In the most recent New York Review of Books (February 6, 2014), there's an exchange in the "Letters" section worth highlighting. Christof Koch, author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist and a professor of biology and engineering at Cal Tech, wrote a terse response to Jason Epstein's review of Dana Goodyear's book on extreme eating. Koch wrote, "I was appalled that in Jason Epstein's review . . .not a single mention is made of the fact that the penises, brains, hearts, and whole embryos that are now de rigueur to consume by our haute cuisine establishment derive from sentient creatures."
The NYRB has a habit of choosing the same writers to cover the same topics. That's typically fine because, in general, they tend to be brilliant thinkers and writers. I've therefore always been curious exactly how Epstein got the foodie beat at a publications with the high intellectual standards of NYRB. I say this not to be snarky, but rather to confirm my general impression, honestly developed over several years, that Epstein's reviews were thin soup compared to what appeared throughout the journal. To wit, he once praised one of Michael Pollan's toss-off post-Omnivore Dilemma books on the grounds that, in following some of Pollan's suggestions, he'd lost a few pounds. I'm pleased that Epstein lost some weight (I guess), but I hardly see how his body fat bears on the book's intellectual meat, something that NYRB readers purportedly care about.
This is a long way of getting to the point that I was not terribly surprised to read Epstein's response to Professor Koch's letter. He wrote: "We are omnivores. We eat everything edible including ourselves. I deeply regret the suffering of animals but there are not enough vegetarians to solve the problem. . . I wish it were different but we are what we are."* This is not made up, and it's especially ironic that it appeared in a journal that first published Peter Singer's work on speciesism in the 1970s. In any case , it does not take a great deal of mental elbow grease to realize that Epstein's appeal to our innate omnivorism–"we are what we are"– totally evades the ethical implication of eating a goat's phallus.
The fact that we are omnivores hardly means that "we are what we are." To the contrary, it means that we are what we want to be. We have a choice. We do not have to eat meat, and many of us choose not to. Just as men are, in evolutionary terms, sexual opportunists with a capacity to rape, we have deemed it wrong to rape. There's plenty of evidence that even animals, predisposed to commit violent acts, choose to temper their vengeful and violent instincts with more cooperative actions. How sad if, at whatever point in time habitual male sexual aggression was "debated" by our forbears, a consensus emerged to say "well, yeah, rape is bad, but there just aren't enough non-rapists for this behavioral change to happen. I wish it were otherwise but we are what we are."
Mr. Epstein says that he wishes humans did not cause animal suffering. I don't believe him. Because if he was sincere in this wish then he would have taken Professor Koch's question seriously, considered the viable option of choosing not to eat animal brains, and, rather than hiding behind an essentialist platitude that might go over well with the foodie masses, questioned Dana Goodyear's deceptively cruel book for celebrating a form of exploitation that we have every opportunity to end.