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.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism