The human genome project has sequenced human genes and thus is able to compare how humans differ genetically from all other species on the planet. When compared to the chimp genome, it appears that humans differ in only 1-2% of the genome. Which confirms what many of us have suspected all along, namely that our ancestors, relatives and children really are very ape like, that isn’t something we just imagined.
In pursuit of the answer to the question, “what is it which makes us human?” Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham has coined a phrase for humans that we are not herbivores or carnivores but rather we are ‘cookivores.’ So it turns out that cooking is what really distinguishes us from our ape relatives.
This means of course that in the process of evolution ‘humans’ evolved into a separate species by cooking. Thus moms were the first genetic engineers, shaping the human species and genome.
Alfred Crosby in his book CHILDREN OF THE SUN notes that one of the differences between chimps and humans is that chimps spend 6 hours a day chewing their food, while humans through the magic of cooking spend only about one hour a day in chewing food. So it is not so much that the microwave is saving us all this time preparing food that distinguishes us from the chimps, but the amount of time the food stays in our mouths before we swallow it.
Now we all know that evolution is not a straight forward and ‘progressive’ process, but rather it has jump starts, failures, back tracking and all kinds of slow meandering ways to bring any species into the present. And certainly anthropologists and others have noted that in the embryonic development of a species there often are stages which are related to the early evolutionary unfolding of that species.
What the discovery of human as cookivore does for us is help expose some of the potential weaknesses and drawbacks in our current evolution as humans.
Of course as it turns out moms as the first genetic engineers have been replaced by cooks, restaurants, fast food chains, chefs, gourmet chefs and nutritionists in shaping the future of the human genome. Supposedly, cooking, at least according to the aforementioned experts, by allowing some form of the digestion process to take place before the food was ingested resulted in a smaller gut and larger brain in the process of human evolution. Fast foods, junk foods, and beer however may prove to be a significant challenge to that theory or we may simply be seeing devolution at work in the human species in the modern Western world as larger guts and less used brains result from developments in cooking and marketing ‘food.’
Some trends to watch/fear:
Nutritionists, health food advocates and moms who want people to “eat their veggies” may actually be under the influence of survival genes whose goal is to preserve old ways which served genetic ancestors well. They may in fact be trying to reverse the evolutionary process by causing us to spend more time chewing. But natural selection has a creative element to it, and it remains to be seen whether eating veggies or eating junk food will serve the survival of the species better as the world keeps changing. Certainly an inability to adapt to new ways has brought to extinction a number of species on the planet. So since evolution is now a “conscious” process for humans we should not be so certain that returning to the ways of our ape ancestry will best serve us in the world to come.
If one doubts the evolutionary process and cooking, visit any college apartment. There we realize how ape like humans really are. Instead of “preparing meals” many college students forage through the mess which is their ‘kitchen’ hoping to find some food to eat. And unlike primitive humans who left us garbage pits in which we can learn about some of their habits, students seem to make little use of the garbage pit idea and more like the ancient apes simply discard garbage where ever and then eventually move on when a place becomes uninhabitable.
A similar behavior can be observed in teenage girls who seem attracted to foraging behavior – they scatter their clothes helter-skelter around their bedrooms apparently in order to scavenge and forage for things they want to wear.
The next time you are with your significant other and you notice a kind of blank stare as he ostensibly is mulling over something you said to him, taking extra time slowly to chew it over as his ancient ape ancestors did, and when he begins to scratch himself as he tries to get his evolved brain to actually make use of its extra size, just remember he is only a few genes away from being or becoming a chimp.