Jerry, who spent his youth in the wilds of Alaska and refers to himself as “early man,” keeps me informed about provocative articles in The Economist, especially as they relate to human evolution and other topics in science. This week’s article was about how we humans got to be as smart as we are. The Economist summarizes a report from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science which proposes that our brains grew big because we learned out how to cook certain foods.
I thought I should pursue this topic further so I Googled it. I found that this is not such new news after all. An anthropologist named Richard Wrangham, and some others, have been building their careers in academe for some time on this thesis. It has generated many publications.
I don’t pretend to have studied the subject exhaustively, and I can’t comment on the scientific evidence, since I don’t really know what it is. Don’t take any of this nonsense that I write seriously.
Here’s the gist of the idea, as presented in Science Daily (Aug 10, 1999): These learned gents (and one lady) connect tuber cooking with the transition from Australopithecus to Homo erectus which happened about 1.9 million years ago.
Australopithecines, you know, Lucy and friends, were short critters with smallish brain cases, big jaws and huge grinding teeth. They could chew all day. The males were a lot bigger than the females. They all ate a lot of tubers (things like beets, turnips and parsnips) raw, and this consumed a lot of energy, both for chewing and digesting. But when they got to cooking the tubers their food was softer and released its energy more readily during digestion. All sorts of good things resulted. Brains got bigger and smarter because more energy was available, females got bigger in relation to males, social orders changed from polygamous to monogamous and people started stealing from each other. Our ancestors got to be a lot like us.
I cook dinner just about every evening, so I thought about this concept. It’s hard to imagine that cooking turnips happened by accident. First of all you have to want to eat a turnip (and I’ll admit that in a case of real scarcity one might) and then you need fire. Did Lucy have fire? Well, maybe. Did the big male Australopithecines figure out how to make fires for their harems of little chewing females? And did they, after spending the day digging up tubers, then figure out how to get the tubers hot and soft in the fire?
At this very moment I am frying some tubers (potatoes) on my gas stove. I am running back and forth from the computer to the frying pan to make sure the tubers don’t get hard and burn, making them unsuitable for my reduced sized teeth. Perhaps doing this doesn’t require immense intellectual capacity, but I bet Lucy couldn’t have done it.
I would argue that the big brain came before the cooked veggies.
Here’s another thing. Long ago when I was a real biologist, I learned and I taught, that the “nose brain” was an ancient part of the brain, the locus of primitive emotions and tribal memories. If you came to my house when I was cooking you might say, “What are you cooking that smells so good?” And I’ll bet if you said that I would be cooking a pork roast, not a turnip roast.
So I submit to you that the evidence of the nose brain tells us that cooking meat came before cooking tubers. I can imagine Lucy, or her boyfriend, gnawing on her wildebeest bone and accidentally dropping it in the fire. It smells wonderful. The discovery spreads like wildfire. My guess is that eating meat raw came before cooking meat, and cooking meat came before cooking tubers. But the large brain came before cooking anything.
I think you have to be smart to cook.
One of the inventers of the turnip theory of evolution says, “We don’ know if males or females invented cooking, or who did the cooking . . . .”
What planet do these people live on? Can you imagine a primeval society in which the males do the cooking while the females wait to be served?
Is there anyone out there who wants to defend the proposition that humans have big brains because men cooked turnips?