Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Naked Cook


I am arguably the world’s worst cook, so I avoid it as much as possible.  I do, however, love to eat good food, and I suppose I always thought that the purpose of cooking was to turn tasteless and chewy raw ingredients into something delicious.  To the extent that I thought about it at all, I assumed that cooking was something that developed somewhere in our evolutionary past when one of our distant ancestors dropped a chuck of raw meat into the fire and it took him a while to fish it out.  I visualized a Neanderthal or the like doing this.  

Maybe this just displays my general ignorance.  Recently, on a long plane trip, I read a book that had a very different interpretation of events and one I found fascinating.  It’s an African story; wherever this happened, it was somewhere in Africa. And with the Cradle of Humankind up the road from where I live, it might have been quite close by.


The book is CATCHING FIRE: How cooking made us human by Richard Wrangham. The author is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard and an expert on Chimpanzees on the side. This guy knows his stuff. It is sometimes said that we are what we eat. The thesis of this book is that it’s not what we ate that mattered, but that we cooked it first.

Professor Wrangham and friends
Compare the teeth!
The book starts out gently explaining that raw food is great except that it takes a long time to chew up and a lot of energy to digest.  Much of the food value is wasted. What you need is big, strong teeth, heavy jaw muscles, and plenty of lower intestine.  My neighbors up the road here had all that. They were much smaller than humans but had bigger teeth.  I did know that.  I suppose I just thought that our smaller teeth resulted from our larger overall size and changed diet.  Well, right.  Professor Wrangham points out that it's diet that drives evolution, never the other way around.  It was when our ancestors started cooking their food that two things happened, probably over quite a short space of time in evolutionary terms.  The one was that they were now getting much more nutrition from the same amount of food. That’s because breaking down the cellular structure with heat makes the nutrients more easily accessible. The other was that we could eat more quickly. The food was softer, less chewing was required, and less digestion.  Over time our teeth changed to reflect that situation and our guts changed appropriately too.

Australopithecus Sediba
The archaeological record shows that humans controlled fire about half a million years ago and maybe much earlier. At Swartkrans in South Africa and at locations in Kenya, there are sites dating back one and a half million years with suggestions of fire use. This physical evidence is disputed so Wrangham turns to biology instead, seeking the change in anatomy that would link with the cooked food.  

Over the last two million years, there were only three periods when our ancestors’ evolution was fast and strong enough to justify a change in species names.  The crucial one occurred some 1.8 million years ago when Homo erectus emerged from the australopithecines.  ‘Suddenly’ we had a much larger creature, one that walked and ran and was probably not well suited to climbing, had smaller teeth, and probably differently structured guts.  It had to be fire that allowed the erectus part.  The African savanna was not a safe place to be on the ground at night with saber tooth cats all over the place.  The australopithecines were probably excellent climbers and slept in trees as all modern apes do.  But if you were cooking around a cheerful bonfire, sleeping around it – presumably with a watchman to keep the fire fed – would be safe and comfortable.  So the implication is that it was the possession of fire and the rudimentary art of cooking that drove the development of Homo.
Skull of Homo Erectus
That in itself is a pretty intriguing idea.  But there’s more.  If we were happily eating roasted meat and broiled vegetables all that time ago, why did our brain size develop?  It turns out that the development of brain tissue is very expensive in terms of energy demands. Wrangham believes that what we think of as intelligence was needed for social interaction rather than for food gathering.  It was the excess of nutrition from the cooked food that allowed the extra resources to feed and develop our brains. Thus it was cooking that led to our intelligence, rather than the other way around.  


Wrangham has one final twist. He observes that universally in hunter-gatherer communities, the women do the cooking. (The exceptions are a few instances when men do some culturally significant form of cooking and he dismisses those.) Men do the hunting – or whatever else they want to do – and leave the vital cooking task to the women.  In a few societies, it's much more significant for a woman to feed a man than to have sex with him.  If she gives him dinner, they're married.

Wrangham toys with the idea that as cooking developed, females could be set upon and have their food stolen, so they made alliances with males, not for sex and procreation as is the conventional wisdom – generally apes don't do that - but for shared food and resources and for defense against food thieves.  So much for ‘family values!’  It’s all about food!  Wrangham obviously feels very uncomfortable that this prehistoric motivation has settled into modern times as an excuse give women a subservient role.  He concludes this chapter with:

 “The idea that cooking led to our pair-bonds suggests a worldwide irony. Cooking brought huge nutritional benefits. But for women, the adoption of cooking also led to a major increase in their vulnerability to male authority. Men were the greater beneficiaries. Cooking freed women’s time and fed their children, but it also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by a male dominated culture. Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture.


Michael - Thursday




19 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Michael, I was inclined take up the discussion of the subjugation of woman, but it is the thesis of my WIP and my brain is teeming with too many ideas for this little box I am writing in. I will bring up, instead, the Paleo diet and the Raw food Movement--weight loss regimens the have been making the rounds in the US for a few years now. The notion is that you will lose weight naturally if you eat like a caveman or never heat your food over 138 F. From what you write here and similar thoughts I have learned from other sources, eating cooked food--especially meat--freed up blood from the digestive tract and made it available to develop the brain. All the drivel I have heard from the practitioners of the Paleo and Raw Food Diets leads me to believe that they have found a way to reverse evolution and are quickly reverting to the intelligence of Australopithecus

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  3. Well our jaws go sideways. Our colons are short. Our digits are long and dexterous. Try as I might I can't run fast enough to catch a rabbit. I'm not strong enough to kill a cow. I don't have the claws or the teeth. Or the inclination. My molars are flat for grinding.
    You can read into our past as a species and make up the narrative, but as a species we are now eating ourselves to death.
    And I bet that will get blamed on women as well.
    And Michael, so why do men always have to do the BBQ thing?

