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Cooking May Have Made Us Human 253

Posted by kdawson
from the steak-on-the-barbie dept.
SpaceGhost writes "Anthropologist Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human believes that the discovery of cooked food led to evolutionary changes resulting in a smaller and different digestive system based on a higher-quality diet, mainly relying on cooked meat. In an interview on NPR's Science Friday (text and audio), Professor Wrangham explores concepts such as the digestive costs of food, the benefits (or lack thereof) of raw diets, and a distinct preference in Great Apes for cooked food over raw."
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Cooking May Have Made Us Human

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  • One hypothesis is that domestication of the modern dog came about partially as a result of our ability to cook food. The dog was a better hunter but we could much more easily access the marrow that the dogs wanted; especially after we cook the meat.
    • by hawkfish (8978) on Sunday September 27, 2009 @11:02AM (#29556399) Homepage

      One hypothesis is that domestication of the modern dog came about partially as a result of our ability to cook food.

      Another recent hypothesis is that dogs were domesticated for food. If you look at the genetic diversity of dogs, it is highest in southern China where dogs are still eaten. Archaeological evidence also suggests that the oldest dog bones in the area were butchered.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by elrous0 (869638) *
        Another hypothesis is that dogs actually domesticated *us*. Okay well, it's actually less a "hypothesis" than an old Twilight Zone episode, but it's a cool twist ending nonetheless.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Which segues into an important question about the effects of domesticating animals on the species that is doing the domestication.

      There is no question that the domestication process had a major impact on dogs. There has been a kind of taboo on looking at the other side of this, though: what were the effects on the humanoids, how much did our ancestors change due to the new partnership with dogs? Dogs have changed markedly since their ancestors began associating with humans; does it not seem likely that th

      • by jc42 (318812) on Sunday September 27, 2009 @01:12PM (#29557625) Homepage Journal

        There is no question that the domestication process had a major impact on dogs. There has been a kind of taboo on looking at the other side of this, though: what were the effects on the humanoids, how much did our ancestors change due to the new partnership with dogs? ... any research in this area runs into a taboo about challenging the "god gave man dominion over the animals" of the dominant religious teachings.

        Well, perhaps, in the "silly sciences". But among biologists in general, there has been no sign of such a taboo, and this topic is dealt with quite openly. It is well-understood that, as one text I saw recently put it, humans are one of the species with the most symbiotic relationships. We have domesticated several hundred animal species and several thousand plant species. Much of the reason we've been so successful at this is a major human adaptation that is referred to informally as "empathy". We are capable of understanding other species to a much greater degree than they can understand us.

        The dog is an interesting case, because it's clear that they differ from their wolf ancestors in that they have a good understanding of human psychology, body language, etc. This is true to a lesser degree in a few other domestic species, notably cats and horses. But most of our domestic animals don't really understand us; we understand them (to varying degrees).

        Or course, even with dogs, this takes some learning on our part. I ran across a funny example a few months ago. A writer (whose name I've forgotten) wrote that birds in general are "alien" creatures, with a body language totally unlike ours, and basically incomprehensible to primates like us. My reaction was "What? Is there a problem understanding bird behavior?" But I'd read some of the biological articles on the topic, and (probably more importantly) due to my wife's serious allergies to furry critters, I've lived in a house with birds for several decades. One of them right now is a blue-crowned conure, who was a "rescue" bird. She was found in a tree in a nearby town about 20 years ago, and some people who knew parrots got her to come down for some food. She was nearly starved, and had obviously not been a wild bird. She had a couple of homes for a few years, one of them a friend of ours who had retired, was traveling a lot, and asked if we wanted to give her a home. She has lived with us since.

        Now, blue-crowned conures are not in any sense domesticated. It's likely that a very recent ancestor was caught in the wild, and she's the result at most a few generations of breeding (if you can call it that). Her species has no adaptations for living with humans, but she gets along well. And it's obvious that the reason is that we can talk to her in her own language. As the bird books would say, she's now part of a flock that's led by a couple of those funny flightless humans. A year ago, she got outside, and was in a neighbor's tree, totally terrified. We spent an hour "talking" her down to lower and lower branches, until finally she flew to my shoulder and started nibbling my ear. We took her back inside her home, and she shows no interest in that horrible outdoors, except to watch out the window when we're not there, squawking a greeting when we walk up to the house. Just as well; she'd die quickly in the New England winter that's coming, if she didn't starve first. (We also have cockatiels, but they've been domesticated and bred for about 150 years.)

