Why These Animals?

In the West, when it comes to which meat is for dinner, we nearly always choose beef, pork, or chicken. Yet cows and pigs are only two of more than five thousand of species of mammals, and chicken is one of ten thousand species of birds. Meanwhile, at different times in history and in different places around the world, people have enjoyed dining on all sorts of animals, from elephants to flamingos to jellyfish. So how do individuals and cultures decide which animals to eat, and which they don't? And why is this decision so divisive—why do many Americans look with such horror on those who eat, say, horse or dog? Listen in this episode for a healthy serving of myth-busting—about domestication, disgust, and deliciousness—as we explore this thorny question.

Growing up in the U.S., Soleil Ho, journalist and host of two podcasts, Racist Sandwich and Popaganda, was asked repeatedly whether she ate dog. "I didn't understand why people thought this," she told Gastropod, "because we never even talked about eating dog at home." But as Ho grew up, she came to realize question wasn't born out of curiosity about her Vietnamese family's dining practices, but rather on "ancient prejudices that the West has had against the East." The question's subtext, Ho told us, is "'Why would they do that? That's insane!'"

But is it? While Ho reflected on the racism and xenophobia behind the question "Do You Eat Dog?" in a recent story for Taste, we at Gastropod decided to add to her research by tackling the broader question: How do humans choose which animals to eat? And why does the idea of eating other animals typically fill us with revulsion?

To answer this, we assembled a group of experts to explore a series of hypotheses. For example, it seems logical that we eat so much chicken today because our ancestors domesticated it—and that happened because chickens were particularly amenable to domestication and our ancestors found them particularly attractive as food. Not so fast, say Naomi Sykes, University of Exeter archaeologist, and Greger Larson, evolutionary genomicist at Oxford University. Their research shows that the process of domestication doesn't play out that way at all. The chicken's jungle fowl ancestors seem to have been first adored for both cockfighting and for the animal's supposed connection to the divine, Sykes explained. Imagining that our ancestors looked at these stringy birds and saw nuggets is, Larson tells us, "a presentist fallacy."

Another approach is to flip the question: why don't we eat all the animals? Hal Herzog, psychologist and author of the book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, and Paul Rozin, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and expert in disgust, talk us through the varying reasons—logical or (more often) not— that explain why different cultures see insects as disgusting or dinner, and dogs as pets or meat. With Harriet Ritvo, historian at MIT, we explore brave attempts to change these cultural norms, including the "acclimatization movement" of the Victorian period, when well-meaning elites attempted to expand the range of protein available for a growing population by adding various exotic animals to their diets—almost always without success. (The most famous such attempt in the U.S. occurred when an entrepreneur and a politician teamed up to—unsuccessfully— turn Louisiana swamps into hippopotamus ranches.)

So, when did those semi-divine jungle fowl become food? Why do French people eat horse, while the idea makes many of their fellow Europeans gag? And how did dog meat go from something everybody ate, according to the archaeological evidence, to the bone of contention between East and West it still is today? Listen in now to find out!

Episode Notes

Soleil Ho

Soleil Ho is a journalist and host of the podcasts Racist Sandwich and Popaganda. Her article for Taste, "Do You Eat Dog?", provides context for that question and why the sentiment behind it has always been anti-Eastern and anti-immigrant.

Hal Herzog

Hal Herzog is a psychology professor at West Carolina University who's spent decades researching anthrozoology, the science of human-animal relations. He's author of the book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals.

Paul Rozin

Paul Rozin is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a world-recognized expert in disgust. His 1987 paper, "A Perspective on Disgust," published by the American Psychological Association, provides a fascinating introduction to the topic.

Greger Larson and Naomi Sykes

Greger Larson is director of the paleogenomics and bio-archaeology research network at the University of Oxford, and Naomi Sykes is a professor of archaeology at the University of Exeter. As discussed in the episode, they've teased out the history of the domestication of and human interactions with chickens, as in this description of their findings published by the University of Oxford. Another recent paper they co-authored is titled "Rabbits and the Specious Origins of Domestication," which uses a variety of methods to debunk previous theories of rabbit domestication. This is part of their Easter E.g. project, exploring the traditions and animals associated with the holiday.

Harriet Ritvo

Harriet Ritvo is a professor of history at MIT and an expert in human-animal interactions, particularly during the Victorian age of acclimatization. Among her books are The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, and Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History.

Peter Lund Simmonds and The Curiosities of Food

Peter Lund Simmonds was a nineteenth-century journalist and author whose works—about themes as diverse as tropical agriculture, Arctic exploration, and waste utilization—are unified by their peculiarly Victorian commitment toward colonial improvement. His fascinating compendium of all the animals eaten by humans, The Curiosities of Food: Or the Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained from the Animal Kingdom, is still in print today.

American Hippotamus

Journalist Jon Mooallem told the story of the doomed attempt to ranch hippo in Louisiana in this long essay for The Atavist.