Is there a step beyond veganism? What about carnivorism?

Jonmaas
Predict
Published in
18 min readMay 7, 2024

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In this thought experiment, we’ll find that there are several steps beyond both.

Header image with vegetables and a green arrow and meat and a red arrow — images courtesy of Adobe

One of the less-mentioned elements that allowed humanity to spread across the world is our inordinately flexible digestive system.

Koalas rely on a diet of leaves from the Eucalyptus trees, and if a polar bear is placed on a desert island, she might have a hard time finding the 12,000 calories she needs to survive, let alone the extra calories she needs for her cubs.

But humans, humans can eat anything.

And we do.

The human diet is inordinately adaptable

We can eat raw grain with our mashing molars, and we can turn those grains into bread to make the calories therein easier to attain.

We can eat meat as well — and aside from certain items like a polar bear liver, which is toxic to us — if we take down an animal — and cook it for good measure — it will sustain us.

And then there are insects. Our ancestors surely ate insects, and if you ever find yourself in a difficult situation — you could as well.

In short, we can eat anything, and that makes us adaptable.

And different cultures have adapted, and can adapt again

Many indigenous cultures, like the South American Tsimane tribe, eat a meat-based diet, and are quite healthy.

There is a long history of fish-eating in Japan, and 38 percent of India’s citizenry identifies as vegetarian.

And though many deleterious health effects arise with dietary transitions (a grain, fish or meat-eating culture exposed to junk food may see a spike in diabetes, tooth decay and more), those humans can adapt as well.

In short, give a culture of healthy people a donut-based diet and there will be problems, but they won’t go extinct.

Give a population of koalas donuts (with a few non-Eucalyptus leaves as garnish), and they might not survive until the next season.

A photo of donuts
We don’t recommend a donut based diet, but — if you’re a human, it could keep you going for a little while. Photo by Lore Schodts on Unsplash

And not only are humans adaptable, we can also make deliberate choices

There is still food scarcity in this world, but the modern day is not the times of hunting and gathering, when the primary imperative was to consume whatever you could, whenever you could.

In these times, many humans have choices, and we can structure their diet to whatever we wish.

We humans can eat fish on Fridays, or like some Buddhists, choose to be vegetarian on the 1st and 15th day of the lunar month.

We can be vegetarian, vegan, lacto-ovo vegan —

We can even be lacto-ovo-spaghetti-o-oreo vegan if we want.

A photo of spaghetti
Is this vegan? Maybe, maybe not — but it can fit into your dietary preferences. Photo by Mandy Dolan on Unsplash

And of course we can become pescatarians or carnivores.

Let’s think about the outer edges for a moment though — veganism and meat-eating.

Are there steps beyond these two extremes?

Let’s not bring any moral or health judgments to this thought experiment

Let’s not think of Peter Singer’s rational arguments against factory farms, nor will we consider Mikhaila Fuller (aka Mikhaila Peterson)’s tale of health salvation through eating more meat.

This will just be a thought experiment, only to see where the thoughts lead.

The first part will see how far we can go beyond veganism.

The second part will see how far we can go beyond carnivorism.

All right, let’s begin.

Infographic showing a step 0 of a generalized Omnivore

Part 1 of 2 — Beyond veganism

Infographic showing step 0-V — Vegetarianism

There is a step before veganism of course, which is vegetarianism. Vegetarianism, which in this case would be Step 0, is veganism with softer edges, an easier path to complete proteins, and of course — pizza.

So step 0 is vegetarianism, but let’s begin with veganism, which is an abstention from all animal products.

No pizza, no egg whites —

And though honey is an edge case (apiarists certainly provide a service to the bees, and do not require them to be killed) — and we might bring this edge case up later —

Let’s start with by defining veganism as abstaining from the consumption of all non-human animal products.

If it comes (and is so often the case, is taken from) a non-human animal, you cannot consume it, wear it or anything else.

Can we go beyond this?

In this thought experiment, let’s try, one step at a time. We’ll call the first step ‘step 1-V,’ with the V standing for veganism.

Infographic showing step V — Veganism

And the first step already exists in some regard, with fruitarianism.

Step 1-V beyond veganism — fruitarianism

Infographic showing 1-V — Fruitarianism
Fruitarianism and Nutarianism can be aligned with the source plant’s evolutionary imperative

Fruitarians eat fruit, and some even only eat fruit that fall from trees by themselves.

How does this go beyond veganism?

Well, though there is no evidence of conscious desire amongst plants — or even consciousness — most plants consumed in a vegan diet don’t necessarily have an evolutionary imperative to be eaten.

