pandas, and probably love them. Cute and cuddly, the objects of affections world-wide, used here in the States to sell us over-priced crappy "Chinese" food.
You probably also know that pandas are famous for eating bamboo. It's their staple diet, in fact, making up 99 percent of their daily caloric intake. You probably think they're herbivores.
And you're wrong. Sort of.
Pandas are Carnivorans. Yes, you read that correctly. Pandas are Carnivorans.
Specifically, they're classed as part of the order Carnivora, along with the rest of their relatives, the bears. All of their adaptations -- skull structure, teeth, digestive anatomy, gestation period -- mark them distinctly as members of this highly-specialized group of mammals. If an alien race randomly collected animal samples from across the Earth without paying any attention to the animals' actual behavior, they'd conclude from all these factors that pandas were a meat-eating, possibly predatory species.
And yet, they eat bamboo.
Now, dear readers, you are smart people. You can probably see where I'm going with this. As vegans, we often hear arguments from friends and family (or belligerent strangers) that humans are "meant" to eat meat because we are "omnivores." Essentially, what's being argued by them is that humans don't simply have the option of eating meat and dairy, but that we have an obligation to eat them. That somehow, we are betraying our nature, if not endangering our health, by refusing to exploit other animals.
Often these arguments appeal to evolution. But they're on shaky ground. Aside from the fact that there is no taxonomic classification for either "Herbivora" or "Omnivora" (a subject about which I will be posting in the near future), such arguments are flawed because they fail to distinguish between biology and behavior.
Pandas, biologically, are Carnivorans. Health-wise, they'd probably thrive on a diet of raw animal flesh. But behaviorally, they are "herbivores." The reasons for this are complex, and might involve a survival strategy developed in response to a negative mutation, but that's all for another time.
The take-home point is that even among Carnivora, there is a distinction between biology and behavior. There is always a choice.
So, what are humans "designed" to eat? I don't much like the question, as I'm skeptical of the notion of "design" in nature. But, there are some things we can say about human evolution and diet that are fairly uncontroversial.
We are members of the order Primates, generalist mammals capable of exploiting a wide variety of resources and ecologies, including food. Our genetic and morphological heritage is arboreal, and while many of our plesiomorphic traits are those of a frugivorous common ancestor, primates can nonetheless eat a wide variety of foods to supplement their basal adaptation to fruits. Hominids, in particular, along with chimpanzees, are known in the fossil record and the modern world alike to hunt and kill other animals for food, in varying degrees.
So given all this, what are the implications for what humans must eat? Not many. Because we are so versatile, we can reliably eat just about anything that's not poisonous.
In other words, we have a choice. Veganism is a moral choice, and so is meat-eating. They are both equally "natural." Neither is dictated to us by evolution.
So, the next time a friend or family member or stranger confronts you with the argument from "evolution," ask them to consider the panda.