Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Fire and slings

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Writing about the high density-favoured digestion (deriving more break down products from each unit of resources acquired) and re-production (deriving more grand-offspring from each offspring produced) in the last post reminded me of two popular science books written by academics that I read this spring. In effect, they have suggested the importance of these (in one case the former, and in another the latter) in human evolution.

In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham proposed that fire, particularly for cooking (a form of pre-digestion), made possible the distinct human suite of adaptations and that foraging versus cooking was our primordial division of labour by gender. In Chpt. 3, “the energy theory of cooking” he well documents the evidence that cooked food yields more calories than raw, no matter the type of food, but he may not be quite right about why. He thinks it is because of a) “spontaneous” (i.e. purely phenotypic) benefits as demonstrated by the fact that even captive animals gain weight from cooked diets and b) evolutionary benefits owing to the reduced costs of a smaller gut once we began cooking (pp. 39-40). Because costs are difficult to measure, the more usual evolutionary ecological or socioecological logic is to hypothesize (and ideally demonstrate empirically) what logically would be most beneficial under different ecological or social conditions and to conclude from that what would be selected for, given equivalent costs. So what favours digesting more over eating more? Most obviously, high densities i.e. crowded conditions relative to resources do of course. If resources are plentiful, eat more; if they are scarce digest more i.e. derive more break down products from each unit of resources acquired – sometimes called efficiency over productivity. It is difficult to imagine that maintaining fire and cooking is actually cheaper than just picking up and eating raw food – it is unlikely to be cheaper, just more beneficial under conditions of food scarcity. It was apparently more beneficial enough to early humans to overcome the additional costs. The situation of relative (raw) food shortage was probably related to a cooling climate and the shift from forest to savannah-dwelling. These latter were presumably initially adapted to in an earlier phase by increased meat consumption as well as by the use of a variety of tools not only for acquiring food (digging sticks, weapons etc.), but also for processing by cracking, chopping, crushing etc. which Wrangham also discusses and shows also yield more calories per unit consumed.

Now from fire to slings (and yes, there is a connection!) In The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution,Timothy Taylor’s over-arching theme is that culture in the form of technology shaping genes did not begin with farming and herding for example. Instead it has been with us from the beginning. Tools came first and by a special form of artificial selection, literally evolved us. “Having possession of fire, tools, weapons and clothes, we do not need massive teeth, claws and muscles, or a long vegetable-absorbing gut” (p. 28). For some (in my view not very good reasons), he does not think that culture literally evolves, but his general thesis that culture has shaped human anatomy, physiology, development and behaviour is so obviously brilliantly right in retrospect, that I won’t pursue that aspect of his book. He adds some anatomical details about facial shape, musculature and teeth to Wrangham’s theory but his more specific thesis is about slings for carrying babies which made us effectively artificial marsupials. Slings were what made possible the care of our extremely altricial young with their grossly disproportionate brain size in foraging societies of naked apes on the move. Not only do they free arms for gathering, but he provides evidence that carrying babies in slings is more energetically efficient than in arms. And of course I note that that form of parental care, like others, is an investment in offspring quality i.e. ultimately in re-production, the production of grand-offspring.

The conclusion I draw from these two books which nicely complement each other is that cultural evolution from the beginning, particularly fire and slings, shaped the human quality strategy of devoting more resources to digestion over consumption and to re-production over production.

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Written by Marion Blute

June 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm

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