Science was a Founding Principle of the Vegan Movement

In my book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights, I note the unfortunate disconnect between anti-speciesist activism and scientific evidence.  Tactics and theory in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement are, for the most part, designed according to personal leanings, hunches, tradition, religious beliefs, or capacity for the greatest financial return.

Thought leaders in the movement spend a lot of time on podcasts, blogs, and books pontificating on what they think will work and why. Rarely, if ever, do they actually consult the decades of research in social movement theory, psychology, sociology, economics, and other social sciences to support their chosen approach.  

This lack of engagement with evidence is compounded by the prevalence of new ageists who promote plant-based eating for spiritual purity, good vibes, or a chance at enlightenment.  

Anti-speciesists of the early 20th century who spearheaded the historic split from The Vegetarian Society would likely be disappointed to know that one of the movement’s greatest strengths, the considerable scientific support for veganism, is often sidelined.  They would be disappointed perhaps not surprised.

In my book, I explore some of Donald Watson’s and Henry Salt’s early writings about the relationship between anti-speciesist work and scientific rigor.  The avoidance of nonscientific, religious claimsmaking was a founding principle of the vegan movement.

Other early vegans agreed, and exposed these values in early issues of The Vegan. In an essay titled, “Veganism and Science–And A Warning,” author W. S. James writes in 1948:

[…] a warning is necessary if the vegan movement is to avoid the embarrassments and setbacks which the vegetarian movement has suffered.  There are those in the vegetarian movement, and no doubt there will be those in the vegan movement, who oppose scientific thought and try to pick a quarrel with science, attempt to discredit it, and thereby ridicule their own movement in the process.

Publications by the Vegetarian Society, it seems, included horoscopes and bizarre, unfounded dietary theories. James fears the disrespect for science gives the public the impression that we are a cult:

Veganism needs to avoid this sort of bunk and bathos, otherwise it will scare away the intellectually minded reformer for ever.

Scientific rigor, it was argued, is necessary to protect veganism “as a vital, progressive force.” Likewise, religion was excluded the early Vegan Society values:

Keep veganism a practice based on ethics, aesthetics, humaneness, health, economics and science.  We shall agree on this: and we shall disagree on anything else.

A century ago, vegan founders warned that a disregard for science would imperil the movement’s effectiveness.  “Veganism has everything to gain by a wholehearted scientific attitude, and everything to lose by an unscientific approach,” James concludes.  Has the modern vegan movement heeded the warning?

Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website,

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of vegan research in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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