter-gatherers, eds. N.M. Williams & E.S. Hunn, pp. 211-228. Canberra, Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

[9] Humphrey, NS. Consciousness Regained. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[10] Mithen, S. 1996. The Prehistory of the Mind. London, Thames & Hudson.

[11] E.g. Jainism and some of the yogic branches of Hinduism.

[12] Campbell, J. 1984. The Way of the Animal Powers. New York: Times Books.

[13] Spencer, B & Gillen, FJ. 1904. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. London: McMillan & Co., Ltd.

[14] Landes, R. 1968. Ojibwa Religion and the Midéwiwin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

[15] Benedict, RF. 1929. The concept of the guardian spirit in North America. Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association, 29, 3-93

[16] Goldenweiser, A. 1910. Totemism, an analytical study. Journal of American Folklore, 23:

[17] Ingold, T. 1994. From trust to domination: an alternative history of human-animal relations. In Animals & Human Society: Changing Perspectives, eds. A. Manning & J.A. Serpell, pp. 1-22. London: Routledge.

20 comments to One Man’s Meat: Further Thoughts on the Evolution of Animal Food Taboos

  • Serpell’s fine essay raises many important issues in Anthrozoology, and I want to thank On the Human for inviting me to comment. At the start of his discussion, Serpell acknowledges that the many taboos relating to meat may be explained in alternative ways, and that the various explanations are not necessarily incompatible, but he emphasizes their use in dealing with guilt about killing animals. Today, outside of poorer countries, we now take for granted a long life, safety from large predators, and a constant supply of food. We can maintain an illusion of having emancipated ourselves from the cycles of organic material, yet we otherwise have hardly any psychological defenses against the fear of death. For these and other reasons, we may be especially susceptible to feelings of guilt about killing animals for food, and could be projecting that guilt on to other eras and cultures.

    First of all, I question whether humans are unique in their ability to empathize with other animals, specifically with those they hunt. Several predators such as wolves, dolphins, and ravens hunt cooperatively, in a way that at least suggests that they may be able to project themselves into the minds of prey. As evidence to the contrary, Serpell points out that cats and great apes, for example, seem to show no concern about causing pain to their victims.

    Empathy, however, may not always be limited to, or even involve, the avoidance of causing pain. Claims of utilitarians to the contrary, people actively seek out pain in many situations, for example extreme sports, war, initiations, and martyrdom. Empathy did not prevent people from attending grisly public executions in early modern times, and it does not prevent them from loving horror movies today. This behavior may seem paradoxical, but it is not necessarily a distortion of the natural order, and we should consider the possibility that animals may at times act in analogous ways. The wolf, for example, might feel the pain of the elk it kills, yet find that invigorating. Furthermore, while they often cling to life very tenaciously, people can welcome death as deliverance from care, transition to a better world, conclusion of a destiny, an adventure, or for many other reasons. Sacrificing our lives is such a temptation that our society has imposed a severe taboo against suicide. Perhaps many animals, for example whales that beach themselves, are drawn to this sort of sacrifice as well.

    Members of indigenous hunting societies such as the Plains Indians believe that animals willingly sacrifice themselves to hunters, in part out of a covenant with the hunter and his tribe. The impression that animals offer themselves is not confined to indigenous societies or to hunters. According to Porcher, traditional farmers as well feel that their animals let them know when the time for death has arrived. If this perception is incorrect, then it may be true, as Serpell maintains, that the hunters and farmers are giving a rationalization for killing. If, on the other hand, the perception is correct, then relatively little guilt about taking life is called for.

    Burkert and Trout both give numerous examples of animal sacrificing themselves to predators. It is most frequently seen when one bird or pig, particularly a mother, exposes herself to predators in order to distract them from her young. A daddy longlegs will leave behind a limb to conciliate a predator, while many reptiles will offer part of their tails. When a motive is not so obvious, the sacrifice may not be so easy to recognize. Creatures in the wild live a life of perpetual insecurity, in which death from what we sometimes call “natural causes” is unknown. They do, to an extent, have the privilege of choosing the time of their death, and I find it easy to imagine that they may at times allow themselves to be taken as prey for a variety of reasons including weariness, curiosity, and empathy with predators.

    Dogs have an ability to read human moods and gestures that can at times seem almost uncanny. Chimpanzees are generally unable to comprehend what humans intend by pointing, yet dogs realize this without being taught. This ability probably comes from a long period in which wolves, their ancestors, were the predators and hominids and anatomically modern humans were the prey. Wolves watched us closely, and learned to anticipate how and when we were likely to run or fight. In his history of religious ideas, Eliade proposed that “the mystical solidarity of predator and prey” was the foundation of religion, and something of the sort, for example, seems to be recalled in the Eucharist.

    In summary, we should consider the possibility that at least some behaviors that appear as rationalizations for killing may in fact be part of the cultivation of an intimate relationship with other animals, which involve killing but are not confined to it.


    Burkert, Walter. The Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998.

    Eliade, Mircea. History of Religious Ideas. Trans. Willard R. Trask. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

    Porcher, Jocelyne. Vivre Avec Les Animaux: Une Utopie Pour Le Xxxe Siècle. Paris: Éditions la Découverte/M.A.U.S.S., 2011.

    Trout, Paul A. Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination. Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY, 2011.

  • At the end of this marvelous essay Serpell makes the intriguing suggestion that people may seek to compensate for the sin of killing animals for food by devoting themselves to domestic pets. So, then the question arises: might people compensate in the same way for the sin of killing fellow humans? In a letter to The Spectator, 18 May 1945, the Nobel Laureate A.V.Hill, drew attention to the German Nazis’ unexpected concern for animal welfare:

    “One of the first legislative acts of the Third Reich was to issue an Animal Protection Law dated 24 November 1933, and signed hy Hitler himself. The following details of it supply an ironic comment on recent revelations of Nazi cruelty.
    Section I stated:
    1. It shall be prohibited unnecessarily to torture or brutally to ill-treat an animal.
    2.To torture an animal is to cause it prolonged or repeated pain or suffering; the pain inflicted is deemed unnecessary when it serves no reasonably justifiable purpose. To ill-treat an animal means to cause it pain. Ill-treatment is deemed brutal when it is inspired by a lack of feeling.
    Among the prohibitions of Section II were the following small-scale models perhaps of the Nazi treatment of Jews, political opponents, foreign workers, and prisoners-of-war:
    1. By neglect, to inflict pain or injury in the maintenance, care, housing, or transport of animals.
    2. To use an animal wantonly for the performance of work which is obviously beyond its strength, or which is calculated to cause it pain, or for which its condition renders it unfit.
    3.To abandon one’s own domestic animal with the object of getting rid of it.
    4. To sharpen or test the keenness of dogs by using cats, foxcubs, or other animals for the purpose.
    In Section III strict regulation was provided of the use of living animals for purposes of research. Goring was a lover of dogs and may have induced his master to lump scientific research and cruelty to animals together.
    In Section IV severe penalties of fine and imprisonment were prescribed for torturing or ill-treating an animal, or for performing experiments on living animals for purposes of research without the necessary license. One may recall that Al Capone was finally jailed in San Francisco Bay for failure to pay income tax. If, under German law, men may claim the same rights as animals, then tens of thousands of Nazi criminals could be severely punished under Hitler’s own Animal Protection Law of 1933.”

