The Meat Paradox: Empathy with Our Food

“Can’t you feel it?”
“Feel what?” I asked

“How we are turning into greedy predators, just like wolves. We have this need to kill more and more. Even if we had two hundred sables we wouldn’t feel satisfied, would we? Just like the devil, you see.”

He paused for a while. Then he added, “I suggest we calm down and stop hunting for a week or so.”

Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters

In an article published in Skeptic Magazine last month, Mark Moffett described a phenomenon which was recently dubbed by psychologists and animal ethicists as the “meat paradox.1” The question at hand is why do people love animals but also want to eat them? For a large number of scholars and laymen, the meat paradox appears to be a bit of a conundrum. Why would we ever evolve a system that would make us guilty about something we need in order to survive? Why are we able to feel empathy for our prey when so many other predators seem to be getting by without these emotions at all?

One of the most common reactions to this paradox is the assumption that it is a recent phenomenon brought on by our modern lifestyles. Compared to hunter-gatherers who spend time physically hunting and killing their food, our separation from and inexperience towards the act of killing have made us soft. In other words, hunter-gatherers don’t feel this way and our feelings about killing animals are unnatural.

But as I accidentally came to find out, this view of our unique paradox can’t be true.


Last year I completed a master’s thesis in anthropology at Texas A&M University studying the use of hunting lures in a cross-cultural context. I started the project after hearing an anecdote from a professor of mine, Mike Alvard, from when he was doing his own ethnographic fieldwork in South America for his dissertation on the “Noble Savage” hypothesis, asking whether natives hunted in a way that preserved the animals in the forest or not (spoiler: they did not). The story goes that one of his guides showed him how a single hunter could dispatch an entire flock of 20+ birds by hacking the bird’s psychology. By injuring just one bird in the flock and leaving it on the ground writhing in pain, the hunter was able to attract the other birds in the flock to the site of their dying flockmate. Each time the hunter killed a bird using a blow dart, the birds would fly off, only to return minutes later to their same family member writhing on the ground.

Numerous species of snake evolved tails which mimic the shape of insects in order to attract birds and small mammals.

After hearing this, I wanted to explore the ways in which humans deceive their prey. A number of hypotheses about the evolution of lying and deception rely on the idea that lying evolved so that humans could deceive and manipulate one another, as Machiavellian strategists2. But after hearing Alvard’s story it occurred to me that humans don’t just lie to one another, we lie to our prey, too. Other animals in nature deceive their prey, as well: anglerfish with their lures, snakes with their tails, and predatory fireflies which mimic the mating light patterns of other species all typify a form of deception we call aggressive mimicry3. But another version of this behavioral pattern exists which is not common in nature, when mimicry takes a cognitive form: along with jumping spiders which use vibrations, green herons who use bait, and possibly shrikes which mimic the calls of songbirds in winter, we are among the few animals who cognitively lie to other species.

The Stone Age Meat Paradox

My research confirmed, and at least documented, the obvious: humans around the world use lures, calls, bait, and decoys to acquire their food. Out of 357 societies in the Human Relations Area File, 143 had ethnographies which explicitly described their hunting and baiting practices. This included nearly every hunter-gatherer society, with the only negative evidence coming from Andaman Islanders (who we know nonetheless use bait, without hooks, for fishing)4. While this finding is relatively straightforward, what was surprising was the depth of those descriptions that I was unable to quantify. With each search term I continuously found examples of hunter-gatherers applying full theory of mind in trying to think like animals, conferring personhood (and not in an honorary way, either) to them, and even expressing guilt in having hunted them.

A good number of these examples of guilt mark a pretty compelling departure from the view that animal empathy is a recent mental pathway for humans. Take for example this excerpt, from a description of the Semai, a hunter gatherer group from the Malay Peninsula5,

“…trappers should take ritual precautions like those associated with the srngloo’ (hunter’s violence) or their traps won’t work. Most significantly, trappers should avoid human contact. He should avoid sex, even sleeping beside other people. Animals, remember, are people ‘in their own dimension,’ so that the trapping he is engaged in is profoundly antisocial, both violent and duplicitous.”

