Dear Umbra,

I have been a vegetarian for a pretty long time, but my uncle told me that if the human is not supposed to eat meat then why do we have teeth. He left me a little confused. Is the human being naturally vegetarian?

Somerville, Mass.

Dearest Laida,

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Your uncle is unkindly denigrating your ideas, and using his authority to confuse you. His comment reminds me of a long-ago MAD Magazine spoof — to paraphrase, “If the Lord had meant us to have telephones, he would have given us telephones instead of an appendix.”

If you want my opinion, and it looks like you do, it’s a bit specious to seek the “natural” in modern society. Proponents of sundry diets often use human biology or history to bolster their arguments. One diet suggests that all humans with Type O blood are linked back to the first hunter-gatherers and hence should eat a meat-centered diet. Others, including some vegetarians, point toward our common agricultural ancestors for proper dietary guidance. But if we aren’t behaving “naturally” now, how far back does “natural” begin? Should we all be eating primordial ooze? The human being does not naturally travel faster than 20 miles per hour, use nuclear power, or have quilted toilet paper. God, evolution, and/or the march of time have brought us far, far from the cave and the matriarchal rhythms of Gaia.

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So, I would encourage you to set aside the “natural” question. You have made a choice not to eat meat, for your own distinct reasons, and that should be enough to satisfy all the naysayers. Of course, it isn’t, so you must practice coping with the thousands of folks out there, like your uncle, who have a burning desire to poke vegetarians until they bite back. What you need is not the natural history of the human diet, but an arsenal of responses to skepticism. I’ll lay out some tactical responses for use with pokers. Please review and rehearse, and pull one out if the meat eaters should again raise their ugly teeth.

  1. Refuse to Play: He’s poking you, don’t take the bait. Blithely tell him it’s an interesting question and become distracted by Tony Soprano.
  2. Speak to the Subtext: Ignore the obnoxious stated question, and treat the underlying behavior. “You seem uncomfortable with my vegetarianism …”
  3. Gross ’em Out: “I’m just uncomfortable eating cannibalistic animals raised on human sewage and the fingers of slaughterhouse workers.” Often turns into #5.
  4. Caustic Retort: “Well, if you’re not supposed to breastfeed, why do you have nipples?”
  5. Political Engagement: You know this one — trundling out statistics on modern meat production, holding your ground, mentioning rabbits (herbivores with teeth), and treating his harebrained arguments with respect.

Why do we have teeth? What better to clench at night while fretting about the Bush administration’s anti-environmental juggernaut? Respect your own opinions, Laida, and ask others to respect them as well.