Neural Networks: A Brief Introduction and Intuition

The fundamental idea behind all neural networks is this: Each neuron in a neural network makes a decision. Once you understand how they do that, everything else will make sense. Let’s walk through a simple situation which will help us arrive at that understanding.

Let’s say you are trying to decide whether or not to wear a hat today. There are a number of factors which will affect your decision, and perhaps the most important ones are:

  1. Is it sunny?
  2. Do I have a hat to wear?
  3. Would a hat suit my outfit?

For simplicity, we’ll assume these are the only three factors that you’re weighing up during this decision. Forgetting about neural networks for a second, let’s just try to build a ‘decision maker’ to help us answer this question.

First, we can see each question has a certain level of importance, and so we’ll need to use this relative importance of each question, along with the corresponding answer to each question, to make our decision.

Secondly, we’ll need to have some component which interprets each (yes or no) answer along with its importance to produce the final answer. This sounds simple enough to put into an equation, right? Let’s do it. We simply decide how important each factor is and multiply that importance (or ‘weight’) by the answer to the question (which can be 0 or 1):

3a + 5b + 2c > 6

The numbers 3, 5 and 2 are the ‘weights’ of question a, b and c, respectively. a, b and c, themselves can be either zero (the answer to the question was ‘no’), or one (the answer to the question was ‘yes’). If the above equation is true, then the decision is to wear a hat, and if it is false, the decision is to not wear a hat. The equation says that we’ll only wear a hat if the sum of our weights multiplied by our factors is greater than some threshold value. Above, I chose a threshold value of 6. If you think about it, this means that if I don’t have a hat to wear (b=0), no matter what the other answers are, I won’t be wearing a hat today. That is,

3a + 2c > 6

is never true, since a and c are only either 0 or 1. This makes sense – our simple decision model tells us not to wear a hat if we don’t have one! So the weights of 3, 5 and 2, and the threshold value of 6 seem like a good choices for our simple “should I wear a hat” decision-maker. It also means that, as long as I have a hat to wear, the sun shining (a=1) OR the hat suiting my outfit (c=1) is enough to make me wear a hat today. That is,

5 + 3 > 6  and  5 + 2 > 6

are both true. Good! You can see that by adjusting the weighting of each factor and the threshold, and by adding more factors, we can adjust our ‘decision maker’ to approximately model any decision-making process. What we have just demonstrated is the functionality of a simple neuron (a decision-maker!). Let’s put the above equation into ‘neuron-form’:

diagram

 

Fig 1: A neuron which processes 3 factors: a, b, c, with corresponding importance weightings of 3, 5, 2, and with a decision threshold of 6.

The neuron has 3 input connections (the factors) and 1 output connection (the decision). Each input connection has a weighting which encodes the importance of that connection. If the weighting of that connection is low (relative to the other weights), then it won’t have much effect on the decision. If it’s high, the decision will heavily depend on it.

This is great, we’ve got a fully working neuron that weights inputs and makes decisions. So here’s the next though: What if the output (our decision) was fed into the input of another neuron? That neuron would be using our decision about our hat to make a more abstract decision. And what if the inputs a, b and c are themselves the outputs of other neurons which compute lower-level decisions? We can see that neural networks can be interpreted as networks which compute decisions about decisions, leading from simple input data to more and more complex ‘meta-decisions’. This, to me, is an incredible concept. All the complexity of even the human brain can be modelled using these principles. From the level of photons interacting with our cone-cells right up to our pondering of the meaning of life, it’s just simple little decision-making neurons.

Below is a diagram of a simple neural network which essentially has 3 layers of abstraction:

diagram 2

 

Fig 2: A simple neural network with 2 inputs and 2 outputs.

As an example, the above inputs could be 2 infrared distance sensors, and the outputs might control control the on/off switch for 2 motors which drive the wheels of a robot.

In our simple hat example, we could pick the weights and the threshold quite easily, but how do we pick the weights and thresholds in this example so that, say, the robot can follow things that move? And how do we know how many neurons we need to solve this problem? Could we solve it with just 1 neuron, maybe 2? Or do we need 20? And how do we organise them? In layers? Modules? These questions are the questions in the field of neural networks. Techniques such as ‘backpropagation’ and (more recently) ‘neuroevolution’ are used effectively to answer some of these troubling questions, but these are outside the scope of this introduction – Wikipedia and Google Scholar and free online textbooks like “Neural Networks and Deep Learning” by M. A. Nielsen are great places to start learning about these concepts.

