Catching Fire is apparently a very popular book and/or movie that everyone is very excited about. But Catching Fire is also a book about some interesting research I was involved in about the origin of our genus, Homo.
You can pick up a copy of our paper on this page. We call it “The Cooking Hypothesis.” The basic idea can be summarized with these points:
1) Cooking food transformed human ecology. Many potential foods in the environment can’t be consumed by humans (or apes in general) without cooking. But adding cooking to our species-specific technology, we can access those foods effectively transforming our ecology to a much greater extent than the vast majority of evolutionary transitions, especially single-event transitions, have ever done. The total number of calories in the natural environment that become available to an ape that can cook goes up by orders of magnitude.
2) This increase in available calories left a biological signal that is very impressive. Two major changes happened in the hominid body (in early Homo erecuts/ergaster). One is an approximate doubling in body size from an earlier Australopithecine or “Early Homo” ancestor. The other is a reduction in tooth size. Less eating equipment with a body demanding so much more in energy to grow and maintain signals a fundamental change in the food supply. There may be more than one way this could have happened, but so far adding cooking to our technology seems to be the best explanation.
3) Related, this is when we see brain size, relative to body size and in absolute terms, increase. Neural tissue is picky, expensive, and costly. Having a significant increase in brain size may be related to the demands (on the brain) of adding cooking to our behavior in that the size increase is allowed by the extra energy. And, it may be related in that the larger brain may provide the capacity to have this behavior.
4) The actual act of cooking, as a technology, may or may not demand a larger brain. But the process of cooking almost certainly involves central place foraging (bringing all the food back to one place, much of the time, to cook it) and delayed consumption (as opposed to eating the food where you find it). The basic pattern for a chimpanzee-like ancestor is to eat the food where you find it. Bringing food into close proximity to other members of your group virtually guarantees direct competition for food, which makes getting to food to begin with a highly questionable thing to do. In order for cooking to work, the social interactions typical of an ape have to be modified significantly. Cooking demanded, facilitated, and made major changes in social structure “worth it” from the point of view of natural selection.
5) These changes in social structure are probably indicated as well by changes in stone tool technology. Early cookers also were early hand-ax makers, for example. Human ancestors went from making primarily expedient, one time use, very simple stone tools to making tools that required a great deal of investment in time and energy to learn the technology, get good at it, and even for the production of individual tools (including acquisition of better than average raw materials in many cases). Once the tools were made they seem to have been used, often, for long periods of time. It is hard to imagine a chimp-like creature carrying around a tool into which she invested time and energy without it being taken away. This is an important transformation.
6) Less visible but very likely is a change in social system which could be called the rise of proto marriage. Sexual arrangements of a human-like kind are very different than for chimp. The ability to allow others to possess food or invest in more sophisticated technologies may be parallel to the ability to have more or less exclusive sexual contracts among individuals. This is indicated independently in the fossil record by a large decrease in sexual dimorphism in body size. In polygynous species like chimps males are often much larger than females, and this seems to have been the case with pre-Homo erectus/ergaster ancestors. But at the same time the body size increase and tooth size decrease happen, we also see a reduction in sexual dimorphism in body size, strongly indicating a major change in social arrangements. The best two explanations for this may be a shift to a gibbon-like pattern of paired-off monogamous adults living more or less alone, or a human-like pattern of paired-off monogamous adults living in larger social groups.
It is an idea that would have caught on. It would have selected for more nuanced communication, and may thus have facilitated the origin of what we now know of as human language and symbolic processing.
So when you are eating your Thanksgiving dinner this year, most of which will be cooked, look around at the people at the table and, briefly, imagine them to be chimps. Then go back to your meal and try to put all those thoughts aside…