Food for Thought: Cooking and the Development of Intelligence

Humans are the only species that cooks its food.
We’re also the cleverest species on the planet.
These observations prompt some people to ask “Did cooking make us clever or are we clever because we cook?”
You don’t have to be too clever to realise that that’s a spurious coupling of cause and effect.
You could equally well make the observation that we are the only species that wears clothes. Do clothes make us clever?
I’m going to have to be careful here, because I’m sorely tempted to now devise a theory that does indeed link the wearing of clothing with the development of the intellect. However, as I write this I’m wearing a rather uncomfortable shirt that’s stifling my brain’s ability to concentrate, so I won’t bother.

Actually, I probably would argue that wearing clothes helped us to develop our mental capabilities, because clothing helped to put us into a comfortable zone in which we could concentrate on other things than keeping warm.
As a consequence of clothes we didn’t have to spend all of our time huddled over the camp fire anymore.
But then, camp fires were probably very important for the development of our intellects too.
After all, we’re the only species on the planet that uses fire. There must be something in that.
What do we do when we sit in front of a fire? We stare into the flames and get lost in abstract thought. The very immateriality and strangeness of the fire encourages contemplation.
Fires also encourage cooking, which brings me back to where I meant to be at the beginning of this post.

Does cooking (or wearing clothes or using fires for that matter) promote increased intelligence?
We cook and we’re intelligent. Are they linked?
It’d seem that the obvious link would be that cooking provided a simple boost to a process that was under way already. We had to be a bit intelligent to be able to cook in the first place, but then once we’d cracked the whole business of slow roasting (or whatever type of cooking we started with – and I bet it wasn’t boiling because we didn’t have any saucepans or indeed containers of any sort back then) it freed up a lot of time that we could then spend doing other things, like the washing up.
That washing up reference was a joke of course, because as I said there were no pans in those days, just sticks. Which would probably simply been thrown onto the fire to help cook the next course. What we actually did was sit around doing nothing. Which, as you may know, is when people have all their best ideas.

It’s possible however that there may be a stronger link between cooking and intelligence than the straightforward link of cooking making our lifestyles more conducive to thought.

Before the advent of cooking, the human race was intelligent enough to be able to use basic tools and to tame fire (because without either of those there’d be no cooking). That’s quite intelligent, but not intelligent enough to put a space probe into orbit round Saturn. We had to get to that stage though, otherwise we’d have got no further.

Once we’d developed the use of tools something interesting happened to us. The fossil record seems to show that about 300,000 years after the first significant use of tools we’d evolved noticeably larger brains.
It’s postulated that by using tools such as spears and primitive cutting implements our earlier, smaller-brained ancestors could eat more meat. The digestion of meat required less energy than did vegetables, so as a result there was a surplus of energy that was diverted into powering the energy-hungry brain. The appendix shrank and the brain expanded. In modern humans the brain demands about 20-25% of the body’s energy.
There’s also the possibility that meat contains brain-enhancing nutrients that are unavailable in plant matter. There is some evidence, for instance, that the compound known as creatine which is found in animal tissue and is commonly used as a muscle booster by athletes may increase mental ability. It’s the sort of substance that’s nowadays given the name of super food (by food company marketing departments). The name creatine comes from the Greek kreas (flesh) and its similarity to the word creative is purely coincidental, I think, even if the substance does turn out to boost creativity in some way.
In parallel to the development of tools the related acquisition of cooking skills may have had a highly beneficial influence on the brain. It’s possible that cooking, by breaking down the chemical constituents of food, makes digestion easier and more efficient, thus again allowing energy to be diverted away from food processing and into brain-building.
Food for thought indeed.
Raw vegetable food faddists take note.

Part of this post (the second part) is an extract from my book, which you can see at the top of the right hand column. Or here.
This post was prompted by a forthcoming edition of the BBC programme Horizon, Did Cooking Make Us Human?
A book that’s worth reading on the subject of evolution and food is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham of Harvard University


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