  • Thanks for a stimulating and wide-ranging essay. I’ve always wondered why people form species boundaries concerning WHO, not what, winds up in their mouth as an unnecessary meal — Is eating a cow or a pig different from eating a dog or a cat? I don’t think it is — When people tell me they love other animals and then abuse them or allow them to be abused in myriad ways I always say “I’m glad they don’t love me.” The last paragraph of Prof. Serpell’s essay raises many important questions that really need to be studied as many vegetarians and vegans (I’m one of those!) lavish their companion animals with love and caring and don’t have to atone for their choices in food. My meal plan does not include other animals or animal products yet the many companion animals with whom I’ve lived and the innumerable others I’ve known always were treated with love, dignity, and respect. The “moral schizophrenia” and lame excuses people give for eating sentient beings other than their companion animals (including individuals who are also members of typical companion animal species) needs to be addressed as does their ability to live with such incredible inconsistencies. On countless occasions I’ve heard people say “Oh I know they suffer but I love my steak” — When I ask people if they’d let their companion dog go to a factory farm they’re incredulous and say “no”. And when I ask them why not they fumble here and there and many simply say “Well, you know why.” and I say I sort of do but really don’t, tell me more. The same goes for people who do horrific things to dogs or cats in a laboratory and then go home and lavish their companion dog or cat with love and affection and tell others how emotional and smart they are. Understanding how these inconsistent attitudes and actions develop will really help us come to terms with who we are and who other beings are and hopefully foster much more coexistence and meaningful cross-species empathy in the future. One more brief comment. Following up on Prof. Sax’s comment, we do know empathy has evolved in many nonhuman species including mice and chickens and that humans are not unique in the empathy arena.

  • We should remember that the sharp distinction between pets on the one hand and livestock or work animals on the other is historically recent. In medieval and early modern peasant culture, for example, pigs were treated as pets, allowed to run fairly freely, and fed scraps from the table. They were then ceremoniously slaughtered before feast days, and the entire family was expected to be present to pay respects. Dogs, kept mostly by the nobility, were expected to participate in the hunt or perform other tasks.

    If, as Serpell indicates, our pet keeping today is a defense against guilt, then what caused it to become so widespread in the last few centuries? Have our feelings of guilt increased? If so, why? If not, how did people deal with the guilt in previous eras?

  • Jennifer Beane

    In response to Serpell’s statement: “Finally, as a representative of meat-eating, urban humanity, I sometimes wonder whether all the care and attention I lavish on my pet dog and cat—not to mention my refusal to countenance eating them under any circumstances—might not also represent a kind of moral atonement; a way of compensating one group of animals for the sins I commit against others… Perhaps, in addition to their other social functions, pet animals have become the modern equivalents of guardian spirits and neo-totems whose ‘sacred’ status now gives us a psychological license to devour their less fortunate brethren.”

    I think the correlation of our pets becoming the modern equivalent of guardian spirits and neo-totems is entirely extrapolated. Our pets today are members of our families not guardians or totems we use to compensate for eating other animals. In a recent online survey by Kelton Research, 81% of those surveyed consider their dogs to be true family members, equal in status to children (

    Pets are regarded of members of the family and treated almost as equals. In my family, our dogs receive Christmas presents, have their own beds, and are expected to live by some of the same rules as my younger siblings. I do not believe that having a dog and caring for it as a pet or member of your family is equivalent of having a totem. I do not think that because I have a dog and would never eat it, I have a right to eat all other animals. Other parts of the world consume dogs as a delicacy and meat source, but this is regarded as cultural and geographical trend (a taboo if you will). I do not think it is necessarily wrong to eat dogs, but eating members of my family would be.

    On another note, a question that I have been debating is whether or not we should be eating meat in the first place. A common response to humans eating meat is that the process of evolution has placed humans in a position to be able to use all other weaker animals at our discretion; therefore we should eat meat. We do not consider a tiger killing a deer to be wrong because it is a survival mechanism and instinctual. But if we consider that higher beings should be able to kill weaker or lower beings then in the future when machines become higher beings than humans, they should be able to kill us without penalty. This becomes a dangerous way of thought.

    Another claim is that human teeth are made to eat meat. An objection to this would be that this allows for humans eating other humans because they are meat. Humans eating other humans are regarded as morally wrong and as cannibalistic murders, so the basis of thinking that we are made to eat meat because of teeth is a dangerous claim.

    Regan argues that non-human animals bear moral rights. He says that each human has a life that matters to itself or is a “subject-of-a-life.” If this is the true, to be consistent we must ascribe inherent value, and hence moral rights, to all “subjects-of-a-life,” whether human or non-human. This gives animals moral rights, thus making it morally wrong to kill and consume them.

    Whether or not it is morally right to eat animals, we must consider why we protect some species. My “acceptable” animals to eat are cattle, chicken, turkey, and swine. I can not explain my choices other than these are the most accessible animals to eat. My “protected” animals are everything else. I simply made these choices because this is what I have grown up eating. I have attempted to become a vegetarian multiple times because I do not agree with inflicting harm to any animal, but have failed due to the accessibility of meat. However, I do not enjoy eating meat and would easily choose a veggie burger over a hamburger. My compensating mechanism is to limit the intake of meat. Anyone that has ever witnessed the slaughter of an animal should agree they feel pain and suffer during this procedure no matter how quick it is. In our society, meat is easily accessible and animal products are in everything. If society were to change (a meat scarcity, parasites, a virus affecting livestock palatability, etc.), I do believe most people would choose not to eat animals.

    In today’s society, our pets are not “modern equivalents of guardian spirits and neo-totems whose ‘sacred’ status now gives us a psychological license to devour their less fortunate brethren.” They are simply regarded as members of our family. They is no way make it right to eat other animals or have a “license to devour” others. We eat other animals because our society influences us to do so.

  • Lisa D'Costa and Kristin Cochran

    Moral standing is given by the people around the individual or animal in question. These tribes that were mentioned in the article all gave certain animals moral superiority over other less important animals. These valued animals were given moral superiority because there were some important features that these animals encompassed. These features can include economic, nutritional, and ecological value. Many times these species would be better used by humans if they were no longer living and highly prized by tribesmen. So to prevent hunters from depleting the population because of high demand for the dead animals, there needed to be some kind of control over the humans, which took the form of religion. Zoocentric sympathy does not only arise from trying to validate killing animals but also as a means to practice sustainable hunting.

    Serpell discusses in his article a “coping mechanism,” how we give moral standing to a select few animals to relieve our guilt about killing other animals.The coping mechanism that Serpell introduces in the article is not the only reason that zoocentric sympathy arises. It also comes from a mechanism needed to promote sustainability. In all of the cases above, we see that certain animals are given superior status than other less valued animals, which does not come entirely from moral reasons. During these times when the tribes were present, resources were scarce and uncertain, especially food. Totemism promoted sustainability because a valued animal was eaten in moderation. In many societies such as the Aranda, the hunter had the responsibility to protect his totem animal, and in return for the protection, they were allowed to hunt the animal. This acts as a form of regulation, ensuring that their food supply would remain constant. It prevented the under- and over-consumption of the species and regulated population.

    Survival was the key priority during this period; the sense of self-preservation led tribal members to do things that would benefit themselves but hurt the overall clan or tribe. If there was no religion or beliefs, they would be more self-centered. Their actions could possibly include over-hunting the animal population, which would hurt future generations because it would cause a food shortage. A religion was a means to objectify a sense of community and loyalty to their race for the prosperity of their tribe. It also meant that they would have a food supply if something caused the majority of the species to die out due to disease or natural disasters. The punishments told to them by their beliefs were just a way of deterring them from being more individualistic.

    For tribes to survive, it was necessary for the people to act in concert with each other. If humans worked as individuals and looked out only for their self-interests, the human race would not survive. Innately, the idea of zoocentric sympathy was formed to promote the prosperity of the human race. As Serpell mentioned, we need zoocentric sympathy to become better hunters because we need to understand animals better. If the humans had a better understanding of the animals, it would prevent them from killing more than they needed because they are empathetic toward them.

