Catching Fire: Men, Women, and Cooking

This may explain why I’m not keen on either marriage or cooking:

Relying on cooked food creates opportunities for cooperation, but just as important, it exposes cooks to being exploited. Cooking takes time, so lone cooks cannot easily guard their wares from determined thieves such as hungry males without their own food. Pair-bonds solve the problem. Having a husband ensures that a woman’s gathered foods will not be taken by others; having a wife ensures the man will have an evening meal. According to this idea, cooking created a simple marriage system; or perhaps it solidified a preexisting version of married life that could have been prompted by hunting or sexual competition. Either way, the result was a primitive protection racket in which husbands used their bonds with other men in the community to protect their wives from being robbed, and women returned the favour by preparing their husbands’ meals. The many beneficial aspects of the household, such as provisioning by males, increases in labor efficiency, and creating of a social network for child-rearing, were additions consequent to solving the more basic problem: females needed male protection, specifically because of cooking. A male used his social power both to ensure that a female did not lose her food, and to guarantee his own meal by assigning to work of cooking to the female.

—Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

A while back I read a book that argued that our bodies our designed to run. This book argues that our bodies are designed to eat cooked food. Both theories seem to be correct, but it’s the cooking that would have made the running possible. Cooking dramatically increases the energy we can get from food, and this allowed our early ancestors to downsize their jaws and intestines in favour of growing bigger brains. It also cuts down on chewing time (our primate cousins spend much of the day just chewing raw food) which frees up time for chasing animals across the veldt. Of course one must cook on the ground, and it may be fire that encouraged us to leave the trees in the first place by making it safe to live on the ground full-time. From there it was just an evolutionary hop, skip, and jump to standing, walking, and running.

The trade-off for the technological miracle of cooking seems to be the subjugation of half of the species. Women are responsible for daily household cooking in nearly every culture ever studied, past and present, even though there is no biological reason for it. The division of labour in this case seems to be, as Wrangham so aptly puts it, a protection racket. “Cook for me and there won’t be any trouble.” Apparently it was an offer our foremothers could not refuse, and to this day women in every society are burdened with the vast majority of the cooking and other household work. What is amazing is that after nearly 2 million years of evolution, in every culture from the Kalahari to downtown Tokyo, women still know it’s a raw deal. Perhaps it’s time to renegotiate?

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