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Does Cooking Make Us Human?

Harvard-based biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham thinks cooking made us human. And though I have no real way of evaluating his argument, it certainly seems plausible:

Historians of the deep human past generally consider cooking to be a recent activity. A significant number of hearths have been unearthed around the 76,000 year mark, and there is diminishing archeological evidence of controlled fire the further back you go. The assumption is that once we became modern, we worked out how to cook. Wrangham, by contrast, thinks we were cooking 1.8 million years ago — and that the activity was not an outcome of being human but that being human was an outcome of cooking. Cooking physically transformed a creature that was more ape into the earliest version of us, Homo erectus (perhaps more Conan the Barbarian than Jamie Oliver but still fundamentally human).[...]
His argument begins with the odd spend-money-to-make-money aspect of digestion: You must burn calories in order to release calories from food (a fact deeply cherished by celery-chewing teenage girls). Because raw food is harder to digest, it takes more calories to get the calories out of it, and you get fewer calories from it anyway.[...]
Cooked food, by contrast, 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.

I'd imagine there's quite a bit more in his book.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 4, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Books , Food  
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"second, as we spent less time eating, we had more time to do other things with those rapidly expanding brains."


Posted by: jkaren | June 4, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Smaller less muscular jaws may have opened the way for a more varies spoken language, too -- which in turn could have opened the way for an even better brain.

The ability to speak is supposed to be the giant difference between our humans and the Neanderthals -- which may be why Neanderthal guys could never make it with our girls. :-)

Posted by: DenisDrew | June 4, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

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