Cooking is what makes us human

I had never really thought of this but after reading What's Cooking from The Economist, it seems obvious that cooking is one of the defining characteristics of being human.
Cooking is a human universal. No society is without it. No one other than a few faddists tries to survive on raw food alone. And the consumption of a cooked meal in the evening, usually in the company of family and friends, is normal in every known society. Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.

In fact, as he outlined to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Chicago, he thinks that cooking and other forms of preparing food are humanity’s “killer app”: the evolutionary change that underpins all of the other—and subsequent—changes that have made people such unusual animals.

The downside is that while the increased efficiency in absorbing calories from cooked foods allowed early humans to power a larger brain with a smaller gut, the same effect may also be a contributing factor to today's obesity epidemic.
Another telling experiment, conducted on rats, did not rely on cooking. Rather the experimenters ground up food pellets and then recompacted them to make them softer. Rats fed on the softer pellets weighed 30% more after 26 weeks than those fed the same weight of standard pellets. The difference was because of the lower cost of digestion. Indeed, Dr Wrangham suspects the main cause of the modern epidemic of obesity is not overeating (which the evidence suggests—in America, at least—is a myth) but the rise of processed foods.

This confirms what I've always suspected -- that the proliferation of diets based primarily on processed foods is the work of the devil. Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas describes in this podcast from the AAAS how as humans began to practice controlled agriculture, we decreased the range of foods we eat, and our health declined as a consequence.

The Harvard University Gazette also describes Wrangham's theories of how cooking was the impetus for increased mating activity and more civilized social behaviors.
For humans, cooking played a major role in the development of smaller jaws and teeth, bigger brains, smaller guts, shorter arms, and longer legs, according to Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University. He also believes that cooking is associated with females getting heavier and more fertile. That, in turn, changed mating and social behaviors. Instead of large males beating each other with clubs for the relatively rare privilege of mating, smaller guys mated more regularly and began to dine with the family more often.


Human Diet: Its Origin and Evolution edited by Peter Ungar is partially available on google books. Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable also edited by Peter Ungar contains a chapter on cooking by Richard Wrangham.

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