Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cooking - A Genetically Encoded Evolutionary Adaptation

Always a Michael Pollan fan, I jumped to his New York Times Magazine cover article on “decline and fall of everyday home cooking.” It without a doubt struck a nerve in our collective consciousness. Since it appeared, I’ve herd multiple interviews of Pollan motivated by the article. Even today’s NYT Magazine two weeks later has Pollan as the lead subject in the Letters section.

I love cooking: partaking probably 4 times a week. There is something profoundly satisfying about it. And, apparently with good reason. In Pollan’s NPR interview last week
he reference research by Richard Wrangham at Harvard. Wrangham conjectures that cooking is what allowed us to redirect our biological energies from digestion to thought. Not needing the extensive digestive system required to process raw meat and grasses, we evolved a simpler gastrointestinal track and diverted the nutrients and oxygen to our now expanded brains.

Wrangham goes as far to posit that cooking is what separates us from primates and all other animals: Not thumbs, language, tools, or social organization. Without cooking, he argues, we don’t biologically achieve human intelligence. His theories and research are summarized in his book, Catching Fire.

Intuitively this makes a lot of sense to me. Memories from my childhood of the family crowded in the kitchen with my mother cooking dinner are indelibly burned in my brain: the mere whiff of browned butter brings them rushing back. And today I find no greater pleasure than hanging with friends around the BBQ, wine in one hand, and tongs in the other. Cooking connects in our psyche at a very deep level. It is easy for me to accept that this is genetically encoded evolutionary adaptation.

So I wonder what it means culturally if we stop cooking. Is it, as Pollan implies, evolutionarily regressive--a step toward Armageddon? Or is it further adaptation – replacing expensive (biologically and materially) individual cooking with collective food preparation? With a population of 7 billion (heading to 9.5 billion), a strong argument can be made that factory farms and processed food are critical to our next evolutionary steps. Even if true, I am happy to revel in my relatively Neanderthal ways, getting profound pleasure in searing meat on an open flame in my own back yard. Here’s to our frontal lobes.


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