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Eating meat and cooking food is how humans got their big brains (washingtonpost.com)
29 points by pjnewton 1698 days ago | hide | past | web | 41 comments | favorite

Hopefully folks reading this article won't take it to mean that humans still need to continue consuming large amounts of meat. Maybe it was necessary to eat meat and hunt to evolve large brains, but the negative economic & ecological impacts of eating meat are pretty well-documented by now.

I am thinking here of the "meat industrial complex" that powers a lot of large commercial meat production, not the friendly sustainable organic farm where I am sure we all shop.

Our brains are big enough now after generations of evolution. Time to put those big brains to use so we can figure out how to continue the existence of the human species. I really doubt it'll be by continuing to eat lots of cows.

This conflates at least four issues:

  1. Is is healthy to eat meat?  
  2. Is it right to eat meat?  
  3. Is it healthy to eat sustainable organic meat?  
  4. Is it right to eat sustainable organic meat?  
Accepting that the 'meat industrial complex' is bad doesn't automatically imply vegetarianism/veganism.

In particular, I'm thinking of Joel Salatan's brand of sustainable agriculture and permaculture.

I think every single one of those questions is missing yet another 'question' - that is, how much meat?

From a naive min-max approaching to building your diet, it generally pops up that -some- meat is super useful. Simply by doing that you ease all sorts of constraints on your diet, and allows you to optimize your veggies/grains for other stuff, instead of desperately trying to get all your iron and B12 in. Even from an overall energy budget point of view, -some- meat is super useful. There are large amounts of marginal land that is not really useful for large scale cultivation, but perfectly usable as feedland for free ranging animals.

How much, how is it produced and what kind?

farm raised alantic salmon have a feed to gain ratio of about 1.2, which is amazing (cattle are about 5x worse)

Also, there are some serious doubts about whether veganic farming could support current global population levels (manure is a great fertilizer!)

Of course things get more complicated in terms of efficiency when you start thinking about dairy and fertilizer and hide production.. the thinking around permaculture ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture ) takes this "whole system" approach to agriculture and would be necessary if you wanted to e.g. create a self-sustaining colony on mars.

A crucial question. I don't really know of any calculation that's looked at total food energy production based on sustainable production plants vs. animals.

I think we can safely assume the optimal balance is neither all plant nor all animal, but I am in no position to hazard a guess as to what the optimal balance is.

We're so far off from sustainable production of either plants or animals that the question isn't on most people's radar.

The original article also conflates vegan and raw diets. I am a vegan who enjoys cooking and often eats highly processed foods; in my present environment (San Francisco), I'm faced with the health challenge of getting far too many calories every day, not too few. In fact, creative food entrepreneurs keep making this challenge worse and worse for me!

I would readily accept that almost everything about my life is drastically different from the environment in which my ancestors evolved. Those differences seem to have both positive and negative ethical and health consequences.

Resolving this is challenging. I've been on a ketogenic diet for the last several months, and while intellectually I recognise that eating mostly plants is more sustainable and has a lower carbon footprint, I have also never felt healthier than while eating larger amounts of fat and meat. My blood sugar is normalised, I generally have more energy and endurance and have effortlessly lost weight in the process.

I also find it hard to resolve the ethical dilemma of eating meat when my body responds so favourably to consuming animal fats. I think the least one can do is to make an effort to try to source locally produced free-range products, but sadly this is difficult for many as it's expensive or simply not available.

Being on a keto diet doesn't mean you must eat a lot of meat. A keto diet is perfectly compatible with vegetarian\vegan diets.

Some more variables: grass-fed or not, amount of fat, how rarely it is cooked, what organs are consumed.

People who I met traveling in the south of India were shocked to find out that I eat meat every day or even multiple times a day. Even those who eat meat in India do so springy. I too took to that way of life and now am pretty much a vegetarian who cheats with seafood every so often. Feels good.

Aquaponics ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquaponics ) exploits the nice relationship between fish excrement and plant growth (using some friendly bacteria to turn the amonia into nitrates) in a sustainable way that yeilds tasty lean meat.

I've always wondered if the food industry needs a serious SV-style disruption, meat-industrial complex is what led to overweight/obese and people with unbalanced hormones (fyi, industrially-farmed poultry are injected with Estrogen for them to fatten)

With various negative aspects such as that, combined with negative ecological effects there exists a huge market ripe for disruption.

> Our brains are big enough now after generations of evolution.

Err... bigger isn't always better, but I won't say no to a bigger noggin.

> Time to put those big brains to use so we can figure out how to continue the existence of the human species.

I wasn't aware we were heading toward extinction? There are billions of us, you know?

> I really doubt it'll be by continuing to eat lots of cows.

I like chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep, and all the other domesticated animals too. There's fish as well. Oh, and there's pigs too. I don't think we've ever relied on a single animal for sustenance?

> Err... bigger isn't always better, but I won't say no to a bigger noggin.

There is evidence that our heads would have kept growing if it wasn't for the fact that it makes it pretty likely that women will die in childbirth. So instead evolution got around this by having us born earlier, which is why we're basically born as fetuses compared to most animals. But there's a limit to that too of course.

> But there's a limit to that too of course.

In my state of NJ, roughly 50% of babies are "born" by c-section. So that limit seems to be a little fuzzy at the moment.

As a matter of fact, cows were pretty late on the "domestication" game (around 3-4k years after pigs and sheep)[1].

Also, a lot of studies indicate that the kind of meat the humans ate when their brains grew was much more on the frog/bird/misc small animals side than on domesticated cattle.