This is not simply a case of hunter-gatherer superstition, either, as one informant goes on to note,

“You have to deceive and trap your food, but you know that it is a bad thing to do, and you don’t want to do it. Being forced to what you do not want to do is spiritually harmful.”

In the Semai, certain types of obligatory guilts (the sort of guilt one carries after failing to listen to their parents, for example), carries with it bad magic, known as mnuur. Men in Semai society produce such mnuur simply through the act of hunting, as they possess an ethics system which recognizes hunting as immoral. Even Mark Moffett’s piece in Kkeptic describes the guilt felt by one of his informants from the Kalahari1,

“One !Xõ tracker described how he could feel empathy for the antelopes he killed while simultaneously seeing them as food; his emotion tipped into sadness when a juvenile antelope, too young to watch out for itself, was trapped in his snare.”

The ethnographic literature is rife with examples similar to this one, on the minds of animals and hunters’ recognition of their sentience. The most compelling examples I have found come from anthropologist Rane Willerslev’s book Soul Hunters6.

“However, although meat is highly esteemed, killing and eating animals is inherently problematic. As one young hunter once expressed it, ‘When killing an elk or a bear, I sometimes feel I’ve killed someone human. But one must banish such thoughts or one would go mad from shame.’”

Rane goes on to show how some hunters will forego killing familiar animals which they have formed borderline romantic relationships with or forego eating bears as their similarity to humans make their consumption nearly an act of cannibalism.

Animal Minds

Where does this empathy come from and why might it develop? Among our suite of cognitive traits, humans and several other creatures possess the ability to know not only our own intentions, but to also know the intentions of others and how much they know about our own intentions. This feature, known as Theory of Mind, explains why we’re able to ascribe intentions to animals and put ourselves in their shoes, or their perspective. Although this theory developed to explain how humans interact with one another, our application of perspectivism (the ability to distinguish between self and other) towards animals is a clear application of theory of mind, as well.

I consider that this application of theory of mind is largely learned, or a cognitive gadget (to borrow from Cecilia Heyes): the materials to build a belief in animal minds or souls is present, but not necessarily or universally applied. As noted by anthropologist Irvin Hallowell in his discussion of Bear Ceremonialism in 1926, “The belief that animals have souls, the selection of animal eponyms for social groupings, the propitiation of the spirits of animals, etc. may conceivably have developed in human thought more than once, and from different premises or historical settings.7

Wagyu cows are given beer, but probably not to get them drunk. It’s more likely the beer is used to fatten the cows, but the industry is not quick to correct the myth.

Putting souls and hunter-gatherers aside, consider this: in China a (not necessarily widespread) belief persists that an animal in pain produces desirable meat, while in Japan, simply a short plane flight away, Wagyu beef is produced where the animals are treated well enough that untrue rumors of massages and daily beer allocations for cows are still rampant (a good reason why this rumor persists develops from the fact that Japan banned the practice of eating meat for spiritual reasons for 1,200 years). Even closer to home, consider that in the West, a Cartesian belief among the intellectual class in Europe held that animals were akin to automatons, an attitude which did not popularly shift until Darwin in the 19th century.

The Origins of Cognitive Aggressive Mimicry

Depending on the approach one wants to take, we can ask why it is we apply theory of mind towards animals in addition to humans. Chimpanzees, after all, have at least a rudimentary theory of mind, but do not hesitate to tear apart the colobus monkeys they hunt for meat in their natural habitats (I suppose there are many instances where we don’t treat animals, or humans for that matter, any better than the chimpanzees treat their prey). You can see this treatment of animals in this way as a byproduct of the natural theory of mind that humans possess: this general mechanism, when applied to humans, is likely going to be applied to something human-like, as well.

