Extended Interview: Greg Laden Discusses Evolution and Cuisine

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: So why food? How did it play a dominant role in social development?

GL: In order to cook food, you have to have this capacity to have social contracts. You can’t bring food into a shared environment without contracts, because it would be stolen by dominant males. Humans, compared to different primates, aren’t that different in size. When that changed must be connected to social structure. The other thing that is important is that our ancestors where very dimorphic, but very little. One day new hominids show up and they have the following differences: they’re way bigger (modern in human size), and their teeth get smaller. How to do you explain the reduction in body size? They’re consuming a much higher quality food, food that is rich in calories. These early hominids also spread into various habitats. This is all explained with the cooking of food. It’s higher quality, and easy to chew. Yes, you can eat raw lettuce, but you can’t eat uncooked wheat or raw potatoes. One thing I think is important: human beings have had an enormously wide range of diets. We’re adapted to eat a wide range of food.

CP: I take it you’re not a fan of the modern raw food movement, or fragmented eating schedules in families?

GL: Well, with raw food-only diets, it’s fine, as long as you don’t do this with your children. Large brains require a huge amount of growth. What we think we need to eat isn’t always what we actually need. In a natural environment, the amount of fat you get in a week is a fraction to what a typical American gets in one day. We don’t have a mechanism that limits how much we take in. In natural history, we never had to do that. That’s an effect on our evolutionary history as well. Having a social contract to share food is the same contract that allows us to have relatively monogamous relationships. That’s rare in primates.

CP: Are there other species that mirror our eating patterns of sharing, gathering, and hunting?

GL: Bonobo chimps do share food, but it’s food for sex. A male will be carrying a piece of sugar cane, the two will engage in erotic interactions, and when they’re done; it’s subtle, but the female will have the sugar cane. But if food is rare, they won’t share.

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.

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