Food is essential to sustain life; that is true across the animal kingdom. When it comes to humans though, we are unique. Eating is not just something we do to survive but something that literally winds itself into our very being.
No matter where you go in the world, people love good food. They are passionate about it - whether they are debating where to find the city's best pizza or learning and passing on old family recipes.
We don't just eat our food; we prepare it with love and care. We turn it into art. We also sometimes overdo it. We eat until we are sick or eat things with no real nutritional value. We crave it and it becomes not just a necessity but a pleasure.
Why is it that we, alone in the animal kingdom, have this connection with food?
We don't just seek it out instinctively but allow it to become part of who we are, part of our culture.
Science into the development of the Homo sapiens brain might have the answer and surprisingly this connection with our food, and our desire to take it beyond what we find in nature, might be the very thing that makes us human.
Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel wanted to understand what makes the human brain special. Why have humans been able to advance so much in so little time? What is it about our brains that allow for such high levels of creativity, ingenuity, and development?
Her research, interestingly, lead her to do more than explore the importance of the human brain but also to develop a theory of how we developed such a brain. Her hypothesis?
It was literally the invention of cooking that allowed humans to develop into the intelligent, worldwide, multicultural species we are today.
There always seems to have been a universal human connection with not only food but food culture.
We don't just eat; we create recipes. We use eating to cement family bonds; we negotiate the end of wars and the start of new business deals over shared meals. We value what we put in our bodies, not only for the way it makes us physically feel but also for the emotional happiness it can bring.
All of this is universal and perhaps it is because cooking, preparing, and sharing a meal is literally the driving force behind our success as a species.
Now the science is still not 100% clear on all this. Anthropologists still debate when fire was first discovered and by who. It is a bit of the chicken or the egg debate - are we smarter because we discovered fire and therefore cooking or did we discover them because we became smarter?
In Suzana Herculano-Houzel case, she believes the first. We are smarter because we discovered fire and cooking.
If it all still seems confusing, that’s understandable. Below we have outlined some of the main points from Dr. Herculano-Houzel's research and the overall theory of how the invention of cooking may well have made us who we are today.
Our Brain is Important But Not Unique
Dr. Herculano-Houzel started with the question of what makes the human brain unique. Her answer? It isn't, in fact, unique at all.
It was once thought that the size of a brain determined intelligence, however, one only needs to study an elephant to realize that brain size alone does not determine intelligence.
The reality is that it is the neurons of the brain that increase cognitive ability.
In her research, Dr. Herculano-Houzel started by developing a method to count the number of neurons in a brain. She found that different brains from various species have different neuron patterns and that as you increase the size of a say rodent brain (by selecting different rodent species of larger sizes) you will find a similar ratio of neurons vs. brain mass.
In rodents, this means that even if you increased the size of the rodent brain by breeding a giant, super rodent, the animal’s intelligence would still not match a human’s because the rodent brain has fewer neutrons per square inch of brain matter.
When you study primate brains, you will find that humans have the expected number of neurons for a brain of our size.
Primates are more intelligent than other animals because a primate brain has more neutrons per quantity of brain mass.
Humans are more intelligent than other primates because we have larger brains. Simple enough...
But Why is Our Brain So Big and Why Don't Primates Larger Than Us Have Larger Brains?
The next question in Dr. Herculano-Houzel's research, after determining that our brain is just a large primate brain, was why don't other primates have large brains even when they have bodies larger than us? Why is it that we, Homo sapiens, developed larger, intelligent brains?
The solution came from studying the metabolical costs of having a larger brain. The more neurons a brain has, the more intelligence it can produce, but it will also need more energy to run.
The human brain uses 25% of all the calories we consume!
On top of powering our brains, we also have to power our bodies.
If you do the math and apply a typical raw food primate diet to the equation, it would be next to impossible for us to survive as a species. We would have to forage and eat for 9 hours per day to feed our bodies and brain, which puts stress on our species and makes us more vulnerable to food shortages that could wipe us out.
Other primates, such as gorillas, have sacrificed brain size in order to increase body size while still keeping their daily food intake needs at a reasonable level.
So, why did we survive as a species, despite our large brains? Why is it that we can survive on less food, spend less time foraging, and therefore have more time to use our larger brains - creating all the advances of a modern, intelligent species?
The Discovery of Fire & the Invention of Cooking
Dr. Herculano-Houzel and many other scientists believe that the key to human mental development and the success of our species came from our simple mastery of a single, powerful tool - fire.
If you believe, as Dr. Herculano-Houzel does, that fire was first discovered by our ancestors - Homo erectus - possibly as early as 1.5 million years ago, it is easy to understand how humans became so smart.
Homo erectus was a relatively smart primate as far as we can tell and there is even evidence that he hunted with the use of tools. It is not a far cry to claim that Homo erectus could have stumbled across the magical powers of fire.
Once this discovery was made, our evolution as a species was suddenly possible.
Homo sapiens (modern day humans) eventually evolved from Homo erectus. While Homo erectus was intelligent, his brain was not nearly as developed or large as ours. He simply couldn't evolve to be much more intelligent on the raw, hunter-and-gatherer type of diet he had.
But, thanks to his discovery of fire, his descendants could.
With the invention of cooking, food intake requirements for Homo erectus dropped dramatically.
Meat especially became much more valuable to the species. Raw meat is very difficult for the human body to digest - taking lots of time and energy. Cooked meat, on the other hand, is more quickly digested by our bodies, allowing for greater caloric intake with less work.
The same is true to a smaller extent when it comes to cooked vegetables.
With cooked foods, suddenly Homo erectus and later Homo sapiens could spend less time gathering food and more time developing their societies.
Over hundreds of thousands of years, larger brains developed because there was no longer stress on the species due to excessive food intake requirements. We literally became smarter because we learned to cook our food.
But What About Modern Day "Raw Diets?"
A question that eventually comes up when this topic is discussed is the issue of modern day "raw diets." This trend towards eating only raw foods has really taken off, especially in the Western world.
The question is, if cooking was so fundamental to our mental development, could raw diets impact this?If everyone were to suddenly switch to a raw diet, would the overall intelligence of our species be affected?
The real question though is not how such a diet would affect the human race. The real question is, are modern day raw diets truly the same as the primate diet of our ancestors?
The original calculation of 9+ hours of feeding per day necessary to support our brains and bodies considers also the time needed for foraging and finding that food - but how many raw dieters do you know who go forage for their food?
The fact is that the only reason people today can switch to a raw diet is because our ancestors switched to cooking.
Cooking allowed us to develop so much as a species that modern day "hunting and gathering" takes no more effort for the average person than walking through a supermarket.
So, whether you enjoy a "raw diet" or prefer a well-done steak, eat up and be grateful that your ancestors loved a tasty meal as much as you.