Sunday, August 21, 2016

Did Cooking Technology make us Human?—Book Review of Cooked

I've been getting a bit of summer reading done, so now I have to recommend a book.  Or maybe two books.  Or at least a documentary.

This summer I was delighted to see that Netflix added a four-part documentary based on the book Cooked, by Michael Pollan.  I'm an admirer of Pollan's earlier writingsThe Omnivore's Dilemma deserves to be recognized as a classic, and In Defense of Food may be my favorite of his books.  Cooked is also a great read, but if you're short on reading time, then definitely try to watch the documentary.  (Check out the preview below.)

(Image from Amazon)

I learned something new from reading and watching Cooked.  Pollan interviews a primatologist by the name of Richard Wrangham, who proposed a novel theory about origins of humanity.

To understand his theory, let's take a couple steps back in the evolutionary tree of life.

Homo Erectus was an ancestor of Homo sapiens (that's us), and Homo habilis was an ancestor of Homo erectus.  Many scientists agree that meat eating may explain the evolution of Homo habilis, but Wrangham doesn’t think it explains the emergence of Homo erectus.  Cooking, however, may explain that later transition.  That's right, Wrangham's theory says that “cooking technology” played a role in the evolution of early Homo species, particularly Homo erectus[1]  

To understand that evolution, we need to understand something about nutrition.  A fact I didn't know previously is that cooked vegetables and meats give us more energy than raw food.  Cooking food over a fire or a heat source is almost like pre-digesting it, because our jaws and digestive systems don't have to work too hard to break it down.  As a result, we end up absorbing more nutrients and calories when food is cooked.  When we eat raw food, however, our jaws and digestive systems have to work more (burning calories to eat calories), so we get less bang for the buck (we absorb fewer nutrients and calories).

So how does that explain the transition from Homo habilis to Homo erectus?  According to Wrangham's theory, when our ancestors learned to cook, they could absorb food without their jaws and guts needing to work so hard.

For example, by cooking tubers (the thick, round stems of plants such as potatoes), our ancestors like Homo erectus increased the amount of energy their bodies could obtain from those foods: they got more energy (easily digested food) for less effort (reduced chewing).

By working their jaws and guts less, more energy was freed up for other areas of the body, including the brain.   As a result, our ancestors evolved smaller teeth, jaws, and guts, and they grew larger brains. [2]

Wrangham lays out his theory in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, where he basically argues that our ancestors discovered cooking as “a technological way of externalizing part of the digestive process.” [4]

(Image from Amazon)

For those of us familiar with Marshall McLuhan's ideas, we've certainly thought of information technology and media as extensions of our minds.

Understanding cooking technology as an extension of our guts, however, was a new idea for me, and I'm thankful to Wrangham and Pollan for introducing and popularizing it.

[1] Richard Wrangham et al., “The Raw and the Stolen: Cooking and the Ecology of Human Origins” Current Anthopology 40 (5) (December 1999), 572.

[2] Elizabeth Pennisi, “Did Cooked Tubers Spur the Evolution of Big Brains?” Science 283, No. 5410 (March 26, 1999): 2004-2005.

[3] Sushma Subramanian, “Fact or Fiction: Raw veggies are healthier than cooked ones,” Scientific American, March 31, 2009:

[4] Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 56.

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