Cooking is the root of all evil

If we hadn’t learned to roast meat, many of society's ills would never have happened.

The evil that chefs do lives after them. Until his death on 24 June, the Galapagos turtle known as Lonesome George was the rarest creature in the world, his forebears hunted to oblivion by hungry sailors.
 
Then there is the deadening legacy of the Rio+20 summit – an “epic failure”, as Greenpeace put it. We might not be eating rare species to the brink of extinction any longer but, as a result of our activities, climate change will drive many species to their doom. And it is clear that the chefs are to blame for this, too.
 
To see why, we have to take a closer look at the human brain. In order to harness resources that ensure our survival, human beings have learned a range of skills that makes us uniquely dangerous. We learned how to domesticate animals, tame wild land for agriculture, build cities and design and construct machines for rapid travel over vast distances.
 
It takes extraordinary cognitive abilities to pull all this off. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the human brain is not particularly unusual. An analysis published in the 25 June edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows that a human being’s brain is just a scaled-up version of the generic primate brain.
 
The human brain has about 85 billion of the glial cells that provide a scaffold for the information-processing neuron cells – of which there are roughly 86 billion. This is the same ratio of processing cells to support cells as found in other primate brains. The common report of ten (sometimes 50) times as many neurons as support cells is false.
 
Then there is the claim that the human cerebral cortex, the outer covering of grey matter, is particularly rich in neurons. It is not: the ratio of normal, cerebellar neurons to cortical neurons is the same in human beings as in every other mammal, adjusting for how the density of neurons varies with brain size. 
 
Brain size does differ wildly across nature. But many creatures have large brains only because they have large neurons; a tenfold increase in the number of neurons in a rodent cortex results in a fiftyfold increase in brain size. Primates, on the other hand, pack small neurons: ten times as many neurons give a brain only ten times bigger.
 
Basically, our advanced cognitive abilities arose because we have packed the largest number of neurons into one network. Our brain size seems to have crossed a threshold, a tipping point that switches on the kind of innovative thinking that launches technological development on a scale that can change a planet.
 

Meat is murder

 
The thing is that those extra neurons use up a lot of calories, calories to which the great apes can’t get access. Neither could the earliest human beings. But somewhere in early human evolution, we managed to find the extra few hundred kilocalories a day necessary for our brain expansion. How did we do it? By harnessing fire. Put simply, cooked food yields much more energy than raw.
 
So, it was the first chefs who created the modern human – and all the devastation its brain has unleashed. The cooking of Galapagos turtles was only the final act of the chefs; without the first of their kind, Lonesome George would not have been lonesome at all. If we hadn’t learned to cook, we would never have been able to come up with the means of global travel, prompting us to look for food in far-off places.
 
Without roasted meat, there would have been no Industrial Revolution, no devastation of swaths of Planet Earth’s animal and plant species, no catastrophic climate change. The politicians are off the hook – bring me the head of Jamie Oliver. 
 
Michael Brooks’s “Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£12.99)
 
From global warming to extinction: modern problems come down to meat. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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The Polish Christmas advert that trumped John Lewis melts hearts in regretful Brexit Britain

An advert that encourages us to hope for “more” in our relationship with our European neighbours.

John Lewis had a trampolining dog, H&M had Wes Anderson, Sainsbury’s had a singing James Corden. But for all their big-budget sheen and tie-in products, none have mustered as much genuine emotion as this commercial for a Polish auction site, Allegro. Starring an elderly Polish man learning English for the first time, the video has rocked up almost 7 million views since it went online at the end of last month.

We watch Robert labelling all his household possessions (including his dog), reading his vocabulary book and listening to CDs in all manner of locations (his desk, the bus, even the bath) in his attempt to learn English. Why? Well, as the advert reveals in its final moments, it’s all for love: Robert can’t wait to speak English to his granddaughter (and daughter-in-law) when he visits them in the UK this Christmas.

The advert is like a mix of Edeker’s 2015 Christmas advert, and John Lewis’s “Man on the Moon” and “The Long Wait” films – with a dash of Love, Actually (language barriers and doorstep reunions) – so it ticks all the boxes of a Christmas hit. Lonely old person? Check. An agonising wait? Check. Cute pet, adorable tiny child, airport scene? Check, check, check. All topped off with some tear-filled hugs? Checkmate.

It’s funny too: many commenters thought the final twist might be Robert using some of his less child-appropriate vocabulary (“I’m going to fucking kill you!”) when meeting his granddaughter for the first time.

But there’s also a subtly anti-Brexit message here, as love trumps borders. A spokesperson for Allegro told Buzzfeed, “Many Polish people share the same experience” as this “grandfather who overcomes obstacles to reunite with his loved ones living abroad.”

“Nearly one million Poles have decided to leave the country in search for a job, mainly heading for the United Kingdom. Despite the relatively close distance between the countries, family ties tend to weaken. Therefore, Christmas for many is a difficult time in which we yearn for more.”

An advert that encourages us to hope for “more” in our relationship with our European neighbours? Wouldn’t that be the greatest gift of all? Well, much better than a trampoline, anyway. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.