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Biotech Science

Cooking Stimulated Big Leap In Human Cognition 473

Hugh Pickens writes "For a long time, humans were pretty dumb, doing little but make 'the same very boring stone tools for almost 2 million years,' says Philipp Khaitovich of the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai. Then, 150,000 years ago, our big brains suddenly got smart. We started innovating. We tried different materials. We started creating art and maybe even religion. To understand what caused the cognitive spurt, researchers examined chemical brain processes known to have changed in the past 200,000 years. Comparing apes and humans, they found the most robust differences were for processes involved in energy metabolism. The finding suggests that increased access to calories spurred our cognitive advances, although definitive claims of causation are premature. In most animals, the gut needs a lot of energy to grind out nourishment from food sources. But cooking, by breaking down fibers and making nutrients more readily available, is a way of processing food outside the body. Eating (mostly) cooked meals would have lessened the energy needs of our digestion systems, thereby freeing up calories for our brains. Today, humans have relatively small digestive systems and allocate around 20% of their total energy to the brain, compared to approximately 13% for non-human primates and 2-8% for other vertebrates. While other theories for the brain's cognitive spurt have not been ruled out, the finding sheds light on what made us, as Khaitovich put it, 'so strange compared to other animals.'"
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Cooking Stimulated Big Leap In Human Cognition

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  • AUGGGHHH (Score:5, Funny)

    by nawcom ( 941663 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:14PM (#24575845) Homepage

    We man got smarts by cooking meats you vegan bitches!!! UGH-UGH-UGH-UGH-UGH (think Home Improvement)

    • Screw the gristle stuff. It's Twinkies.

      All the way down. Now those are little calorie bombs. Feed the brain!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by KGIII ( 973947 )

      Hmm... Does this mean fat people are smarter?

      (I'm pretty skinny so, well, I am guessing that is going to be my new excuse for doing stupid things.)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by 2nd Post! ( 213333 )

      It helps that we cooked veggies too.

      I mean, what is a burger without pickles, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, and bread?

      • Re:AUGGGHHH (Score:5, Funny)

        by rrkap ( 634128 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:38PM (#24576695) Homepage

        It helps that we cooked veggies too.

        I mean, what is a burger without pickles, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, and bread?


    • Re:AUGGGHHH (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:36PM (#24576677) Homepage

      Actually, this implies just the opposite. Cell membranes (meat) are easy for the body to break down. Cell walls (plants) are quite difficult, and cooking greatly facilitates their digestion. Cooking meat usually somewhat increases its caloric density (by driving water off, making it denser), but *decreases* its total calories (by driving fat off and breaking some proteins down). Cooking plants doesn't increase their calories, but generally makes them more bioavailable. It also lets you eat a more diverse variety of plants; many wild plants are toxic in their uncooked form, and heat denatures the toxins. In many more, heat won't denature the toxins, but repeated boils in changes of water can get rid of them. And, apart from some certain hunter gatherer societies (such as the Innuit), most hunter-gatherer groups get about 80% of their calories from plants.

      So, really, it's just the opposite of what you're suggesting.

      • Re:AUGGGHHH (Score:4, Insightful)

        by TheSHAD0W ( 258774 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @09:03PM (#24577359) Homepage

        Cooking also destroys bacteria, which means the digestive tract isn't challenged so constantly. It also helps preserve meat, which means you don't have to eat it the same day. Once you learn to smoke meat you can keep it a much longer time.

  • So... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:14PM (#24575853)

    ... if we feed animals with cooked food they will start to get intelligent?

    • Re:So... (Score:5, Funny)

      by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:20PM (#24575921)

      If you give them a couple million years to mutate, yes. Provided my step-mother isn't the one who cooks the animals meals of course, in which case they'd devolve faster than you can say "that steak is raw!".

    • by Gerzel ( 240421 )

      You would also need selective pressure to bring out the more intelligent individuals for gene selection.

      The cooking is a prerequisite for the cause to be able to work but it isn't the causal force itself.

    • Re:So... (Score:5, Funny)

      by pilgrim23 ( 716938 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:55PM (#24576323)

      Only if a large stone obelisk moves into the neighborhood at the same time...

