Monday, May 21, 2007

An Evolutionary Argument for Barbecue

In my post, “Technology and Freedom,” while discussing the relationship between technology and environment in shaping human action, I wrote:

“Human and hominid relations to the environment have always been mediated by technology, i.e. we use tools to provide for our basic needs from the physical environment, whether in the form of using a digging stick to uproot a wild tuber or plowing fields with massive tractors. Innovations in technology have also always had a transformative effect on what it is possible to do within a particular environment. The use of fire by Homo erectus was one of several technologies allowing that hominid species to expand into cooler areas previously unoccupied by hominids. Presuming Homo erectus groups used fire to cook plant and animal foods, this same technology would have made for a safer food supply (especially for groups that might have subsisted partly by scavenging carcasses) and enabled their bodies to extract more nutritional value from some plant foods.”

This was meant simply as an example of how technology can shape the range of possible uses of an environment, and hence the range of possible action within it for humans, or in this case hominids. After writing that paragraph, I began thinking more about the use of fire for cooking, and in particular about barbecue (the fact that it was approaching lunch time as I wrote that passage probably influenced my own train of thought). To my mind, there are few things more delicious than good barbecue. I don’t have in mind so much barbecue sauce, though a good sauce is nice, but well cooked smoky meat cooked over a fire with a thorough char around the edges (by charred I don’t mean burnt).

Barbecue seems to have near universal appeal. Nearly every culture I’m familiar with, whether directly or through reading ethnographies, seems to have a tradition of grilled, smoky meat, and of other grilled foods. (There are exceptions – so far as I’m aware, the Inuit don’t barbecue, probably related to simple lack of firewood – but the exceptions are few in number.) The details of grilling or barbecuing vary, of course, and there are wonderful arguments to be had about the relative merits of different styles of barbecue, but the basic appeal is there in each case.

Part of the basic appeal of barbecue is no doubt related to its simplicity – light a fire and cook meat in or over it. But beyond this I’d like to argue here that there’s good evolutionary reason to find barbecue appealing.

There are a number of basic tastes and/or food textures that have near universal appeal for humans, and probably other mammals as well, such as salty, fatty, or sweet tastes. This makes sense. Sugars and fats have high concentrations of calories. In a world of often scarce resources, natural selection would favor creatures who find these tastes appealing and even crave them. Fats are also essential to the body, as is salt, and so natural selection would again favor animals preferring these tastes. It’s only in the modern, developed world, where food is hyperabundant, that this is at all a problem for human health. For most of human history, a desire for salty, sweet, and fatty tastes would have helped drive humans to seek out sufficient quantities of these foods and to favor them whenever they were present.

What about the delectable smoky taste of good grilled meat and other food though? Depending on whether a sauce is used, and what kind, barbecue can be appealing in part because of the combination of fatty, salty, and sweet flavors involved, but there’s also a tremendous appeal to the smokiness of it, to the taste of having been cooked over fire. I argue that this appeal is also the result of natural selection. Here I’m engaging in speculation, but it’s reasoned speculation. Among the distinct advantages of using fire would have been to expand the range of foods that could be eaten and the nutritional value that could be gained from them, but also a general increase in the safety of food. Given this suite of advantages, individuals preferring the taste of fire-cooked food would have been favored by natural selection and would have left behind more of their barbecue-loving descendants.

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