Photo: Chimpanzee being used for space research by the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s.
The Institute of Medicine convened an ad hoc committee to answer two important questions:
Is biomedical research with chimpanzees “necessary for research discoveries and to determine the safety and efficacy of new prevention or treatment strategies?”
Is behavioral research using chimpanzees “necessary for progress in understanding social, neurological and behavioral factors that influence the development, prevention, or treatment of disease?”
The committee was asked to consider only scientific questions, not questions related to ethics or costs. The committee’s report concluded that most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary and that the National Institutes of Health should put strict limits on the use of chimpanzees as research subjects. The NIH has already announced a freeze on new grants for chimpanzee experimentation.
Many people think that I am silly for asking where gorillas get their protein. They tell me that I should talk about chimpanzees instead. Often, they inform me that chimpanzees are far more similar to human beings than gorillas are, as if I couldn’t tell that just by looking. These people are missing my point: gorillas are the largest and most powerful living primate and yet are the closest to following what human beings would consider a vegan diet. Chimpanzees and human beings don’t need to eat meat to grow up big and strong because gorillas grow up to be far bigger and stronger without it. Lawyers may recognize this as an a fortiori argument.
If a male gorilla, whose digestive system is practically identical to a human being’s, can get enough protein from vegetables to grow to weigh more than 400 pounds and be ten times as strong as a man, why shouldn’t I expect that a relatively puny human Olympic weightlifter could also get enough protein from a plant-based diet? My intent is to ridicule the Four Food Groups dogma that I was taught in sixth grade.
Gorillas don’t hunt or fish, and they don’t keep cows or chickens. As a result, they don’t eat meat or fish, dairy products or eggs. The only animal-source food they eat is “the other, other white meat”: termites, slugs, and other creepy-crawlies. These foods would make an insignificant contribution to the gorillas’ protein intake, which is already high because protein accounts for a high percentage of the calories in leaves.
Bugs and slugs could be a useful source of vitamin B12, a micronutrient that is made by bacteria in their intestines. Vitamin B12 is also produced by bacteria in a primate’s gastrointestinal tract. However, the vitamin may be produced so far along in the intestinal tract that it isn’t absorbed efficiently. No plants make vitamin B12, but gorillas and chimpanzees can probably get enough vitamin B12 from the bacteria in the bugs they eat and in the dirt that clings to their food. Plus, apes are not meticulous about washing their hands, if you get my drift. If you are worried about getting enough vitamin B12, you don’t have to eat dirt or bugs. You can get it in a nice, clean tablet instead.
I don’t ask where chimpanzees get their protein because chimpanzees do eat some meat. Chimpanzees probably eat less meat than just about any human population other than Buddhist monks. Nevertheless, many people want to use chimpanzees’ meat consumption as an excuse for humans to eat meat.
The fact that chimpanzees’ meat consumption is largely seasonal goes far toward explaining why human beings have always eaten meat. Chimpanzees are most likely to eat meat during the time of year when they are losing weight because their usual foods are in relatively short supply. People think of meat as a source of protein, but it’s mainly a source of calories, especially from fat. Meat is also a good source of sodium, which is in relatively short supply in the chimpanzees’ fruit and vegetable diet.
The fact that chimpanzees eat the most meat during times of food shortages suggests that their food choices follow a pattern that biologists call optimal foraging theory. Animals try to get the most calories for the least effort and without getting hurt. Optimal foraging theory explains why chimpanzees eat meat but gorillas don’t, and why chimpanzees eat more meat during times of food shortage.
Chimpanzees are mainly fruit eaters, but they also eat a lot of vegetables. The problem with fruit is that it’s seasonal. Worse yet, a fruit tree represents a rich enough source of calories that animals will fight over it. When fruit is scarce, chimpanzees can use the skills they developed in fighting over the fruit to engage in predatory behavior. Also, chimpanzees are small enough and fast enough that they are reasonably good hunters.
Gorillas, on the other hand, mainly eat leaves. There are generally plenty of leaves to go around, and a leafy plant is generally so poor in calories that it’s not worth fighting to protect. To subsist on leaves, however, you have to eat an enormous volume of food. Since leaves are so low in calories, leaf-eaters have to be good at conserving their energy. That’s why gorillas have such a placid disposition. For a gorilla, hunting is simply not worth the effort. They are too big and slow to catch very much, and they’re large enough that they’d risk injury if they got too reckless.
Chimpanzees use twigs to fish for termites, and gorillas don’t. Some people think that this fact means that chimpanzees are smarter than gorillas. I don’t. If you are a juvenile gorilla or a pregnant or nursing female gorilla, you don’t need to mess around with a little bitty twig to get a few termites. All you have to do is wait for the silverback to knock over a rotting tree. Then all of you can eat as many termites as you’d like.