Grass, which evolved 66 million years ago, does not necessarily need anything to consume it.

In fact, the scent of freshly cut grass is a distress signal meant to deter herbivory.

A photo of grass
The scent of cut grass is great to us, but it is a signal meant to deter herbivory. Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

But what about fruits?

Edible fruits have evolved to be edible.

There are even non-edible fruits, like Torilis arvensis, aka hedge parsley, aka sticker burr/prickly pears/sock destroyers.

Hedge parsley, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Hedge parsley pushes out sticker burrs, also known as prickly pears or sock destroyers. You can not eat them, but they are fruits.

A fruit is the seed-bearing structure of a flowering plant, and it is designed to spread that seed —

And whether the fruit is delicious or barbed, its sweetness or spikes are no accident. It has evolved to spread itself.

So when an animal eats a fruit from a tree, the animal is helping disperse the seeds.

Sometimes, in fact, the seed needs to be eaten. The term for this is endozoochory, and without another animal digesting the seed, the seed will not grow.

Fruitarians help the source plant’s evolutionary imperative by consuming its fruits

The source plant’s fruit is designed to be eaten, and the fruitarian eats it.

Heck, a fruitarian that shops at the grocery store might help support the fruit’s evolutionary imperative on a grand scale, by helping support a farm that holds fields full of the fruits, season after season.

Arguments against monoculture aside, the consumptive practice of fruitarianism — and the adjacent diet of nutarianism, which is the eating of mostly nuts — is a bit beyond veganism, because the consumption is coincidental with the source plants’ evolutionary diktat.

Is there a step beyond this?

Yes, because even with fruitarianism, each meal requires something to die first.

The strawberry fruit is designed to be eaten, but its flesh is alive, and the strawberry eater must kill the fruits, and all the cells therein, with every meal.

All right, let’s go one step beyond — having a diet that doesn’t require killing anything.

A photo of a field with concentric circles and rocks in the middle, at sunset
Can we have a diet that doesn’t kill anything, not even a single cell? We can try. Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash

Step 2-V beyond veganism — the no-kill (on any level) diet

Is it possible to eat something without killing anything?

If you eat plants, you kill the plants.

If you eat strawberries, you might both leave the source bush intact and help it fulfill its evolutionary directive, but you do kill the strawberry fruit itself.

What about honey?

Photo of a beekeeper holding a honeycomb with bees
Photo by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash

Honey — which isn’t ‘vegan’ per se — does not require killing, even on the cellular level.

The bees drink nectar from the flower, and nectar is not alive.

Nectar isn’t a collection of cellular matter like the strawberry. Nectar is a liquid filled with sugars.

The bees take those sugar molecules and make honey, which is also not alive. Honey is a mixture of carbohydrates, water, and some other nutritive substances.

Of course, this is neither completely vegan nor completely healthy. The consumption of honey requires bees to make honey for you, which conflicts with vegan ideals, and pragmatically — you can’t subsist on honey alone for very long.

Nor could you subsist on tree sap turned into maple syrup.

But that is a step beyond veganism in a sense.

If you ate a meal made of honey and maple syrup (which is made from sap), not a single living being — not even a single cell — would have to die to fill you up.

Is there a step beyond this?

Again, this is a thought experiment, so let’s not limit ourselves to what is currently possible.

And if we think about what might be possible, we’ll realize that there is indeed a next step.

Step 3-V beyond veganism — the (truly) synthetic diet, powered by the sun

Infographic showing step 3-V — synthetic foods made with solar power

We already have quite a bit of synthetic substances in our modern diet, from cereals colored with neon dyes to lab-grown food, which is still grown on the cellular level.

But these foodstuffs are not always truly synthetic.

The shrimp made of algae is still algae, and the lab-grown steak is still made of cells.

Can we make food without culturing cells?

Can we make truly synthetic food?

What would truly synthetic food be?

Let’s say we made a cellular process that wove together edible carbohydrates into starches, and then synthesized proteins from carbon atoms.

And then another process might weave together a few vitamins.

This diet would be rounded out with some minerals, and of course, water.

That would be a truly synthetic diet — no cells were either grown or harmed to make your meal.

Is this possible?

Right now, such an endeavor is difficult. As our hero of The Martian found out, we might go to Mars in the near future, but we most likely won’t be able to make food without photosynthesis and the complex fertilizing molecules of biological life.

But this is a thought experiment, so let’s just synthesize a steak in our Star Trek replicator.