Hopefully you now have some intuition for how neural networks work, but if you’re interested in actually implementing a neural network there are a few optimisations and extensions to our concept of a neuron which.will make our neural nets more efficient and effective.

Firstly, notice that if we set the threshold value of the neuron to zero, we can always adjust the weightings of the inputs to account for this – only, we’ll also need to allow negative values for our weights. This is great since it removes one variable from our neuron. So we’ll allow negative weights and from now on we won’t need to worry about setting a threshold – it’ll always be zero.

Next, we’ll notice that the weights of the input connections are all relative to one-another, so we can actually normalise these to a value between -1 and 1. Cool. That simplifies things a little.

We can make a further, more substantial improvement to our decision-maker by realising that the inputs themselves (a, b and c in the above example) need not just be 0 or 1. For example, what if today is really sunny? Or maybe there’s scattered clouds, do it’s intermittently sunny? We can see that by allowing values between 0 and 1, our neuron gets more information and can therefore make a better decision – and the good news is, we don’t need to change anything in our neuron model!

So far, we’ve allowed the neuron to accept inputs between 0 and 1, and we’ve normalised the weights between -1 and 1 for convenience.

The next question is: why do we need such certainty in our final decision (i.e. the output of the neuron)? Why can’t it, like the inputs, also be a value between 0 and 1? If we did allow this, the decision of whether or not to wear a hat would become a level of certainty that wearing a hat is the right choice. But if this is a good idea, why did I introduce a threshold at all? Why not just directly pass on the sum of the weighted inputs to the output connection? Well, because, for reasons beyond the scope of this simple introduction to neural networks, it turns out that a neural network works better if the neurons are allowed to make something like an ‘educated guess’, rather than just presenting a raw probability. A threshold gives the neurons a slight bias toward certainty and allows them to be more ‘assertive’, and doing so makes neural networks more efficient. So in that sense, a threshold is good. But the problem with a threshold is that it doesn’t let us know when the neuron is uncertain about its decision – that is, if the sum of the weighted inputs is very close to the threshold, the neuron makes a definite yes/no answer where a definite yes/no answer is not ideal.

So how can we overcome this problem? Well it turns out that if we replace our “greater than zero” condition with a continuous function (called an ‘activation function’), then we can choose non-binary and non-linear reactions to the neuron’s weighted inputs. Let’s first look at our original “greater than zero” condition as a function:

‘Step’ function representing the original neuron’s ‘activation function’.

Fig 3: ‘Step’ function representing the original neuron’s ‘activation function’.

In the above activation function, the x-axis represents the sum of the weighted inputs and the y-axis represents the neuron’s output. Notice that even if the inputs sum to 0.01, the output is a very certain 1. This is not ideal, as we’ve explained earlier. So we need another activation function that only has a bias towards certainty. Here’s where we welcome the ‘sigmoid’ function:

diagram 4

Fig 4: The ‘sigmoid’ function; a more effective activation function for our artificial neural networks.

Notice how it looks like a halfway point between a step function (which we established as too certain) and a linear x=y line that we’d expect from a neuron which just outputs the raw probability that some some decision is correct. The equation for this sigmoid function is:

\sigma(x) = \frac{1}{1+\exp^{-x}}

where x is the sum of the weighted inputs.

And that’s it! Our new-and-improved neuron does the following:

  1. Takes multiple inputs between 0 and 1.
  2. Weights each one by a value between -1 and 1.
  3. Sums them all together.
  4. Puts that sum into the sigmoid function.
  5. Outputs the result!

It’s deceptively simple, but by combining these simple decision-makers together and finding ideal connection weights, we can make arbitrarily complex decisions and calculations which stretch far beyond our biological brains allow.

The State of Veganism, 2015

Here are some up-to-date observations on the current status of the vegan philosophy from various important viewpoints.

Vegan diets can be healthy or unhealthy

A vegan diet, like an omnivorous diet, can be unhealthy if little thought is given to its planning. Since the beginnings of veganism in the early 1800s until only recently, vegan diets has received criticism from most nutritional authorities for lacking various nutrients, or proportions of nutrients including protein, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. In the past several decades many of these claims have been shown false and it has been demonstrated that a strict vegan diet can comfortably fulfill all necessary nutritional requirements of a healthy human. It is now the opinion of every major national and international nutritional association that a well planned vegan diet can be as healthy, or, as many have stated, healthier in some aspects, than omnivorous and ovo-lacto vegetarian diets.

  1. American Dietetic Association: “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” [1]
  2. Dietitian’s Association of Australia: “Despite these restrictions [a lack of animal products], with good planning it is still possible to obtain all the nutrients required for good health on a vegan diet.” [2]
  3. British Dietitians Association: “Well planned vegetarian [and strict-vegetarian] diets can be nutritious and healthy. They are associated with lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, certain cancers and lower cholesterol levels. This could be because such diets are lower in saturated fat, contain fewer calories and more fibre and phytonutrients/phytochemicals (these can have protective properties) than non-vegetarian diets.” [3]
  4. Dietitians of Canada: “A healthy vegan diet has many health benefits including lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.” and “A healthy vegan diet can meet all your nutrient needs at any stage of life including when you are pregnant, breastfeeding or for older adults. [4]

 


 

Athletes can excel on a vegan diet

Despite vegan diets being widely accepted by all major dietitians associations, there is still a distinct hostility towards the vegan diet, particularly with some online bloggers who feel that the validity of their chosen diet is being threatened by research which supports veganism as a healthy diet. Unable to hold their ground against a number of major studies supporting veganism, some bloggers have turned to new claims that ‘optimal nutrition’ cannot be achieved on a vegan diet. Though we can not, at this stage in our understanding of the human body, know what constitutes an ‘optimal’ diet for the average human, these examples of arguably optimal humans do cast some doubt on the speculatory claims of these bloggers:

  • Patrick Baboumian: Germany’s Strongest Man in 2011 and during 2013 he broke the world record for the most weight ever carried (video).
  • Mac Danzig: World champion UFC fighter, 2007
  • James Wilks: World champion UFC fighter, 2009
  • Lenroy Thompson: World-class boxer and winner the US title in 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2014 and the Golden Gloves 2009, 2011 and 2013.
  • Jim Morris: World-class bodybuilder who is now vegan (and interestingly was Elton John’s personal bodyguard for more than a decade).
  • Steph Davis: Record breaking rock climber,  the only woman to have free solo climbed a 5.11 climb.
  • Timothy Bradley: Professional boxer holding several titles and, as of 2014, is Ring Magazine’s number 5, Best Pound for Pound boxer in the world.
  • Scott Jurek: One of the worlds most successful ultra-marathon runners. Hold several records and 3 consecutive “Male ultra-runner of the year” awards.
  • David Haye: A professional boxer holding Cruiserweight and Heavyweight world titles.
  • Tim Shieff: 2009 world champion free-runner (and funnily enough, one of the Death Eaters in the last Harry Potter movie).
Patrik Baboumian breaking the world record for the most weight ever carried (2013)
Patrik Baboumian breaking the world record for the most weight ever carried (2013)

Particularly interesting is the proportion of vegan super-athletes. For example, at the time of writing, vegans fighters have won a quarter of the UFC/TUF world championships in the welterweight division in the last 8 years. The proportion of vegan fighters entering these tournaments is significantly lower.

 


 

Eating meat and animal products can hurt the environment

  1. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” and “The livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution.”[5] and “As a large user of natural resources and contributor to climate change, the livestock sector needs to address its environmental footprint.”[6]
  2. 30% of the word’s total ice-free land surface is used to solely to support animals grown for meat, eggs or dairy products [7]. In Australia more than 50% of the natural vegetation has been turned to grazing, primarily for cattle [8].  In Brazil, 70% of all original rain-forest has been destroyed for grazing [7]. These are very significant and statistics.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics: “Grazing accounts for just over half of all land use. Environmental issues associated with sheep and cattle grazing include habitat loss, surface soil loss, salinity, and soil and water quality issues.” [8]
  4. Center for Biological Diversity (USA): “Cattle destroy native vegetation, damage soils and stream banks, and contaminate waterways with fecal waste. After decades of livestock grazing, once-lush streams and riparian forests have been reduced to flat, dry wastelands; once-rich topsoil has been turned to dust, causing soil erosion, stream sedimentation and wholesale elimination of some aquatic habitats” [11]
Cattle grazing in Australia
Effect of cattle grazing along a riverbed in Australia. Photo Peter Solness.

