The history of vegetarianism as a dietary movement has recently been condensed nicely, if inadvertently, in a Jumble, a type of word puzzle that appears in many American newspapers. In the Jumble, several words are presented with their letters rearranged, and the solver challenged to restore the scrambled words to their proper spelling. Certain designated letters in each reconstituted word must then be rearranged into new words to provide an answer to a picture riddle. In the Jumble under consideration, a man in a pith helmet is depicted up to his waist in a soon-to-be-simmering cauldron, nervously holding out a book titled Good Nutrition. The puzzle caption reads, "What the missionary had to convert the cannibals to."
The answer, of course, is vegetarianism, but the message of the puzzle is mixed. On the one hand, the text on nutrition implies that the truth of vegetarianism is derived from science; on the other, the man presenting the text is a missionary, an emissary from the church rather than the laboratory. He is attempting, furthermore, to "convert" his audience, to change their minds with moral appeals, instead of through scientific evidence and argument. In truth, for much of the history of vegetarianism in Western society, its proponents have behaved much like the missionary in the Jumble, presenting good nutrition more as a gospel than as a text, and striving to convert dietary heathen as much by preaching as by teaching.
A. The Fusion of Science and Morality in Vegetarianism
When, for example, the American Vegetarian Society was founded in 1850, the very first resolution adopted by its membership stated, "That comparative anatomy, human physiology, and...chemical analysis ... unitedly proclaim the position, that not only the human race may, but should subsist upon the products of the vegetable kingdom." The resolution that immediately followed, though, declared, "That the Vegetarian principle of diet derives its most ancient authority from the appointment of the Creator to man" in the Garden of Eden. The next two resolutions similarly claimed Biblical, as well as moral, sanctions for vegetarian diet.1 Granted, many people today would agree that there are powerful moral, and perhaps religious, arguments to be made in support of vegetarianism. Nevertheless, modern nutritionists would take pains to keep morality separate and distinct from physiology, and not allow sentiment to dictate science.
Historically, vegetarians have not been so careful. For most of the past two centuries, their pronouncements of the nutritional superiority of a fleshless diet have been based less on independent science than on adaptations of science, directed by the faith that what is right morally must of necessity be right physically. This zealous fusion of moralism with nutrition unfortunately has given vegetarianism the reputation of fanaticism, and thus inhibited objective evaluation and recognition by mainstream nutritional science, as well as by the public at large.
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