The biologist Jordi Casamitjana gives the ultimate vegan answer to the vegan sceptic’s remark “It’s a circle of life” intended to show that consuming animals is natural for humans
This one is a bit different.
We, ethical vegans like me, are very used to hearing remarks that vegan sceptics say when they are trying to convince us that we have chosen the wrong lifestyle. They often do not understand that we behave the way we do because we try to be consistent in following a millenarian-old philosophy we have adopted that directs us to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of animal exploitation — as we consider it wrong to cause harm to others. We believe that exploiting animals harms them.
Even if we may have entered veganism via one of its five gateways (animals, the environment, spirituality, health or social justice) once we are fully in we do not continue avoiding consuming animal products because that is more natural, healthy, just, or better for the environment — even though these are other benefits of adopting the philosophy — but because it is the ethical thing to do. We don’t really manifest veganism in our everyday choices for the benefits or “perks” associated with this philosophy as such, but because we no longer can behave differently. For us, veganism is no longer a choice but an ethical imperative, so we would consider choosing not to be vegan a form of wrongdoing only justifiable by ignorance.
If you think about it, when vegan sceptics — and especially veganphobes — try to convince us that we are wrong for choosing veganism, and they use stereotypic remarks aimed at “proving” that our axiomatic principles are flawed, they are the ones who may end up trying to force their beliefs on us. They are, in effect, unconsciously proselytising their own carnist ideologies and beliefs because they feel uncomfortable with people believing in different things than them (precisely what they accuse us to be doing when we engage in vegan outreach), as, deep down, they know they should stop justify harming others.
More often than not, their attempts to throw us off course are way off the mark, as they try to demolish the pillars of veganism, but they do not know which pillars these are, so they aim at things that are quite meaningless for us. They do not know about the five axioms of the philosophy of veganism (the ahimsa, animal sentience, anti-exploitation, anti-speciesism, and vicariousness axioms), so they think that we base our philosophy on things such as protein choice, moving back to Nature, or self-centred fitness obsession.
For instance, they think we are vegan because we want to be natural, so they try to point out how unnatural our lives may be in an attempt to crack our morality. However, what’s quite interesting is how bad most of them are at it because even when they do so, they end up proving that our lives are far more natural than theirs, even if we did not set ourselves to be more natural in the first place. For instance, I have already written about the ridiculous remark “canines, though”, which is given as meaning “If the vegan diet was natural, humans would not have canine teeth, and as humans do have them, this proves that we must eat meat.” In the article, I show that human teeth clearly point towards a frugivorous diet and away from a carnivorous one, so that remark will spectacularly backfire on those vegan sceptics who use it.
There is a similar remark aimed to expose the vegan lifestyle as unnatural: “It’s the Circle of Life”. It’s similar in the sense that aims at the same thing, and it is equally weak and off the mark, but it’s a bit different because I do not believe most vegans have found a satisfactory enough comeback to it to stop the vegan sceptics on their argumentative tracks. I heard several responses vegans have given to it, but I thought that they could be better because, contrary to the other similar types of remarks, this one requires certain biological knowledge that not everyone has.
Well, I am a biologist, so I can help. I can craft the ultimate vegan answer to the remark “It’s the Circle of Life.”
Different Meanings of “The Circle of Life”
We have often heard this expression, but do people know what this means? Some may think they do, as they vaguely remember this from school. They will remember some sort of circular diagram where items are connected with arrows.
However, different people may remember completely different circles (or cycles). Some may remember the “biological circle of life”, most commonly known as “the life cycle”, which does not connect different organisms, but different stages of development in an organism. In the case of animals, it connects a series of stages of life that begins as a zygote (fertilised egg), continues as an embryo, then as a born infant, then as a juvenile, and concludes as an adult that reproduces, producing offspring in the form of a new zygote which then itself goes through the same series of stages. In plants, it may be the process through seeds, saplings, trees, flowers, fruits, and back to seeds. Therefore, it is the process of connecting the different stages of procreation, life, and death.
Perhaps others may remember the cycle of Carbon (the atom of life that defines organic chemistry), involving the sun, photosynthesis in plants capturing carbon from CO2 in the air, animals eating plants and releasing the CO2 breeding out, and when they die during decomposition by fungi and bacteria, returning the carbon to the air. Perhaps others remember the biochemical circle of energy with the molecule glucose involving the mitochondria inside animal cells, the cycle of oxygen going through the circulatory system, or the trophic cycles of plants, herbivores, carnivores, scavengers, parasites, hosts, etc. (mostly known as “food webs” or “trophic webs”).