Actually, let’s just have a Tea, Earl Grey, hot — and think about this process of living off of synthetically assembled molecules, and nothing else.

The USS Enterprise from Star Trek — a photo of a model of it
Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

And then ask ourselves —

Could we go a step beyond that?

Let’s try.

Nothing is being killed in this (not yet achievable) idyll, but let’s see if we can go beyond the initial power source of solar energy.

The production of honey, maple syrup and — for the most part — all of our currently synthesized foodstuffs requires energy that ultimately came from the sun.

Even oil, coal and geothermal energy are tied to the sun in some regard, and since this is a thought experiment, so let’s go beyond our current sources of power.

Photo of a city at night
Cities that rely on both old forms of energy and renewables ultimately get their power from the sun. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Let’s see if we can make synthesized food with energy found in the fabric of the universe, and while we’re at it:

Let’s see if we can eat the fabric of the universe as well.

Step 4-V beyond veganism — eating the fabric of the universe

Infographic showing step 4-V — eating the fabric of the universe

Could we eat the fabric of the universe?

First of all, what do we mean by that?

We mean to ask: could we cook a meal with power from the fabric of the universe, and have the meal be made of matter from the fabric of the universe?

In this thought experiment, the answer is a (very, very theoretical) yes.

Every part of our meal — from the cooking energy required up to the matter itself, could consist of the fabric of the universe, and nothing else.

Wait, what?

Good question.

First of all, the power

An interstellar spaceship might rely on an extrasolar power source, and that might include nuclear reaction, a contained black hole, or even zero-point energy.

Zero-point energy — what is that?

We don’t quite understand this ourselves, but one understanding suggests that empty space is not empty space — on a subatomic level, particles are popping in and out of existence all the time.

And you could also get energy from a vacuum.

A great deal of it in fact.

And energy can be turned into matter so —

Second of all, the matter

You need a great deal of energy to make matter, but if you had an unending power source such as zero-point energy, you could make matter.

The Douglas E. Richards book Seeker
Douglas E Richards writes about zero point energy — and shows that it can be both a source of energy and a way to blow up our solar system

You could also blow up a solar system, but still —

It’s a thought experiment.

And the thought here is that in theory, you could make matter from empty space, synthesize that matter into nutritive substances with energy from empty space, and if you have any energy left over, you could probably bake it as well.

A tofu casserole made from the fabric of the universe?

There are probably easier ways to make tofu casseroles, even in a spaceship, but still —

If you did all the steps above, you would have taken veganism to its fullest extent. Nothing would have to die to make your meal, not even on the cellular level and —

Perhaps the zero-point energy might even allow you to skip the second law of thermodynamics, though that might just be a nice to have.

And we have reached the end of the first half of the thought experiment (though leave a comment below if you think we can go further), so now —

Let’s go the other way.

We’ll start with carnivorism

And then see how far we can go beyond that.

Infographic showing a step 0 of a generalized Omnivore
Let’s start with step 0 again — Omnivorism

Part 2 of 2 — Beyond carnivorism

Let’s put aside any thought of Peter Singer’s ethics, or Yuval Noah Harari’s thoughts on the hellish conditions of factory farms. And let’s not think of the health benefits of meat either.

This is a thought experiment, so let’s just see what the steps beyond eating meat might be, with no judgments either way.

So let’s make a baseline of carnivorism, which is eating meat.

A carnivore eats meat, and that means some living (and possibly thinking) being has to die for the carnivore to have a meal.

What is beyond that?

We’ll call this step 1-C, with the C standing for carnivorism.

An infographic showing step C — Carnivorism

Step 1-C beyond carnivorism — cannibalism

Infographic showing step 1-C — Cannibalism

Cannibalism is certainly taboo in the world, and it should be — at least from an evolutionary perspective.

Killing and eating another species for a meal is still killing and eating another being, but —

Eating another creature is not antithetical to one’s evolutionary impulse. The meal is another species, and if a member of that wholly separate species has to die for a carnivore to survive, or even be momentarily sated —

The action is coincidental with the carnivore’s evolutionary imperative.

Heck, one could argue that carnivorism can be good for both the meat-eater’s and the meat-animal’s evolutionary imperative, considering how wolves cull deer herds, and how factory farms ensure that the genetics of cows, chickens and pigs spread across the earth.

But regardless — the act of eating a member of your own species is different.

Or is it?

Cannibalism does happen in nature — sometimes it is even part of a species’ natural life cycle

Sandtiger sharks attack each other in utero, and the embryo that eats the rest gets to be born.

