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.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear