Man’s Mistake.

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


Oh, yes! You love them well, I know!
But whisper me, when most?
In fields at summer-time? Not so.
At supper-time—in roast.

  Where, then, I would ask, has been man’s mistake, his cardinal mistake, in dealing with the sub-human tribes? It is evident that certain practices have got to cease before there can be any real truce and understanding between mankind and “the beasts,” but is there any usage in particular to which we can point as a cause of disunion? I think there is; and though I am aware that it is dangerous to specify in such matters, I am going, in this case, to make the venture.

  Among the justifications offered for the alleged cruelties of sport and science, and indeed of any ill-treatment of animals, there is one which occurs so frequently as to be almost a matter of course; and it is this- that as we may kill for food, it cannot be wrong to do the same, with certain safeguards, for the purposes in question. Now, no one ever alleges the right to hunt, or to vivisect, in vindication of flesh-eating; but flesh-eating is constantly cited as justifying the other practices; which surely shows that it stands in a quite peculiar and unique position in affecting mankind’s relations with the non-humans. It is, so to speak, the pivot on which the question turns. Butchery for food may not be, certainly is not, so callous as blood-sports, or so cruel as vivisection, but it underlies them both. Note the following argument from Chambers’ Encyclopædia (1884) in a defence of scientific experiments:

  “It is universally admitted that man may destroy animals for his food and to famish him with many of the necessaries and luxuries of life. . . . If, then, man can legitimately put animals to a painful death, in order to supply himself with food and luxuries, why may he not also legitimately put them to pain, and even to death, for the far higher object of relieving the sufferings of humanity?”

  So, too, when blood-sports are called in question. In the debate on “Pigeon Shooting” (1884), Lord Fortescue said: “If they were called upon to put an end to pigeon shooting they might next be called upon to put an end to the slaughter of live-stock.” And in fairness both to vivisectionist and to blood-sportsman it must be said that the habit which underlies the many and various forms of ill-treatment of animals—the fundamental negation of their rights—is flesh-eating, with its attendant business of butchery. The cattleship and the cattle-market are but a continuation of the slave-trade with the addition of a spice of cannibalism. The economic exploitation of our fellow-men is hateful enough; but the dietetic exploitation of our fellow-animals is likely, as time goes on, to be regarded in much the same light. It is an undeniable relic of a savage past, condemned by every consideration of humaneness, æstheticism, and economy.

  It is no part of my purpose here to state, still less to argue, the vegetarian contention; what I wish to show is that a humane diet-system is indispensable if there are ever to be amicable relations between human and sub-human. The subject of cannibalism has been mentioned, and it is a subject by no means irrelevant or out of date when the assertion is so commonly made that mankind cannot, or at any rate will not, abandon its present tastes and habits. This is what the “British Medical Journal” has said:

  “Man is undoubtedly, in his anatomy, most nearly allied to the higher apes, and these animals though they show obvious tendencies to be omnivorous, are yet, in the main, eaters of nuts and fruits. But man is not a higher ape, and in the process of development to his present high status he has become omnivorous. It is true that he can obtain from vegetables the nutriment necessary for his maintenance in health, but he has learnt that he can obtain what he wants at less cost of energy from a mixed diet, and he is not likely to unlearn this lesson.”1

  But the scientific gentleman who wrote thus confidently must surely have overlooked the story of cannibalism! For mankind, or a portion of it, in attaining to what the “British Medical Journal” regards as its “high status,” became omnivorous to the extent of eating human flesh; and if that practice can be unlearnt, as is generally believed possible, it is difficult to see why, with the ages before us, so unpleasant a habit as the eating of dead pigs (for example) should be everlasting. Nor can cannibalism be ignored as merely a horror which does not enter into the study of dietetics. “Prejudice is strange,” wrote Professor W. M. Flinders Petrie in a remarkably outspoken article on the subject, and on the horror which so-called civilised people feel for that form of diet.

  “A large part of mankind,” he said, “are cannibals, and still more, perhaps all, have been so, including our own forefathers, for Jerome describes the Atticotti, a British tribe, as preferring human flesh to that of cattle. . . . Does the utilitarian object [to cannibalism)? Yet one main purpose of the custom is utility; in its best and innocent forms, it certainly gives the greatest happiness to the greatest number.”2

  Why, then, do “civilised” races prohibit cannibalism? Obviously for moral reasons; and when a critic asks “how or where does the moral phase of food-taking enter into the science of dietetics?” he may be referred to the following passage in the article on Cannibalism in the Encyclopædia Britannica:

  “Man being by nature carnivorous as well as frugivorous, and human flesh not being unfit for human food, the question arises why mankind generally have not only avoided it, but have looked with horror on exceptional individuals and races addicted to cannibalism. It is evident on consideration that both emotional and religious motives must have contributed to bring about this prevailing state of mind.”

  That is true; and to me it seems equally evident that similar feelings will eventually bring about a state of mind which does not tolerate any form of flesh-eating. Even Scott has it, in Redgauntlet; “I do not believe either pigs or poultry would admit that the chief end of their being was to be killed and eaten.”

  For these reasons, and for others with which I will not burden the reader, I will hold that the butchering of his fellow-animals has been a mistake, and a very serious one, on the part of man; certainly, his relations with the sub-humans are ruined by a practice which lends a ready excuse and support to various other barbarities. And while I am fully aware of the enormous stability of these old habits, and of the fact that not only years but centuries, perhaps ages, will be required for them to pass, I firmly believe that in the fulness of time they will pass, and that Thoreau’s faith (I quote again from that wonderful book, his Walden) will be eventually verified: “Whatever my own practice may be I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilised.”

1 June 4th, 1898.
2 The Contemporary Review, June, 1897.

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