Meat, in its many forms, represents what is probably the most universally valued of foods across the broad spectrum of human cultures. For an omnivorous species like ourselves, it can be construed as a food of particularly high nutritional value, especially as a source of protein. However, this whole book is, of course, based upon the premise that human food consumption is not only a question of satisfying nutritional needs. Certainly, it could be argued that there is much more to meat eating than the ingestion of a conveniently packaged range of important nutrients. For example, meat is arguably one of the most ambivalent of food items in terms of the three paradoxes discussed in Chapter 7. In gustatory terms, in health terms and in moral terms, meat carries particularly potent connotations, both positive and negative.
This chapter is concerned with the fundamental questions of why humans eat meat, and why they endow it with such significance. Are these effects largely a function of its physiological and nutritional relevance to the human diet or is its symbolic potential the more important source of its widespread appeal? We will consider these questions by examining the work of a range of social scientists whose views are sometimes in conflict, but who all acknowledge the singular salience of this particular food. However, initially we will need to consider briefly, by way of background, the nutritional import of meat in the human diet before examining the argument that our appetite for meat is, at root, a physiologically driven imperative which finds expression in many ways and in many guises. The symbolic dimensions of meat will be introduced by reconsidering examples of the taboos and prohibitions which exist, or have existed, in more traditional cultures. This will then lead us to an examination of the complex and often highly ambiguous symbolism associated with meat in contemporary Western culture. Finally, we will assess the view that the underlying meanings of meat in Western thought are undergoing far-reaching changes, associated with broader shifts in ideas about the relationship between humans and the natural world.
In order to understand the role of meat in the human diet, a necessary first step is to attempt to clarify just what is meant by this term. In fact, in English the