My own view is more radical, that humanity’s extensive theory of mind evolved or developed, in part to facilitate applying it to animals. Many examples from the ethnographic literature referring to animals’ mindsets indicate that hunters are thinking quite intentionally about what animals are thinking. Willerslev concurs with this radical position, arguing that perspectivism arose from mimesis of our prey, noting, “this capacity to take on the appearance and viewpoint of another species is one of the key aspects of being a person.” As one of his informants notes8,

“To become a soboliatnik (expert trapper), you shouldn’t just follow your traplines blindly. You need to be curious, like the sable. The character of the sable is curiousity, pure curiousity. To place your traps well, you must be curious like the sable. You need to think like this: ‘What would attract my curiousity as a sable?’ This is how you need to think.”

Similar thoughts were explored by environmentalist Paul Shepard, who remains a favorite writer among contemporary American hunters and outdoors man (much of what I have said here about hunters and their attitude towards prey will be repeated as obvious by many amateur readers of today’s outdoors magazines). Shepard believed that much of human evolution was driven by our relationship with animals, noting childhood obsessions with categorizing dinosaurs, My Little Ponies, and Pokemon as opposed to categorizing rocks, clouds, or types of shells. In Thinking Animals, Shepard argues, “Until man began skinning animals it probably did not occur to him that we ‘wear’ our own skins. In the whole range of human temperament and character there is nothing unique, nothing not found as some aspect of another species. What men do that may be unique or is at least unusual is to know this.”

While the meat paradox may initially seem an evolutionary puzzle or conundrum, I believe we have at least two hypotheses, the byproduct hypothesis and the hunter’s hypothesis, to explain its origins.

It is true that other animals hunt without a theory of mind perfectly fine. Mouse lemurs do not have to think like crickets to catch crickets, sharks like fish, owls like mice, and so on. But few animals hunt in the way Homo sapiens do. We are the most effective predator on Earth, and we’ve won that award not with our teeth, claws, or exceptional senses. We’ve won it with our brains.


Reconstruction of a buffalo pound. Hunters would either chase or lure (using buffalo costumes) buffaloes into an inescapable trap. Probably the closest humans ethically came to modern factory farming in a prehistoric era.

The meat paradox still remains more paradoxical than ever, even when its origins can be explained. The question stands as to why we consciously choose to eat meat (as I do) in our modern environments. Those people who attack the paradox using modernity as their main issue are certainly right about one thing: it is the case that our modern lifestyles have alienated us from the way our food gets to the table. We know humans crave meat and always have. But likewise for a long time, many of us have been unsettled by the fact that we are killing and consuming sentient beings. So why is it that we continue to eat meat and tolerate the practice of factory farming now that we have the choice not to?

The fact of the matter is, this sort of paradox won’t be disappearing with an appeal to our evolutionary past. What we can say about today and yesterday though is that our alienation from our food means that our empathy towards it may be paradoxically lower than when we were actually having to kill it.

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1Moffett, Mark W. “Respecting Nature, Respecting People: A Naturalist Model for Reducing Speciesism, Racism, and Bigotry.” Skeptic (Altadena, CA) 25, no. 3 (2020): 48-52.

2Byrne, Richard W. “Machiavellian intelligence.” Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews: Issues, News, and Reviews 5, no. 5 (1996): 172-180.

3Wickler, Wolfgang. “Mimicry and the evolution of animal communication.” Nature 208, no. 5010 (1965): 519-521.

4Man, Edward Horace. “On the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands.(Part I).” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 12 (1883): 69-116.

5Dentan, Robert Knox. Overwhelming Terror: Love, Fear, Peace, and Violence among Semai of Malaysia. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

6Willerslev, Rane. Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Univ of California Press, 2007.

7Hallowell, A. Irving. “Bear ceremonialism in the northern hemisphere.” American Anthropologist 28, no. 1 (1926): 1-175.

8Willerslev, Rane. “Not animal, not not‐animal: hunting, imitation and empathetic knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10, no. 3 (2004): 629-652.

2 thoughts on “The Meat Paradox: Empathy with Our Food”

  1. I’d imagine there still are plenty of opportunities in modern human lifestyles to apply the theory of the mind with the express goal of “trapping” other beings. Is it within the realm possibilities that it makes, say, guerilla fighters, PUAs or even sports players likely more empathetic than a dog walker?


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