        Anyway, this isn't anything at all odd. Around the world, people keep all sorts of "undomesticated" animals as pets. There was a nice example years ago in a National Geographic article that started of talking about an area of India where people express wonder about the Europeans who keep huge "wolves" as pets; aren't they afraid of what those animals will do to their children? The article then went into its topic: In that part of India, people have pet cobras that wander freely around the house. They're not worried about the childre

        • by Kenneth Stephen (1950) on Sunday September 27, 2009 @03:43PM (#29558877) Journal

          Hmm. I come from India, in a place where there are plenty of cobra's and they are killed on sight (i.e - even if they are not causing trouble, because the general idea is that if a cobra doesn't cause trouble today, it will tomorrow). India is a vast place, with a multitude of cultures, so it is possible that in some part of India the situation that you describe does exist. When I searched for this on the web, though, I came up with the following on National Geographic TV:

          Hiss of Death
          Next Showing: Wednesday 7 October at 8pm
          The King Cobra is the largest venomous snake on the planet, but in a small village in northeast Thailand the King Cobra has become a welcome resident. In fact, more than half of the village families keep a cobra as a pet . And so the village is known as Ban Kok Sa Nga - 'Serpent Town'. Many people in Kok Sa Nga make their living from the King Cobra, but in a most unusual way. The men fight these spring-coiled serpents barehanded, while the women dance with fully fanged King Cobras in their mouths. If you thought you'd seen snake wrangling before - you haven't seen nothing until you've seen the snake performers of Kok Sa Nga!!

          Perhaps you confused Thailand with India. Or perhaps you are right, and there really is a place like you describe in India. All I could find, though, was the above reference.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by jc42 (318812)

            I'll have to look that up; it sounds impressive.

            I don't remember where the NG story was in India; I vaguely recall that it was southerly. I also don't know how large an area they were writing about. It is interesting how many different cultures there are in India. It's one of the most culturally diverse part of the planet. Not that people there always get along, but they do seem to be generally more tolerant of differences than people are in much of the rest of the world.

            I wonder if I could find the video

      • There is no question that the domestication process had a major impact on dogs. There has been a kind of taboo on looking at the other side of this, though: what were the effects on the humanoids, how much did our ancestors change due to the new partnership with dogs?

        Man is more likely to have been affected by its domestication of annual plants like wheat. Growing wheat required settling down into stable communities, tending the plants meticulously, harvesting and storing them as a mass collective effort. Can't remember where I read it, but man has been described as a subservient species to plants like wheat which modified themselves to capture a host organisms. At any rate, I think at least that the adage "You are what you eat" does apply in some small way to the evolution of humans.

  • How would our ancestors been able to cook while cavorting with the dolphins [wikipedia.org]?

  • fast food (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 27, 2009 @08:47AM (#29555271)

    And fast food made us american!

  • vegetarians (Score:3, Funny)

    by Errtu76 (776778) on Sunday September 27, 2009 @08:48AM (#29555277) Journal

    I'm a vegetarian. Let's say my children will be too, and their children as well (and so on, and so forth). Does this mean that eventually their stomach size will increase?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 27, 2009 @08:53AM (#29555307)

      No, it means your line will eventually become extinct

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by GaryOlson (737642)
        Before that eventuality, your descendants' brain sizes will be shrinking. Either:

        -- your descendants smaller brain sizes guarantee lives as grocery cart attendants, or

        -- your descendants brains processing will become more efficient as their brain size shrinks in order to maintain parity with the other humans.

        Either way they will be freaks.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by JAlexoi (1085785)
      Is there a particular reason you think your children will be vegetarian? A maybe a religion? Or will you just brainwash them into your way of life?
      If you think that your children will fall in love only with a vegetarian(That would be messing with their lives very dramatically), then maybe some permanent changes may occur. But only if vegetarians really need to have bigger stomachs to digest the required amount of food.
      • by maxume (22995)

        It looked an awful lot like a hypothetical to me.

