Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Why Are Humans Different From All Other Apes? It’s the Cooking, Stupid May 26, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Amie "Breeze" Harper @ 9:52 pm

My husband sent this to me and thought it would be a great dialogue piece.

I want to review the book. I find it particularly interesting that the author of the book appears critical of raw foodism. I need to read the book. Here is a quote from the interview:

He then delivers a thorough, delightfully brutal takedown of the raw-food movement and its pieties. He cites studies showing that a strict raw-foods diet cannot guarantee an adequate energy supply, and notes that, in one survey, 50 percent of the women on such a diet stopped menstruating.

This menstruating part I find fascinating, as Afrikan Holistic guru, Dr. Llaila Afrika has always advocated that menstruation is a “dis-ease” of white colonialism and addiction to cooking and eating meat centered diets. He has a significant number of vegan and raw foods followers who believe that a “healthy” woman does NOT need to menstruate. I do not agree with either Afrika or the author of the book above, but find it interesting how food , menstruation and what is constructed as “normal health” for women’s reproductive cycle, are seen through these men’s eyes.

Has anyone read this book or interviewed this anthropologist? I’m curious to also know what people think about how he thinks “gender roles” came out of cooking.

Why Are Humans Different From All Other Apes? It’s the Cooking, Stupid

New York Times
Published: May 26, 2009

Human beings are not obviously equipped to be nature’s gladiators. We have no claws, no armor. That we eat meat seems surprising, because we are not made for chewing it uncooked in the wild. Our jaws are weak; our teeth are blunt; our mouths are small. That thing below our noses? It truly is a pie hole.

To attend to these facts, for some people, is to plead for vegetarianism or for a raw-food diet. We should forage and eat the way our long-ago ancestors surely did. For Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard and the author of “Catching Fire,” however, these facts and others demonstrate something quite different. They help prove that we are, as he vividly puts it, “the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame.”

The title of Mr. Wrangham’s new book — “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” — sounds a bit touchy-feely. Perhaps, you think, he has written a meditation on hearth and fellow feeling and s’mores. He has not. “Catching Fire” is a plain-spoken and thoroughly gripping scientific essay that presents nothing less than a new theory of human evolution, one he calls “the cooking hypothesis,” one that Darwin (among others) simply missed.

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.

There were other benefits for humanity’s ancestors. He writes: “The protection fire provided at night enabled them to sleep on the ground and lose their climbing ability, and females likely began cooking for males, whose time was increasingly free to search for more meat and honey. While other habilines” — tool-using prehumans — “elsewhere in Africa continued for several hundred thousand years to eat their food raw, one lucky group became Homo erectus — and humanity began.”

You read all this and think: Is it really possible that this is an original bit of news? Mr. Wrangham seems as surprised as we are. “What is extraordinary about this simple claim,” he writes, “is that it is new.”

Mr. Wrangham arrives at his theory by first walking us through the work of other anthropologists and naturalists, including Claude Lévi-Strauss and Darwin, who did not pay much attention to cooking, assuming that humans could have done pretty well without it.

He then delivers a thorough, delightfully brutal takedown of the raw-food movement and its pieties. He cites studies showing that a strict raw-foods diet cannot guarantee an adequate energy supply, and notes that, in one survey, 50 percent of the women on such a diet stopped menstruating. There is no way our human ancestors survived, much less reproduced, on it. He seems pleased to be able to report that raw diets make you urinate too often, and cause back and hip problems.

Even castaways, he writes, have needed to cook their food to survive: “I have not been able to find any reports of people living long term on raw wild food.” Thor Heyerdahl, traveling by primitive raft across the Pacific, took along a small stove and a cook. Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe, built fires and cooked on them.

Mr. Wrangham also dismisses, for complicated social and economic reasons, the popular Man-the-Hunter hypothesis about evolution, which posits that meat-eating alone was responsible. Meat eating “has had less impact on our bodies than cooked food,” he writes. “Even vegetarians thrive on cooked diets. We are cooks more than carnivores.”

Among the most provocative passages in “Catching Fire” are those that probe the evolution of gender roles. Cooking made women more vulnerable, Mr. Wrangham ruefully observes, to male authority.

“Relying on cooked food creates opportunities for cooperation, but just as important, it exposes cooks to being exploited,” he writes. “Cooking takes time, so lone cooks cannot easily guard their wares from determined thieves such as hungry males without their own food.” Women needed male protection.

Marriage, or what Mr. Wrangham calls “a primitive protection racket,” was a solution. Mr. Wrangham’s nuanced ideas cannot be given their full due here, but he is not happy to note that cooking “trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated culture.”

“Cooking,” he writes, “created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture.” As a student, Mr. Wrangham studied with the primatologist Jane Goodall in Gombe, Tanzania, and he is the author, with Dale Peterson, of a previous book called “Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence.” In “Catching Fire” he has delivered a rare thing: a slim book — the text itself is a mere 207 pages — that contains serious science yet is related in direct, no-nonsense prose. It is toothsome, skillfully prepared brain food.

“Zoologists often try to capture the essence of our species with such phrases as the naked, bipedal or big-brained ape,” Mr. Wrangham writes. He adds, in a sentence that posits Mick Jagger as an anomaly and boils down much of his impressive erudition: “They could equally well call us the small-mouthed ape.”


12 Responses to “Why Are Humans Different From All Other Apes? It’s the Cooking, Stupid”

  1. ThoughtCriminal Says:

    I haven’t read the book but it seems interesting.

    “He then delivers a thorough, delightfully brutal takedown of the raw-food movement and its pieties. He cites studies showing that a strict raw-foods diet cannot guarantee an adequate energy supply”.

    Of course there are studies showing the exact opposite. In fact, this family (link below) is a perfect example of optimal health and an adequate energy supply from a raw “vegan”/raw foods* diet.

    *The family calls themselves raw vegans. However they do eat honey, and condone recreational horse riding as far as I know.

  2. […] Breeze Harper @ Vegans of Color: Why Are Humans Different From All Other Apes? It’s the Cooking, S… […]

  3. Joselle Says:

    Interesting piece. I think it’s also interesting that while the author posits that women became the cooks and cooking made them vulnerable, most people who get paid the most (or at all) to cook are chefs and they are mostly male.

    • k. emvee Says:

      Which is to say that he clearly has given women an easy way to equality. Is it really so easy? To eliminate “male cultural superiority” we women just need to become raw foodists? Or perhaps just stop cooking for and feeding sexist men like him. Bravo Mr. Garner, bravo.

  4. Mr. Radio Says:

    @Joselle – I absolutely agree with you. It was interesting to theorize that cooking could make women vulnerable. But I was thinking the same thing you were about men being the highest paid chefs in the world.

    • I think I will have to read the book to see what this author means about cooking and women becoming vulnerable. Mr. Radio, I thought the same thing too: that high paid chefs (well, chefs in general) are males, so, what does the author have to say about that?

      I’m also in the camp that cooking is not something that makes ALL women vulnerable. Depending on who you talk to, cooking has been used as a way to heal family members and friends. In my mind, nutritional awareness fused with cooking can equal empowerment in my eyes. But, that’s just my little opinion, as I’m speaking from the experience of someone who feels that part of decolonizing the negative effects of colonialism on the USA black body can be partly achieved through cooking. Okay, I think I’m going off on a tangent 🙂

      • Anonymous Says:

        Wrangham’s point is cooking leads to division of labor based on gender. Cooking food takes time, restricts mobility and is hard to hide. A cooked meal is an attractive prize for a hungry passer-by, and the cook, without societal or personal protection, is vulnerable to the theft of the day’s cooking. The restaurant industry and highly paid chefs are recent human developments, and Wrangham is working from anthropological and archaeological studies. In the last chapter of the text, Wrangham does indicate the importance of the shared hearth in strengthening a family and community.

  5. Why does cooking make women ‘vunerable’? It seems to me that it’s not women who would need ‘protection’, but the offspring who have to rely on women for food/feeding. In times of aggression and war, the children (and the women) are the most vulnerable because the best way to destroy a people(lineage) is to destroy the children (and women).

    THAT should be more of a reason to suggest that women may be ‘vulnerable’, however silly. There are tribes still in existence today in which the women are as responsible for physical labor and/or ‘warlike’ activities as the men are.

    It’s also curious to me that evolution is talked about as something that happened ‘way back then’, but it’s never taken into consideration that the evolutionary process might actually be something that happens on a conscious and active level. Why is it impossible to believe that humans are at the next stage of evolution with regard to food – souring, preparing, eating?

    What if the next stage in human evolution IS a shift or elevation in awareness that involves a human or group of humans consciously making choices that have no immediate consequences, but show up in future generations?

  6. I agree with you, Melissa. I think we’re at a turning point and may well influence future generations’ eating habits.

  7. Empress Says:

    He has a significant number of vegan and raw foods followers who believe that a “healthy” woman does NOT need to menstruate.

    I think those beliefs arise out of misogyny, pure and simple — misogynists believe that menstruation is disgusting and a disease, because eeeeeeewww gross, it involves a woman’s uterus and vagina! I’ve been vegetarian since I was 12 (I’m 29 now) and have been vegan for a few years, and I still get my period very regularly. The only time it stopped was I was raped, when I pretty much stopped eating.

    Basically, the way your period stops is if your body fat is below 20-25 percent, so it’s just another example of the all-too-common idea in the animal rights movement, especially among PETA types, that vegan women must be super skinny and hot or we’re a total embarrassment to animal rights. Also, if women don’t menstruate, THEY DON’T GET PREGNANT. And the human race would end, which I sometimes think wouldn’t be the worst thing on earth, but damn, don’t do it by torturing and starving women. (Not that raw foodists necessarily all starve themselves, but if you’re not menstruating because of what you eat or the amount you eat, yes, you are starving yourself and you need to get help.) Seriously, I’m not going to try stopping my period or be ashamed of it just because some dude is grossed out by the female reproductive system.

    Of course, if a woman stops or regulates her period through certain types of birth control because her period is particularly painful or even dangerous, that’s an entirely different matter. But telling me that my mostly non-painful, perfectly normal period is a disease, trying to get me to feel ashamed of my body just as generation upon generation of men have done? Really, men who think that are misogynists who can just get lost already.

  8. supernovadiva Says:

    i have his african health book. it was very popular at the time. though it gave me another view of food, i could not handle the homophobia and racism. also could not handle the menstration is a disease deal. he may be ‘intellegent’ but so are other doctors without the venomous rants. i hear women refer to him as inspiration. i can’t understand that. kinda like celebrating your oppresor. i can’t put it into words, but some areas of ‘afro centric’ vegan health groups comes off cultish to me.

  9. Cloud Says:

    Good reading here everyone. 🙂 Not sure what I take from the article, however. Just because we may or may not have been omni for most of our existence does not remove our responsibility to choose more ethical and environmentally better options. Knowing well that we can thrive without animal products.

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