Religions have also used this expression with other meanings. In Zen Buddhism, the circle of life, also known as ensō, is a circle hand-drawn in one or two free brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. The ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and the void, and it is typical of minimalism characteristic of Japanese aesthetics. Christians also use this expression to mean a “course of nature” as this is mentioned in the New Testament in James 3 § Verse 6, meaning the natural body, where there is a continual rotation or circulation of the blood.
The circle of life is also an important concept in African spirituality. Many African religions believe that all living things are connected to each other and the natural world. This belief is reflected in the concept of Ubuntu, which is a Zulu word that means “humanity”, but it is sometimes translated as “I am because we are.” It is based on the idea that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is dependent on the well-being of others.
However, others may remember the opening song of Disney’s 1994 animated feature film The Lion King — composed by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice — referring to the delicate cycle of the natural world (wildlife, ecosystems, environment, biodiversity etc.) and the balance of nature. These are the lyrics of the chorus:
It’s the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life
What Exactly is “The Circle of Life”?
The circle of life is a metaphorical concept (metaphorical because it has simplified complex cyclical processes into a simple geometrical shape) that describes the cyclical nature of anything that has to do with life, from how living organisms develop to the interconnectedness of all living beings on Earth. It highlights the fact that life, in all its scales (molecular, cellular, embryonical, anatomical, organismal, social, ecological, and even spiritual) is not based on linear processes, but cyclical, with no beginning or end. Live it’s all about cycles of interconnected components. Plants produce the food that animals eat, and animals pollinate plants and help disperse their seeds. Decomposers break down dead plants and animals, recycling nutrients back into the soil. So, all living beings are interconnected and depend on each other for survival.
The circle of life is a reminder that we are all connected to each other and the natural world and that we all have a role to play in maintaining the balance of the natural ecosystems. It involves concepts such as interconnectedness (all living things are connected), dependence (all living things depend on each other for survival), change (all processes constantly change and everything is renewed), balance (the delicate balance of Nature must be maintained), and respect (we must respect nature and live in harmony with it).
We do see the expression in education materials (especially since 1994 because of the famous children’s film), but rather to describe specific cycles, in a much more general way. For instance, in Hamilton Brookes Science Year 3/4 lessons, we read, “Our amazing planet is teeming with life from the depths of the oceans to the highest mountains. But every living thing is dependent on other living things for its survival. Every animal needs to eat plants or other animals. Plants need rich soil to grow strong and healthy and soil is made rich for growing by the decomposing remains of plants and animals that were once alive. It is an endless circle of life.”
The Bellbird Early Educational Resources include the following: “Teaching and learning about the cycles of life are often very evident within an early childhood program. Many children are naturally enticed by the allure of creatures great and small, so it is an invaluable opportunity to begin to teach them about the delicate balance of life within the cycles of nature. Whether a creature is a land dweller or inhabits the water to survive, each one has its own individual process from birth to death perfectly derived by evolution and the adaptation required to live. Learning about ourselves involves connecting to, and living harmoniously in alignment with others who are all important to our existence and that of our beautiful and precious planet Earth.”
The “circle of life” is really an abstract philosophical concept from which many examples can be found in science, religion, and popular culture, and which is sometimes used in education as a shorthand for “complex cyclical interconnected life processes”. Because of that, people may mean many different things when they use the expression, as they may be thinking in a particular example, rather than the wider philosophical concept itself.
What Do Vegan Sceptics Mean with “The Circle of Life” Remark?
Many vegan sceptics may use the expression not because they know what it means, but because they have heard it used in another conversation between vegans and non-vegans, and they just repeat it thinking that it may be a good contra-argument (pretty much like the use of the “canines, though” remark). Quite possibly, some of those who use it may be experiencing the Mandela Effect (a type of false memory that occurs when many different people incorrectly remember the same thing) thinking they remember the expression from school, when those exact words were never used in any of the lessons they attended or books they read. Others may just be thinking in the Lion’s King movie assuming that it referred to a very specific scientific concept. However, I suspect that the meaning they attribute to it is not about the concepts of interconnectedness, dependence, change, balance, and respect behind the expression, but only about something more specific to do with predator-prey relationships.
