Book Review — Lesser Beasts by Mark Essig

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In September 2019, I finished Mark Essig’s “Lesser Beasts — A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig”.

Here is an interesting book about the evolution of the relationship between pig as an animal and humans in the Western world. It transverses the period of the appearance of Sus scrofa, the Eurasian wild boar, to the present day hog.

It answers age-long questions about why pigs provoke feelings of disgust, why so many people have rejected pork, and why certain societies have made the animal an object of adoration, symbol of celebration and an emblem of surplus.

A lot of people familiar with pigs already know that out of our domesticated friends, pigs are the closest to humans. Of course, like chickens, pigs are also omnivores. But it’s in intelligence that pigs beat all other animals. Pigs can figure out how mirrors work and use them to scan the landscape for a meal. A pig that knows where food is cached will delay its gratification until no other pigs are present and then enjoy the meal by itself. It can learn to perform tasks — open a cage, turn a heater on and off, play video games — more quickly than nearly any other animal.

They are the only animal we keep purely for their meat. They don’t give us milk, wool, or eggs. Only meat. Apart from their short period of gestation (less than 4 months), their fecundity is unmatched, producing as much as 20 piglets at a go. Even more amazing, by six months of age, the pigs have ballooned to 125kg, ready to start giving birth. And to say that every part of the pig, except its squeal, is useful is profound.

Yet this does not make the pig adored by all societies across human history. Its lifestyle when kept as a domestic pet is repulsive. Pigs will eat dead animals, rotten food, and human feces. While these characteristics of cleaning up the waste that accumulated in towns and villages of old were certainly useful public health measures at a time when there was no sewage systems in our world, not many people were inclined to eat animals which they have seen eat their remains, especially when they have other meat options.

And so it was no surprise that societal beliefs were codified by two of the major religions into divine laws. Abstainance from pork became a marker of cultural identity for the Jewish race during their servitude under the Greek and Roman empires. At a point, the question ‘who were the Jews?’ was most easily answered by ‘Those people who didn’t eat pork’.

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That the great Roman empire with its advance sewage system, eliminating human wastes and refuse, had improved the method of pig breeding would not upend divine laws. So while the Romans embraced pork above all meat, the Jews rejected it. One called the pig abominable, the other miraculous. One saw the pig as a carrier of pollution, the other as a sign of abundance.

The Greek and the Romans deified pigs. They were the most common sacrificial animal in both Greece and Rome. Greeks saw it as a symbol of fertility and purity; Romans killed pigs to seal public agreements, such as contracts and treaties, and to mark important private occasions, such as births and weddings.

The part about how Christians came to embrace pork is especially interesting.

A lot has been written about the colonization of the Americas. But do you know that the pig proved the perfect animal for colonization, breeding quickly and providing abundant meat in the difficult years when the lands were being tamed. It was only when farms were well established could settlers start to raise cattle and “emancipate themselves from the benevolent tyranny of the pig.” Cows and sheep are animals for more settled times. As the Americas were being won, Europeans counted on the pig.

This buttresses the fact that when humans are left with nothing, the pig has always being available as a source of meat, then as conditions improve, humans move on to rarer and more expensive meat. The animal bred fast and plentiful to fill humans.

The author spent the last few chapters on the industrial scale production of pigs and pork. How constant improvement in drugs, and feeds produced cheap food for humans.

A book about pigs would not be complete without the call for humane treatment of pigs by capitalists intent on generating as much profit as possible. Yet it’s about economy of scale. If consumers would put their money where their mouth is, producers would raise pigs in better conditions according them more freedom.

And this is an interesting point. Because as more people in the West eating more than enough meat are concerned about the conditions of the pig, countries with a raising middle class like China and Brazil are only too happy to have more protein on their dinner tables.

And it makes perfect sense. The period of great demand for meat led to innovation in meat production through large scale industrial pig processing plants in the West. Other parts of the world simply want to have food to eat above all else.

The problem of meat for people in poor countries can be easily solved by the pig. With its diet controlled, the factors which earned it an abominable animal are no more. But religious beliefs are not so easily cast aside.

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