“To Serve Man” is a marvelous science fiction short story written in 1950 by Damon Knight. In it, an alien species called the “Kanamit” arrives on Earth, offering to give humankind “the peace and plenty which we ourselves enjoy.” People’s initial distrust gives way to gratitude as the Kanamit offer a cheap source of limitless energy, a device to render weapons of war obsolete, and cures for heart disease and cancer. To find out more about the aliens, two men try to learn their language with the help of a stolen book. After much effort, they translate the book’s title as “How to Serve Man,” which seems to prove the Kanamit’s benevolent intent. But when the men finally succeed in translating the first paragraph of “How to Serve Man,” they discover that it is a cookbook!
What makes the story especially horrifying is that all the generosity of the aliens suddenly appears in a different light: They are fattening up livestock for slaughter. Even though the Kanamit have made Earth a paradise with the abolition of hunger and war, they are revealed to be anything but benefactors—instead, they are enemies attempting to enslave humans as food animals.
But the Kanamit themselves might see things differently. After all, they have space travel, they’ve abolished war on their home planet, and they’ve developed sophisticated technology. They are more “advanced,” more “intelligent,” and altogether worthy to dine on lesser species, right? They are even humane in their treatment of humankind—the vast majority of people will live healthier and happier lives under their rule.
“To Serve Man” is a pretty accurate description of our relationship with animals. We are the Kanamit to the billions of individual cows, pigs, chickens, and fish who are our food. People often state that we have the right to eat animals because we are more “advanced” or “intelligent” than they are. It’s not a convincing argument when you consider how we’d feel about being eaten by an even more “advanced” species. Since when does “intelligence” bear any relationship to a sentient being’s ability to feel joy or suffer from pain?
Another argument that people make in defense of eating animals is the animals’ quality of life. “They are well-fed and protected from the weather and from predators.” “They wouldn’t even be alive at all if it weren’t for us.” “They die quick and painless deaths.” In other words, animals are the fortunate beneficiaries of all that we do for them; giving their lives for our meals is the least they can do in return.
But from the animals’ perspective, it’s a different story. Egg-laying hens and breeding sows live lives of nonstop misery, crammed into cages so small that they can’t even extend their limbs. The babies of cows used for dairy and those of pigs are forcibly separated from their mothers within a few days of birth, sometimes immediately. Many animals are improperly stunned at the slaughterhouse, leaving them to die slow and agonizing deaths on the disassembly line. And all animals on factory farms are killed while still young, living out only a small fraction of their natural lifespan. It would be far better for them never to have lived at all than to live as mere commodities in our modern factory farming systems.
If humans were obligate carnivores like tigers or dolphins, we’d face some serious ethical and environmental dilemmas in feeding our worldwide population of almost 7 billion. But humans don’t need to eat animals to thrive. The American Dietetic Association states that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful [and] nutritionally adequate ….” People eat animals because they’re used to doing it and because they like the taste—not because they need to.
If an alien species ever does visit our planet, I hope we’ll be able to impress them with how far we have “advanced”—far enough to treat animals with respect and compassion by not using them as food.