Is Neil deGrasse Tyson vegan?

He’s an astrophysicist who’s well respected in his field and well known outside of his field. Apart from being the director of the Hayden Planetarium, he has educated the public on the universe and science in general by writing books, hosting a radio talk show, and hosting a TV show. But is Neil deGrasse Tyson vegan?

No, Neil deGrasse Tyson is not vegan. Despite saying that we should empathize with animals more than we’re doing, that we underestimate their intelligence, that veganism is efficient, and that veganism can help combat climate change, he still eats meat and other animal products.

Neil’s views on animals

In 2011, Neil hosted an episode of NOVA scienceNOW titled “How Smart Are Animals?” Later that year, he was interviewed by the animal rights organization PETA. In that interview, he shared some of his thoughts on animals and our relationship to them.

He said that, after paying attention to animal intelligence for decades, he noticed that “whenever we presume some level of intelligence for them, further research shows that they’re smarter than we ever thought or cleverer than we ever gave them credit for being.” He even said: “Part of why we think animals are stupid or limited is, I think, hubris.”

When speaking about empathy, he remarked that “humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So, maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’”

But he also noticed that “most children take very kindly to animals.” And he said that he “spent a lot of [his] early life just trying to get into the head of a dog and trying to understand their emotions.” He thinks “that changed [him] for the better.” So, he reasoned, “maybe it’s the reeducation of the adults rather than the concern for the kids that matters here.”

He emphasized the importance of “exposure to the animal kingdom,” because if you “separate [yourself] from that experience … if you don’t think about it, it’s easy to then discount it or to not care. And we’ve already seen how humans behave when you’ve decided that you don’t care. It’s ugly.”

He mentioned that owning slaves and beating them when they didn’t obey was once considered ethical because they were viewed as “less than human.” And he said: “The fact that someone can find themself in the position of saying ‘it’s just a dog’ harks back to me hearing people say ‘oh, it’s just a…’ you know, put your nationality there or put your religion there or put whatever, it’s just that, and people justifying wanton slaughter of each other.”

When talking about ways to fuel our bodies, he said that we could use the sun for energy, before remarking that “we sort of do, that’s what it means to get energy from plants.” Since animals in the meat industry eat plants, he continued his observation: “We’re all solar powered in that sense, but very indirectly so.” He imagined what it would be like if aliens who got their energy directly from sunlight visited the earth: “They come and see us gnashing on each other’s’ ribs for food. It makes us look pretty primitive.”

Neil’s controversial cow tweet

Seemingly at odds with most of what he said in that interview, Neil posted the following tweet in 2017:

“A cow is a biological machine invented by humans to turn grass into steak.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 8, 2017

This was a comment he had made at least twice before, but it didn’t get as much attention those times.

The first time was in 2014, when he said on an episode of his talk show StarTalk: “A cow is a machine to turn leaves into steak, right? What else is a cow?”

The second time was during a Q&A in 2015. That time he also explained his reasoning behind the comment: “Cows don’t actually exist in the wild. We invented them to turn grass into steak. We genetically manufactured cows, just the way we genetically manu– we created dogs. There are no dogs in th- there are wolves. And we said ‘wolf, you might bite me, let me mess with your DNA and turn you into a lapdog.’”

Although he’s correct that cows in the meat industry are genetically different from their ancestors because of the way humans have bred them over time, that’s not how many people read his tweet. He was widely criticized for being unscientific and objectifying sentient beings, but he stood by his tweet nonetheless.

Veganism and the environment

In a 2014 StarTalk episode, Neil spoke to actress and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik, who had just published a vegan cookbook. He said: “Being a vegan means you’re eating efficiently given the ecosystem. That matters. … If you make food that non-vegan people are happy with, that makes you a really valuable person.”

And in a 2016 StarTalk episode, he talked about veganism and raised the issue of greenhouse gases in relationship to the animal industries: “A cow is gonna produce methane out of both ends of its digestive tract no matter what it does. So, and methane is of course a greenhouse gas. So, at some point, it can’t just be let’s be a little smarter. You’re really gonna have to change people’s behavior, aren’t you?”

