Ethical eating in a diverse world: our biological identity is cooked (part 2 of a series)

The cooking hunter-gatherer

Humans should not return to their “cave man diet” to be healthy. What a creature eats in the wild is not necessarily the best option. In the wild, the full potential of a species cannot be developed due to a lack of available nutrients, illness, competition with members of their own species, and predators. Life is poore, nasty, brutish, and short (1) . Following the diet that was feeding this crippled existence is probably not on the road to a long, happy, and fulfilled life. Biology sets the framework inside of which the individual can develop its potential. This means that it is important to investigate our roots and to know the limitations and possibilities linked to our biological identity–but please keep in mind that history is not destiny.

It is a fact that the human is (existentially) an omnivore Our gut and body need nutrients from milk or meat that herbivores can produce themselves or extract from plants. Moreover, we need nutrients that are only found in plants. Vegans have to resort to highly processed and reprocessed or even chemically produced alternatives for the nutrients from animal products. Carnivorous humans, like Inuit, need to “burn” the proteins from meat in the furnace provided by animal fat, because eating only lean meat for energy leads to “protein poisoning” and death after only a few weeks.
Negating the fact that humans are build to be omnivorous is like negating that earth is a warming globe (OK, not exactly a globe, but rather a globe than flat, you get the gist). Some debates should just be cut short.

The Professor of Biological Anthropology, Richard Wrangham, makes in his book:”Catching fire; how cooking makes us human” a very convincing argument for putting cooking central to our being. A first jump in human development happened when the social Australopithecus increased the amount of meat in the diet, this improved the quality of the diet and increased the amount of energy available for growth and brain functions. The biggest evolutionary jump however happened when we started cooking, and so more or less doubled the nutritive value of our food, while expanding the number of comestible species of plants and animals. This extra food and energy was used to build our bigger brains, leading to all this.
Cooking makes whole groups of plants and parts of animals comestible and digestible. Digestion means that we can actually use the nutrients that are enclosed into them, so they don’t end up feeding only the bacteria in our gut or beyond. Without cooking, the range of foods available for consumption would be limited to a frightening degree. We would not be able to digest cereals, and most tubers and vegetables would have the nutritional value of a fiber. This would leave us reliant on fruits, nuts and meat. Agriculture would never have taken off, while nomadism might just have worked. The earth would only be able to provide for a pre-caveman population density.

Cooking is also one of the first activities where economies of scale and specialization really count. The centrality of cooking as part of the human identity, creating a formal “meal” leads to the sanctity of the shared meal, as covered later.

An ethical system should respect our biological identity, so an absolute choice for or against a complete food group like meat or cereal negates, or chooses to ignore human nature. When there is no choice, there is neither a question of ethical options. Is it an option to forgo all meat or all vegetables? There is a choice when relying on chemically or otherwise processed additives. However, for now this is an unsustainable universal human ethical code.
However, randomly picking items of a few groups and declaring them out of bounds is possible. This will come with some cost as it does not authorize to optimize the available natural resources to their fullest extend, but these taboos come with some benefits too, as discussed later.

The dangers of blind adherence to traditional norms: history is not destiny

Richard Wrangler dedicates a chapter of his book on how cooking freed men to do something beside eating, to increase his success in his travails and create elaborate social structures. Another chapter deals explicitly with the gender balance at the advent of cooking and in hunter-gatherer societies.
The picture is ugly, where the hunter-gatherer marriage, with norms extending to our current times, is aimed at providing the hunting (or socializing) men with a cooked meal when they get home in the evening. A single woman preparing food for an unrelated man in such societies often equals to a marriage. In the end, the woman is expected to provide a cooked meal for the man. The whole relationship looks very much like a racket, where woman can escape their food being stolen by linking up to one man, who will be beating her if she doesn’t cook well enough.Traditional norms are abandoned for good or bad reasons. It may be because they stopped being relevant, as new food, such as potatoes, replace the centrality of turnips in the meal. It can be because the initial investment needed to make the social contract work can be escaped when social control breaks down, leading to an implosion of the system. It may also be because a traditional meal can only be prepared if there is one family member (e.g. a woman) full time assigned to cooking, eliminating other ambitions for this individual.
With the evolving  needs and ethics of society, the centrality of the home – cooking from scratch for the family might be questioned as an institution, thanks to the evolving technical possibilities such as deep freeze, eating out, fast food and ready made meals.

While slow food seems to be inherently more valuable, this value must be weighed against the cost to the individuals who must sacrifice their time for the preparation, and the fulfillment they get from doing so.

by Sam Gardner


1 As the copyright of the original quote has expired, I can claim this phrase of Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) as mine.

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