Meat for Meeting?

Charlotte De Backer, in The Psychologist, with a history of meat consumption, and how a simple choice to eat or not eat meat can complicate our social lives. January 2021.

Breakfast with your mum, lunch with your colleagues, an after-work drink with friends or a late-night dinner with your partner: our days are filled with social occasions that revolve around food and drink. Moments of sheer happiness, bonding, and sharing food. Or not…

Food is sociality, yet it is also isolation. Sharing food can connect us – Woolley and Fishbach showed how similar consumption can promote trust and cooperation – but the foods we do and don’t eat can also create painful rifts between us. There is a close connection between food and identity: we are what we eat, as the 18th century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin taught us. Food sociologist Claude Fischler added that if it is really the case that we are what we eat, then we are similar when we eat similar foods, and we are different when we eat different foods. Food is not just fuel to the body, but also an important and often overlooked system of communication (Barthes, 1997), and it always has been.

Meat and morality
Throughout human history, food has shaped the way we think, act and socialise with others. Meat in particular has played an important role in this process. The introduction of meat to the human diet has been linked to the expansion of the human brain and increased sociality (see Milton, 1999). This is, in part, due to the acquisition and distribution of meat in ancestral human groups (Stanford & Bunn, 2001). In comparison to plants, animals are far more challenging to rely on as a food source, as one must locate the target, possess sufficient skills to successfully hunt, and then process the meat for immediate consumption before it spoils. In ancestral times, high levels of individual strength, skills, and knowledge, but also group level coordination were required to access meat (Kaplan et al., 2000). When meat acquisition was successful, it often resulted in large packages of energy-dense food that in the absence of modern technologies could not be stored for long periods of time. The result was the sharing of food in strategic ways.

Throughout major parts of human evolutionary history, the consumption of meat, more than any other food type, was characterised by sharing with related family members and with non-kin group members, based on rules of reciprocity (Jaeggi & Gurven, 2013): I will share with you, if you return the favour; the basis of cooperation and bonding. And that’s not all; ‘meat made us moral’ (Mameli, 2013). Since meat acquisition and distribution requires cooperation, it also requires trust in others to cooperate, and feelings of anger towards those who do not contribute or share. Energy-dense meat packages introduced dilemmas of fairness and cheating behaviour in the daily life of our ancestors. As a consequence, a regulating system of morality evolved to ensure group members would contribute to the acquisition of meat, and the fair sharing of meat among different group members.

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