Now you’re cookin’

Mmm, smells like neurons. Photo: ToasyKen/Flickr

How did we get to be so smart?

Not to sound arrogant, but intellect is one of our most valuable features for survival and, compared to other species, we have a lot of it. But is natural selection the only factor that fine-tuned our synapses more sharply than our primate brethren?

New research spearheaded by primatologist Richard Wrangham suggests there’s something else that accelerated the growth of our brains: Cooking our food.

Not only does cooking kill off bacteria and enhance our food’s flavor (at least for our human taste buds), it helps break down proteins and other molecules so our bodies can absorb them faster and more easily. Raw food, on the other hand, doesn’t go down as well. It takes more time and energy for our bodies to digest it, leaving us with fewer calories by the time it’s processed.

Therein lies the problem. Our brains use a lot of energy; Out of all the organs in our body, the brain is number three in terms of caloric intake, just behind skeletal muscle and the liver. To keep our synapses firing and maintain our same body size and strength with only raw food we’d have to eat for nine hours or more every day. And the more neurons you have, i.e. how smart you are, the more calories you need.

Added to this, the brain boost is more than nutritional, it’s social. Man’s discovery of fire and subsequent use of it to cook our food gave rise to a kind of social forum. The fire was a place to cook, be fed, and come together. And development of social skills and further nourishment the brain gets from being a part of a social structure are equally important to survival as measurable intellect, or your I.Q… at least for human beings.

The raw food diet certainly clashes with Wrangham’s theory, though he doesn’t disagree with it completely. For adults, it’s a safe and effective way to lose weight while not skimping on necessary vitamins and minerals. But for kids it’s not the best diet. Their brains still have a lot of growing to do, so cooked meals are the way to go.

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