Friday, March 11, 2016

Book 2 of Food Books, _Catching Fire_, Richard Wrangham, March 11, 2016

What makes us human? (I know! It's food month! Why am I looking a philosophy? Bear with me.) This is a HUGE question, obviously, and one that philosophers and religious scholars (among others) have been discussing and debating and answering for millenia. My author this week, Richard Wrangham, is not a philosopher or a religious scholar - he's an anthropologist. He's more interested in what made us human from a social and biological stand point. The full title of his book is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, and suddenly the inclusion of this book in food month makes sense, yes?

So. Wrangham argues, somewhat convincingly, that there were a pair of critical biological and social shifts which took place first 2.5 million years ago when homo habilis emerged from australopithecus, and then 1.8 million years ago, when homo erectus emerged from homo habilis. 2.5 million years ago, he contends, habilines started eating meat more frequently and also (and this is key, and one of the places where he differs with his peers) processing that meat and additional plant matter, to make it softer and easier to chew. 1.8 million years ago, homo erectus began to use fire to cook their food. This is the other place Wrangham differs with his peers, in that the general consensus has been that use of fire and cooking were separate events. Wrangham argues that cooking and fire had to have been very closely related, or else we would see another significant biological shift on the level of the ones 2.5 million years ago and 1.8 million years ago. The shift from erectus to sapiens is, he contends, not a significant biological shift in re: teeth and guts, but rather in terms of brain size.

So, first of all, I'm not an anthropologist. My wife is, and we discussed the book a little, but she contends that she's not the same sort of anthropologist that Wrangham is, so our discussion was not overly heated. Also, she hasn't read the book. With that proviso, I am a) not sure I entirely followed Wrangham's argument and b) even so, I'm not sure I agree. He's positing a very fast evolution - over the course of a generation or two - which seems not quite what I learned about evolution. Which, you know, was a long time ago, and in high school, so. But, if he's correct, that increased meat, and then cooking of food produced the evolutionary response, are we still evolving? My wife says we are, a little, but that our group dynamics, and our desire to have as many people survive and breed as possible have blunted the "survival of the fittest" aspect of evolution. Which would be consistent with Wrangham's argument, which is that cooking results in a communal society in which food (especially hunted food) is shared (something that other animals do not do - theft of food, yes; voluntary sharing of food, no). So there's that.

Second, Wrangham does seem to be making a gender essentialist argument in regards to the gendered division of labor. That is, he argues that females gravitated towards the "gathering" part of hunter-gatherer, and thus also to the cooking of food - that, indeed, having someone available to tend the fire and cook vegetable staples was essential to the hunter-gatherer system. Without readily available cooked food, the hunter could not maintain the ability to hunt. And, since hunting required greater physical strength (1.8 million years ago, mind), males gravitated towards the hunting, and females were excluded. Which, all right, I accept in theory. And Wrangham doesn't actually say "that's the way it's always been, and that's the way it should be forever and ever, amen," but he doesn't not say that either. And he does say that, while men CAN cook (thanks for that), there are no (traditional) societies in which they do so on a regular basis (and many in which they absolutely refuse to do so, even if it means starving). So, there's that too, I guess.

Anyway. Here in the industrial "west", we don't cook over an open fire unless we are camping. And, by and large, the meat in our diet is not dependent upon the ability of males to go into the wild and come back with a tapir or a wild goat or something. Consequently, I think that our next evolutionary step - and maybe we're already seeing it - is a societal step away from the gendered division of labor. And, I further think that our ability to change and grow is one of the things which makes us human in a spiritual and philosophical sense (and, maybe, in a biological, anthropological sense too).


This week's adventure in cooking requires a little historical background. For Christmas, my parents gave us (well, ok, we bought for ourselves with money from my parents) an Instant Pot electric pressure cooker. (Some of you are nodding your heads approvingly, some are jealous, and some are baffled - it's one of these, and it's really very cool). This week, I saw a recipe for making bread in the pot - you can use the pot to proof the loaf, but this recipe suggested steaming the bread in the pot, and then tossing it under a broiler to brown it and crustify it a little. I decided to modify the recipe a little by adding whole wheat flour (It was a modification of this recipe. Dough in a pyrex bowl 30 mins to rise on the yogurt setting, then cover the dough with foil, 20 mins under pressure with 2 cups of water [using the trivet]. Then into the broiler for 5 mins.). And the thing is, whole wheat flour sucks up water a lot more than regular flour, and I should actually know that because I have baked with it before. But, so. The dough was ugly, it didn't cook all the way through properly, and the end result was ... edible, but not really that nice. I'll try it again, with a little more water in the dough. And the ability to make mistakes and learn from them - also something that makes us human.