      • by Rary (566291)

        Or will you just brainwash them into your way of life?

        All parents "brainwash" their children into their way of life. My parents never asked me whether or not I wanted to eat meat. They simply fed me what they fed themselves. Thus I became a meat-eater, not by choice, but by default because of my parents' choices (or, perhaps, because of their parents' choices, and so on).

        Why should vegetarian parents be any different?

    • by TheLink (130905)
      The point of the article is the digestive system for most humans has significant subsystem that's outside the body. In some places it's called the "kitchen" and the digestive process that occurs there is called "cooking" and "food preparation".

      But yes if you and your line of descendents solely eat raw and unprocessed plant foods and somehow do not die out in the process, it is likely that some sort of adaptation would have to occur, and it may include the increase of stomach size or the number of stomachs,
      • "The point of the article is the digestive system for most humans has significant subsystem that's outside the body."

        Which I don't know how it comes as "news" to anybody. The metabolic trade between brain and everything else (being the digestive apparatus the second in command) has been accepted now for decades.

    • by Gordonjcp (186804)

      Only if you're eating lots of raw vegetables, typically with a fairly low energy content. Meat is pretty energy-dense stuff, and you don't need a lot of it to supply your daily energy requirements. Vegetables tend to be less energy-dense but stuff like grass and leaves is pretty poor indeed - which is why large herbivores spend all their time eating. The key is that cooking food - both meat and vegetables - breaks down proteins in them. This makes them easier to digest, so we spend less energy digesting

    • Re:vegetarians (Score:5, Informative)

      by fosterNutrition (953798) on Sunday September 27, 2009 @09:56AM (#29555737) Journal
      No. Evolution works only on traits produced by genetic mutation, NOT traits acquired through behaviour. This was one of the flaws in early theories of evolution: it was believed that actions of the parent could influence the genetics of the child, which is not the case. The standard example is giraffes: under the incorrect theory, one could say "they developed longer necks because they stretched them to reach high leaves", but the correct interpretation is instead "the ones with longer-than-average necks could feed better, and hence had more children".

      The reason for this is that the genetic material passed on through reproduction comes entirely from the cells in your reproductive organs, so no matter how much you train your neck (or stomach, in your case), none of those changes can in any way get passed to your children, because those cells just aren't involved in the process.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by maxume (22995)

        He is positing that many generations will exist in a vegetarian environment and wondering about the results, not wondering about whether the many generations will be successful in teaching the next to only eat vegetables (so evolution is very much in play if you give the hypothetical question a fair reading).

        Also, take a look at epigenetics, there is evidence building that parents can mark their own DNA in ways that alter expression in the child (the genes don't change, the regulation does).

      • by mog007 (677810)

        it was believed that actions of the parent could influence the genetics of the child

        Minor quibble, but Lamarckian evolution didn't have a concept of genetics, if he did he wouldn't have been so wrong. The mechanism for passing on traits was a mystery even to Darwin.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by timeOday (582209)
          But the story is still being written. See epigenetics [wikipedia.org]. Differences in environment (e.g. parental behavior) affect gene expression which in turn affect behavior (e.g. parenting behavior).
      • How did you end up thinking this equates to the neck-stretching theory? On a low-quality vegetarian diet, the individuals with larger stomachs and intenstines would be able to digest more food and do a better job of it, which would lead to a reproductive advantage. So if you took the GP and their offspring out of modern society and they were able to survive on a solely vegetarian diet without modern agriculture, they could very well develop larger stomachs over time. As things are, though, a high-quality ve
    • by khchung (462899)

      No, they won't.

      Evolution is not a directed process based on what you do, but based on which traits survive and get passed to offspring.

      There is no evolutionary pressure for your children to have a bigger stomach at all, i.e. those that have a smaller stomach are not more likely to die, nor will they have less chance to have children.

