The Turnip Theory of evolution

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?     





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9 Responses to The Turnip Theory of evolution

  1. Tessa says:

    I seem to remember a childhood story about a Chinese boy left to mind the fire and the family pig while his parents were away but he got distracted so that the house burnt down, and the pig perished in the fire. He touched the charred pig, some of it stuck to his fingers, which hurt, and he stuck them in his mouth. Voila, pig became pork and, when his parents arrived home to find the house burnt down, they also found him in the ruins gorging himself on what was left of the pig. Or maybe I had a very vivid dream! Point being, I’m with you, Old Woman – I’m quite sure any kind of cooked food was discovered by accident rather than intent.

  2. Jan says:

    “Is there anyone out there who wants to defend the proposition that humans have big brains because men cooked turnips?”

    LOL – uh, no.

    I believe your progression is dead-on, though – we began eating raw meat before we began eating cooked meat before we began eating cooked vegetables.

    There is a certain theory that our distant forebears became scavengers, probably out of necessity – drought, what have you. They most likely began by eating bone marrow, probably the only edible part of the animals left when they found them, which also happens to be one of the most calorie-rich parts of any animal. There’s also quite a bit of evidence that supports the theory our first tool-use cropped up about this time – our ancestors used rocks to crack open the bones to get to the marrow. So they probably ate raw meat as well, when they could wrest the animal away from whatever it was that killed it. The fat, protein and calories from such a diet is very likely a major contributing factor to our large brains.

    Once we discovered fire…well, that was a whole new ball game. You’re right, meat not only tasted better cooked, but by golly – it lasted a bit longer too! Unlike vegetables, where deterioration is hastened by cooking. Unless, of course, you can freeze them, but I do believe refrigeration was a bit of a seasonal thing back then.

  3. Duchess says:

    You are just prejudiced against turnips. Maybe Lucy shared your prejudice. I reckon in your house if Early Man wants a turnip he has to cook it himself.

  4. Old Woman says:

    On the subject of turnips, I assure you, Early Man and I are of on mind.

    As to cooking, Early Man’s capability is confined to making toast in the toaster.

  5. Darlene says:

    I am still laughing at the proposition of early man being the cook. Homo sapiens culinary skill is usually limited to the backyard turning hot dogs on the bar-b-cue grill.

    Turnips – I haven’t had one since I was a kid and ate them reluctantly when they were served.

  6. I hate turnips. HATE them! Bleh! Potatoes however ….

  7. Dick says:

    Fascinating! My learning curve has just steepened.

  8. Alan G says:

    I love this post. I come here every day and read it desperately trying to gather my thoughts. It just cries for more comments but for the life of me nothing ever composes itself.

    I keep thinking, “Who would think to cook those things?” I mean I love raw potatoes. My mother use to get so mad at me when she was preparing to fix fried potatoes or mashed potatoes because I kept coming in and stealing the raw potatoes before she cooked them.

    But then I got to thinking…..well they didn’t have dentists back in them days so surely one would have serious teeth problems early on in life. So then they wouldn’t be able to bite into raw potatoes or even chew them. So someone decided to mash them up since they didn’t have teeth anymore. I suppose they couldn’t boil them ‘cause there weren’t any pots!

    And if those tuber things make the brain bigger, then why aren’t our brains and heads still getting even bigger? Is that why all the pictures you see of aliens always with those great big heads? Because they come from planets whose apparent main food is turnips? This is why we spend all these billions of dollars on space programs….so we can go to a bigger planet that grows bigger turnips so we can have bigger brains and heads?

    This requires much more contemplation. I suspect I will need a bigger brain to figure it all out! 🙂

  9. Ya’ know, men–white ones in particular– have spent so long at the center of the universe that their capacity to see the margins is very limited. Of course it is we, the ladies cooking, who are there at the edges.

    Again, I love your theorizing, look forward to more.

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