There is an absolutely stellar article in the New York Times about Dr. Richard Wrangham’s essay “Catching Fire.” Go read it now. If you finish it and want to know even more, like I did, go read the Slate review as well. For those of you tweeked out on the internet with no patience, let me hit you with a key blockquote to get us started:
Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame fire and heat our food.
“Cooked food does many familiar things,” he observes. “It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious tastes and reduces spoilage. Heating can allow us to open, cut or mash tough foods. But none of these advantages is as important as a little-appreciated aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food.”
He continues: “The extra energy gave the first cooks biological advantages. They survived and reproduced better than before. Their genes spread. Their bodies responded by biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. There were changes in anatomy, physiology, ecology, life history, psychology and society.” Put simply, Mr. Wrangham writes that eating cooked food — whether meat or plants or both —made digestion easier, and thus our guts could grow smaller. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.
Whoa. Now, this whole idea has particular resonance for me and on multiple levels, but first let me just note something: my first job that wasn’t working for one of my parents was as a dish washer at a ritzy country club. There were no prices on the menus, twenty-dollar cocktails and little tupperwares of butter that cost more than my weekly salary. This place was the tops. One day one of the chefs turned to me and, while laughing, said, “You know, I have the most primitive job in the world.” I asked him what the heck he meant as he seared a preposterously thick filet mignon with imported herbs. “What I mean,” he answered, “is that it is my job to stick animal flesh into fire.” I don’t think he knew at the time he was postulating an anthropological breakthrough.
Wrangham’s theory is brilliant, postulates a lot of “if/then” scenarios that can be tested against various fields of research (evo-bio, archeology, etc.) to see if they further explain or further obfuscate the vagaries of human evolution, and is readily graspable by the average armchair scientist (me). I was trying to turn this over in my head to get to the implications when I read the Slate review and realized they’d done it for me:
This is a fantastically weird way of looking at evolutionary change. Basic evolutionary theory teaches us that our physical selves are shaped by a genetic lottery in a cruel world. Random mutations in DNA change our biology, affecting anything from what we look like to how our immune systems work. The environment then selects who will go on to live and reproduce. But if cooking pushed us across a species threshold, it means that our biology is also shaped in completely unintended ways by cultural innovations. The impact of culture on biology was first proposed in the late 19th century by philosopher and psychologist James Baldwin, but it’s only in very recent times that exciting experimental work has tried to gauge the evolutionary effects of behaviors, like language and domestication. In the case of cooking, Wrangham’s proposal counters a universal human understanding of how the world works. Claude Levi-Strauss observed that most human cultures draw a line between nature and culture, thinking of one as raw and the other as cooked. Humans—whether they are hunter-gatherers, friends of the earth, or company officers of Archer Daniels Midland—reliably see themselves as the chefs controlling the transformation. But if Wrangham is right, this simple way of seeing things becomes oddly blurred: If cooking transforms nature, and cooking changed us, then human nature is … cooked?
I love love love that last bit. I have a suspicion – as I do with all “this one thing changed everything” theories – that Wrangham’s theory is the supreme example Baldwin might have been looking for, but not the lone catalyst. What if we consider cooking, language, and domestication together as aspects of the extended human phenotype, that is, as our technologies? If we lump them together, noting that all three potentially occurred among habilus to some degree or another and served as the force that pushed habilus to become erectus, well, then things become a bit more interesting. We can rephrase the if/then from above as, “If technology transforms nature, and technology changed us, then human nature is … technological?” The logic holds. What is so staggering about this revelation is that it means humans are not the product of evolution the way other primates are in that humans, should Wrangham’s theory hold, are the evolutionary result of technological pressure and selection on a species. Erectus evolved from habilus due to technology and, concurrently, sapiens evolved as a species maximized to use technology. So, if technology is natural, and we (Homo sapiens sapiens) are a natural product of technology, then whither the boundary between the two? Is it us?
Every debate I engage in, every discussion I have about some abomination of transhumanist thought (i.e. steroids, cloning, immorality – take your pick), I just try to work backwards along the scale. Cloning is bad? What about twins? IVF? What about neo-natal units? Ultrasound? Nutrition guides? Medical expertise and assistance? Sanitary living and birthing conditions? It inevitably regresses back to Clan of the Cave Bear. My point is that the bioconservative reaction of “it’s unnatural” has always been untenable due to this infinite regress, but Wrangham’s theory does one better: it shows that humans have never been natural, they’ve always been aided and evolutionarily influenced by technology. And if that’s the case, well then, not only have we never been natural, but we’ve always been something else, a species whose very evolution is intertwined with the technologies it produces. Homo sapiens sapiens is naturally technological. In a word: transhuman. To be human, it would seem, is to be transhuman.
I need to sit on this for a while longer, but expect some explications using Foucault, Grosz, Haraway, Firestone, Freud and Merleau-Ponty in the near future.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
popbioethics [at] gmail [dot] com
Long Form ArticlesWhy Mass Effect is the most Important Science Fiction Universe of our Generation