An image of a sand tiger shark — photo courtesy of Wikimedia public domain and D Ross Robertson
Sand tiger sharks have cannibalism built into their life cycle — and this inborn ferocity might have contributed to their evolutionary persistence

This built-in ferocity might be one of the reasons why sharks are older than both trees and the dinosaurs.

But for many species, cannibalism is (mostly) a solid no.

It’s a thought experiment, so let’s turn that no into a (thought-only) yes, and consider the act of cannibalism for a species that avoids it.

In fact, let’s consider cannibalism in regards to humans —

And let’s do this briefly.

Let’s (briefly) consider a human cannibalizing another human

Well, human on human cannibalism is a taboo subject. Even just writing the H1 headline in Medium feels wrong,

A human is an active choice-making biological system, and cannibalization is not required for humans to fulfill their evolutionary imperative.

And we don’t need to explore this any further. We can just say this:

A human that engages in cannibalism would be one step beyond a carnivore.

And that is all we will say on this taboo subject.

Is there a step beyond this?

Yes there is, at least in theory.

Step 2-C beyond carnivorism — eating a creature of greater intelligence

Infographic showing step 2-C — eating a being of higher intelligence

Intelligence is hard to quantify, but there aren’t as many qualms about a human consuming a chicken, which has 200 million neurons, compared to a human’s 20 billion — as there might be eating an Orca, which has 40 billion neurons.

But there may be a way to consume a creature of greater intelligence, at least in the linguistic sense.

A human can do this, by eating a dolphin.

Dolphin language is beyond our understanding, and that means something

In 1961 a young Carl Sagan and others began The Order of the Dolphin — a group hoping to decode the dolphin language.

These members were the best and the brightest of the time, and though these best and brightest discovered a heck of a lot about the earth, the universe and everything else —

They couldn’t crack the dolphin language.

Currently, scientists are employing Artificial Intelligence are hoping to decode the language but —

It still hasn’t happened yet.

But plop any dolphin calf into a pod, and she’ll learn the language with ease.

In some regards at least, dolphins are more intelligent than humans.

And eating dolphin meat feels a bit — off.

It doesn’t have the same feel as eating an alien species that can talk directly to us, let alone an alien species with a baseline IQ of 200, but still — eating a talking dolphin does feel a bit off.

And though it’s not completely taboo per se —

The human world considers this a bit off as well.

There are some cultures that eat dolphin, but no culture depends on the consumption of dolphins to survive.

Dolphin sashimi — photo courtesy of Wikipedia and B.D. Padgett
A plate of dolphin sashimi

Of course, the consumption of marine mammals is still on the table, as so to speak.

Whales have their own language, and whale-hunting was a big component of the 19th century global economy. It is still practiced today, albeit being heavily regulated.

Inuit cultures still hunt and consume seals.

So there isn’t a clear-cut hierarchy of morality here, and it will get even less clear cut with the next step.

A person who eats seal or even whale might be thought of differently than a person who eats dolphin.

And that person would certainly be thought of differently than a person who practiced cannibalism.

These steps are not a hierarchy of moral values, but of steps

We’re just seeing where each step leads, and for this step —

Eating dolphin makes us uneasy, so we could infer:

Eating something of greater intelligence, even in some regards, may make sentient creatures like humans uneasy.

Dolphins also have human-like faces that appear to smile, which reinforces the unease.

And this is a thought experiment, so we’ll leave it at that — something to think about.

Let’s go further —

Not eating a dolphin, or even a 200 IQ alien.

What is it like to eat a higher consciousness?

What is it like to eat a god?

Step 3-C beyond carnivorism — consuming a being of greater consciousness, like a deity

Humans have ceremonies like the Eucharist, in which we consume representational flesh of consciousnesses greater than our own.

But could we actually consume greater consciousnesses?

We could, and we may be doing this right now.

Wait — we could currently be eating gods?

Yes, and we might not even know that we are.

What?

It’s a thought experiment, so hear me out, and I’ll explain how greater-consciousness-eating is currently happening — on a small scale at least.

Greater consciousness-eating example 1 — the mushroom hunter

Mushrooms are heterotrophs, which mean they do not produce their own food, and eat other things. But they are not always as passive in their heterotrophy as they appear.

In fact, on the microscopic level, some mushrooms are ferocious predators.