  • well.... (Score:4, Funny)

    by pxlmusic ( 1147117 ) <> on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:14PM (#24575857) Homepage

    still no explanation for Steak-umms

    • Re:well.... (Score:4, Funny)

      by smallfries ( 601545 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:43PM (#24576205) Homepage

      Yet it does explain the entire "raw" food movement

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jandrese ( 485 )
        I saw a TV special on raw food people once. It was a house with like 20 hippies living in it. The one guy was all gung ho about "raw" food and was going on and on about how cooking destroys the food man, but the rest of the people (in the background) were clearly not enamored with his leafy vegetable "burrito". The guy's attitude was so "holier than thou" that I wanted to smack him in the mouth. Seriously, it was like the guy who became a Vegan to one-up his vegetarian friends, but then moved in with a
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by carlzum ( 832868 )
          There was (is?) a "raw foodist" restaurant near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. They did things like bake pizza in the sun, which seemed more like serving poorly cooked food rather than raw food. I thought it was a stupid idea, I'm glad to see there's evidence that it is indeed stupid. There are plenty of sound arguments for reducing or eliminating meat consumption, but a strict raw food diet smacks of self-satisfied douche-ism.
  • So I can use this to smack down people for making fun of my obsession with cooking, some sort of complicated excuse for my desire to purchase a smoker/kegging system/jet powered coffee roaster?

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by SpicyLemon ( 803639 )

      Does that mean I can belittle people for making fun of my obsession with eating other people's cooking?

      1) I'm fat.
      2) I eat buffets all the time.
      3) Buffets contain mostly cooked food.
      4) Eating cooked food makes you smarter.
      Therefore, I'm smarter than you.

      And if that doesn't work, how about this.

      I'm kind of smart. I'm also fat from eating cooked foods. If I marry a fat woman that's good at cooking food and we have kids. That kid should be a little smarter than me. Then we can make my kid fat by feeding hi

  • Suddenly... (Score:3, Funny)

    by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:17PM (#24575895)

    Then, 150,000 years ago, our big brains suddenly got smart.

    I'm betting there's a giant black obelisk [] involved ... (cue weird music)

  • TV Science (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ednopantz ( 467288 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:18PM (#24575899)

    This just in: slashdot editors watch the history channel for their science news.

  • by Jailbrekr ( 73837 ) <> on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:18PM (#24575903) Homepage

    then America would be choke full of obese geniuses.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by B3ryllium ( 571199 )

      No, the theory could still be true - Americans are just over-eating fake food, forcing their teeny digestive systems to divert energy from the brain, thus reversing the cognitive jump.

    • by oskard ( 715652 )

      then America would be choke full of obese geniuses.

      I'm from South America, you insensitive clod!

    • by Narpak ( 961733 )
      The Article said cooking, not eating.
    • by 2nd Post! ( 213333 ) <gundbear@p[ ] ['acb' in gap]> on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:19PM (#24576527) Homepage

      No, the geniuses are the ones who aren't obese. They've figured out how to channel 30% of their energy into their brains (and in the process, not becoming fat).

  • by StefanJ ( 88986 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:20PM (#24575923) Homepage Journal

    People look at me funny when I ask for my steak well done.

    Neanderthal dopes!

    • Re:Hah! I knew it. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Random Destruction ( 866027 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:04PM (#24576401)
      Of course they do. You're asking the person to cook all the taste and texture out of a perfectly good cut of meat.
    • Re:Hah! I knew it. (Score:5, Informative)

      by rossifer ( 581396 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @08:11PM (#24576961) Journal

      There's no flavor left when it's well done.

      Meat should only be cooked enough to be safe to eat. Anything more than that is just burning the flavor and texture of the meat away.

      For a steak from an FDA-approved source, that means red or possibly pink in the middle. For ground beef from an FDA-approved source, pink in the middle (because the grinding process mixes the outside surface into the middle of the beef, so it needs to be cooked more). If you personally trust the source of the meat (was the animal healthy) and the slaughterhouse to have kept the meat uncontaminated, there's no need to cook meat at all (steak tartar).

      Meat does not require cooking to be 100% digestible by the human gut. Nor do fruiting plants where the fruit is a deliberate part of the seed-propagation strategy (most of what's called fruits and berries). Cooking may still be useful to minimize the risk of biological contamination. On the other hand, most starchy vegetables (tubers, grains, pulses) have more bioavailable calories after cooking. Like 100-1000% more calories.

