Part 10: Relax with Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan comforts doubting carnists. He wants everyone to relax about the slaughter of individuals from other species. Aside from an occasional comment about his queasiness when he kills chickens, he artfully soothes his readers, dulling concerns they may have about the omnivore’s obvious penchant for killing sentient species. One supposition he employs is that the chickens he is killing are like zombies who are not experiencing anything as he kills them. Pollan chose to interpret what he saw in the eye of these chickens as the “seeming obliviousness” that is suspiciously like what he said about steer number 534. Grabbing the chicken, “[He] looked into the black eye of the chicken and, thankfully, saw nothing, not a flicker of fear.”

Can a chicken be in shock from being pulled from the known security and community of his portable roost, carted to an unknown place on the farm where chatting strangers moved quickly with their bodies, arms, and hands that grabbed him by the neck and turned him upside down? If chicken were a songbird knocked from the sky after flying into a reflective glass building or power line, perhaps Pollan would recognize shock. Pollan does not cite scientific papers written by ethologists describing animal behavior. We know that accurately severing neck arteries with a knife brings rapid unconsciousness, but that is not the same thing as knowing what is being experienced before and during the moment of the cut by the chicken before the lights go out. Pollan is preparing chickens for an economic order of value, not the natural order where individuals are living a life and have intrinsic value. What, I wonder, did the chicken see in Pollan’s eye? Anything?

Despite his occasional misgivings about eating chicken after seeing their composting remains, Pollan moves on quickly. He gets over it. Repeatedly, he holds out ideas and reasons to turn away from the omnivore’s carnism and briefly acknowledges the suffering and destruction we inflict. But he gets over it. When he writes a chapter about “The Ethics of Eating Animals,” you can count on him to weaken all reasons that compel us to make wholesale vegan changes in our relationships with individuals from other species. In a few sentences, he tells us that we have reasons for being culturally confused about eating animals, that we seem eager to extend moral consideration to them especially in factory farms, and that science is revealing the complexity of their abilities in language, culture, tool-making, and even self-consciousness. But he gets over that, too.

As Dilemma does what it does throughout the book, we see the weight of those important factors immediately brushed aside, illogically: “And yet, most of the animals we eat lead lives organized very much in the spirit of [Rene] Descartes, who famously claimed that animals were mere machines, incapable of feeling or thought.” Assuming that Pollan is merely observing what his carnist omnivores do to animals, omnivores who impose this organizing upon their lives, and does not mean they are indeed machines, why does he choose to ignore them as individuals from other species and the science revealing their abilities in the language, culture, and tool-making he mentions? He gets over that and moves on, not answering what science is revealing and how to respond to it fully as vegans do. What he has done is insert a sentence affirming the complex abilities and sentience of other species, then ignores the need for us to respond to those discoveries. We are not supposed to notice this shell game.

Ethologists study nonhuman species’ behavior. They would not look a chicken in the eye and pronounce to the world, no fear here! It would be an unacceptable statement without proof in the ethologist’s world of scientific methodology; it should be just as unacceptable in Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan has acknowledged complex sentience as if obligated to check a box, but then abandons the trail of evidence that would bring him to an unavoidable conclusion far different from the killing he embraces. Carnism is the predominant pattern that runs throughout Omnivore’s Dilemma. Its allegiance to the omnivore’s carnist culture was never really in doubt.

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