Saturday, October 06, 2012

What makes us human?

Very early hominids at some point learned to eat cooked food. This allowed evolution of "smaller guts, bigger brains, bigger bodies, and reduced body hair; more running; more hunting; longer lives; calmer temperaments; and a new emphasis on bonding between females and males. The softness of their cooked plant foods selected for smaller teeth, the protection fire provided at night enabled them to sleep on the ground and lose their climbing ability, and females likely began cooking for male, whose time was increasingly free to search for more meat and honey. .... one lucky group became Homo erectus -- and humanity began."

So ends the last chapter of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human by Richard Wrangham (quotes from p. 194). The book is a wide-ranging compendium of the scientific evidence for each of the points made in this summary -- not a collection of speculations or just-so stories, but hard research-supported data. The evidence is overwhelming. And as a bonus, in the Epilogue, he observes some of the consequences of his conclusions as they apply to the modern tendency towards obesity, and has a really interesting overview of the deficits in currently available nutrition and calorie information.

Wrangham's study of evolution and of the chemistry, physics, and nutritional value of cooked vs. raw foods has rapidly become a classic. From the time of first reviews, which I read shortly after its publication in 2009, until now, when it's referenced by a wide variety works on food and evolution, I've been meaning to read it. Finally I have done so.

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