James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

September 28, 2009

Making the Pie Bigger

Filed under: agriculture,food — James @ 7:38 pm

When zero sum games are played for fun they can be very entertaining (see: poker). When they’re played for survival they’re miserable (see: who do we throw off the lifeboat, which person gets this kidney, and poker  when you can’t afford to lose). All too often keeping people alive (whether with regards about health care or food production) is seen as a zero sum game. But it’s not. My favorite example is the green revolution, but But that gets into a whole separate fight about the green revolution, and takes attention away from the real point about bigger pies being better than fighting over the pieces of a small one. So I have a new example. One almost no one can find fault with:


IMG_4240Our ancestors didn’t always cook their food. It’s really an unlikely thing to do to food when you think about it. Heating up food until the flavor changes, yet cooking is very prevalent across cultures, geographies, and evidence for it extends into prehistory. What’s the benefit to an individual of preferring the taste of cooked meat to raw, a preference most people seem to share (awesome Ethiopia restaurants serving raw beef aside)?

Cooking changes the protein structure of food. More accurately, cooking denatures proteins, breaking down their shape which makes them much easier for our bodies to break down and absorb. The result is the same food effectively provides a person with more calories. Or more people can get enough energy to make it through another day from the same gazelle carcass.

Imagine living in the last days before cooking was discovered. It’s harder and harder to catch enough animals to feed the whole tribe. Plants that are good to eat are harder to find (this is happening in the days before agriculture), and even when some are discovered, the food must be split between so many mouths that hunger returns swiftly. Some in the tribe advocate abandoning some of the smaller children too young to help find food. Others suggest attacking a neighboring tribe, killing its members and taking its land. Meanwhile someone who is either too bored or too curious tries holding meat on a stick over the fire. (Or maybe the first cooked food was an edible root buried in the embers of a fire and then dug out again). Either way, it tastes delicious, and pretty soon everyone in the tribe is preparing their food the same way. And they might not even notice it, but now it takes a bit less food to keep hunger at bay.

Famine, war and infanticide are averted for another year, or another generation, or even another century by some forgotten person’s good idea. Again with agriculture. Again with the green revolution. Countless thousands of times less remembered but still vitally important. Whoever came up with the three-sisters approach to growing corn beans and squash. Or processing corn with ash to make vitamins and amino acids more bio-available.

For more about the benefits of cooking check out Richard Wrangham being interviewed in Science Friday. He’s got an even more exciting proposal that cooking was part of what lead to our increased intelligence since we could afford devote less energy to maintaining a sophisticated digestive system designed to getting the most energy  out of raw food, and more to supporting our ridiculously outsized brains. Which in turn lead to the brain power that has enabled all the other pie expanding ideas. Not sure if he’s on to something or not, but its a fun idea to consider.


  1. I thought the main benefit of cooking was not that it made food easier to absorb, but that it killed whatever parasites (tapeworms, bacteria, etc.) were living in the meat.

    Comment by mr_subjunctive — September 28, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  2. Yeah that’s a huge benefit as well. And of top of that, cooked meat is easier to chew which apparently is a significant investment of energy when other primates eat raw meat (which I didn’t realize this before this weekend).

    Comment by James — September 28, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

  3. And I didn’t even think about the fact tapeworms are a major cause of under-nutrition since they’re competing with our own intestines for calories. Another reason cooking makes the same amount of food go farther that I hadn’t even thought of. Thanks!

    Comment by James — September 28, 2009 @ 10:36 pm

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