Anthropologist: Cooking Made Humans More Intelligent, Sociable

Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues that the ability to cook food contributed to human evolution:

“Cooked food does many familiar things,” he observes. “It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious tastes and reduces spoilage. Heating can allow us to open, cut or mash tough foods. But none of these advantages is as important as a little-appreciated aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food.”

He continues: “The extra energy gave the first cooks biological advantages. They survived and reproduced better than before. Their genes spread. Their bodies responded by biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. There were changes in anatomy, physiology, ecology, life history, psychology and society.” Put simply, Mr. Wrangham writes that eating cooked food — whether meat or plants or both —made digestion easier, and thus our guts could grow smaller. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.


Wrangham also asserts that cooking strengthened the bonds within early hominid communities and established lasting gender roles.

Link via Choice | Photo: flickr user flowcomm, used under Creative Commons license

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While Wrangham's argument (not a new one, but popularised by him, which isn't a bad thing) isn't without merit, to stretch it to say it is a cause of human intelligence is something of a stretch. There's no reason to suspect that cooked food did not contribute to some neurological development, however the very fact fire relies on cultural learning to pass down shows significant social intelligence was well in place by the time humans began to experiment with it. In the least, cooking food was hardly detrimental to early human energy needs, but I think it's asking a bit much from the theory to thank a warm meal of mammoth steaks for our big brains.
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Ha- Before you criticize you should read Wrangham’s book. He goes into meticulous detail on the raw food movement and the ENERGY benefits of cooking food. Your statement that he has no evidence for his premise absolutely wrong. Coldfish- the latest theories on the date for both the domestication of fire and cooking (pretty much simultaneous) is about 1.8 million years ago. Wrangham also addresses this question in his book.
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