    The reason that humans developed zoocentric sympathy whereas animals did not can be related to the realization of a future time. Humans have a better understanding of the future, whereas animals have an instinctual consciousness about the near future. Animals’ decisions for the future are based on instinct. This can been seen when salmon spawn because they go back to the river they were born in. They do not choose a new location because it would be better for their offspring and future generations; they go back to the old location of their birth because it is an innate judgement. Another example is the seasonal migration of birds, when they fly south for the winter. Using their instincts, they are able to determine their orientation and correctly choose their direction. Mammals such as foxes care for their young with the knowledge that their babies will grow up and be able to support themselves in the wild; however, they do not think long-term beyond that generation.

    Humans think about the future in longer terms. For example, when a family has a baby, they will often set up a college fund so the child will have money to attend college eighteen years in the future. Retirement funds are used along the same lines; they are formed in preparation for the very long term future. These people also realize that money unspent during their lives can be used to help their family through inheritance or others through donations. They also think about future generations and other aspects of the future such as future food supplies and environmental conditions. When the head family member decides to move to another country, such as America, he realizes his freedom, but also the freedom and opportunities for his children and his children’s children. Animals are more focused on themselves, their immediate survival, and the aspects more closely related to them.

  • First of all, I would like to add a quick word about why I am not a vegan. As we replace leather with plastic, meat with in vitro flesh, milk with soymilk, wool and silk with synthetic fabrics, and manure with chemical fertilizer, horses with motorcycles, and pets with tomagatchis, and predator insects with sprays, we will increasingly isolate ourselves from natural cycles and eventually from animals themselves. One eventual result would likely be even more aggressive intervention in natural process, and accelerated destruction of habitat. The use of animal products, with all the ambiguities and even “guilt” that it may entail, still keeps us at least aware of our place in the circulation of organic material, and forces us to be cognizant of other creatures.

    That said, I would add that our division of animals into meat, work animals, and pets is actually only one of many that we impose on the natural world, which, for all our intellectual sophistication in the twenty-first century, remain almost impossible to explain. Perhaps the foremost of these in the division into so-called “higher” and “lower” animals, which has been astutely analyzed by Arthur O. Lovejoy in his classic The Great Chain of Being and by Stephen J. Gould in numerous publications. All sorts of attempts have been made to correlate this fuzzy concept with intricate empirical tests, but the very complexity of such assessments, in my opinion, exposes them as an arbitrary rationalization.

    Nevertheless, given that this distinction pervades Western culture, and that we tend to rank animals by their position on a putative “food chain,” one might expect food animals to be those that we consider “lower,” but this is not the case. We could get our protein largely from insects and/or reptiles, and some cultures do. Perhaps that might even diminish our sense of guilt, but these foods are rather strictly taboo in the West. Paradoxically, most of our food animals – particularly pigs, sheep and cattle – are ones we consider “higher” on the so-called “scale of evolution.”

    To add to the paradox, we often anthropomorphize food animals, which are frequently shown clothed and given human speech in advertisements and in books for children. This is not something that one would expect if we were trying to allay feelings of guilt. Frankly, I find this phenomenon baffling. But it does suggest to me that eating these animals reflects a longing, however twisted this may have become, to re-establish a bond with them.

  • Before commenting on James Serpell’s fascinating conjectures on the origins of meat taboos, I would like to make a few general observations on cultural rules prohibiting the consumption of edible forms of flesh. As Serpell points out, food taboos often appear irrational and inexplicably random in the form they take across cultures. Examples include taboos against eating the flesh of fish among desert-living peoples where fish are rare or non-existent. For the most part, it has been difficult to empirically link specific meat taboos with adaptive advantages. (An interesting exception is a recent study which found that culturally transmitted taboos against the consumption of certain fish species by women on the island of Fiji considerably reduced their chances of food poisoning during pregnancy and breastfeeding (Henrich & Henrich, 2010). In addition, food taboos can change surprisingly rapidly. Among the Tharu people of Nepal, for instance, buffalo meat shifted from being tabooed to edible in a mere 12 years (McDonaugh, 2007). Finally, apparently arbitrary cultural differences in avoidances of perfectly edible foods are not restricted to humans. Bush pigs, for example, are a commonly hunted and eaten by chimpanzees at Gombe but, for no obvious ecological reason, they are not consumed by chimpanzees in the Taï Forest of the Côte d’Ivoire (Boesch & Boesch, 1989).

    Serpell makes the innovative suggestion that the origin of meat taboos lies in their ability to assuage the guilt that hunter-gatherers experienced when killing other creatures. He argues that elevating a few species to the status of totemic spirits absolved hunters of guilt that they experienced when killing other species. At the heart of this argument is Serpell’s contention that hunting-related guilt comes with the territory in a species with a large brain and, concomitantly, a theory of mind. He believes that because humans are natural anthropomorphizers, hunters empathize with their prey, and, inevitably, the result is guilt. Serpell first made this argument 25 years ago in his ground breaking book In the Company of Animals. I found his logic compelling then, and I still do.

    I am not, however, sold on the extension of this idea to the origin of meat taboos. As Serpell documents, there are many examples in the anthropological literature of hunter-gatherer cultures which give totemic status to a few species and which are then not considered fit to eat. I am not, however, convinced that the elevation of a species into a cultural totem coupled with the fact that they are considered inedible is evidence that meat taboos function as guilt absolvers.

    While the theory is plausible, is it testable? Serpell’s support for his argument consists of anecdotal evidence drawn from a handful of hunter-gatherer cultures. I suggest that this hypothesis calls for more stringent evidence. Fessler and Navarrete (2003), for example, tested their theory that food taboos were a pathogen avoidance mechanism by comparing the relative frequency of taboos across 78 cultures. They found 85% of taboos were to forms of animal flesh, the foods most likely to carry pathogens, as opposed to 15% for all other types of foods. (This finding, however, is also consistent with Serpell’s theory.) A similar empirical approach might provide support for Serpell’s hypothesized link between food taboos and hunter’s remorse. For example, a systematic assessment of the anthropological literature might reveal a correlation between the presence, frequency, and strictness of meat taboos and the degree that a culture relies on subsistence hunting to meet their nutritional requirements.

    Among the most intriguing of Serpell’s conjectures is his suggestion that in modern societies, pets may have replaced totemic animals as guilt absolvers — that by lavishing love on the dogs and cats in our homes we assuage the guilt associated with the consumption of creatures we define as food rather than friends. While not the central focus of his essay, this idea is amenable to empirical verification. If Serpell is correct, one might predict that vegetarians, because they presumably experience less meat remorse, would have less need to own pets. In addition, aspects of pet ownerships (e.g., the amount of money spent on pets, individual differences in attachment to pets) should be positively correlated with meat consumption. (My guess is that these are not true.)

    Despite my desire for empirical evidence to support Serpell’s theory that the origin of meat taboos lies in carnivory-related guilt, the truth is that I prefer interesting and creative ideas to boring ones, even though they may be hard to verify. And, as is usually the case with Serpell’s work, this theory falls into the creative and interesting category.


    Boesch, C. and Boesch, H. 1989. Hunting behavior of wild chimpanzees in the Taï National Park. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 78: 547-573.

    Fessler, DMT and Navarette, CD. 2003. Meat is good to taboo: Dietary proscriptions as a product of the interaction of psychological mechanisms and social processes. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 3: 1-40.

    Henrich, J and Henrich, N. 2010. The evolution of cultural adaptations:
    Fijian food taboos protect against dangerous marine toxins. Proceedings of the Royal Society (B). doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1191

    McDonaugh, C. 1997. Breaking the rules: Changes in food acceptability among the Tharu of Nepal. In Food Preferences and Taste: Continuity and Change, ed. H. Macbeth, pp. 155-166. Oxford, UK: Berghahn Books.

    Serpell, J. A. 1996. In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2nd edition).

  • What fascinates me about Serpell’s article as well as the responses so far is that they pay little if any attention to the distinction between moral license and what Serpell calls “psychological license.” As it happens, I myself am quite happy to do away with moral categories entirely. However, the distinction between the (motivational) “is” and the (moral) “ought” should at least be noted rather than glossed over; for otherwise these two are liable to be conflated, with potentially dire consequences.

    Thus, for example, if pet-ownership were taken to license meat-eating morally, then people who were morally motivated would have an added dollop of motivation added to their nonmoral motivation to eat meat; and hence nonhuman animals would be that much more likely to be eaten by human beings. But if people already felt guilty about their complicity in the killing of animals for food, then they would be even more in the wrong (by their own lights) than they were to begin with. That seems to me hardly a strategy for psychological peace, not to mention, avoiding wrong-doing (if there really is such a thing beyond the merely psychological sense of it).

    Furthermore, by failing to draw the distinction between feeling guilty and being guilty, or feeling licensed to eat meat and its in fact being morally permissible to eat meat, Serpell et al. end up in a twilight zone of moral discourse and thinking, where at one and the same time they speak as if everything moral is reducible to psychological motives that can be explained without remainder by evolutionary, cultural, and other empirical means, but also assume that some things really are right or wrong. This leads to utter confusion, with some then feeling obliged to admit their own moral hypocrisy whenever their contingent motives happen to diverge from what they believe morally, and others blithely letting the moral chips fall where they may based on their contingent motives.

    My own suggestion is that we be upfront about the psychology/morality distinction and then renounce the inherently moral as a fantasy that is fully explainable by the empirical. We will then be in a position to negotiate our way through the brave new amoral world, and the better for it, I say. Serpell’s guilt-hypothesis could form part of the total explanation, subject to Herzog’s apt suggestion for more rigorous testing. But however this particular hypothesis turns out, that would be the general way to go about figuring out not only why we behave in the ways we do but also why we have believed there is such a thing as morality and held the particular (and highly diversified) moral beliefs we do. Finally, I would be happy to see humanity choose a different basis altogether for decision-making, with moral injunctions and permissions going the way of scriptures and oracles.

  • Stuart A. Marks

    I write as someone who has wrestled with the topics discussed by James Serpell during my studies of hunters both here and abroad. I find his scholarship ‘creative and interesting’ (as does Hal Herzog), yet it raises more speculation about the “dead” (the silences) in his concise essay. Scholars seem most creative and persuasive when writing within their own disciplinary bubbles and experiences/experiments. Yet when their thoughts and bubbles confront the prickly and more expansive universe of other cultural (or disciplinary) perspectives, their proposals may be found speculative and incomplete. As someone with both training in anthropology and zoology, I offer these two examples from my long-term footprints on those shifting sands of studies on hunters and their prey. Both instances are observations about and with the Valley Bisa, whose current plight I attempted to describe earlier in this series.

    My first encounter with the Valley Bisa occurred over twelve months in 1966-67. One characteristic that attracted my attention then was that this ‘tribal’ group refused to consume the flesh of hippopotamus, a rather common species yet one which was consumed by their ethnic neighbors (Marks 1976: 78-80, 99-102) . This prohibition (read taboo) on hippo flesh I observed when a hippo was killed in a field (to protect their ‘properties’), the occasion became a unifying event for residents against those invited to butcher the carcass and consume it for themselves. These ‘others’ were a stronger ethnic group who had raided these Bisa in the past (for slaves and territory) and now (as possessors of some colonial education) were the teachers for their children and official interpreters for adults. Simultaneously and influenced by expat advisors, an expanded wildlife department under a newly independent government considered evicting the Valley Bisa and resettling them elsewhere. This eviction would allow this department to ‘control’ this terrain in its own image as it bordered three of its national parks, and would arrest the persistent ‘poaching’ therein. A survey at the time supported my observations about the local avoidance of hippo meat as 90 % (n=56) of adult men and 100% (n=91) women said they abstained from eating its flesh and gave their rationales for doing so. My conundrum began when I recalled that a century earlier, Portuguese traders noticed people, identified as Bisa, spearing hippos (for their meat and ivories) encamped along the Luangwa River. Even in 1967, some resident men, particularly the chief, told me previous generations ate hippo. Given this multiplicity of local explanations, I resolved the issue in my own mind by referencing materials relevant then in anthropology. Meanwhile in subsequent years, the government wildlife agency failed to generate the political momentum to remove the Valley Bisa away from ‘their’ national parks.

    When I returned for another year with the Valley Bisa in 1988-89, they were still in place, the national economy had declined as had residents’ welfare, the wildlife had decreased from the uncontrolled market in bush meat, and the reiterative and irregular rainfall produced alternatively droughts and floods that devastated their local cultivations. The resident population has increased slightly. The state had appropriated the wildlife to generate state revenues and initiated a repressive ‘anti-poaching’ regime employing local school leavers. Another survey during this year showed that a smaller percentage of adults maintained this abstention on hippo flesh. The figures for adults interviewed then were 61% (n=77) males and 89% (n=143) females. The majority of adults claiming to have eaten hippo were under 35 years of age (60% for men and 88% for women; the 35 yr marker was mine).

    Having spent additional months with the Valley Bisa since then, I can relate that the percentage of residents having tasted hippo has increased during their alternating lean and prosperous years of cultivation and that their neighboring hippo numbers have suffered serious losses. During this subsequent interval, many Valley Bisa converted en masse to Pentecostal and fundamental Christianity, active processes encouraging their rejection of earlier more provincial beliefs and behavior while offering a new slate of demons, explanations and presumptions. To further complicate this story, the Zambian Ministry of Health in September 2011 reported that further up the Luangwa River many hippos had died of anthrax and more than 278 humans (of a different ‘ethnicity’) were infected with this infectious disease. The Valley Bisa remained unaffected by this infection as my last visit was in October this year.

    Serpell is sensitive to hunters’ tasks and appears well- versed in some anthropological recordings of earlier ‘tribal’ hunters’ rationales for their successes and failures. I have found that the three generations of Valley Bisa hunters known to me were incredibly perceptive in their delicate maneuvers after their prey in the bush as well as in their fragile responsibilities to their fellows back in their villages. Yet these connections were not evidenced as ‘guilt’ as Serpell’s source suggests. Resident hunters’ concerns were unilaterally centered on the imagined activities of their relatives back at the village rather than on the anticipated deaths of the beasts being pursued afield. They expected that the prey always would be there for them to stalk. If their stalks failed, because of their intended quarry’s alertness, its collusion with other species, or weapon malfunction, then the fault lay not with the other mammals, whose death they pursued, but with what their kin back home were thinking or with what their guardian ancestor knew about the behavior of these descendants. In their idiom, the beast that needed pursuit was always found within the heart (or the liver) of their corporate or kinship structure—not within the domain of the other mammals on the ground.

    What sense can we realistically make of these observational and cultural threads drawn from another society’s recent history? Change remains a constant variable in what is acknowledged as ’knowledge’ within its particular time frame. Thus the frame of reference for the observational practices of anthropologists on others’ lives must be so referenced by their limitations. People and their circumstances change over time. An observer’s attempt to tie down the sources and resources by which another group speaks and uses materials to sustain themselves remains a challenging enterprise in the present and even more inchoate for those searching the past for origins. Thus, as Boris Sax, Hal Herzog, and Joel Marks remind, the prey, if not the prayers, of scholars remains incomplete and ‘open’ as this work is stimulated by further scholarship and the outcome of singular draws of the net of contemporary conventions.

  • James Serpell has written a thoughtful and interesting essay on why we differentiate among different species in terms of edibility and appropriate treatment. Though I agree that focusing on certain animals as requiring special treatment, even spoiling, may help humans deal with the guilt at killing animals, I am dubious that this guilt is the origin of all of the taboos, rituals, and other prescriptions on correct handling of various species. I have no evidence but I find it difficult to imagine archaic humans or even early modern humans felt guilt over killing animals they later ate.

    I think, therefore, that there may be an additional component to the origin of these rituals that Serpell hasn’t considered. Circumstances or behaviors that are dangerous — that put one at risk — are often surrounded by rituals which are an attempt to control the uncontrollable and unpredictable outcome of such behaviors. I would submit that any interaction with something that is highly desirable and prized is likely to be fraught with dangers that are real and tangible. Dependency upon certain species as food — as the needed antidote to starvation — certainly involves a considerable element of risk. If the dependent is consciously aware of the danger — of failure, of going hungry, of being injured in the process of obtaining the “prize”, of incurring jealousy within the group — then developing rituals to try to combat these dangers would seem logical and functional. Like the athlete who wears his lucky socks, the ritual may not have any tangible effect on the outcome of seeking the prize, other than increased confidence.

    By this line of argument, being grateful and respectful for success would seem to be a safeguard or an obeisance offered to the god or power (or …) who has granted success. In tangible reality, these rituals may in fact be more about the other humans in the group and their needs, wants, reactions than about any presumed deity.

    In 1964, Edmund Leach wrote a paper about animal categories and abuse that drew a parallel between the categories of sexual access and those of edibility. Although this classic article has been criticized, I continue to feel Leach made an important and valid point. Even as what is suitable for eating is regulated by rituals, laws, and so on, so is sexual access. Leach’s main point was that the distance from the actor (eater or sexual participant) increased, the suitability of access also increased until a distance was achieved that rendered the object too foreign, too wild, too unpredictable

    At the risk of oversimplifying Leach’s message, I will explain further. Sex (or marriage, depending upon what that means) is a dangerous situation that leaves one or both actors vulnerable to injury, whether social, financial, or physical. The individuals closest to the actor — his or her nuclear family — are taboo as sex partners; they are too closely identified with the self. Slightly more distant individuals, such as close cousins, clan sisters, and so on, can be bedded under controlled circumstances. The ideal sexual partner is a neighbor, someone familiar, someone like the actor’s family, but not kin. Those who are still more distant can be bedded with still more prohibitions and cautions. Foreigners, wild tribes, savages and the like are again prohibited.

    Where Leach’s brilliance shines is in recognizing that a similar set of prohibitions pertains to edibility. The animals closest to us are family: our pets. They literally cohabit with us and are both physically and emotionally close to us. Dogs and cats, the two most common pets, were domesticated to be our working partners: essentially much the same as or family. Dogs were, I believe, domesticated as hunting partners; cats were hunters who worked for us but rarely with us. (This is not the place to go into the reciprocity involved in domestication; suffice it to say that reciprocity and mutual benefit was key.) Pets are simply too close to be eaten.

    The next category might be called livestock. Horses, with which one works in great physical intimacy, are edible under some circumstances. For example, modern horse breeders in Iceland — thoroughly Western, civilized, educated people — cull substandard foals and eat them every year. Other domestic animals that are somewhat more distant from humans but are still kept and regularly interacted with by humans, are supremely edible. Even then, there may be conditions (such as immaturity and/or castration) to be met before eating these domesticates is thoroughly “safe.” Local game is Leach’s next category, which can be hunted and eaten but which are again, subject to regulations (such as breeding state, age, time of year and so on). Accounts of medieval practices of hunting, such as Master of the Game — the earliest known book on hunting — are full of rituals and behaviors that must be adhered to in order to make the hunt successful and the game edible at its end. Finally, the animals most socially distant to humans — wild animals, including unknown or rarely seen animals from strange and foreign places — are not approved for consumption or require extensive rituals before one dare to eat them.

    The parallel between categories of edibility and of sexuality — jokes aside — suggests strongly that this act of setting up rules, regulations and rituals according to distance from oneself is based on the common elements of importance and danger that both sex and eating involve.

    In short, I find Serpell’s argument that one of the functions of doting on particular animals as a means of dissipating guilt at the way we treat others may indeed be correct. However, I think the guilt at killing another animal to eat is a relatively recent phenomenon, not an ancestral condition. FEAR at killing (or bedding) another is, to my mind, more primal and more likely to have given rise to the morass of rituals, taboos, prescriptions, rules and regulations concerning eating animals.

    Reference cited

    Leach, E.R. 1964. Anthropological Aspects of Language; Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse. In E.H. Lenneberg, ed., New Directions in the Study of Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Edward Rives

    I believe Professor Serpell’s contention that these food taboos are a coping mechanism for the moral guilt felt by these populations when they kill animals. These people live with the animals they hunt; observe them, track them, learn from them. They form strong connections with the species they prey upon, and revere the entire hunting process. Within our society, I think things are generally different.

    For the most part, Americans have little idea where their meat comes from. The production and distribution of meat has become so complex and widespread that it is almost impossible to trace it back to its origin. In such a system, the consumers form no real connection to the animals they are eating. They probably did not raise the cow, pig, or bird, and therefore have no understanding of its behaviors or tendencies. They only know it as the burger on their plate or the bacon in their pan. For this reason, the majority of Americans feel no moral responsibility for the deaths of these animals. The blood, so to speak, is not on their hands. It is easy to pass responsibility on to the farmer or to the workers at the processing plant or even to other consumers. Without witnessing the life of the animals and the killing process, consumers do not feel morally accountable for buying and eating meat.

    Further up the product chain, however, things may be a bit different. As Serpell mentioned in his essay, farmers can sometimes form attachments to certain animals and not want to slaughter them. When there is an opportunity to witness the lives of the animals and understand their thoughts and behaviors, humans feel more morally responsible for their well-being.

    I believe that the closer one is to the animals in their lives and in their deaths, the more morally responsible one feels for them. In our consumerist society, we often fall into an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. We feel no need to employ the coping mechanisms described in Serpell’s essay because we do not see ourselves as directly responsible for ending the animals’ lives.

  • Caitlin O’Connell

    Serpell’s theory for meat taboos is compelling. I think many people do experience the conflict over eating some animals that Serpell describes. On Borneo, people report that the main reason for killing an orangutan is for food, yet when they are asked why they themselves have killed an orangutan a very different reason is given – usually to do with conflict with the animal (Meijaard et al. 2011). Orangutan translates from Indonesian to English as person of the forest, so it is easy to imagine how it might be considered taboo to consume orangutan meat. People often draw lines between the animals that seem more like humans, and those that bear less resemblance, both in physical and behavioral attributes. Considering the ease with which disease can be passed between humans and other primates, it is also imaginable that taboos against consuming them would arise from health-related or ecological reasons.

    At the same time, others seem to consume animals they consider akin to themselves without obvious anxiety over it. Cormier (2003) describes the Guaja foragers of Amazonia and their common practice of keeping monkeys as pets and also as a major food source. They consider monkeys to be part of their kin network, and even raise monkeys as human children frequently, so consuming them is a sort of symbolic cannibalism. I believe that the same individual monkeys that are kept as pets are never consumed, so perhaps the habit of keeping some as children in the home could be interpreted as reconciliation for those that are eaten.

