Friday, September 10, 2010

Cooking and human evolution

I recently enjoyed Point of Inquiry's podcast, hosted by Chris Mooney, who interviewed Richard Wrangham, Harvard anthropologist, discussing his new book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The subject was fascinating and worth taking a closer look.

Wrangham holds that learning to cook revolutionized hominid evolution. Currently a chimp's diet consist of fruits and leaves, but they are far tougher and less nutritious than the grocery store counterparts we humans eat. As a result, chimps spend six to eight hours a day just chewing their food, compared to less than an hour a day for humans. Cooking food, however, makes tough food softer and easier to digest, letting early hominids extract more calories from what they ate, thus paving the way to more complex brain development. Plus hominids can spend less time eating and more time doing more productive activities, leading to better communication, tool-making, and exploration. Very interesting stuff.

Another aspect that surprised me was Wrangham's belief that learning to cook may have been the precursor of human marriage. As we know, lifelong monogamy is very rare in the animal kingdom and almost unheard of within primates. So how did humans pick up the habit of picking one partner and sticking with him or her? The theory goes: cooking requires patience but also leaves one vulnerable; after all, if you spend an hour sitting in front of a fire waiting for your food to be cooked, then it's easier for a stronger fellow to swipe your food. So women may have entered into a bargain with men--the men use their superior strength to hunt and gather food and they bring it back to the woman who will tend the fire and cook dinner. The man gets more nutritious food in exchange for protecting the woman while she's cooking. They both win, and would naturally want to continue the exchange over time, since they need to eat every day.

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