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    1. The BBQ thing? Because they see it as culturally significant!

      As to eating ourselves to death, he's got stuff to say on that count too. Apparently this whole calories thing is so crude it's practically creation science. The bottom line is that we eat too much whatever we think!

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  4. Annamaria, you are absolutely right. The first chapter of the book is devoted to exactly that topic - in particular that raw food fadists eat the normal amount of calories, but lose weight. That's because we're not designed to chew and digest it anymore. And if they think it's more 'natural,' well, not for our species it's not!

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  5. "Well it works for me. So am I further back the evolutionary tree than you lot? I'm fine with that," said Scotticus Vegetarius as she dragged her knuckles along the ground to the fridge. Veggies do eat less calories at meal times to leave calories free for the consumption of important things- like good wine and chocolate.

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    1. Please note, Caro, that I am NOT dissing Vegetarians. I am commenting on the more arcane diet faddists, especially the ones who can't let off proselytizing about their latest fad diet. Vegetarianism is in a different category. It is often based on philosophical considerations. It is not just another food fad. It's the faddists that make me want to scream!

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  6. Ooh, ooh, did somebody mention chocolate? I'll have you know that I am plenty fast enough to run a frisky Cadbury's bar to ground and kill it with my bare teeth once I've done so.

    But eating ourselves to death as a species? Oh yes. Without a doubt.

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  7. Yes, Annamaria is spot on. The issue is not being a vegetarian or a carnivore. Both easily acquire enough nutrition for a healthy (or even overweight) lifestyle. The issue is whether you COOK the food or not.

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  8. I know the type you mean Annamaria, I have a patient who only eats foods of a certain colour on certain days of the week. I kid you not.

    But I do feel there is a movement towards eating less meat, or eating meat that is better quality. I’ve been veggie for 36 years, and I do think there is a drift towards the ‘plant based wholefood diet’. Is that a euphemism for veganism?
    Or is there polarisation? The fast food lot on one side, the ‘grape-eaters’ on the other. What gene pool of those two will be passed on?

    I’m doing a course on the causes of obesity and the treatment of it. The figures are astounding and terrifying. If deaths linked to obesity were linked to ebola or bird flu, there would be outrage. But it is a silent killer and we accept it. We accept obesity in five year old children. And that is a scandal.

    However, I will get off my soapbox now as that wasn’t really what the original blog was about… and I need to eat more chocolate. I am at 48 000 words of the new book and my brain needs calories.
    Writing is hard work, that is a point of agreement.

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  9. See, this is why I don't cook. I refuse to contribute to my own subjugation. :D

    The latest research on diet indicates that THE most important thing is eating food that is "minimally processed" and as close to its origin as you can. Which doesn't mean eating raw meat, it does mean eating better quality, grass-fed meat, as just one example. And probably it's best not to try and live on sugared cereals. Anyway, what was interesting -- I just read this last night -- is that it doesn't seem to matter all that much whether you eat a Mediterranean Diet or even a protein-focused caveman thing -- the key is eating whole foods.

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    1. Please reassure me that wine, chocolate and coffee are whole foods. Being Italian, I am definitely on board with fresh and unprocessed.

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  10. Great column, Michael, thanks. The book sounds very interesting.

    AmA: I've rubbed elbows with enough faddists of one religion or another over the years to know that it's all dust in the wind of my gaseous outflows caused by undigested (except by bacteria) foodstuffs. Everyone wants to think they're brilliant and have come up with the One True Way, something no one else has ever thought of before in our millions of years of history. It could happen. But I'll let others throw their bodies on spikes of verification. Someone trying hard to convince you of something is one of the first and greatest signals that it's time to raise your defenses and light the watch towers...

    Caro: Congratulations! Just yesterday you were at 45 000 words, today you're at 48 000. At that pace, in a couple of weeks, you're bound to have a good, solid short story!

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    1. Oh... and I forgot to mention: only TWO WEEKS until LCC 2015! Be there or be... absent. And disappointed. See the Pacific Northwest. Experience 55F temperatures and liquid water falling from the skies, free for all to do with as you wish. And I'll be there. What more could you want?

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  11. Annamaria, that is my staple diet. And it keeps me looking young. I am actually 127 years old.
    EvKa, 49, 323 now!

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  12. EvKa, I am so sorry not to be at LCC! Unfortunately I'm in the middle of teaching at the University here. But I'm up for Bouchercon!

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    1. Now THAT'S a fabricated alibi if I've ever heard one! You should write a mystery novel...

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  13. I am shocked. EvKa must be on a non-cooked vegan diet. What else could explain him missing a straight line like this one: "In a few societies, it's much more significant for a woman to feed a man than to have sex with him. If she gives him dinner, they're married."

    As a personal aside, Michael, thank you for shedding light my long held, innate fear of accepting dinner invitations.

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  14. This is great do you have a catologue if so I would love one to share with friends and family.
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