    Cormier, Loretta A. 2003. Kinship with Monkeys: The Guajá Foragers of Eastern Amazonia. New York: Columbia University Press

    Meijaard, E., et al. 2011. Quantifying Killing of Orangutans and Human-Orangutan Conflict in Kalimantan, Indonesia. PLoS One 6(11): e27491

  • Christian Hart

    Professor Serpell’s argument that not killing other animals is the result of a “psychological coping mechanism that serves to dilute and displace individual moral responsibility for the killing and consumption of animals” is very intriguing and raises many questions in my eyes.

    In his essay Serpell brings up the customs of different societies and cultures and how they recognize certain animals. In totemic societies, a certain respect or affinity is acquired based on what clan they were born into or where they were born geographically. In a “guardian spirit” culture, a person is born with [or acquires] a special connection to a specific species. Serpell’s argument does seem to work well with these types of societies in the not too distant past or isolated communities today, however I don’t know how they translate to the present. Today different customs are practiced and still some feel apprehensive about killing and eating animals. For those who still consider eating animals taboo, it is much rather what Serpell mentioned earlier in his essay, that humans are able to build an emotional relationship, however distant it may be, with animals and sympathize with them. This quality seems to be an exclusive human quality; as Serpell referenced Franz De Waal in his essay, even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, seem not to show any sympathy as they tear apart the limbs of prey animals. A main question I have after that statement is: does this exclusive quality to sympathize make humans morally superior to any other animal? Also, if we were to find evidence of a sympathizing emotion in other animals, would that give them the same moral standing?

    I also believe that the disconnect between animal and food in today’s society has lead many people to forget about the actual killing of animals. They are completely disconnected from the “business” end of the production and only see what they are about to put into their mouths. This removes an incredible amount of responsibility from the person and allows them to go about eating without any consideration for the animal. I believe if more people got a chance to sympathize with these animals by witnessing their demise, they would feel much more obligated to prevent it.

  • Meghan Wilt

    In the above paper, Serpell argues that humans use totemism and the guardian spirit belief to provide moral compensation for the repercussions of killing and consuming animals. One of the first points Serpell addresses is the ability of humans to express sympathy towards other animals when harm is inflicted upon them. He implies that this quality could be unique among humans. This would explain why humans feel the need to deal with guilt after killing animals. I would like to argue that it is not, that at least some animals can express empathy. There are many case studies in existence that prove this. In the paper “Social Modulation of Pain as Evidence for Empathy in Mice,” it is shown that the pain sensitivity of mice is altered when they see their cage mates in pain. If other animals can empathize just like humans, why do we not question the morality of animals to kill and consume other creatures like we do for humans?

    Serpell analyzes the effect totemism has on animal populations. Because each individual is only assigned one animal, a significant amount of meat will not be left uneaten while we are facing food shortages. At the same time, an individual is still able to provide their share of moral compensation for the killing and consumption of animals. Each individual’s share of moral compensation adds up so that from a utilitarian perspective totemism seems justified. However on an individual level the practice seems arbitrary. What qualities in your totem give is precedence over other animals. And how can this be different for each individual?

    Serpell’s argument also causes us to question the reason for humans to consume meat in the first place. There are a surprising number of qualities that humans have in common with herbivores that support the fact that humans are meant to be vegetarians. For example, the intestines of carnivores are only 3 times their body length so that rotting meat will exit the body more rapidly. However both humans and herbivores have an intestinal track between 10 and 12 times as long as their bodies.

    Many vegetarians are animal rights activists and have major problems with the cruel methods used to kill animals. However, there does not seem to be as much of an issue with the actual act of consuming the animal. Modern society is tailored to allow humans to think only about consuming an animal, not the act of killing it. For example, we can simply go to the grocery store, buy our meat, and cook it on the stove. If an individual had to kill an animal in order to consume it, it is likely that there would be more vegetarians in the world.

  • Ethan Thompson

    While reading Dr. Serpell’s essay concerning food taboos, I was intrigued by the thought that food taboos arose in some cultures from religion. I have always understood many religious beliefs to come as potential explanations to various parts of the human world and environment, and the idea of animal guardians and spirits fits in well. It would seem that if a tribe over-hunted one type of animal it would inevitably die out and they would be left with significantly less food. I can see how this would be the basis for wanting to protect these animals, and why a religion, being formed at this time, would place a limit on killing them. Of course, a tribe would not simply stop hunting an animal that had been critical to their food supply, but they would not to ruin the local population either. To only allow some hunters to kill these animals it would give an explanation for why the animal had died out (in the religion it being that the animal spirit was not pleased with how they were treating the specific animal, and in reality they were simply over-hunting), and the religious beliefs can all spawn off of that.

    After the idea of guardian animals had been set, (and its anxiety coping mechanism that Serpell’s essay talked about) the rest of the religious beliefs can come from other explanations. Certain people may have gotten sick (either because they were allergic or because of coincidence) and that may have brought about the idea of individualistic animal guardians (each person having their own guardian animal that they could only rarely eat). Overall the tribes and their ritualistic views are a perfect way for one culture to justify the killing of animals (again, helping them to cope with the act of killing something living) and for them to stop over-hunting (whether they realized that’s what they were doing or not).

  • Shepard Krech III

    Prof. Serpell deserves thanks for taking a stab at a fresh approach to a general theory of totemism (and functional equivalents) and taboo. Many, especially those for whom Rousseauian primitivism is alive and well (including fans of Avatar), will find his thesis appealing. But the ultimate success of the hypothesized link between guilt and zoocentric sympathy will hang on the extent to which the ethnographic data, in light of the theory, remain sensible or become more so. If I understand it fully, Serpell’s approach is fundamentally Malinowskian: he posits essentially universal human emotional needs (e.g. to assuage or atone for guilt from not having expressed sufficient sympathy or compassion toward the animals one kills) met by variable and random response (e.g. totemism). Is this not a special case of societal institutions or cultural beliefs fulfilling human needs à la Malinowski? But this is by no means straight-forward, and in anthropology the debate to fuse psychology’s focus on the mind, emotions, or urges of the individual with social anthropology’s major concern with a society of individuals and its culture is far from settled. Psychology, to start with (like other categories of common sense or received wisdom), is cultural and therefore contingent.

    As for the thoughts and actions of foragers and other indigenous people concerning the animals they seek as hunters, fishermen, or collectors, I’d like to raise several points from my own ethnographic work and research on North American Indians.

    First, and arguably most important, many native people of North America consider their prey as animate, as sentient beings who make themselves available to human predators who think about and treat them properly. “Properly” varies with culture—that is, in myriad ways—and its content changes through time along with human lives and experiences. One must be attentive to the changes, whose origins have a way of being quickly forgotten; and one must therefore also be alert to the probability of invented traditions whose cultural depth must be determined not assumed. Not surprisingly, animals tend often to live out lives in settings that often resemble lives and societies constituted culturally by the human beings who seek them. That is, some believe that salmon (to consider a piscine example) can and do come from and (killed and handled with proper respect) return to villages whose structures and inhabitants are modeled on those of the human beings who fish for (and kill) them. In past times and even today native people who still depend on animals for sustenance think about and articulate such things.

    Second is the belief, which is extremely widespread in native North America, in reincarnation. For example, some native people in the eastern subarctic believed that beaver, treated properly, would return to be killed by the hunter. Proper treatment did not mean (until recent times) conservation western twentieth-century style; instead it meant keeping menstruating women away from hunting weapons, speaking respectfully about the beaver and modestly about one’s success, placing the bones of the animal in a tree (away from dogs) or in the water—where (the latter), it was believed, flesh would re-clothe them–and the like. Failure to fulfill one’s reciprocal role in the relationship between hunter and prey meant that the prey would not return or would cease to come or that some affliction (e.g. illness) would visit the hunter. Much thought and behavior in the hunt, I would argue, is linked to the belief in reincarnation.