      Further, whenever you consume the actual seed of a plant (grains, pulses, nuts, etc.), you often also have to overcome the defensive toxins that the plant was using to prevent the loss of reproductive potential (they don't propagate if every animal can consume the whole ovary). Drying and cooking are the most effective way, by far, to eliminate and defuse the risks of those chemicals.

      Sometimes, like with soy (phytates and phytoestrogens/isoflavones), cooking isn't good enough, and you need fermentation or another process to eliminate the toxins before they're safe to eat. Too bad most soy-food processing doesn't do that, so the defensive toxins end up in most of the processed crap made from soy protein and soy oil on the supermarket shelves. Soy sauce, miso, tempeh, and natto are safe. Most other soy-based foods are not.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by MMC Monster ( 602931 )

      My brother made the mistake of ordering a steak "well done" at Peter Luger (probably the preeminent steakhouse in Brooklyn, NY). The waiter looked at him in disgust, and delayed the order 30 minutes. When they finally brought all the food out, the waiter said, "Sorry for the delay but we had to spoil a perfectly good piece of meat for this one." as they put the steak in front of my brother.

      If you ever get a chance to order multiple steaks in a steakhouse, I advise ordering one rare and one medium-rare. T

  • by xzvf ( 924443 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:21PM (#24575947)
    If we could get all our food preprocessed (already chewed with the waste removed) we could send more resources to the brain and less to the digestive system. We have the technology.
  • Enabler, not cause. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fastest fascist ( 1086001 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:22PM (#24575953)
    Sounds to me like cooking provided an opportunity to grow a bigger brain, but I don't think it explains the need. Something else in the environment made having a bigger brain increase the odds of reproduction, and cooking made it easier to provide the nutrition needed for that brain.

    In any case, I don't see how we're "so strange compared to other animals". Seems to me we're remarkably similar, I can't think of any fundamental differences between us and other animals that are more than a matter of degree. Well, I don't know of any animal religions.
    • by VoidEngineer ( 633446 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:24PM (#24576567)
      Something else in the environment? How about *everything* else in the environment. Or, more simply, the environment itself.

      This is 150,000 years ago. These people had no electricity, no medicine, no civilization... basically, they had nothing. Average life expectancy was something around 30 years, if that. Break a leg, you're dead. Get the flu, good chance you're dead. Run into a saber tooth tiger, you're definitely dead. At this point of history that they're talking about, humans were *not* at the top of the food chain, there was no civilization where a person could seek shelter, there were no medications, diet was iffy. And there were plenty of nasty animals running around ready to eat a person!

      Something else in the environment? I don't think you appreciate just how difficult it is to live off the land and survive out in the wilderness. Particularly when you're not at the top of the food chain.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ChrisA90278 ( 905188 )

      You can say it is "more than a matter of degree" But then so is walking on a see-saw. Walking up the beam a foot is just like walking up the beam 13 inches. Until you get ot he balance or tipping point. Many things in science and biology are just a matte of degree until you reach so threshold.

      Rockets are that way too. Every one of them will fall back to Earth, until you make one just fast enough and it escapes gravity never falls back. There are many examples. What we'd like to know about humans is

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by uptownguy ( 215934 )

      Sounds to me like cooking provided an opportunity to grow a bigger brain, but I don't think it explains the need. Something else in the environment made having a bigger brain increase the odds of reproduction, and cooking made it easier to provide the nutrition needed for that brain.

      I'm quibbling with one word here, but evolution isn't really about need. Human-like animals didn't have the need for a bigger brain in the aggregate. The species was stable enough. For hundreds of thousands of years. Of c

  • make one less smart?

    or does aquatic life have an advantage in intellect over land based animals?

  • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:28PM (#24576025) Homepage Journal
    There was this article on the Big Foot myth on TV the other day and a good point was made about how primates with big brains generally live in warm climates because of the energy cost of their brain. The idea is that Big Foot can't live in North America the way that Gorillas live in Africa. There just isn't enough food.