Some people have argued that the balance between animal and plant foods in a hunter-gatherer society’s diet represents the optimal balance for human nutrition. I think that’s idiotic. Hunter-gatherer peoples (or should I say, gatherer-hunter peoples) tend to follow optimal foraging theory just like any other opportunistic feeder. Their goal is to survive in the short term, not to avoid breast or prostate cancer in middle or old age. The main threat to their short-term survival is starvation.
Meat represents a concentrated source of calories. The fact that a relatively high percentage of these calories comes from protein is actually a disadvantage. Hunting peoples prefer the fattiest foods. People who end up having to subsist on extremely low-fat meat, such as rabbit, are prone to a problem called fat-hunger or rabbit starvation. This problem probably results from a diet that has too much protein and not enough carbohydrate or fat. On a low-carb diet and during starvation, the body has to make its sugar supply out of protein. Perhaps the body can make only so much sugar out of protein. As long as you are eating enough fat to meet most of your energy needs, your body can make enough sugar out of protein to feed your brain. If you were eating protein but not enough fat or carbs, you could end up in serious trouble. So you could end up in trouble from a diet that is too high in protein. In contrast, it is practically impossible to avoid getting enough protein, as long as you are eating enough unrefined plant foods to get enough calories.
Famine is not a significant cause of death in the United States. In fact, people in the United States are far more likely to die of the diseases of affluence, such as heart disease and cancers of the breast and prostate. Animal-based foods and fatty processed foods are the main contributing causes of the diseases of affluence. The ability to use animals for food may have helped human beings survive to the modern era, especially in the Arctic, but animal-based foods are a major cause of death and disability in the United States today. Think about that the next time you hear someone promoting a “Paleo” diet.
Many people have asked me, why do you ask where gorillas get their protein, when our bodies and our body chemistry more closely resemble those of chimpanzees? My answer is that gorillas are much bigger and more powerful than chimpanzees. Last night, I saw a museum exhibit that compared a gorilla skull to a chimpanzee skull and a human skull. (They might have been models. It was hard to tell.) The gorilla skull was huge! The chimpanzee skull was about the same size as a human skull.
The other reason is that gorillas eat a much more strictly plant-based diet. Chimpanzees hunt once in a while, and they often eat their kill. Even so, they still eat a lot less meat than just about any human population. Nevertheless, I was afraid that the fact they eat a little bit of meat now and then would muddy the waters.
My point is this. Most of the really big and powerful land animals got big and powerful by eating plants. They don’t worry about getting a protein deficiency on a plant-based diet, and neither should you.
Vitamin B12 is one of the two nutrients that are essential for human beings but aren’t available from a purely plant-based diet. The other is vitamin D, which isn’t truly a vitamin but is a hormone that your body can make for itself if you get some bright sunshine on your skin. Gorillas live in Africa, where there’s no shortage of sunshine. The interesting question is where do they get their vitamin B12? Evidently, they get it from the insects and other creepy crawlies that they eat. Their favorites are termites—the other, other white meat.
As you can see, the gorillas just dismantle the tree where the termites are. That’s probably why they don’t bother using tools to fish for termites, as chimpanzees do:
Except for vitamin D and vitamin B12, plants provide all the essential nutrients that people need. Plants contain minerals, such as calcium and iron, which they have absorbed from the soil. Plants contain all of the other vitamins and essential amino acids, which they have made for their own purposes. Plants are also the original source of the essential fatty acids. However, plants don’t make vitamin B12, and neither do animals. All of the vitamin B12 in nature comes from bacteria.
Some plant-eaters get their supply of vitamin B12 from the bacteria in their own digestive system, as long as they are eating something that contains the element cobalt. (Vitamin B12 contains cobalt). Cattle and sheep are particularly good at getting vitamin B12 from their own gut bacteria. They have a lot of bacterial fermentation going on in their stomachs, so the vitamin B12 is made before the food passes through the part of the intestine where the vitamin B12 gets absorbed. Such animals are called “foregut fermenters.”
Other species, including rabbits and gorillas and human beings, are “hindgut fermenters.” Their gut bacteria make vitamin B12, but only after the food has passed through the part of the intestine where the vitamin B12 can get absorbed. Rabbits solve this problem by eating some of their own droppings. Wild mountain gorillas sometimes do the same thing, usually during periods of bad weather. Captive gorillas do it a lot more often, possibly because they are bored.
On the other hand, gorillas and human beings can eat foods that already contain ready-made vitamin B12. For gorillas, that means tasty, tasty termites, which get vitamin B12 from their own gut bacteria. Modern human beings who don’t want to eat termites, or any other animal products, can get their vitamin B12 from a nice, clean, and very cheap supplement. As long as their gastrointestinal system is healthy, people can even take their vitamin B12 by mouth. Vitamin B12 shots are useful for people who have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from their food, because of gastrointestinal disease.