    With regard to these first two points, it seems to me that much belief and behavior toward animals is directed not at atonement in response to guilt but at reciprocity and continuing a relationship guaranteeing the renewal of that on which one depends: a steady supply of animals so that human life will continue.

    Third, Prof. Serpell’s piece is of necessity brief and his sources highly selective. There are surely examples of what from today’s vantage point would be branded mistreatment of animals. For example, some northern people (Inupiat) often treated juvenile and other mammals and birds in what might be considered cavalier fashion, from catching birds by snares that opened in their gullets to playing with animals trapped, caught, or snared. In past times other native people ran down every last animal—buffalo, for instance–corralled in a surround or fallen over a cliff, not to put them out of any misery they might have been in, and not out of any sense of atonement, but because they did not want a sentient animal to warn others of a trap that would then cease to be effective. If hunters were upset, it was because their very livelihood was under threat. Such examples, I believe, reflect not concern for “compassion” or the “rights” of animals as understood in the West today but need for the flesh and other products of animals that guarantee human existence. Thus if there is any focus is on human needs they have to do with subsistence and livelihood, with materiality, not with guilt or atonement.

    Fourth, it would be interesting to bring human beings under the lens here. One’s enemies are often on a different human plane than one’s kin; they are not “real people.” How do human beings treat other human beings considered not as the real people but as others? There are multiple examples from both the archaeological and ethnographic record of aggression, torture, and mutilation of corpses. There are cases in the archaeological record of what looks like the extermination of an entire community. Cannibalism, both ritual and, some argue, gustatory, is far from unknown. Might consideration of these cases sharpen the analysis of those that pertain to non-human animals alone, if only in contrast?

    I thank Prof. Serpell for his provocative thoughts. As Claude Lévi-Strauss mentioned in a different context in his classic work Le totémisme aujourd’hui, animals are indeed good for contemplation.

  • As several here have already observed, James Serpell’s essay is a wonderful catalyst for discussion. This note is as much a response to Stephen Krech III as to Serpell. Krech highlights the ambiguity of the word “guilt,” as it is used by Serpell in reference to the killing and eating of animals. It is not always easy to clearly distinguish guilt from fear of retaliation, empathy with the victim, or a desire for reciprocity.

    The origin of our English word “guilt” is unknown, but the leading theory is that it comes from the Old English “gieldan,” meaning “to pay a debt.” The word does not appear until the late seventeenth century. The German word for guilt, “schuld,” also means “debt.” The underlying metaphor when we speak of guilt seems to be mostly economic. Guilt is cancelled by “redemption,” essentially paying off what one owes.

    In a barter economy, where little or no attempt is made to divide worth into standardized units, which may then add up to vast sums, the modern concept of guilt might be incomprehensible. With respect to indigenous cultures, I think it makes sense, as Krech suggests, to speak of “reciprocity and continuing a relationship” rather than of guilt. But then we might say, reformulating Serpell’s theory only a bit, that the care we lavish on pets, for example, is an attempt to retain a sense of reciprocity in our relations with animals in general.

    But my impression is that Serpell may be also attempting to address a far more elusive feeling in contemporary society. There is a pervasive sense of moral failure, which, however, does not seem to be directly connected to any particular decision or event. As Kafka dramatized in stories such as The Trial, we are often overwhelmed by guilt in the absence of any tangible crime. Perhaps this malaise might, in some way, be related to our treatment of animals?

  • James Serpell

    First, I must thank the organizers of OTH for allowing me to air my sometimes half-baked thoughts and speculations. I am also grateful to all the commentators for taking the time and energy to provide such thoughtful feedback on my essay. In the interests of space, I can’t give all of these points the attention they deserve, but I will do my best to address some of the main ones.

    Beginning with the question of empathic ability in nonhumans, it is important to distinguish between affective empathy—the tendency to experience vicariously the emotional states of others (emotional contagion)—and cognitive empathy involving the capacity to take another’s perspective and experience feelings of sympathy and compassion for their pain or distress (empathic concern), as well as derived emotions such as guilt and remorse when one perceives oneself to be the cause of that pain or distress.[1] Boria Sax, Marc Bekoff and Meghan Wilt are correct to point out that mice and many other mammals display evidence of affective empathy and perhaps even the beginnings of cognitive empathy. But I challenge them to provide convincing nonhuman examples of what I refer to as zoocentric sympathy, or the tendency to identify with, and feel morally culpable for, harms inflicted on the members of other species. We know that humans are capable of experiencing these kinds of feelings,[2] but it is not at all obvious that other species can. Sax’s claim that prey animals might volunteer for death out of “curiosity” or “empathy with predators” is difficult to reconcile with evolutionary theory, and his suggestion that predators, such as wolves, might derive vicarious exhilaration from empathizing with the distress of their prey would seem to contradict most existing definitions of empathy, unless he is postulating a masochistic (or perhaps psychotic) wolf who enjoys sharing the pain and terror of the elk he is killing.

    Nick Humphrey’s question as to whether the Nazi’s draconian animal protection laws might have served to compensate psychologically for the Holocaust is certainly provocative. The close temporal association between the first animal protection laws (November 1933) and those discriminating specifically against Jews (April 1933) is undoubtedly striking. However, it is also possible that this juxtaposition reflected the misanthropic and zoophiliac attitudes of many of the Nazi leadership—Hitler included—or that the animal laws were just a further excuse to discriminate against aspects of Jewish culture such as ritual animal slaughter (Shechita). These and other related ideas were explored in an important 1992 article by Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax [3] and in subsequent commentaries [4] that I would recommend to anyone wishing to pursue this topic further. As an interesting aside, A.V. Hill’s suggestion of using animal protection laws to prosecute those who brutalize humans (cited by Humphrey) was not without precedent. During the 1870s and 80s, Henry Bergh, the founder of the New York ASPCA, used animal protection statutes to intercede legally on behalf of abused and exploited children who did not at that time enjoy any legal protections.[5]

    Hal Herzog and Stuart Marks take issue with my reliance on a small number of “anecdotes” to support my contention that some animal food taboos are motivated by guilt about killing animals in general, and Herzog asks whether the theory is testable. While I am vulnerable on these points, I take partial refuge behind the fact that the essay was subject to a word limit that restricted my ability to provide a more expansive review of the relevant literature. In truth, most of the ethnographic material available, including that used by Fessler and Navarette[6] (whom Herzog cites) is also anecdotal in the sense of being the product of qualitative and often unsystematic field notes by predominantly western observers. While it might strengthen my case to provide more numerous anecdotes it still wouldn’t constitute a valid test of the theory, since correlation does not establish causation. Nor would I necessarily expect to find an association between the strength and frequency of meat taboos and the degree of a culture’s dependence on subsistence hunting, as Herzog suggests. I would anticipate more extreme hunting-related anxiety in such cultures, and greater fears of supernatural punishment, but if the culture is highly dependent on hunted protein, it might be unable to risk proscribing any particular species as food. In such cases, hunters can and do resort to other methods of mitigating “blood guilt”. Sax, for example, mentions the Native American belief that game animals willingly “sacrifice” themselves to favored hunters, while Shepherd Krech refers to the widespread idea that hunters contribute to the reincarnation of wild animals by killing them. Both of these notions are what I would call “exonerative beliefs”; that is, self-justificatory beliefs that tend to exonerate the hunter from blame for the killing.