 


 

 

 Eating meat and animal products can be unhealthy

  1. John Hopkins School of Public Health: “A strong body of scientific evidence links excess meat consumption, particularly of red and processed meat, with heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity, certain cancers, and earlier death. Diets high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans can help prevent these diseases and promote health in a variety of ways. […] The majority of the protein foods consumed in the U.S. are meat and animal products, which are often high in saturated fat and cholesterol, as opposed to the more nutrient-dense and health-promoting plant-based options (e.g., beans, peas, lentils, soy products, nuts and seeds).” [9]
  2. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “a very low meat intake was associated with a significant decrease in risk of death in 4 [of 6] studies,” and “Current prospective cohort data from adults in North America and Europe raise the possibility that a lifestyle pattern that includes a very low meat intake is associated with greater longevity.”[10]
  3. Harvard Health Publications: “A meta-analysis of 29 studies of meat consumption and colon cancer concluded that a high consumption of red meat increases risk by 28%, and a high consumption of processed meat increases risk by 20%.” [12] and “It appears ‘healthy meat consumption’ has become an oxymoron […] People in the study who ate the most red meat tended to die younger, and to die more often from cardiovascular disease and cancer. […] even when the researchers compensated for the effects of unhealthy lifestyle, mortality and meat remained associated.” [13]
  4. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “Two themes consistently emerge from studies of cancer from many sites: vegetables and fruits help to reduce risk, while meat, animal products, and other fatty foods are frequently found to increase risk. […] Not surprisingly, vegetarians are at the lowest risk for cancer and have a significantly reduced risk compared to meat-eaters.” [14]

 


 

Veganism is the kind and morally consistent choice

  • Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness: “… the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” [17]
  • Inherent animal cruelty has been documented during hundreds of investigations all over the world at major meat, egg and dairy suppliers.
  • Veganism does not arbitrarily favour any species over any other; it ignores the species label when determining moral worth. Sentience; the capacity to feel and perceive, is used to determine whether an organism has a right to own its body.
  • Death, suffering and slavery of many sentient species (including humans [16]) are all reduced by humans avoiding animal products.

 


 

Veganism is on the way up

Sadly, we’re all subjects of the imperfect human condition and so moral consistency often isn’t enough to change our behaviour. Interestingly, though, the reality or even perception that our peers are changing their behaviour can help motivate us to change our behaviour.

  • The list of vegan celebrities grows:  Ariana Grande, Natalie Portman, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, Usher, Alicia Silverstone, Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Harrelson, Tobey Maguire, Carl Lewis, Thom Yorke, Russell Brand, Alanis Morissette, Ellie Goulding, Morrissey, Mike Tyson, Carrie Underwood, Paul McCartney, Alan Cumming, Daniella Monet, Sia, Steve-O, Ellen Page, Eric Stoltz, James Cromwell, Prince, Jared Leto, Maggie Q, Pamela Anderson, Rich Roll, Ricky Martin, Ricky Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Silverman, Shania Twain, Thomas Dekker, and hundreds more…
  • Veganism is buzzing in the news:  In 2011 ‘vegan’ surpassed ‘vegetarian’ in news headline occurrence frequency as shown in this Google Trends graph:
Number of new headlines referencing 'vegan' and 'vegetarian' since 2007
Relative number of news headlines containing ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ since 2007
  • Research by Mintel has found that, globally, the number of vegetarian food and drink products launched in 2013 was double that in 2009. Similarly, the number of new products labelled ‘vegan’ doubled in that 4 year interval.
  • A report by SymphonyIRI Group in 2011 indicated that with the advent of Almond milk in major supermarkets, the milk-alternatives market saw a 13% growth in 1 year. Euromonitor, another market research firm, expects dairy alternatives to continue to grow by another 52% in the 5 years between 2014 and 2019.
  • Big investors are taking notice: Bill Gates, Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone have all recently invested in vegan startups like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods, both of which are developing animal-free substitutes for animal products which are healthier, kinder, and have less impact on the environment. Morgan Creek Capital Management, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (one of the “largest and most established” venture capital firms in the world according to The Wall Street Journal) are among the growing list of investors who are throwing their money at the vegan movement, and profiting. [15]

 


 

Conclusion

Happily, a large body of evidence and support is mounting for a kind, healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyle. If you’re not vegan already, please consider watching this short video and/or this documentary. Both are free, and are guaranteed to give you some important insights into the ways we use animals. If you are vegan, feel free to use the various quotes and references in this article to help in your own advocacy efforts.

If I’ve missed anything, or made a mistake, or for any other reason, you can contact me via hello@josephrocca.com, and you can visit my other blog here.

Thanks for reading!

