Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
- Created on Saturday, 14 May 2011 05:01
This is the title of a book by a famous anthropologist, Richard Wrangham. And, he is really a fan of cooking. I think this is a book that every raw-fooder should read. And it’s precisely because it goes against the grain of their thinking. It’s important to challenge our own beliefs and put them to the test.
Much of his book is devoted to his theory of how cooking drove the whole process of biological evolution of humans via random mutations and natural selection. But, as you may know, I do not subscribe to Neo-Darwinism in any form. So, that part of the book did not register with me. I’ll add that all such theories about how evolution took place are pure speculations. All they prove is that the individual has a vivid imagination.
However, my interest in the book relates to his theory about how long humans have cooked. And he estimates that it is 1.8 to 1.9 million years. So, nearly 2 million years. That’s a long time, and if it’s true, then it certainly challenges the idea that cooking is unnatural for humans. Anything that humans have done for nearly 2 million years, and mostly in a state of nature, can hardly be called unnatural.
Of course, I am using the word “people” loosely. Anatomically-modern homo sapiens, in other words, people like you and me, are believed to have first appeared about 100,000 years ago. So, when Dr. Wrangham refers to humans cooking 1.8 million years ago, he is referring to humanoid ancestors.
Keep in mind that he does not provide concrete evidence of cooking that goes back that far. Concrete evidence would be, for instance, a cooking hearth. Such concrete evidence only goes back about 300,000 years. Instead, he makes his case based on the known anatomical characteristics of human ancestors 1.8 million years ago. Even then, says Wrangham, human ancestors had small mouths, small teeth, jaws with limited moblity, and short digestive tracts, and all that points to one thing: a creature that cooks.
And he highlights the biological advantages of cooking: increased digestibility, increased opportunism about food and wider range and choices of foods, lower risk of food-borne illness, easier extraction of calories from food (which may not be considered an advantage today with an obesity epidemic going on but was an advantage then), and even the fact that food could be consumed more quickly.
Regarding raw-foodists, Wrangham has studied them and interviewed them. He makes an interesting point that raw foodism is entirely a modern concept. There are no ancient traditions of eating all-raw food anywhere on Earth. And he makes the interesting point that it is only possible because of modern circumstances, where through modern agriculture and commerce and distribution, raw foodists can obtain all the foods they need without much difficulty yearround. However, living in a state of nature, as humans and pre-humans did for most or all of their existence, raw foodism would have been much less feasible. In fact, he goes so far as to say that it would have been impossible under most of the conditions that human beings have lived, both pre and post agriculture. He makes the case that human beings are- first, last, and always- the apes that cook.
I don’t say that I agree with him entirely. He seems to disparage raw food, whereas I think it is an important part of the diet. I think it would be dreadful not to have any raw food. But clearly, he succeeds in challenging the belief that cooking is unnatural for humans. Just because animals don't do it does not mean that we shouldn't cook.
Clearly, no other creature besides us wears shoes. Does that mean that humans should also go barefoot? Well, here in Texas where I live, you can’t even walk across the green grass barefoot. Between the razor-sharp grass burrs, the fire ants, and the stinging nettle, it will leave you in tears. And this comparison to wearing shoes is directly relevant to the issue of cooking. We wear shoes because our feet are delicate and tender. And likewise, you can say that we cook some of our food because our digestive tracts are delicate and tender. You can argue that our feet “evolved” that way precisely because we started wearing shoes, but again, that kind of argument doesn’t interest me. It’s pure speculation. The fact is: our feet are delicate and tender, and we need to protect them. How they got that way is anyone's guess, and it hardly matters.
But getting back to cooking, again, we cook because our digestive tracts are tender and delicate, and some foods suit us better if we cook them. Consider kale. It’s extremely nutritious, and you can eat it raw if you grow it yourself and pick it when it’s very young and tender, like lettuce. But, if you are buying kale at the supermarket, you had better cook it. It’s mature, which means that It’s too tough and fibrous to eat and digest raw. And even if the cooking destroys some of the vitamins, it doesn’t matter. There are so many vitamins there that you can afford to lose a few. So, don’t worry about it. You will get more good out of that vegetable if you cook it. Your bottom line (the amount you digest and absorb) will be greater, and that's what matters.
So, where I stand on the issue of cooking is: I eat all of my fruits raw; I eat all of my nuts raw (and that includes ordering totally raw almonds online which I cannot buy in stores because of government edict); and I eat some of my vegetables raw- the ones that are tender and succulent enough to eat raw. And that’s it. The rest of my foods I cook, including many vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. I think it is a good balanced and practical approach. I do think it is important to eat a generous amount of raw food, but I don't think it is necessary or desirable to eat everything raw. It narrows, confines, and limits the diet too much and all for the sake of adhering to a philosophy of extreme naturalism. But, is an all-raw diet all that natural for humans? Dr. Wrangham doesn't think so, and neither do I.