Harvard prof speculates that cooking made us human

I don’t have a lot of time at the moment, buty I wanted to pass along a link to an interesting article in the New York Times about Harvard professor Richard Wrangham and his theory concerning the link between cooking and evolution. Here’s a clip:

….Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame fire and heat our food.

“Cooked food does many familiar things,” he observes. “It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious tastes and reduces spoilage. Heating can allow us to open, cut or mash tough foods. But none of these advantages is as important as a little-appreciated aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food.”

He continues: “The extra energy gave the first cooks biological advantages. They survived and reproduced better than before. Their genes spread. Their bodies responded by biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. There were changes in anatomy, physiology, ecology, life history, psychology and society.” Put simply, Mr. Wrangham writes that eating cooked food — whether meat or plants or both —made digestion easier, and thus our guts could grow smaller. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.

There were other benefits for humanity’s ancestors. He writes: “The protection fire provided at night enabled them to sleep on the ground and lose their climbing ability, and females likely began cooking for males, whose time was increasingly free to search for more meat and honey. While other habilines” — tool-using prehumans — “elsewhere in Africa continued for several hundred thousand years to eat their food raw, one lucky group became Homo erectus — and humanity began”…

I find this stuff absolutely fascinating.

I wonder if people who are really adept at using microwaves in the world today have an evolutionary advantage.

If you’re interested, you an order the book here.

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11 Comments

  1. Deadhand
    Posted May 30, 2009 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    What do the raw foodists have to say about this? Very interesting.

  2. Patrick
    Posted May 30, 2009 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    “But none of these advantages is as important as a little-appreciated aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food”

    And simultaneously lowers the nutrient content. He sounds like a quack to me.

    What about agriculture? That is where our energy really comes from. Corn and rice feed nearly the entire population of the earth. Energy rich starches, negligible nutritional value. And that happened only 15-20 thousand years ago. Is that what made us human? Maybe he is a New World Theorist in disguise?
    The studies I have read seem to show that cooking meat, at least, actually lowers the amount of energy we get from the meat. Raw meat and less- cooked meat is better suited to our bodies. The professor is wavering between the differences in biological and cultural evolution. They are two different things.
    Of course, I am probably wrong, but I will read the rest of the link just for fun.
    How could wasting time to cook food allow primitive people more time. I don’t get it.

    ““It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious tastes and reduces spoilage”

    Sounds like a crock pot commercial from the seventies. Sorry. There is nothing more delicious than raw food. Maybe the prof is on the Monsanto payroll.

  3. Patrick
    Posted May 30, 2009 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    “Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame fire and heat our food. ”

    Okay, but last I heard, there was a dig in Israel where anthropolgists were really surprised to see that humans were using fire 750,000 years ago. Nowhere near the two million the professor is suggesting here. So, we were human some million years before we cooked? Yet, cooking is what makes us human? Doesn’t hold up.
    It is just another one of those books that will hit the bestseller list. Kind of just like the raw food diet books, only a little shorter and easier to hit the beach with. I guess the prfoessor thought he couldn’t beat them, so he would join them.

  4. Patrick
    Posted May 30, 2009 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    “He writes: “The protection fire provided at night enabled them to sleep on the ground and lose their climbing ability, and females likely began cooking for males,”………

    with my butt!!!!

    Nope. Doesn’t seem to fit there.

  5. Brackinald Achery
    Posted May 31, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    More likely the protection fire reduced illumination at night to a 20′ diameter circle centered on the fire, and cast wierd shadows on everyone’s heavily browed countenances. This naturally gave birth to the scary ghost story, which not only fueled their imaginations and stimulated higher thinking processes, but made them so scared of the unknown that they made it a point to explore the world around them and kill everything so they could sleep at night. This lead to technological advancement.

    Now that we’ve conquered the entire planet and beyond, and discovered that there aren’t really dragons or sea monsters or werewolves or martians, we’re getting mental disorders because our whole advancement as a species (and therefore every fiber of our beings) is based on there being monsters outside the campfire that we have to defeat. And there aren’t. There’s nobody here but us. We’ve inherited genes that have allowed our ancestors to fight, overcome, and survive challenges (i.e. — monsters), and now there aren’t any.

    This is why we have to invent reasons to fight each other, such as taking offence over the suffix, “-tucky”.

  6. Diet-tucky
    Posted May 31, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    There is too much money to be made with diet books/diets that the honest science (which has little definitively to say about diet, it seems) gets completely lost.

  7. Patrick
    Posted May 31, 2009 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I propose that what really makes us human is all that salt that bartenders put in the peanuts so that patrons get thirsty and have to buy more beer. I don’t see the other primates doing anything like that.

  8. Ol' E Cross
    Posted May 31, 2009 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    On a personal level, the guts to brain ratio makes so much sense when reflecting on the friend I had who was on a entirely raw food diet. I always wondered if it was the chicken or the egg with him (was he incredibly fit yet stupid because he only ate raw foods or did he only eat raw foods because he was incredibly fit and stupid?). Now, I’m closer to the answer.

    Thanks Mark.

    Anyone for some pot roast with mushy carrots and potatoes? Pea soup?

  9. Patrick
    Posted May 31, 2009 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Ol’ E Cross wrote, “I always wondered if it was the chicken or the egg with him (was he incredibly fit yet stupid because he only ate raw foods or did he only eat raw foods because he was incredibly fit and stupid?). Now, I’m closer to the answer.”
    Maybe he was just “less human” than your average fry cook.
    The more I read about what makes us human, the more I like the other primates, and the less relevant the whole question becomes to me. Taxonomy is just a little trick our brain pulls on us to keep all the information segregated in there. The logical end result is Eugenics.

  10. Weirdo
    Posted June 1, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I think it was an engineered virus from outer space that started the whole chain of events bringing us to where we are today. And I think this last several million years, to the entities who designed the experiment, is probably nothing. So, yeah, cooking was great, as were the opposable thumbs, but there’s still someone behind the curtain.

  11. Posted June 1, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    That’s OK, Weirdo, I think the earth is a giant feed lot and we’re all being raised for meat… To my mind, we’re kind of interplanetary veal.

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