 


 

References

Apologies for the lack of consistent formatting:

[1] American Dietetic Association, 2009, Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets
[2] http://daa.asn.au/for-the-public/smart-eating-for-you/nutrition-a-z/vegan-diets/
[3] https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/vegetarianfoodfacts
[4] http://www.dietitians.ca/Nutrition-Resources-A-Z/Factsheets/Vegetarian/Eating-Guidelines-for-Vegans.aspx
[5] Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, 2006, ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e07.pdf
[6] Gerber, P. J., H. Steinfeld, B. Henderson, A. Mottet, C. Opio, J. Dijkman, A. Falcucci and G. Tempio. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – a global assessmaent of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome. [7] http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/News/2006/1000448/index.html [8] http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4613.0Chapter95Jan+2010
[9] Health & Environmental Implications of U.S. Meat Consumption & Production http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/projects/meatless_monday/resources/meat_consumption.html
[10] “Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans?”  http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/526S
[11] “Grazing” http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/grazing/
[12] “Read meat and colon cancer” http://www.health.harvard.edu/family_health_guide/red-meat-and-colon-cancer
[13] “Cutting red meat-for a longer life” http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/cutting-red-meat-for-a-longer-life
[14] “Meat Consumption and Cancer Risk” http://www.pcrm.org/health/cancer-resources/diet-cancer/facts/meat-consumption-and-cancer-risk
[15] “The Bill Gates-backed company that’s reinventing meat” http://fortune.com/2013/10/03/the-bill-gates-backed-company-thats-reinventing-meat/
[16] “UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet” http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/jun/02/un-report-meat-free-diet
[17] “Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness” http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

Note: You can copy any or all parts of this blog post for any use what-so-ever. A no link or attribution necessary.

 

My Vegan Story

A good friend started ‪‎#myveganstory‬ and asked me to contribute. I also did 2 paintings to accompany the story which are attached at the end. This was originally a facebook post (it’s public, so you should be able to access it). So here’s how I came about this choice to avoid using animals:

I grew up on a farm in Tasmania for a large part of my childhood. It had rainforest, a river with waterfalls, real-life Tarzan vines (which rarely broke mid-flight), and lots of animals. It was a goat dairy, so those animals were mostly goats, but we also had dogs, chooks, horses, a ferret, a budgie, a pet possum, and the wild animals, including wallabies, rabbits and all sorts of birds.

Looking back, we treated the animals according to their species, and in some cases, gender. If you were a dog or ferret we protected and loved you for your companionship, if you were a goat, we protected you for your utility, unless you were male and therefore couldn’t produce milk. As is the case on most dairies, almost all males are killed at birth, or sold to be grown as meat. If you were a bird, you were left alone, or shot, or bred, relative to your usefulness; hens got to live, roosters were killed, our budgie got to live, sparrows got trapped and killed.

All this, as some of you probably know, is pretty standard farm practice. A farm isn’t a holiday for animals – it’s a business, and if you’re an animal that’s causing profits to fall, you’re not going to last long. In all cases, animals lives depended on their ability to please us, whether by profit or affection. I didn’t realise this, or if I did, I managed to convince myself, like we all have from a young age, that it’s necessary to treat animals this way – a necessity that I now completely deny. In our society and many others, the lives of humans, dogs and cats have moral value, whereas the lives of cows, pigs, chickens, sheep and goats have only economic value – they’re commodities.

Of the killing, without getting into too many details, it is worth mentioning that bullets are expensive and dangerous to use in sheds. Clubs and knives are favoured alternatives with exceptions for larger animals like horses. Killing is only half of the story though – dehorning, castrating, ear tagging, and a bunch of other painful procedures were necessary to run the farm properly. Dehorning, for example, involves burning into the kids head with a specially made iron (ours looked like a oversized cigarette lighter), to the extent that the horns don’t grow anymore. It’s a bit like holding a the cigarette lighter to the base of your thumb nail until it’s burned through and created enough scar tissue to stop it growing back. Harvey Fresh doesn’t tell you this on the carton.

Hunting was a regular pastime and necessary activity to keep pests out of the paddocks – mostly wallabies, but the hunts I remember best are the ones we went on after moving back to WA. ‘Serious’ hunting in the south west of Australia is pretty much restricted to pig hunts. They’re introduced, so hunting them is encouraged. We hunted with a ute full of trained dogs along with the guns, knives and a spotlight. We’d drive until the dogs got the scent, they’d jump off, and then we’d follow. The three or four dogs would run down a sow or a big boar, and we’d arrive not long after. With the dogs locked onto ears, legs, tails and whatever else, it was safer for the dogs and more sportsman-like to ‘stick’ the pig, rather than shoot it. In the early hours of the morning, only minutes since it had been happily living its life with the others, a sows final sensations after the long chase were of its ears being torn off, bones being broken by dogs renown for their bite strength, and then, finally of a blade through her ribs, or across her throat.

