The Cooking Hypothesis

By Robert Lynch

“It was raining when you were born,” Jared told the babe in his arms. “The sky split open and the rain and wind unleashed onto the land. Lightning and thunder rolled over the countryside. It reminded me of the stories about the mighty power of the Old Gods. At first, I was worried, as gale-force winds battered the hospital; I daydreamed that the Old Gods were trying to break their way in. That somehow you were a threat to them. That your potential could be realised in such a way as to destroy the Old Gods and they fought to hold onto their last vestiges of power.”

The baby sucked on his own fingers and Jared put a dummy in the child’s mouth. Happier to have the dummy, the baby’s eyes closed, contented.

“But the hospital was built by Man. And Man’s reason has come a long way since the wind and rain were a threat to him. And when you think about it, it was an Old God who gave us the power to protect ourselves. Prometheus’ gift of fire was more than a symbol. We have used fire for two million years, our ancient ancestors, Australopithecus, gained mastery of fire and became the first hominids to cook. Cooking, or pre-digesting, meant that Australopithecus didn’t need to spend anywhere near as long eating, and so, became the earliest of our ancestors to have free time. They used that free time to become tool makers and the tools, in turn, changed their evolution.”

Ben, Jared’s brother and father of the baby, entered the room silently; without Jared’s notice. Ben could see Jared’s rigid posture as he cautiously held the baby; the fear that Jared might somehow break this precious thing was written on those contorted back muscles.

“Australopithecus had lived in the trees and hunted on the land; but fire kept the predators away, allowing them to sleep on the ground and to live in caves. There, protected from the wind, they thrived and were soon overtaken by their progeny – Homo Erectus. Homo Erectus didn’t need the big jaw or the brute strength or the industrial type stomach lining, so it traded them in for finer motor skill. With better tools, Homo Erectus spread out across the Earth. Using the gifts of their ancestors, Homo Erectus could now adapt to many environments. With these new environments came new challenges and over time a new species, evolved from Homo Erectus, would emerge. Homo Heidelbergensis was bigger and smarter and could run faster and farther; he was a better hunter and better cook than his predecessors. In his day, Heidelbergensis conquered the environments that his ancestors never could have, and as a result, many new hominids evolved.”

The baby, now thoroughly asleep, continued to suck to the dummy.

“One of the new species, called Homo Sapiens, a bit more fragile but a bit smarter than Heidelbergensis began to populate the Earth. Sapiens had evolved even more finessed tools and even finer motor skills to control them; he learned the value of clothes to protect himself and mastered stone. Sapiens also tried something new; with even finer motor skills he could leave behind markings. These markings were reproducible enough to be recognised, which created the foundations of art and writing. No longer could ideas and knowledge be limited to passing from master to student, but a long-dead master could now impart his knowledge to the students of every generation. With all that Sapiens had learned about manipulating the environment to his benefit, he soon realised that the animal kingdom could be similarly manipulated. For the first time since Sapiens had conquered the world, leaving only the extinction of his prey in his wake, new species of animals began to emerge. The grey wolf, mouflon, wild boar, and aurochs all changed, shaped by Sapiens guidance into the dog, sheep, pig, and cow.”

The baby stretched and struggled, moving in his sleep, Jared wrapped him up tighter in his linens.

“Domestication removed the dependence on hunting. Farming, much as how cooking had freed up time for Australopithecus, meant that the farmer had even more free time. Small homesteads quickly became huge cities and Sapiens went from a collection of disparate colonies to civilisations. Here writing and art prospered. From what he had learned from those before him, Sapiens created ever more complicated technologies and used them to conquer all the lands and the seas of the Earth. We stand here, you and me, at the end of two million years of hominid and human development because Australopithecus gained control of fire.”

The baby coughed and Jared watched it closely. Content with a single cough, the baby settled back into the land of dreams.

“I don’t think that the Old Gods were angry or fearful on the night that you were born. They have watched us develop and understand the power that they alone once had. Rain and wind and lightning and thunder might have brought fear to Man in the past. Now we have advanced notice of the weather, using models developed over centuries to understand why the wind, rain, lightning, and thunder all happen. We know the environment in which those things might occur and can predict that environment in advance by watching the patterns in the system, using tools so complicated we can watch down from the heavens above. No, I don’t think that the Old Gods were unhappy. I think that they unleashed their power upon the city to test their strength against the power that Prometheus gifted us, to remind us how far we have come, and how far even the smallest idea can affect the future.”

“Nerd.” Ben gibed his brother.

Jared looked up, noticing Ben for the first time. “You told me talking would help settle him. I just talked about whatever came to mind.” Jared stuck his tongue out at his brother and then smiled. That action was even older than Australopithecus, even as far as fire had taken us, remnants of our ancestors remained; just as traits from us will still be around in another two million years.

END

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