Saturday, June 6, 2015

Can Chimps Learn How To Cook With Fire?

Evolutionary Ideas


Cooked Foods: “Like other animals, wild chimpanzees eat their food raw. But unlike all others, chimps have all of the cognitive abilities necessary for cooking, except an understanding of how to control fire,” National Geographic’s Michael Lemonick writes.
Photo Credit: Cyril Ruoso, Minden; 
Source: National Geographic

An article, by Michael D. Lemonick, in National Geographic says that chimpanzees have the desire to cook their foods, but do not yet possess the ability to control fire; animals instinctively fear fire, and do not have the understanding of its benefits. Although this seems like research on the light side, this is not so for evolutionary biologists, because it would provide some evidence of how our human ancestors (i,e., the hominins like Homo erectus ) evolved two million years ago through a series of evolutionary steps before arriving at the stage of modern humans some 200,000 years ago.

These early hominens had the brain size of chimpanzees, so if we can understand the chimps, we can thus make some assertions on the development from homo erectus to homo sapien (or upright man to anatomically modern human.) Or, to put it another way, then scientists can advance a theory on how our human ancestors developed their skills. Lemonick writes in “Chimps Can’t Cook, But Maybe They Would Like To”:
The latest discovery: Chimps have all the cognitive abilities necessary for the uniquely human behavior of cooking. They don’t do it in the wild because they’ve never learned to control fire. But aside from that, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Academy B, chimps’ brains are pretty much fully equipped to take the great culinary leap our direct human ancestors did in the dim past.

“I love it,” says Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham, who has long argued that the transition to from raw to cooked food spurred a dramatic increase in the brain capacity of human ancestors nearly two million years ago, leading to the emergence of our ancestor, Homo erectus.

The idea is that cooked meat and vegetables are far easier to digest than the raw versions, thus providing more available calories for our energy-hungry grey matter. (Learn more about the first kitchens of human ancestors in Africa.)
After reading the article, I am not convinced that chimps necessarily have the desire to cook; it just might be that they prefer the taste of cooked (or baked) potatoes and other vegetables like carrots, and this is what made them not only excited, but also willing to wait for their food.

I read through the original paper (“Cognitive capacities for cooking in chimpanzees) and I am not as excited as evolutionary biologists might be. It might be that I do not see the evidence as convincing; I am also not convinced that chimps have any such cognitive abilities, or at least this study did not offer sufficient evidence to convince this writer. Chimps have some intelligence and can learn to do some tasks, but they have yet to develop the type of higher level cognition that humans have. There are remarkable differences in cognition between humans and animals that in no way ought to diminish animals.

Even so, the paper’s authors, Felix Warneke and, Alexandra G. Rosati, did say something that I would partly agree with: “Our results therefore suggest that the earliest adoption of fire may have led rapidly to the development of cooking, supporting claims that cooking originated early in human evolution” [3,4]. That fire contributed to cooked foods in undoubtedly true; that chimps will eventually cook food with fire might happen, but I do not think it will happen in my lifetime. Or in a thousand lifetimes. But, perhaps in a million years or so. Thus, my answer to the headline question is “no.”

Moreover, I do not expect any cooking show headlined by chimps in the near future. Sorry to disappoint the reality TV aficionados out there.

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For more, go to [NatGeo]

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