      Actually, the opposite is more likely. Your children that is less suited to be a vegetarian, due to being less able to absorb nutrient from vegetarian diet, and assuming they t

      • by mog007 (677810)

        Vegetarians have to worry about calcium deficiencies when they get older. And fat people who are fat enough to actually have it impact their health aren't being selected against, because they still live long enough to reproduce. I don't see many fat people dropping dead from heart attacks at the age of 20, or 30 for that matter. Coupled that with the fact that girls with a higher fat content in their diet will reach sexual maturity faster, fat people could start reproducing in their early to mid teens.

      • by sjames (1099)

        Actually, yes they would IF the larger stomach improved their chances of reproduction given that their diet was fixed by an immovable convictions. Of course, it might ALSO (if such a thing has a genetic component) cause them to evolve a more flexible attitude to moral/ethical thinking to erase the disadvantage caused by a raw vegetarian diet coupled with a digestive system inadequate to that diet.

        There could even be a split with one line having a more adequate digestive system and the other a more flexible

    • "I'm a vegetarian. Let's say my children will be too, and their children as well (and so on, and so forth). Does this mean that eventually their stomach size will increase?"

      Only if Lamarck were right, which is not.

    • Unlikely if they all eat modern industrially produced food. The obesity epidemic shows us it's easy nowadays for a westerner to obtain all the calories they need and then some, and just dropping meat out won't change that. We have an abundant supply of calorie-rich starches - you can easily get all the calories you need from grain and rice and potatoes without needing a larger stomach. There are also perfectly fine, rich vegetarian sources of protein available. The agricultural revolution changed many thing
  • Is this another slashvertisement to get the story out there and advertise the book again? I already listened to the Science Friday segment a month ago.

    From the linked article:
    [quote]August 28, 2009[/quote]

    It may well be an interesting book, but I don't think I will ever get around to buying or reading it, too much of a backlog as it is.

  • by plsuh (129598) <plsuh.goodeast@com> on Sunday September 27, 2009 @09:06AM (#29555397) Homepage

    Compare this article with the one posted back in August 2008:

    http://science.slashdot.org/story/08/08/12/2036254/Cooking-Stimulated-Big-Leap-In-Human-Cognition [slashdot.org]

    Opinions?

    --Paul

  • Tasty (Score:2, Funny)

    by ozmanjusri (601766)
    Cooking may not have made us human, but it certainly makes us crispy.
  • Fire determined to be most important discovery of human history!

    • by Jesus_666 (702802)
      I thought Mass Effect was the most important discovery of human history!

      You lied to me, Bioware!
  • If Cooking May Have Made Us Human, those that make me an animal ?
  • ... cooking our food has not only changed our bodies over the years, giving us smaller mouths ... it's given us an evolutionary advantage: bigger brains

    Can we imply the inverse: people with big mouths have small brains and prefer sushi?

  • http://science.slashdot.org/story/08/08/12/2036254/Cooking-Stimulated-Big-Leap-In-Human-Cognition [slashdot.org] But I would have sworn it was our oppositional thumbs that did the trick.
  • Is it a new news ? (Score:2, Informative)

    by meuhlavache (1101089)
    Because I heard exactly the same thing on TV report more than 5 years ago !
  • So if intelligence is related to nutrition, why aren't cows (the fat blobs!) the most intelligent species on earth?
    • by TimSSG (1068536)

      So if intelligence is related to nutrition, why aren't cows (the fat blobs!) the most intelligent species on earth?

      If I understand the posts and summary, the greater intelligence of the human line results in eating cooked meat; therefore the digestive system changed and in some ways simplified because of the diet change. Cows (bovine) are plant eaters with a very complex digestive system.

      I think a reasonable conclusion is a species that uses fire to cook food reduces the need of complex digestive system in order to survive.

      Tim S.

    • Read the article. Species with an easy time digesting their food have more resources for thinking. Cows get plenty of food, but their extra stomach and time spent chewing cud indicate that they expend tons of their body's space and resources digesting food.
  • The book was "How to serve humans"... they had to make apes evolve to get that critical piece of the recipe.
  • mainly relying on cooked meat

    Shitstorm from the vegetarian/vegan crowd in 3, 2, 1..

  • I would think that at best it might make us tender...

    OK, succulent if you use the right equipment.

A motion to adjourn is always in order.

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