Humans As Predators
By: Carol J. Adams
Are we predators or are we not? In an attempt to see
ourselves as natural beings, some argue that humans
are simply predators like some other animals.
Vegetarianism is then seen to be unnatural while the carnivorism of other
animals is made paradigmatic.
Animal rights is criticized "for it does not understand that one species
supporting or being supported by another is nature's way of sustaining life"
The deeper disanalogies with carnivorous animals remain unexamined
because the notion of humans as predators is consonant with the idea that we
need to eat meat.
In fact, carnivorism is true for only about 20 percent of nonhuman animals.
Can we really generalize from this experience and claim to know precisely
what "nature's way" is, or can we extrapolate the role of humans according to
Some feminists have argued that the eating of animals is natural because we
do not have the herbivore's double stomach or flat grinders and because
chimpanzees eat meat and regard it as a treat. (Kevles 1990).
This argument from anatomy involves selective filtering. In fact, all primates
are primarily herbivorous. Though some chimpanzees have been observed
eating dead flesh—at the most, six times in a month—some never eat meat.
Dead flesh constitutes less than 4 percent of chimpanzees' diet; many eat
insects, and they do not eat dairy products (Barnard 1990). Does this sound
like the diet of human beings?
Chimpanzees, like most carnivorous animals, are apparently far better suited
to catching animals than are human beings. We are much slower than they.
They have long-projecting canine teeth for tearing hide; all the hominoids lost
their long-projecting canines 3.5 million years ago, apparently to allow more
crushing action consistent with a diet of fruits, leaves, nuts, shoots, and
If we do manage to get a hold of prey animals we cannot rip into their skin. It is
true that chimpanzees act as if meat were a treat. When humans lived as
foragers and when oil was rare, the flesh of dead animals was a good source
of calories. It may be that the "treat" aspect of meat has to do with an ability to
recognize dense sources of calories.
However, we no longer have a need for such dense sources of calories as
animal fat, since our problem is not lack of fat but rather too much fat.
When the argument is made that eating animals is natural, the presumption is
that we must continue consuming animals because this is what we require to
survive, to survive in a way consonant with living unimpeded by artificial
cultural constraints that deprive us of the experience of our real selves.
The paradigm of carnivorous animals provides the reassurance that eating
animals is natural. But how do we know what is natural when it comes to
eating, both because of the social construction of reality and the fact that our
history indicates a very mixed message about eating animals? Some did; the
majority did not, at least to any great degree.
The argument about what is natural—that is, according to one meaning of it,
not culturally constructed, not artificial, but something that returns us to our
true selves —appears in a different context that always arouses feminists'
It is often argued that women's subordination to men is natural. This
argument attempts to deny social reality by appealing to the "natural."
The "natural" predator argument ignores social construction as well. Since we
eat corpses in a way quite differently from any other animals—dismembered,
not freshly killed, not raw, and with other foods present—what makes it
Meat is a cultural construct made to seem natural and inevitable. By the time
the argument from analogy with carnivorous animals is made, the individual
making such an argument has probably consumed animals since before the
time she or he could talk.
Rationalizations for consuming animals were probably offered when this
individual at age four or five was discomfited upon discovering that meat came
from dead animals.
The taste of dead flesh preceded the rationalizations, and offered a strong
foundation for believing the rationalizations to be true, and baby boomers
faced the additional problem that as they grew up, meat and dairy products
had been canonized as two of the four basic food groups.
(This occurred in the 1950s and resulted from active lobbying by the dairy and
beef industry. At the turn of the century there were twelve basic food groups.)
Thus individuals have not only experienced the gratification of taste in eating
animals but may truly believe what they have been told endlessly since
childhood—that dead animals are necessary for human survival.
The idea that meat eating is natural develops in this context. Ideology makes
the artifact appear natural, predestined. In fact, the ideology itself disappears
behind the facade that this is a "food" issue.
We interact with individual animals daily if we eat them. However, this
statement and its implications are repositioned so that the animal disappears
and it is said that we are interacting with a form of food that has been named
In The Sexual Politics of Meat, I call this conceptual process in which the
animal disappears the structure of the absent referent.
Animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist. If
animals are alive they cannot be meat. Thus a dead body replaces the live
animal and animals become absent referents.
Without animals there would be no meat eating, yet they are absent from the
act of eating meat because they have been transformed into food.
Animals are made absent through language that renames dead bodies before
consumers participate in eating them. The absent referent permits us to forget
about the animal as an independent entity. The roast on the plate is
disembodied from the pig who she or he once was. The absent referent also
enables us to resist efforts to make animals present, perpetuating a means-
The absent referent results from and reinforces ideological captivity:
patriarchal ideology establishes the cultural set of human/animal, creates
criteria that posit the species difference as important in considering who may
be means and who may be ends, and then indoctrinates us into believing that
we need to eat animals.
Simultaneously, the structure of the absent referent keeps animals absent
from our understanding of patriarchal ideology and makes us resistant to
having animals made present. This means that we continue to interpret
animals from the perspective of human needs and interests: we see them as
usable and consumable.
Much of feminist discourse participates in this structure when failing to make
Ontology recapitulates ideology. In other words, ideology creates what
appears to be ontological: if women are ontologized as sexual beings (or
rapeable, as some feminists argue), animals are ontologized as carriers of
In ontologizing women and animals as objects, our language simultaneously
eliminates the fact that someone else is acting as a subject/agent/perpetrator
of violence. Sarah Hoagland demonstrates how this works: "John beat Mary"
becomes "Mary was beaten by John" then "Mary was beaten" and finally,
"women beaten" and thus "battered women" (Hoagland 1988).
Regarding violence against women and the creation of the term "battered
women" Hoagland observes that "now something men do to women has
become instead something that is a part of women's nature. And we lose
consideration of John entirely."
The notion of the animal's body as edible occurs in a similar way and removes
the agency of humans who buy dead animals to consume them: "Someone
kills animals so that I can eat their corpses as meat" becomes "animals are
killed to be eaten as meat" then "animals are meat" and finally "meat animal"
Something we do to animals has become instead something that is a part of
animals' nature, and we lose consideration of our role entirely.
By: Carol J. Adams
Article: The Social Construction of Edible Bodies and Humans as Predators
Excerpted From: 'Ecofeminism and the Eating of Animals,'
Hypathia, No. 6, spring 1991