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Cooked

Catching FireNeedless to say the human race has transcended beyond most other creatures to ever roam the earth. Our modern technological and scientific innovations, when compared to the slow process of evolution, are racing ahead. But what set all of this off? There are many things people look at that separate humans from everything else, but is there something, some event or change in our lifestyles, that really allowed all this to happen?

One theory posits that cooking is one such event. The harnessing of fire allowed us to manipulate the foods we ate in such a way that we expended much less energy, wasted less time eating, and changed the chemicals that we ingested. Today we have a wide variety of diets and promoters claiming that such-and-such is the natural way to eat, or that this-and-that are not the way our ancestors and therefore shouldn’t be how we eat. Nutrition is certainly a controversial matter.

“The question of what kind of diet we need is critical for understanding human adaptation. Are we just an ordinary animal that happens to enjoy the tastes and securities of cooked food without in any way depending on them? Or are we a new kind of species tied to the use of fire by our biological needs, relying on cooked food to supply enough energy to our bodies?”

This is a quote from Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. In it, he seeks to knock down certain myths about healthy diets and set up a better understanding of cooking and how important it is not only today but throughout our evolutionary upbringing.

“Evolutionary trade-offs are common. Compared to chimpanzees, we climb badly but we walk well. Our awkwardness in trees is due partly to our having long legs and flat feet, but those same legs and feet enable us to walk more efficiently than other apes. In a similar way, our limited effectiveness at digesting raw food is due to our having relatively small digestive systems compared to those of our cousin apes. But the reduced size of our digestive systems, it seems, enables us to process cooked food with exceptional proficiency.”

Our bodies have clearly adapted to a life of cooked meals, in some ways that may surprise.

“We have small mouths, weak jaws, small teeth, small stomachs, small colons, and small guts overall. In the past, the unusual size of these body parts has mostly been attributed to the evolutionary effects of our eating meat, but the design of the human digestive system is better explained as an adaptation to eating cooked food than it is to eating raw meat.”

[…]

“Zoologists often try to capture the essence of our species with such phrases as the naked, bipedal, or big-brained ape. They could equally well call us the small-mouthed ape.”

This change extends beyond the shape of our mouths or intestines to include such things as taste and sensitivity to certain chemicals in food.

“The shifts in food preference between chimpanzees and humans suggest that our species has a reduced physiological tolerance for foods high in toxins or tannins. Since cooking predictably destroys many toxins, we may have evolved a relatively sensitive palate.”

Cooking appears to be not only a uniquely human activity, but one that has moulded us over time to become dependent on it. Check out the rest of Wrangham’s book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

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