Café Scientifique: Evolution, Cuisine, and Romance

When imagining catalysts to evolution, or things that enabled great strides for our ancestors, fire or the invention of the wheel may spring to mind. But what about cooking? University of Minnesota anthropology professor Greg Laden postulates that cooking and cuisine played a crucial role in human physical and social development. He took a moment from his schedule to chat with City Pages.

CP: You believe that cooking played a crucial role in human evolution and human interaction. Can you briefly explain your logic behind this?

GL: It's a little hard to explain, because when you think about things that happened millions of years ago, people want to hear a story. The history of agriculture, for example, how did someone first figure out that if they plant something it would grow? People often want to relate it to a story: Og the caveman was walking along and he saw a seed and a week later there were sprouts, and he figured it out. But of course we can't describe those events. You're going to get into trouble, because you're either giving Og too much credit or too little. We can't go back two million years ago and describe this in correct terms that people who are not specialists can really relate to without it becoming a story. So, human beings are the nearest living relatives to chimpanzees. The last common ancestor between humans and chimps was very much like a chimpanzee. The chimps haven't changed a lot; humans have. When chimps encounter food, unless there is a lot of food at one place, they avoid each other. Males are dominant over food. Every time a male comes along, they will take the food. Humans don't do that; we share. How do you explain how that came about? When you have food that can be rendered edible, usually you have to bring that back to a place where there's fire, a central place. The ability to cook and share food is related to what allows humans to sit down and not fight over food; the ability that allows humans to be something else that chimps can't. Humans have the capacity to negotiate social contracts.

CP: Do you feel that these ancient gender roles of men being hunters while women cooked and protected food that was in the immediate area, are still at play today? Will these roles shift as we move forward in time?

GL: I think that in modern U.S. society, some people are very comfortable with gender roles. For example, some time ago I cooked a big meal for friends. A colleague of my wife at the time, an older, feminist professor, said that my then-wife had done a great job cooking the meal. My then-wife said, "Well, Greg did all the cooking." The colleague then said, "Yeah, right" with a wink. It was impossible for her to believe that I had cooked the meal. Our society is very much in transition. Some members have no problem with men cooking, while others won't believe it. The fact that it might be related to our evolutionary history, that women might be trading food for protection, it's not like all the people with the female gene to cook and the male gene to not cook are dying off. It is entirely a social construction. The thing is, it's been a social construction for two million years.

CP: Have you heard any interesting reactions to your cooking theory?

GL: Well, some people have heard this theory and think that it means that traditional family values go back two million years. That's probably Ann Coulter's wet dream. To prove a family structure of males hunting and females cooking, there are a million reasons that that is not correct. Human beings are chimpanzees with an additional brain area that is constantly telling us, "Don't be a chimp!" With a mammal brain, you can add functions, but you have to kill other functions. You don't get to "turn off" functions, you have to repress them. To have a capacity to form relationships that allow us not to go over and take the sandwich out of someone's hand (which a chimp would do), you have to have the capacity to form bonds. Humans live in a social network. We have constant opportunity for reproduction; we're not solitary. Because of our social contract we repress sexual desires, but still form social bonds. We have a complicated relationship system, and as a result we have a wide range of gender and social orientation patterns. The relationship is a very powerful source.

Come see Greg Laden discuss evolution, cuisine, and romance tonight as part of the Café Scientifique lectures.
Tue., Feb. 19, 7 p.m., 2008

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