This is a highly off-the-wall connection to my recent preoccupation (as witnessed by posts) over my weight loss and desire for more. It appears the solution to my problem would merely be to magically get a bigger brain and all those neurons would gobble up all the excess calories and, poof, fat would melt off. Given I just saw an article about how it’s inherently true that we can’t “turn off” our brains I doubt I can just exercise mine more and thus burn some calories (silly idle thoughts and better thoughts seem to require the same amount of calories).
Anyway, this silliness aside, I find this article fascinating, although mostly purely speculative. The premise is, in case you don’t take time to read it, that the increase in brain size in human evolution was enabled by cooked food and hence the connection to fire. The article claims there is evidence to indicate it’s possible that cooking could have originated 800,000 years ago (ignoring stupid YEC belief that it had to be only 6000 years ago),
Cooking increases the usable calorie content of food sources and thus delivers more calories to the brain than munching away on roots and fruits all day could. Of course cooking probably changes the diet in a lot more ways than that.
The reasoning the article uses of brain size to body mass to calorie requirements to gathering time all make sense, but as with any speculative article don’t prove anything, thus firmly placing this article in junk science category which then raises the question why I would reference it. Simple, it’s an interesting idea, even if there is no proof.
Of course there are a wide variety of speculations, just about increased nutrition alone, and how that might feed a larger brain, but since I like cooking I’ll chose this one. I don’t have any reference, but I recall a science TV show (definitely one hosted by Alan Alda, maybe a Nova?) where the subject was three “miracles” in food: a) using grain in bread and thus liberating more nutrition to us (amusing, my experiments in baking would provide explanation of how this actually happens; plus, this applies to the common idea that beer was a key human invention for more calories), b) the application of an alkali to corn increasing its food value (probably an accident of dropping corn mush into a fire and the people so desperate to eat they consumed the dirty mess, but, HOW DID THEY KNOW the nutrition had increased, clever experimenters, those primitive humans), and, c) the fermentation of soy meal into tofu (again easy to visualize the accidental discovery of this, but how did its “inventors” know this was a good idea). Obviously innovation in nutrition has driven the evolution of human culture (not to mention the massive effect of agriculture) but tracing this back further is definitely more speculative.
Now two other related speculative ideas I like are:
- agriculture has made us stupid and docile. The idea here is that when humans were hunter/gatherers they had to be more alert and knowledgeable about the world, but when they settled down and had a stable food supply, then they could just be stupid drones – sounds about right. But the claim is this is actual evolution that could be measured in our genes. Now if we just knew the complete connection between genes and intelligence and had some primitive hunter/gatherer DNA we’d be all set to actually try to prove this, but of course we’d also need some Nate Silver thrown in since a single sample isn’t going to prove much.
- we (males) started walking on two legs so we could get laid. The idea here is that creating and nurturing a human infant is a lot of work and that in primitive times there weren’t any single parent families. Poor old mom was so busy (or famished or weak) by actually producing the babies that the males, unlike other male mammals, actually had to do some work and romance the females with food offerings. So the males who could walk upright better could roam further and carry more found food back and thus get the girl. At least vis-a-vis the stereotype (derogatory, yes, I know) of “trophy wife” it doesn’t seem like much has changed. But if this one holds (largely as a parallel to bird evolutionary psychology and the role of males there) I guess we’re walking around because we wanted babies and the females set the price for that.
Too bad all this stuff is just speculation because the development of hominids, esp. intelligence, is particularly interesting. In our vanity at one point we believed the evolution of homo sapiens was inevitable (remember those graphics of creatures steadily becoming us as those we are the end destiny of evolution), but now the modern view recognizes there is no target endpoint and intelligence is an accident, not inevitable, so squid could just as easily been the apex in some other extra-terrestrial ecosystem as us. So exactly how the accident played out here would be interesting to know.
But even more interesting is whether intelligence is, in fact, a favorable adaptation. I often believe we evolved just enough intelligence to exterminate ourselves and therefore we’re doomed to the scrapheap of extinction on this planet when cockroaches demonstrate the real endpoint of evolution.