    Perhaps a better test (or refutation) of my theory would be to identify examples of subsistence hunting societies that display no moral qualms about hunting whatsoever, that kill and eat wild animals indiscriminately without ritual safeguards or any apparent fear of retribution. So far, I have not been able to discover such a culture or group among the accounts I have read. Marks’s Valley Bisa hunters may provide an exception to the rule, although their anxieties about the behavior of relatives back home in the village might also reflect general concerns about the dangers of “improper” conduct during a hunt. Brian Morris has pointed out that many Central African people believe that game animals are sensitive to immoral or disrespectful human acts and may retaliate by inflicting sickness or madness on hunters. As he puts it, the act of killing a game animal is “akin to that of homicide,” and that the “blood” of the animal may “enact a kind of vengeance, entering the body of the hunter and bringing punishment,” if the hunter fails to take the correct ritual precautions. [7, p. 105-6] These precautions include maintaining a calm or “cool” state of mind before and during any hunting expedition. The imagined activities of adulterous wives or quarreling kinsfolk back at home would clearly have the potential to disrupt this state of mental equilibrium, thereby placing the hunter at serious risk of calamity.

    Pat Shipman’s suggestion that the inherently risky nature of subsistence activities such as hunting and fishing would be likely, on its own, to inspire anxiety and elaborate ritual safeguards seems entirely plausible, and is precisely what Bronislaw Malinowski argued in relation to the origins of totemism.[8] A key question that needs to be addressed, however, is why so much of this ritual anxiety and fear of supernatural retaliation should be focused specifically on the animal or the animal’s spiritual guardian(s), if there were not already strong pre-existing feelings of culpability associated with the animal’s demise. As an Iglulingmiut shaman explained to the arctic explorer, Knud Rasmussen, more than 80 years ago: “The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, souls that do not perish with the body, and which must therefore be propitiated lest they should avenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.”[9, p. 56] In my opinion, we ought to take such statements at face value, unless there are robust reasons to believe that something else is going on.

    Unlike Shipman, I am not a huge fan of Edmund Leach’s 1964 article, particularly in light of Halverson’s masterly critique.[10] At best, I would suggest that Leach’s perceived “structural correspondence” between dietary and sexual taboos is no more than a coincidental outcome of adaptive developmental rules that render those we grow up with (whether human or animal) unattractive from both a sexual and gastronomic perspective.[11] I am also unconvinced by Lisa D’Costa’s and Kristen Cochran’s suggestion that zoocentric sympathy and food taboos function to promote ecological sustainability by discouraging over-hunting. This idea was first mooted by Roy Rappaport in 1967 [12] and has been debated by anthropologists ever since. The problems with the theory are twofold. First, it is difficult to imagine how such cultural practices could evolve and be maintained without resorting to group selectionist arguments. Second, empirical evidence suggests that subsistence hunters prefer to maximize short-term hunting returns over the longer-term gains that might accrue from conserving wildlife resources.[13] Inhibitions about killing and eating particular animals may indeed have the effect of limiting exploitation, but this is unlikely to be the adaptive function of these cultural mores. I hope that this last statement will also help to dispel Shepherd Krech’s concern that my thesis will appeal to proponents of the “ecologically noble savage” concept. Maybe my use of the word “guilt” is inappropriate, but it is difficult to think of a more satisfactory term for the sense of culpability and the expectation of punishment that seems to characterize subsistence hunters’ relations with their prey.

    Several commentators are skeptical of my suggestion that lavishing affection on pets might sometimes serve as a form of atonement for eating other animals, and both Herzog and Bekoff point to pet-loving vegetarians/vegans as evidence to the contrary. Although this idea was something of an afterthought, I believe it has some validity as long as it is understood to be the result of a largely unconscious process in which people use their positive and caring interactions with pets to define themselves as animal lovers, thereby morally neutralizing their continued purchase and consumption of meat from other animals that somebody else has killed. Also, I certainly don’t regard this as the only, or even necessarily a major, reason for keeping pet animals. Elsewhere, I have proposed a variety of other reasons why people keep pets, [14] and have also argued that the act of allowing certain animals into our affections and treating them as “members of the family” tends to engender psychological tension by undermining the moral barriers we have erected between humans and nonhumans in general.[15] Thus, pet keeping potentially cuts both ways; increasing our inhibitions about killing animals and/or using them as food (hence, perhaps, pet-loving vegetarians) while simultaneously providing us with a potential source of moral absolution for doing so. In a somewhat similar vein, the French anthropologist, Philippe Erikson, has proposed that one function for the widespread practice of caring for tame wild animal pets among Amazonian hunters and horticulturalists is to curry favor with the animals’ wild brethren who will therefore feel more inclined to allow themselves to be killed by human hunters [16].

    I am grateful to Sax, Herzog and Marks for reminding me that cultural attitudes, beliefs, and traditions, including food taboos, are moving targets subject to revision over time and in response to changing circumstances. The on-and-off history of the Valley Bisa’s hippopotamus taboo (referred to by Marks) certainly presents an interesting challenge to my theory but not necessarily an insurmountable one. It appears, for example, that hippos are (or were) ritually important to the Bisa, and that in former times they were hunted by specialized hunting guilds or fraternities,[17] not unlike totemic clans. One could speculate that the disappearance of these hunting fraternities, with their ritual “license” to kill hippos, might inhibit further hippo hunting and help to explain why few Bisa admitted to killing or eating hippos in the late 1960s. It also seems reasonable to attribute the gradual resurgence of hippo consumption among younger Bisa in the 1980s and subsequently to the combined effects economic privation and cultural disintegration, as Marks suggests. In other words, even long-established social rules and conventions must remain relevant in order to survive, and under the pressure of rapid cultural or ecological change their original meaning and significance may be lost or submerged by competing priorities.

    Finally, in response to Joel Marks’s comments on moral versus psychological inhibitions, I must admit to being a social intuitionist [18] in the sense that I believe that humans have an intuitive sense of rightness and wrongness, and that the rational aspects of moral decision-making are, more often than not, post-hoc justifications for these initial gut-level intuitions. The argument I try to make in my essay is that subsistence hunters are caught morally between the proverbial rock and a hard place: Obliged to kill animals for food, but also intuitively predisposed to sense the wrongness of preying upon other kindred beings who have done nothing to merit such assaults. Hunters cope with this dilemma in a variety of ways. In the case of totemism and guardian spirit belief, they seem to compartmentalize the problem by allocating moral obligations to some animals but not to others. In other situations they use exonerative belief systems to absolve themselves of blame. None of these coping strategies, however, is likely to be unique to hunters and foragers. I believe they also exist in various less obvious forms in most carnivorous cultures,[19] and that they are not fundamentally different from the techniques of moral disengagement that people have employed throughout history to justify the abuse and persecution of fellow humans.[20]

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    4. Comments on Arluke and Sax: “Understanding Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust.” Anthrozoös, 6: 72-107, 1993.
    5. Unti, B.O. 2002. The Quality of Mercy: Organized Animal Protection in the United States, 1866-1930. Unpublished PhD dissertation. American University: Washington, DC.
    6. Fessler, D.M.T. and Navarette, C.D. 2003. Meat is good to taboo: Dietary proscriptions as a product of the interaction of psychological mechanisms and social processes. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 3: 1-40.
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    8. Malinowski, B. 1954. Magic, Science and Religion. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books.
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    11. Serpell, J.A. 1990. All the King’s horses. Anthrozoös, 3: 223-6.
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    14. Serpell, J.A. and Paul, E.S. 2011. Pets in the family: An evolutionary perspective. In: The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Family Psychology, eds. C. Salmon & T. Shackelford, pp. 297-309. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    15. Serpell, J.A. 2009. Having our dogs and eating them too: Why animals are a social issue. Journal of Social Issues, 65: 633-644.
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