Evolution at the Dinner Table, or Regression?

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Photo by Sean Fraga


I don't think about chimps very much. But Harvard University Professor Richard Wrangham's new book caught my eye. Wrangham is a primatologist and anthropologist, and is about to publish a new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. To my mind, this was a surprising, and delightful, premise.

According to Wrangham, it was cooking, not tool-making or meat-eating, that facilitated our evolution from ape to human. This is a bold claim, and it's not terribly surprising that I like it.

In an interview with Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times, he expounds:

Now once you had communal fires and cooking and a higher-calorie diet, the social world of our ancestors changed, too. Once individuals were drawn to a specific attractive location that had a fire, they spent a lot of time around it together. This was clearly a very different system from wandering around chimpanzee-style, sleeping wherever you wanted...We had to look each other in the eye. We couldn't react with impulsivity. Once you are sitting around the fire, you need to suppress reactive emotions that would otherwise lead to social chaos.

Reading Wrangham's postulation made me pause. Are we "wandering around chimpanzee-style" in the U.S. when it comes to food culture? We spend very little time at the communal fire (table). One in five meals is eaten in front of a car or a computer. College dining rooms around the nation are now more like gigantic food courts, and the majority of meals are eaten on the run.

I don't think we're going to start swinging from trees because we don't sit down to dinner at the table. But I wonder if we have lost some element of human connection because we no longer look each other in the eyes as we pass the dinner plates? Could less time at the table mean more road rage?

Mine is not a new idea. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the eighteenth-century gastronomist, also credits sociability with time at the table. He argued that what separates us from animals is the "pleasure of the table." Animals eat, filling a need that depends solely on hunger. Humans have an entirely different experience at the dinner table. At the table, continues Savarin, the "diner's brain awakens...his spirit grows more perceptive, his imagination flowers, and clever phrase fly to his lips." For Savarin, the table is the place of "love, friendship, business, speculation, power, importunity, patronage, ambition, intrigue." Wrangham seems to agree.

Presented by

Melina Shannon-DiPietro is the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which oversees sustainable dining at Yale, manages an organic farm on campus, and runs programs that support academic inquiry related to food and agriculture. More

Melina Shannon-DiPietro is an organic farmer turned executive director. In 2003 she traded in her stirrup hoe for a laptop and joined Yale to help found the Sustainable Food Project. For the past seven years, she has worked with colleagues, faculty, and students to create meaningful opportunities for college students in food, agriculture, and sustainability. Her biggest compliment came last year, when a student called her Yale's Dean of Food.

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