August 29, 2010 Commentary
Fire and Meat
I just ordered Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. I can’t wait to read it. Here’s the Publishers Weekly review:
Cooked cuisine was central to the biological and social evolution of humanity, argues this fascinating study. Harvard biological anthropologist Wrangham dates the breakthrough in human evolution to a moment 1.8 million years ago, when, he conjectures, our forebears tamed fire and began cooking… these innovations drove anatomical and physiological changes that make us adapted to eating cooked food the way cows are adapted to eating grass. By making food more digestible and easier to extract energy from, Wrangham reasons, cooking enabled hominids’ jaws, teeth and guts to shrink, freeing up calories to fuel their expanding brains. It also gave rise to pair bonding and table manners, and liberated mankind from the drudgery of chewing.
I have this image of early men and women around a campfire, cooking and sharing the meat the men hunted. This fire may be why people began sitting in circles in the first place (go into any PreK-grade 2 classroom and you’ll see kids having “morning meeting” in a circle; there’s something elemental about humans communicating and learning in that shape).
I like sitting at round tables to eat with people, as did the early humans. But the reasons we do so are different. They needed to share the fire and cook the meat (unknowingly propelling themselves forward evolutionarily). But more and more lately, I’m feeling like I’m involved in a kind of fire circle too, one that’s pushing humankind forward to the next level. It’s the animal welfare movement.
Now that we have these highly evolved brains, we can do amazing things with them; for instance, make the world better. Like a social group of hominids around a campfire, activists and advocates within a social or political movement share resources, throw wood on the fire, bring what we have to offer to the circle, and huddle together. One person distributes leaflets for an event, another person cleans cages at the shelter. One person goes into classrooms to spread the message of humane education, another collects pet food for food banks. It’s the same feeling of camaraderie and shared purpose as the campfire.
And sometimes our successes make me feel as warmed and as fed as a hominid with a belly full of roasted mammoth.