Neither of those episodes centered on veganism, though. So, he didn’t say much more about it. But during the aforementioned Q&A in 2015, he was specifically asked for his views on adopting a plant-based diet to decrease greenhouse gases and prevent global warming.

He said there was “no doubt about it” that we could reduce our carbon footprint in that way. But then he said that eating locally had even more impact on our carbon footprint. And then he went on to say that “rather than give up [his] 16 oz ribeye,” his preferred solution was to “invent a way, perhaps, to scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere.” But, he said, “until that happens we need to do something serious like, like, work on convincing people in charge that global warming is real in the first place.”

His answer was both factually incorrect and strategically illogical.

It was factually incorrect because he said eating locally had more impact than eating plant-based, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The Harvard Business Review already reviewed the research on this back in 2011 and concluded that even if you only stop eating meat one day a week, you reduce your carbon footprint more than if you completely switch to eating locally produced food every day of the week. In other words: one person going vegan has more effect than seven people switching to local food.

And his answer was strategically illogical because he shifted the audience’s attention away from two practical solutions within their immediate control to a potential future solution outside their control. When it comes to reducing our carbon footprint, we are the people in charge.

Neil is misinformed about protein

Despite the fact that Neil has had multiple vegan guests on his show and should know that we can get all essential nutrients without consuming any animal products, he still implied on at least two occasions that we need meat for protein.

The first time was right after his comment about cows producing methane in the 2016 StarTalk episode. He mentioned “simply growing beef in a laboratory, synthesizing proteins” as a possible solution.

The second time was in a 2017 StarTalk episode in which actor Terry Crews brought up veganism and incorrectly claimed he needed meat for protein. Neil’s cohost then listed a few former guests who he thought were vegan, including Cory Booker. To which Neil said: “What we should ask him is: Was he vegan when he was playing football in college? … It would be funny if you had like, the vegan NFL. That would be like a whole other sport.”

These comments make it clear that Neil is misinformed about the origin of protein as well as about the quantity of protein in plant-based food.

Let’s address the origin first: Virtually all protein is produced by plants. That’s where animals get their protein. So, yes, there’s protein in beef, but that protein wasn’t produced by cows. It’s recycled plant protein. So, we don’t need to synthesize protein in a laboratory when plants are already supplying all the protein we need.

With regards to the quantity, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states the following: “Vegan diets typically meet or exceed recommended protein intakes, when caloric intakes are adequate.” They even specifically mention that athletes can meet all their protein needs on these diets as well.

Neil’s comment about the NFL has actually been put into practice by the Tennessee Titans, with great success. Their experience was featured in the documentary The Game Changers. Linebacker Derrick Morgan summarized their season as follows: “This is our best season in the last 15 years, and we had about 14 guys on plant-based diets.”

How Neil justifies the exploitation and killing of animals

Besides being misinformed about the environmental and health benefits of veganism, Neil’s justification for the exploitation and killing of animals also defies logic.

He spoke about this topic in a 2015 StarTalk episode in which he interviewed animal scientist Temple Grandin. Temple is known for redesigning aspects of the animal industries to decrease the suffering of animals, but she also eats meat. Neil asked her how she justified that, and her answer was that without the animal industries those animals would have never existed at all. Neil didn’t disagree with her and said: “I think about this all the time.”

There are two main problems with this reasoning:

The first problem is that it skips over the most fundamental question. If the goal is to decrease animal suffering, then the logical first question is: Do we actually need the industries that are killing them? And the answer to that question is no.

The second problem is that it goes directly against our understanding of morality. If someone were to bring human children into existence with the sole purpose of killing them, we would consider it a heinous crime. So, why would it suddenly be a good thing when done to animals? Even if we consider animals to be worth less than humans, we can only argue that it’s less bad. We can’t suddenly argue that it’s good without being logically inconsistent.

Neil proves that scientists can be wrong too, especially about topics outside their field of expertise. And apart from spreading misinformation, Neil has also forgone the vegan option on the show Hot Ones and eaten meat for entertainment instead. Hopefully, at some point, he will look at the science, examine the errors in his reasoning, and go vegan.

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