EcoMeme: Vegetarians Smarter Than Omnivores?

vegetarian with glasses

Are you vegetarian? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you are, you might have a high IQ or at least want to be perceived as smart.

A new study in the Social Psychology Quarterly March issue has linked high IQ, or measured intelligence, in adults and adolescents to “increases [in] adult liberalism,” including a tendency to be vegetarian, atheist and approving of same sex marriage.

Previous research had shown an even stronger link between high IQ teens and eventual vegetarianism.

Is this sheer snobbery and biased science? Can’t omnivores wear smartypants, too?

Stories about this study, combined with recent press appearances by and accolades for the novelist turned food writer-activist Jonathan Safran Foer and his book Eating Animals have turned up the volume on the ever raging environmental debate this week.

Safran Foer discussed his decision to make his own plate vegetarian or vegan, and to feed his infant son a vegetarian diet too on The Ellen Degeneres show. On air he quipped, “We continue to believe the meat on our plate comes from these idyllic [farms]. But on a chicken farm, an egg-laying hen farm even, more than 99% of hens live in these enclosed sheds each given about the space about the size of Mariah Carey’s engagement ring.”

A 67-square inch chunk of bling doesn’t exist, not even for the diva. But that’s the real size of living quarters for a beast in a factory farm, and about the size of two pages of a hardcover copy of Eating Animals. Safran Foer mentioned several more horrific sights he witnessed in researching food and farms for his book beyond that, on the show. Responses to his segment ranged from farmers trying to do right by their customers and livestock expressing anger at his generalizations, to kudos and support from vegan activists.

We asked Sandra McLean, a Slow Food New York City chapter leader, committee chair and all around food expert if adopting a vegetarian diet is the only (or the smartest) way to go green. Noting that Slow Food doesn’t take a pro-vegetarian, vegan or omnivore stance, she says: “Any animal that is raised humanely in the manner which is natural to its species is environmentally sensible.”

For omnivores, McLean advises buying and eating beef that comes from grass-fed, grass-finished steers that are raised as “the ruminants that they are,” meaning they should be able to graze for their food, and chickens that are raised in portable henhouses, which she called “a nice example of agricultural synergy.” A portable henhouse is moved about once a week around a field that will be planted with some crops. The birds’ manure fertilizes the field, and the chickens eat grubs and insects that populate it. McLean also suggests limiting meat intake to a 4 oz. portion daily, at most, to decrease the environmental impact of an omnivorous diet.

Above all, McLean says, “A person has a right to choose to eat the types of food that support his or her lifestlye and belief system.” Slow Food’s belief is that food choices should be based upon the credo of “good, clean and fair,” she says meaning good for the eater and the environment (and good tasting), clean as in grown and raised without pesticides, hormones or antibiotics, while being fair to the farmer, the farmworker and the animals.

Basic Reading:

“This study…advances a new theory to explain why people form particular preferences and values. The theory suggests that more intelligent people are more likely than less intelligent people to adopt evolutionarily novel preferences and values, but intelligence does not correlate with preferences and values that are old enough to have been shaped by evolution over millions of years.” – A Science Daily news feature on Kanazawa’s constroversial study of liberal vs. conservative IQ

“[A new] study found that young adults who said they were “˜very conservative’ had an average adolescent IQ of 95, whereas those who said they were “˜very liberal’ averaged 106. Vegetarianism”¦was shown to be related to intelligence in previous research, [the study’s author] Kanazawa said. None of this means that the human species is evolving toward a future where these traits are the default. Kanazawa said, “˜More intelligent people don’t have more children, so moving away from the trajectory is not going to happen.'” – A CNN Health story by Elizabeth Landau

“Jonathan Safran Foer, a smart Jewish boy from the American east coast has now written a book about what’s wrong with the modern way in which most of the animals we eat are produced. Which is to say, everything: the genetic manipulation of the breeding stock to produce maximum feed-to-meat conversion, regardless of the suffering it causes; the appalling circumstances in which these creatures are then raised, crammed together, the stench of their own shit in their nostrils; the barbarity of the slaughter process, which can result in cattle literally being flayed alive.”-A book review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals in The Guardian Observer

“Adult intelligence predicts adult espousal of liberalism, atheism, and sexual exclusivity for men (but not for women). Childhood intelligence at age 10 significantly increases the probability that individuals become vegetarian as adults.” – A blog post and discussion that asks if the new study is unfair, via Overcoming Bias, by Robin Hanson

Further Resources:

Why It Matters if Liberals Are Much Smarter, a ScienceBlogs post by Razib Kahn

Critical views on Kanazawa’s research and his limited sample of American young adults via BeliefNet

Village Voice blog post by Chantal Martineau talking about the book Eating Animals and its reception outside of the U.S.

PETA’s press release announcing an award for Jonathan Safran Foer, his pro-vegetarian views and his book

Image: Ha-Wee