Evolutionary Psychology and the Outdoor BBQ: You Are What You Cook?

Did cooking play a big role in making us human?

A new book discusses the evolutionary pressure that cooking placed on the human body, brain, and social instincts, and Slate just reviewed it.

Money quote:

Cooked food, by contrast [with raw food], is easier to digest, gives you more energy, and takes no time to eat. Cooking also kills bacteria and renders many natural poisons inactive. So the simple expedient of heating food gave us access to many more safe calories every day, which was a survival jackpot. Once we started to eat soft, cooked food, our jaws and teeth were no longer required to munch ceaselessly, and they became smaller and more delicate. That is why we don’t look like apes anymore. Similarly, the more cooked food we ate, the less industrial-strength digestion we had to do, and the smaller our guts became. In the same way that our bodies evolved to better walk on two legs, our bellies changed to better handle well-done over rare. This had two enormous payoffs. First, as our guts got smaller, this freed up energy for our brains to operate on a larger and larger scale. (Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler first discovered the relationship between gut size and brain size, dubbing it the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis.) Second, as we spent less time eating, we had more time to do other things with those rapidly expanding brains. As we noshed our way to modernity, Wrangham explains, our psychology changed as well. We had to develop qualities like restraint and trust. While it’s not novel to suggest that elements of human society arose around the primeval hearth, people tend to think of this in an abstract way—safe, companionable feelings developing around the campfire. Wrangham puts meat on these bones by comparing how other apes act around food. Chimpanzees—whom he knows intimately from decades of observation, many of those years at the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda—don’t readily share food at all. At best, they tolerate some petty theft. In contrast, humans of all cultures ritually share their cooked food with a network of spouses, children, and more distant relatives. For cooking to get off the ground, we had to divide labor such that some individuals did the cooking and others protected the cook from less-patient individuals.

In contrast with chimpanzees, I wonder if bonobos are ready food sharers (since humans are as closely related, genetically, to bonobos as to chimps).

In any case, read the whole Slate review here, along with its interesting reflections on what it means to be a contemporary raw foods vegan. Here’s a taste of that part of the review:

[P]eople who eat mostly raw food “thrive only in rich modern environments,” and they usually feel very, very hungry.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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