Hunting pigs is different to hunting many other animals – mainly because of how smart they are, but also because of how hard they fight until their last breath. They aren’t a natural prey animal, so they don’t ‘give up’ or go down as quietly as animals like the buffalo and deer we see on nature documentaries, they’ll struggle and squeal right until the end. They’ll also work together and help each other to fend off the dogs when they’ve been cornered or exhausted and back up into hollow tree trunks or thick mud where they’ll be able to defend themselves better. Pig hunters enjoy hunting them precisely because of these reasons – their intelligence and relentless lust to survive makes the ‘game’ more fun. An ex-pig hunter I know who is now pescetarian summed it up well, he said (paraphrasing): “Hunting pigs is more like hunting a tribe than a herd; they work together, strategise to throw the dogs off or lead them away from their young, and fiercely fight back when cornered.” And I guess you wouldn’t expect any less from a species whose intelligence rivals dolphins and elephants in many aspects.

Maybe you’re wondering how anyone justifies this sort of barbarism? Well, they’re damaging our farms and our wildlife (never mind that 54% of Australian bush has been turned into meat livestock grazing land), and so it’s easy to look at them as ‘others’ and aliens which need to be annihilated with a get-out-of-jail-free card for any moral concessions that have to be made along the way. In the hunting community it goes further than this though – pig are hated; half because every now and then a much-loved hunting dog is killed by a boar, and half because the hate becomes a necessity if you’re going to maintain sanity when you’re regularly causing that much suffering.

My transition to veganism began a few years into my uni degree. I’d lost interest in hunting, though we still went every now and then. One night a few friends and I were talking about slavery, racism, oppression and other tragedies of humankind’s past, and at some point we started to talk about how future generations will look back on us. We all agreed that since it’s possible to live a healthy life without killing animals, and since this is known by most people, our generation would eventually be looked back on as ridiculously immoral for the billions of animals we kill or cause to suffer each year. Nothing ground breaking – even Leonardo da Vinci, being centuries before us predicted this, writing:

“The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.”

But at that point we realised that it’s so easy to notice our immoral actions, but then ignore them for the ‘reality’ of the situation, or because everyone else is taking those actions anyway. So, sort of in defiance, we decided to align our actions with our beliefs by turning pescetarian.

Six months later I watched Earthlings (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibuQ-J04eLQ) and after a little more investigation into production animals and fish sentience, I was vegan.

A few months later and my whole family and several of my friends are now vegan or vegetarian (and 1 pescetarian), many thanks to Earthlings, Farm to Fridge (http://vimeo.com/22143776) and research of their own.

There is no reasonable and consistent moral philosophy that mandates avoidable suffering and murder. Nevertheless, we humans have managed to convince ourselves that it is the right of our species to dominate others based solely on our capacity for language and high-level reasoning. We think that since a chicken or pig is not as intelligent as us, it can be exploited without moral consequence. We think that ‘the circle of life’ is a justification for causing completely avoidable suffering – a tragic appeal to nature. And maybe worst of all, we think that our philosophical position is reinforced by consensus – by the same herd morality which has been used to justify all sorts of oppression including slavery and the denial of certain rights to other races, women, and countless other ‘inferior’ and ‘less intelligent’ groups. For animals, besides denying them the fundamental right of freedom from involuntary servitude, we even deny them the right to their own wings, arms and legs. Next time you bite into a drumstick, consider whether it was you, or the chicken who had more right to its own legs.

Hopefully, if you’re not a vegan, you don’t take this as me judging you for your philosophy – I hunted, ate meat, and probably caused far more suffering and death than the average person in the 20 or so years that I wasn’t vegan, so there’s no way I can judge you. I only urge you not to feel smug about being on the side of the majority – I know I did. Be skeptical, critical and let evidence and reason guide your decisions over the potentially uninformed majority’s consensus.

I think it’s clear from my story that for me (and actually, for most vegans I know), veganism is not a diet. It’s the philosophy that animals should have the right to own themselves and determine the direction of their lives. It makes the obvious statement that we should not treat animals differently solely on the basis of their species membership, and that animals have interests that should be defended. Killing, whether fast or slow, deprives a being of all it has and all it wants. It wants to live more than you want to eat it. Plutarch, like da Vinci, Pythagoras and many other great philosophers of the past thought that animals deserved to own themselves:

“But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.”

Two piglets with very different lives.

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