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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era