During the Romantic era, everyone seemed to be fascinated by physiognomy and anthropology. Connections were being drawn between human and non-human bodies and, for some, the similarities were too great to ignore. The man we will be studying today, Joseph Ritson, even believed that the consumption of animal flesh would eventually lead humans to eat their own kind: “As human sacrifices were a natural effect of that superfluous cruelty which first produced the slaughter of animals, so is it equally natural that these accustomed to eat the brute, should not long abstain from the man”. This quote was taking from his 1802 “Essay on the Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty”, a text that covers everything from the history of man’s diet to the moral implications. However, this post will focus specifically on Ritson’s idea about vegetarianism and the body, both in terms of physiology and health.
According to Ritson, “the two most general distinctions of the carnivorous type of quadrupeds are deduced, one from the conformation of the teeth, and the other from the conformation of the intestines”. He argues that the conformation of the intestines is too short to digest meat easily and that our “blunt teeth” resemble “the horse, the ox, the sheep, and the hare”, rather than “the cat, the dog, the wolf and the fox”. Ritson believed that humans essentially lacked the biological tools to be carnivores and instead were conditioned by habit.
In 1809, Darwin was born. Years later, in 1871, he would publish his controversial work The Descent of Man, where he outlines human evolution from apes. However, seven years before he was even born, in Ritson’s publication, parallels between the two species are being explored. As a result of the similarities between man and ape, Ritson believed that their natural diets would be the same. He discusses “the ourang-outang which resembles man” and “never meddles with animal flesh, but lives on nuts and other wild fruits”. He also talks about baboons “principally feed[ing] upon fruits, roots and corn”. He believes that a plant based diet belongs to “all the ape or monkey genus except man”.
Ritson was also a great believer in the health benefits reaped from a plant based diet. He noticed that in cultures where less meat was eaten, there was also less disease and death. He claims that the “Orientals live to a great age…owing to their abstinence from animal food”. In fact, he was on to something there. Nowadays, out of the ten countries with the lowest obesity rates, eight are in Asia and the remaining two are in Africa. This is undoubtedly because their diets consist of plain starches such as rice, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
If Ritson thought things were bad then, he should have a look at this http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25576400.
Ritson's essay can be found here https://archive.org/stream/anessayonabstin00ritsgoog#page/n5/mode/2up