During vegan outreach I used to do in London before the pandemic, I often heard it from a non-vegan, after watching footage of an animal being killed (normally in a slaughterhouse, shown by a vegan outreacher on a screen). It’s almost as if they meant that what they saw is “natural” and cannot be avoided. But if that is only what they meant, they probably would just have said, “That’s life.” If they added the “circle” bit, perhaps is because they mean that, in nature, some animals eat each other as part of the circle that connects all organisms, and we are one of those animals.
That could be the case when the remark comes straight as a reaction after watching some footage, but it is also used without the footage in a much more passive-aggressive way. It is also used to criticise the vegan lifestyle by suggesting that we behave unnaturally, while they, by exploiting animals and eating some, behave naturally because they believe doing so “it’s the circle of life”. In other words, I suspect that they use it with a meaning that, in nature, predators eat prey, predators become grass when they die, and prey eat the grass, and in this circle of life humans are the predators whose job is to kill and eat the prey animals. They imply that we, vegans, have wrongly misappropriated the ecological role of the herbivores in nature pretending to be plant-eaters, while our natural role in the circle of life is to eat animals. By uttering the expression they reassure themselves that they are doing the right thing eating animals and we are doing the wrong thing not eating them, and if we manage to create a vegan world where most humans would be vegan, that would be an aberration and we would have corrupted humanity away from Nature.
If that is the case, if that is what they mean when they use the expression, they have scored an own goal, because even if we choose to interpret the remark in the narrow meaning they intended, rather than the actual meaning or the meaning used in biology and education, their argument crumbles when we analyse it more in detail.
The Trophic Web
If what vegan sceptics say is that humans are the predators of the circle of life and this is why it is acceptable to kill and eat animals, we need to check who are the “actors” of such a circle of life and see if we are really playing the role of the predator or we are playing another role instead. This circle of life they refer to is better described as the food web as it is not a single thread cycle but more of a network of connections, but let’s play along with it.
As it is cyclical we can start anywhere we want, so let’s start with the plants which grow by taking CO2 from the air, using light to transform it into carbohydrates and fats, and then taking the nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil to make proteins (and that is why they are also called “producers”). Plants are then eaten by herbivore animals (also called “primary consumers”), but not all herbivores eat all the plants. Some are ruminants who eat mainly grasses (like cows), others are folivores who eat leaves of some plants (like koalas), some are frugivores who eat the fruits from other plants (like toucans), others are xylovores who eat mainly wood (like termites), and others are nectarivores who eat mainly nectar and pollen from flowers (like bees) — you already can see that a web is a better metaphor than a circle, right?
After these, we have the carnivores who would eat the herbivore animals, but some are called insectivores and only eat terrestrial invertebrate animals such as insects and warms (like hedgehogs), others would be raptors who are flying hunters with talons (like hawks), or others would be myrmecovores who only eat ants (like anteaters). However, it gets more complicated than that — again, the web rather than the circle — as some carnivores are predators if they will be finding and killing other animals themselves (and those who they kill are then called prey), while others would just be eating the flesh of dead bodies killed by somebody else (or disease), and these would be called scavengers.
After these, we find the apex predators (also known as tertiary consumers) who eat other predators and omnivore animals (those who eat equally plants and other animals), but when all animals are dead, eaten by scavengers, and then excreted, we have the bacteria and fungi that decompose their bodies returning part of the carbon to the air (some of it had already been returned by the animals breathing out and farting) and the nitrogen and other elements to the soil, so the cycle can begin again — a side cycle connected to this one is the cycle between parasites and hosts, but we can ignore this one for now.
Deconstructing the Anti-Vegan Remark “It’s the Circle of Life”
Vegan sceptics claim that, from all these “players” of this ecological trophic drama, humans play the role of predators, and that’s why they eat beef burgers, salami sandwiches, and tuna melts. However, this does not add up. When you look at all the predators of the animal kingdom, they all share similar characteristics humans do not possess. They all have either pointy sharp teeth, sharp claws, sharp beaks, venom, or huge mouths (we have none of that), a short digestive system (ours is long), a very acidic stomach capable of handling eating raw and decomposing flesh (ours is not that acidic), extremely acute sensory organs that help them to find potential prey, such as a very sharp vision good at detecting movement but not good at detecting many colours (ours is the opposite), the ability to keep very still for a long time or self-camouflage if they are ambush predators (we cannot do that), or the ability to run, swim, or fly very fast, or project our tongue or other parts of our bodies very fast (we cannot do any of this either). We clearly are not predators as we do not have any of the physical capabilities and attributes predators have.