    So when humans moved into the colder parts of Europe they would have needed ways to gather enough food to avoid starvation. Perhaps cooking made that easier by broadening their diet.
  • by Goalie_Ca ( 584234 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:30PM (#24576061)
    So are fat people considered over-clockers?
  • Wait, what? (Score:5, Funny)

    by CorporateSuit ( 1319461 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:31PM (#24576069)
    Something seems out of order here...

    1. Sit on duff for 2 million years being too stupid to invent anything
    2. ???
    3. Invent cooking
    4. Get smart enough to invent things, like cooking
    5. Profit!

    I've heard homeless men coming up with more logical explanations than this.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Adambomb ( 118938 )

      well, i suppose that's why they're so tentative and saying it is not yet linked as causation. What they're most likely referring to is the possibility of humans accidentally cooking food, realizing it was tastier/giving them more energy, and THEN moving on to deliberately invent things.

      Seems like a fair shot in the dark, but it's not entirely without basis. Invention isn't always a proactive process, sometimes things just happen and critters decide they prefer it that way.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by grahamd0 ( 1129971 )
      1. Sit on duff for 2 million years being too stupid to invent anything
      2. Invent cooking
      3. Win the first Stone Chef competition
      4. Profit!
  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:34PM (#24576091) Journal

    Fire. Is there ANYTHING it can't do?

  • The singularity model (some say fantasy, some say theory, call it what you will) is basically that once technology can be used to improve intelligence you get a feedback loop that leads to a society and environment that is literally incomprehensible to the people on the low side of the singularity. This is usually proposed in terms of *designing* brains that are smarter than the ones that designed them, but there's no reason to rule out less fantastic advances as part of the same process.

    I think this qualifies as a singularity, from the point of view of the pre-humans.

  • A better explanation (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:55PM (#24576327)

    A much better explanation comes from Dr. Temple Grandin in one of her books: Animals in Translation. She posits that humans and dogs co-evolved, allowing humans to develop their cognitive side at the expense of their sense (smell, hearing).

    A lot more convincing argument than cooking, imho.

  • Perceive things (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Deliveranc3 ( 629997 ) <deliverance@leve[ ]org ['l4.' in gap]> on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:11PM (#24576435) Journal
    One of my English profs said "Everything is representation." and he's right in a very literal as well as metaphorical sense.

    Everything is programmed into us except our reaction to the first stimulus we receive.

    The more similar the programming the more identical we are... Travelling to different cities around the world I found that people had similar ways of viewing things.

    It's the interaction between different viewpoints that creates the tension that produces innovation.

    A brilliant mind sees things more clearly, a genius sees things differently.

    Taking a step back and asking what you're really trying to accomplish can make all the difference, that's the great thing about programming... we solve a problem forever the better you become the more global your solution...

    "God sees the grain of sand in the beach and also the world in a grain of sand."
  • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:42PM (#24576737) Homepage
    Yep, yer darn right that cooking stimulates a big leap in human cognition. I can verify this from personal experience. First they see the pot of boiling water, and they're like, "What the hell?" You can see them start thinking real hard at that point. Of course, they're still not quite certain what's going to happen, but you can tell they're listening hard to what you're saying, and watching what you're doing, trying to figure it out for sure. There's so much cognition going on, you can practically see the sweat popping off of their foreheads. Eventually they really start to believe it, and usually then the cognition drops off due to panic. Beyond that point, they're mostly just shrieking and straining at their bonds and stuff. And of course once you put them in the pot, pretty soon there's no more cognition at all. I haven't RTFA, but I think the slashdot summary is probably a little inaccurate -- should be more like, "prospect of imminent cooking stimulates a big leap in human cognition."
  • Cooking == Rotting (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @02:14AM (#24579215) Journal

    Cooking is forced decomposition. The "easier" calories are, as TFA says, from pre-processing otherwise difficult to digest material. Scavengers have been around for a long time. Where's the smart vultures?

    The pre-processing most relevant to cognition is making making the nucleotides adenylate, inosinate and guanylate easier to extract, from which the neurotransmitter glutamate is made. Glutamate availability is well documented as necessary to effective cognition. We are tuned to detect those nucleotides via the "5th taste", umami. Monosodium glutamate is to tongue receptors what benzodiazapines and narcotics are to the brain's GABA and endorphin receptors -- fake keys that fit the locks. Food treated with MSG seems "heartier" when tasted, and one might feel full sooner because the brain is easily fooled, but hungry again sooner because the stomach is slow, but not stupid. Chinese and similar cuisines are rich in glutamate containing foods, and frequently MSG is added (as "meat tenderizer" or "flavor enhancer") to the food.