[1] The edible story of food / Guns, germs & steel

Also, the primary point seems to be that we need increased caloric intake to support the larger brain's greater function. While it may have required meat consumption at the dawn of our species, I think we can all agree that you don't need meat now in order to have high caloric intake. I'm vegan and I guarantee I eat a lot more calories every day than my body or brain need.

not really, you should look at the (admittedly well hidden) 2nd page of the article.

  This supports the theory that meat fueled human brain 
  evolution because meat — from arachnids to zebras — was 
  plentiful on the African savanna, where humans evolved, and 
  is the best package of calories, proteins, fats and Vitamin 
  B12 needed for brain growth and maintenance.

> on the African savanna, where humans evolved

Um... answer's right there. Indeed this was the case on the African savannah, pre-agriculture.

We're no longer living in that environment. In the 21st century it's trivial to get sufficient calories, vitamins, and a balanced diet without eating meat.

Other points about our environment: (1) Relative to the African savannah, most of us burn many fewer calories per day. Fat asses in front of a computer instead of chasing down antelope, yanno. (2) We live 3x as long now, so our health concerns are different. That high-calorie blob of fat is tasty because it meant not freezing to death at age 16 and hence those taste buds were strongly selected for. Today we don't have that concern, and all those fat blobs may mean living to 60 instead of 80.

The survival needs of proto-humans on the savannah 100kya are not a very good guide to nutrition and health in the 21st century.

Obviously a sensitive subject. Nutrition "beliefs" are right up their with religion and politics.

Science has a long ways to go before proving anything conclusively, but I can say from my experience working with thousands of folks on their diets, I have seen numerous vegans and vegetarians who have added meat back into their diets have excellent results with their physical performance and body composition.

Since isolating direct causation and long term effects are very difficult, I really appreciate these archaeological studies. I think from an intuitive perspective, it makes sense that humans would function well consuming the things we evolved to consume. Not saying that's the end-all, but it's a good place to start.

There is an awful lot of dog-whistling in this article. Gorilla stupidity and dead malnourished babies caused by not eating meat! The author tacks on "oh but plant-based diets can be healthy now" at the end but the overall message is deceptive and sensationalist.

This is irresponsible journalism.

Have there been vegans claiming that veganism is natural, and that this is somehow a reason to be vegan? Because that would be dumb. Veganism is an ethical stance, after all, so I'm not sure on what basis that argument would even rest.

Also, archaeologists who don't know about nutrition should probably not talk about nutrition as if they did. There are plenty of non-animal sources of B12, including soil (you know, where vegetables grow?).

I think Gary Yourofsky claims something similar to that. But he's pretty extreme even by vegan standards.


Lots of psuedoscience in there.

When it's found in "soil", it's due to bacteria and small animals (insects, mites) that are in the soil.

Any B12(-like) substances that are in plants (e.g., spirulina) are unlikely to be in a form that's bioavailable to human beings.

Vegans have to take B12 supplements of some sort or eat foods that have been fortified with B12. That's just a fact.

>When it's found in "soil", it's due to bacteria and small animals (insects, mites) that are in the soil.

I'm not sure what your point is.

>Any B12(-like) substances that are in plants (e.g., spirulina) are unlikely to be in a form that's bioavailable to human beings.

Yes, this is true.

>Vegans have to take B12 supplements of some sort or eat foods that have been fortified with B12. That's just a fact.

Modern vegans do need to take supplements, yes. The question is whether vegans in the ancestral environment would have gotten sufficient B12 from eating unwashed vegetables and roots. As far as I know, research is lacking on that point, but it is plausible.

The point is that describing or implying that the B12 in "soil" is "vegan" is utterly absurd.

As for eating enough soil to get enough B12, that's also absurd.

Sorry, vegans: Eating [loads of calories] is how humans got their big brains

Why are we giving airtime to this sort of junk science?

Observing the present and inferring about the past without a testable hypothesis is not proof of anything. It is storytelling. Gorillas didn't evolve into humans, we probably have a common ancestor and if we had more evidence on that common ancestor we could probably come up with what actually happened. The article and the research connected to it is nothing short of speculative fiction aimed at getting funding with a catchy headline.

The "sorry vegans" remark seems silly. Let me remind any meat-eater (including myself) that some of the greatest minds in history, including Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and possibly Isaac Newton were vegetarians. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_vegetarians

It might seem pedantic, but it is important to note that vegan and vegetarian diets are two separate things. While it is true that all vegans are vegetarians, not all vegetarians are vegans.

> it would have been biologically implausible for humans to evolve such a large brain on a raw, vegan diet

Elephants evolved in the same environment, are vegetarians, don't cook their food, and have the largest brains of any land animal.

Yet elephant brains have half the number of neurons as humans:


Perhaps the caloric requirements of a brain are driven by the number of moving parts. The article suggested a "calories per neuron" metric.

Elephant's brains are proportionally smaller than human ones (so are whales', which are huge)...

Earlier (and perhaps more impactful) research in this area: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2744104?uid=3739936...

The tradeoff between digestion and cognition suggests that adaptations are rarely cost neutral, and explains why random traits don't just improve forever. (ie, why we don't all have eyes like hawks).

If only they didn't call saturated fat "heart-stopping" that would be quite a fine article.

Isn't this old news?

"it wouldn’t be possible to get Vitamin B12, which is only available in animal products."

Marmite? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marmite

> vitamin B12 is not naturally found in yeast extract, but is added to Marmite during manufacture

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it can't be found in plants, but it can be found in animals and it can be produced industrially.

And for the record, "produced industrially" means farming bacteria, effectively (per Wikipedia) - it's not synthetic or derived from meat.

And nutritional yeast etc.

But first you have to get to brewing/fermenting, which isn't a year round process until you have leveled up on a bunch of other skills

(Some) nutritional yeast is fortified with vitamin B12. It's not a natural component.

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