If we look at our numbers our populations are far too high to be predators, as if we look at ecosystems and the number of each category of organisms regarding what they eat (what is called the “trophic pyramid”), bacteria outnumber all, then come plants with big numbers, then herbivore animals, and carnivore animals are the ones with the smallest numbers (with apex predators the smallest of all). In any place humans inhabit, there are far too many humans to fit into the natural number of carnivore animals (no ecosystem will survive if there are too many predators compared with the number of prey).
If we look at our behaviour, predators hunt to survive, but less than 99.99% of humans alive today have ever hunted anything. We would not have a clue how to do it if we were not given weapons and teach us how to use them — while predators know instinctively how to hunt. Even when we are taught about it we are very bad at it. Most of the time hunters who hunt using guns miss and the animals get away or are just injured. Even in prehistory when humans might have hunted the most they would miss most of the time, as a 1998 study proves because it found that the use of the more precise and powerful modern bows by experts may still result in a 50% wounding rate (animal shot but not recovered) in targeted white-tailed deer. And this ineptitude is not confined to the land. Most of the time people go on boats to hunt for fish they end up catching the wrong animal and they throw it back into the sea (the so-called fisheries bycatch). In addition, today, most animals people eat are not killed by expert hunters celebrated for their bravery and skill, but by very poorly paid abattoir workers who tend to be people who do the jobs nobody else wants to do. We are extremely bad at hunting like true predators do (as the sci-fi movie “Predator” suggests).
Perhaps we may be the scavengers of the circle of life, then, who do not chase and kill animals to eat them, but eat animals who die of natural causes or were killed by others. However, this does not fit the bill either. When people use other animals to hunt and kill animals, as is the case of foxhunting and hare hunting using dogs, or the case of falconry, people do not normally eat the animals killed by the dogs or hawks. And when people use dogs in shooting, the human is the one that kills the animal, not the dog. We do not have the teeth or caws for it either. Besides, scavengers have a very powerful immune system so they can eat rotten meat without getting ill, and we cannot even eat raw meat that has not been refrigerated for a couple of days. People would not willingly put their heads inside a carcass to eat the guts of a corpse, and most humans are disgusted by the sight of blood and raw flesh (and that is why meat needs to be disguised so much through cooking and processing to make people eat it). Humans are not a carnivore species, from any point of view you look at it.
So, if we are neither predators nor scavengers, who are we in the trophic web of life? If we look at our anatomy, physiology, and behaviour we will find out.
Animal Agriculture Is Not Part of “The Circle of Life”
Humans do share all the physical traits with one of the “players” of the trophic web mentioned earlier. We have almost all our teeth blunt but a couple of them are slightly pointed in both jaws, we are very good at seeing colour, we have limps good at grabbing and manipulating objects, we have a relatively large digestive system, we can digest well carbohydrates, we have a sweet tooth, we see in 3D well in front of us, we are good at jumping and climbing, and we are not very large (we are not part of megafauna, like elephants, rhinos, hippos, or bulls). All these are the characteristics of frugivore animals, a type of herbivore specialised in eating fruits and nuts.
If we look at our closest relatives still alive today, we can see that the human frugivore adaptation fits, as the bonobos and chimps are frugivores like us — and so were most of the extinct hominids. From the rest of the apes, only the gorilla is not frugivore (is folivore), and when we look at the entire order we belong to, the primates, most species are also frugivores. So, we are a frugivore species of a frugivore family of a frugivore order, but one of the things we do better than our cousins is digesting starches found in grains and roots, something we started to eat when we migrated to colder climates and invented cooking. No scientist today would deny the frugivore adaptation of the species Homo sapiens.
There is something else. We are not predators, but prey. We are the ones hunted by the predators, and this is why we all run from big spiders and snakes even if we have never seen one before, this is why we don’t swim in the sea when we see the dorsal fin of a shark approaching, this is why we run home when a tiger escapes from a zoo, and this is why people used to go to marvel at lion tamers in a circus — not possum tamers. We instinctively know the predators who can eat us, and most of us have built our dwellings away from them. We a frugivore prey in the trophic web, not predators, so when a vegan sceptic uses the remark “it’s the circle of life” pointing at the image of a slaughterhouse, we can reply, “exactly, this is not what humans in nature are biologically adapted to do.”
No other species breeds animals in captivity in the millions to kill them in abattoirs when they are still young. No other species forcibly impregnates animals and genetically modifies them so they can produce more flesh, fibre, or secretions for consumption. No other species destroys entire ecosystems to raise one or two types of animals on fields so they can eat them later. No other animal injects hormones, antibiotics, and all sorts of nasty chemicals into their food before eating it. There is nothing natural in animal agriculture and there is nothing natural in the production of BigMacs, hotdogs, tuna melts, fish fingers, or bologna sandwiches. None of that is natural; none of that is healthy; none of that is necessary. None of that is the circle of life; none of that is what a frugivore species living in harmony with nature would do; none of that is what humans should be doing.
The True Role of Humans In “The Circle of Life”
If we look at the true circle of life, not the narrow version vegan sceptics use, what is our role in the earth’s ecosystem? Well, let’s look first at the ecological role (what is known as ecological niche) of frugivore species. They are, essentially, seed spreaders. The plants entice them with colourful and sweet fruit because they need them to eat them, move somewhere else, and either spit the seeds or defecate them, so a new plant can grow there (this is the interconnection, dependence, balance, and cyclic nature of the true circle of life). That’s our role too on this planet. Like all the other frugivore species, our ecological niche is the seed spreader. And, if you think about it, we have been doing this all along. Since we left the trees and moved into the savannah in Africa about 4 million years ago, we have been spreading seeds. Even when we invented agriculture about 10,000 years ago, we kept doing it, but at a bigger scale — we even spread seeds between several continents, something very few frugivore species have managed to do.
Did we stop when we started our big civilisations? No, we never stopped. There has never been a human civilisation that was not based on spreading seeds (being the seeds of grasses such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, millet or corn, or of other staple plants such as beans, cassava, or squash). There has not been any empire that was not forged on the back of seeds (being those of the tea, coffee, cacao, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, or opium plants). And when these civilisations improved our knowledge of science, we spread such knowledge too as if it was made of intellectual seeds. That’s what we are good at; that’s what we are adapted to do.
Perhaps in the last few centuries we have forgotten our ecological role and we have become something else, the “burners of the planet”. Perhaps, as Dr Sailesh Rao says, a systems engineer trying to heal the planet and build the vegan world, we have now become the thermostat of the world regulating the temperature of the entire planet, but if that is the case we are still learning at this and we are not doing a very good job so far (we are overheating the planet and we seem to be unable to stop ourselves doing it). Perhaps if we returned to our seed-dispersing role we would realise that this is precisely how we can stop destroying the planet and its inhabitants. Perhaps there is hope because, among us, there are humans who know what needs to be done.
For millennia, among all the humans who were spreading seeds — and doing other stuff, often not too good — some took the role of spreading the good seeds better than others. Some took the role of respecting nature and living in harmony with it, more than others. Some who understood the interconnection of all sentient beings better than others. Some who respected all animals more than others. Some who worked harder than anyone else to ensure that the circle of life continued to thrive. Today, we call these spreaders of good seeds a name that was created in 1944, even if they had existed for millennia with other names. We call them “vegans”. We, ethical vegans, are the ones who understand the circle of life better than anyone else, and this is why we respect other animals and do not exploit them.
So, what is the ultimate vegan answer that a vegan, spreading the seeds of veganism in the community when doing some vegan outreach in the streets, can give to a vegan sceptic who utters the remark “It’s the circle of life” after watching footage of a slaughterhouse? This is it:
“It’s the circle of life that tells us that we should stop animal agriculture, that we should be living harmoniously in alignment with other sentient beings who are all precious members of the Earth’s ecosystems.
It’s the circle of life that tells us we should not harm or exploit animals as we can survive perfectly well without exploiting them, since we are a frugivore species adapted to spread seeds in harmony with Nature, not to kill animals and destroy the environment.
It’s the circle of life that has made us vegan.”