Tag Archives: eating

Evolution and Meat

Smoked chicken!

There was a fascinating piece on the National Public Radio news program Morning Edition (on the August 2, 2010 show) regarding the links between human evolution, meat eating and cooking.  Naturally, this caught our attention here at FoodAnthropology.  It featured insights from several anthropologists and was about food.  What more can one ask from a news story?  Read and listen to it here.

There are several points of interest.  First is the idea that eating meat allowed humans to develop the kinds of brains that we have now.  A good idea, but apparently eating the meat raw was not sufficient.  In fact, eating most things raw was more difficult and, in some cases, less nutritious than eating the same things cooked.  Of course, this adds culture to evolution.  Fascinating aspect of adaptation, really.  This is precisely the kind of thing that makes evolution so amazing.  This may be an old insight in anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss made some observations on cooking, culture and evolution, for example), but it is not really appreciated by non-anthropologists, I think.

Now, I can imagine that all of this could be considered controversial from some points of view.  Folks in the vegetarian, vegan and raw food camps probably have interesting things to say about this.  They might assert that pre-historic diets of nuts and fruit, eaten raw, were really all our (very distant) ancestors needed.  So why should we need more?  They may make strange assertions about what our guts are designed to digest and suggest that we avoid meat, milk, cooked foods, etc.  The archaeologists and biological anthropologists can show that their view of our ancestors is incorrect, but that may not matter.  They will invent new ancestors.  People love to legitimize their positions through imagined ancestors.

In addition, if you read the comments at the end of the NPR piece, you will see people grappling with another kind of issue: if our ancestors developed big brains by eating meat, they seem to ask, does that mean my kid will get a big brain if he or she eats steak?  Well, no, not exactly.  There is a misunderstanding here between the idea of what is adaptive for populations and what is healthy at any given time for individuals.  Here too, people are looking for legitimacy in ancestors, but the problem is that the units of analysis are off.

The links between diet and evolution—including the choices to eat meat and to cook—were probably not well understood by our ancestors, but they did prove to be adaptive.  Are they still adaptive?  It is hard to tell.  Are they healthy for us as individuals?  You can’t really read that from the evolutionary record.  That said, it seems likely that the manner in which we produce most meat today is not sustainable.  And by sustainable, I mean that it harms the environment in ways that may harm us.  Does this mean we should cease eating meat?  Eat less of it?  Produce what we do eat differently?  I like some of those ideas, but not because I know they will prove to be adaptive in an evolutionary sense.  You can’t really make sense of the world that way—it is too abstract.  Our ancestors started at some point to eat meat and later started to cook it, along with other things.  This proved to be a great idea at the time.  I love grilling meat, so I think it is still a great idea.  But you’ll notice that one of the anthropologists cited in the story is a vegetarian (that would be Richard Wrangham, author of the very interesting book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2009, Basic Books).  He understands the adaptive nature of meat eating and cooking in the past.  So what does his choice mean now?

You can’t really plan an evolutionary strategy.  You can only tell that what your ancestors did worked at the time.  If our choices are adaptive today, we will have descendants who can look back and appreciate those choices.  I guess that is why it is evolution, not revolution.

posted by David Beriss

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Filed under anthropology, evolution, food security, media, nutrition, sustainability

Words in Food Symposium, Fall 2010, New Orleans

Many of you are planning on visiting New Orleans for the annual AAA meetings in November.  But we would like to have you here more often.  Here is another opportunity to come on down, participate in a conference, meet fascinating people, eat great food and generally, as they say, pass a good time.

The Words in Food Symposium is the 2nd annual event of this sort.  I attended the first one, which was small and intellectually invigorating.  It also featured some outstanding food.  The next one promises to be even better.  Slightly bigger, but still small enough for good discussions.  As the CFP below indicates, my department at UNO is helping organize this symposium.  The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a growing and vigorous institution (with internships, if you have interested students), with rapidly expanding collections from all over the south.  They even restored a vintage bar from Bruning’s Restaurant here in New Orleans, a famous seafood establishment on Lake Ponchartrain that did not survive Katrina.  Check out their web site to learn more about their growing collections and other events.

And consider coming to New Orleans for the symposium.  Details below.

Call for Papers

Words in Food Symposium

Eating in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Basin

Southern Food and Beverage Museum, New Orleans

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum, New Orleans, in partnership with the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans and the Institute for the Study of Culinary Cultures at Dillard University is extending a call for papers for its second annual Words in Food Symposium. The symposium will occur on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 2010.

The theme of the 2010 symposium is Eating in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Basin. Scholars, researchers, food writers and others will present information about the cross influences in the region, the ecology and cultural exchanges, as well as other issues and ideas. Presentations will focus primarily on the countries that have a coast on the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Participation in the symposium is open to all. We intend to include food presentations as well as oral presentations at this event.

The purpose of these conference presentations is to provide high-quality, innovative education and idea sharing for professionals. Our multiple day, multiple track format offers a self-directed, facilitated learning environment with education sessions, interactive forums, and panel discussions. Presentation sessions, designed to transcend all industry sectors, focus on current and emerging issues, best practices, and challenges about food and food-related issues.

Due to the number of proposals expected, we will not be able to accept every proposal, and we may combine individual proposals with similar topics to create a Panel Session. We anticipate numerous presenters. We hope you understand with these numbers, we are unable to cover expenses, so speakers are expected to pay travel expenses. We encourage innovative panels and presentations.

Please provide a description of your idea for a presentation or a 90-minute panel discussion in 250 words or less. There are no fees required to submit a proposal.

  • Please provide contact information: Name; Title; Affiliation/Organization; Address; Phone Number; Fax Number; Email Address; Website Address (if applicable for your topic or organization). If you are proposing a Panel Presentation, please provide the same contact information for each speaker and the moderator.
  • At the present time, proposals must be in English only.
  • Proposals should describe original work.
  • All proposals must be non-sales or marketing orientated.
  • Please list any anticipated AV equipment needs.
  • Proposals are due July 15, 2010.

If accepted, expect to provide a full paper for publication in the Conference Proceedings. If PowerPoint for slide presentations are submitted for inclusion in the Proceedings, a narrative description must accompany them. Proceeding papers are due in electronic form during or immediately following the conference.

To submit by email, send your proposal and any electronic attachments to Chris Smith, chris@southernfood.org.

Posted by David Beriss

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