    It remains to be seen whether the "intelligence" (more undefinable as you know more about it) is a beneficial evolutionary trait. We haven't been around in the "smart" version long enough to serve as proof. "Intelligence" may be nothing more than one mutation that provided a species one means to become the ecological equivalent of a cancer, and providing us with the ability to live in denial of our nature by deluding ourselves about "superiority".

    The superior design may well prove to be a scavenger (make no mistake, we are) with low water content and requirement, and cognitive abilities may prove irrelevant or even counter-productive. What species is expected to survive a nuclear war, and what species can conduct one?

    Evidence of scavenger nature in humans and cockroaches (and the delusional nature of the former) can be found in "social facilitation". Performance in enhanced by the presence of others. Cockroaches run mazes faster when they "know other cockroaches are watching". Bugger*. How can they have what in us we consider to be a highly complex (ie. "social") behavior with no cognitive ability to speak of? They don't "abstract" being watched. Social psychology needs to check in with evolutionary biology. The scavenger that detects competition will do what it can to get to the calories fastest -- run faster -- and thus be more successful. Or it might just use its mutant powers to conduct rapid decomposition on demand as well as pretend it's not just rotten**.

    *,** Both double meanings unintended, but I'll take them.

  • by Weedlekin ( 836313 ) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @05:03AM (#24579951)

    if we ignore all the other palaeoanthropolical evidence, i.e:

    1) Bones burned at high temperatures found in caves show that Homo Erectus was regularly cooking food 1.5 million years ago. This is unsurprising because we know they used fire, and and it doesn't take very long for those sitting around a fire to accidentally drop some food in it, fish that food out with a stick, and after eating it, discover that it tastes better than the raw variety.

    2) Humans didn't display any technological superiority over H. Erectus, and were technologically inferior to H. Neanderthalenis until around 40,000 years ago. That 40,000 year figure is crucial, because this is the period when we began to produce art, and our tool technology started to incorporate various innovations that H. Erectus and Neanderthal tools didn't have.

    3) H. Erectus kept evolving, and eventually developed a brain similar in size to our own (i.e. their brains doubled in size) long before modern humans appeared, while H. Neanderthalensis had a bigger brain than modern humans. It should be noted that H. Erectus is by far the most successful human species, having survived for almost 2 million years (followed by Australopithecus Aforensis, who was around for a million years).

    3) H. Neanderthalensis had a more sophisticated culture than ours until 40,000 years ago (again, the 40,000 year break point). They buried their dead, had production lines for tools, and maintained a trading network over long distances while H. Sapiens was spending the first 100,000 years of our existence being primitive aboriginal bushmen in Africa.

    The best theory I've seen to explain why humans changed from a very long period in a static, very primitive state is that the climate changes caused by the Indonesian super volcano which led to the "bottleneck event" that nearly destroyed our species favoured the brightest and most innovative people who were able to formulate survival strategies that didn't occur to less imaginative individuals. The ice age which the event caused also wiped out the majority of H. Erectus and H. Neanderthalensis, so those newer, brighter humans were able to expand into new territories without having to compete with significant numbers of other human species who had been technologically, culturally, and physically superior to them before the bottleneck event occurred.

    The bottleneck event happened around 60,000 years ago. By the time its effects had completely disappeared, H. Erectus was extinct, H. Neanderthalensis had been depleted to a level they never recovered from completely (they lived in Europe and Asia, both of which were especially badly hit by the after-effects of the super volcano), and the entirety of H. Sapiens was represented by as little as 2,000 individuals living in small, scattered groups whose entire intellectual capacity was dedicated to the difficult business of survival. The fact that it took us another 20,000 years to reach a point where our culture and technology went beyond the levels that other human species had reached hundreds of thousands of years previously is an indication of how difficult the job of merely surviving was during that time, and how close we came to following H. Erectus and H. Neanderthansis into the oblivion of extinction.

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