Photo of Merlin Sheldrake from his website — https://www.merlinsheldrake.com/about
Merlin Sheldrake is one of the leading thinkers around Mycology

As Merlin Sheldrake wrote about in Entangled Life, mushrooms actively hunt and consume nematodes:

The methods fungi use to hunt nematodes are grisly and diverse. It is a habit that has evolved multiple times — many fungal lineages have reached a similar conclusion but in different ways. Some fungi grow adhesive nets, or branches to which nematodes stick. Some use mechanical means, producing hyphal nooses that inflate in a tenth of a second when touched, ensnaring their prey. Some — including the commonly cultivated oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) — produce hyphal stalks capped with a single toxic droplet that paralyzes nematodes, giving the hypha enough time to grow through their mouth and digest the worm from the inside. Others produce spores that can swim through the soil, chemically drawn toward nematodes, to which they bind. Once attached, the spores sprout and the fungus harpoons the worm with specialized hyphae known as “gun cells.”

An electron scanning microscope of a mushroom hunting a nematode — photo credit to N Allin and GL Barron and the National Park Service — https://www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/mushrooms-predators-in-the-duff.htm?ref=thewhippet.org
An oyster mushroom preying upon a nematode

OK, mushrooms can be active predators regards to nematodes. What does that mean?

Let’s do the math on this.

Mushrooms: 0 neurons

Nematodes: 300 neurons

300 neurons is not a lot, but compared to 0 — it is a gap.

The nematode is a higher consciousness compared to its predator mushroom.

Let’s expand this though, by thinking of ourselves with a bacterial infection in our flesh.

Greater consciousness-eating example 2 — the bacteria consuming a human

Bacteria can certainly consume human flesh, and let’s consider one doing just that.

There is a colony of bacteria in a wound on a human leg, happily munching away.

Let’s consider this from the viewpoint of a single bacterium, and do the math.

Bacterium: 0 neurons

Human: Billions of neurons

The bacterium that munches upon a human’s wound is munching upon a higher consciousness

A photo of a hand with a cut and a bandage on it
The bacteria that munches upon your wound is munching upon a higher consciousness — Photo by Brian Patrick Tagalog on Unsplash

In fact, the gap in consciousness is so great that effectively, the bacterium is consuming a bacteria-deity.

And what that means is —

The furthest step beyond carnivorism might be happening all the time.

Eating a deity happens, and it might not be that big of a deal

Eating dolphins makes us feel odd, but a predator mushroom hunting nematode prey is commonplace, and bacteria eating anything they can, including higher consciousnesses, is more than commonplace.

In fact, it’s ubiquitous.

Does that mean we’re eating higher consciousnesses right now, and don’t even know it?

That’s a bit abstract of course, but if a bacterium can eat our flesh — and not understand the greater consciousness of its meal, then we might be doing the same.

Somehow.

Heck, when non-human animals get infections they generally don’t understand what is happening, so perhaps —

Perhaps the ignorance goes both ways. Perhaps we are eating deities (somehow) right now and don’t know it, and the deities are being eaten (somehow) right now and don’t know it.

And the true meaning of this action might make as much sense to us as it might to a bacterium eating the flesh of a person.

This is a bit abstract of course, and quite possibly unprovable but — this is a thought experiment, and abstract, unprovable sentiments are acceptable outcomes of thought experiments.

And if you are really worried about eating a god —

Remember to enunciate next time you order a Cinnabite at the mall.

If you order a Cenobite, you might end up summoning a higher consciousness for lunch, and then all Hell will break loose.

A tongue in cheek PSA reminding people to order Cinnabites and not Cenobites — images courtesy of Adobe, Pinhead image courtesy of New World Pictures — photo laid out by Jonathan Maas in Adobe Express
PSA — when you are at the mall — enunciate your Cinnabite order!

A final thought about this thought experiment — let’s compare the extremes

On one end we have the way-beyond-vegan that eats synthetic material made from the fabric of the universe.

On the other hand we have the way-beyond-carnivore that consumes a deity.

Are those extremes that different?

Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.

Maybe they are one and the same.

Regardless, it’s food for thought — whether that food comes from the fabric of our universe, or something beyond our conception.

Here’s a graph showing the spectrum of consumption in its entirety:

An infographic showing all the steps from above — the full spectrum of eating
The full spectrum of eating

Jonathan Maas has a few books on Amazon and has direct the SciFi movie Spanners, which is free to watch on YouTube.

He is a member of the Los Angeles Philosophy and Ethics society, whose conversation helped inform this thesis.

For further reading he suggests Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Douglas E. Richards writes about zero point energy, and a lot of other things as well, and Split Second is a good place to start with him.

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Jonmaas
Predict

I read a lot and occasionally write ;) See more of me at Goodreads.com/JMaas