A while ago I commented on a paper by V. Wobber and others (2008), in which the team ran some tests to see whether great apes prefer cooked foods. In fact, that was the title of the paper: “Great apes prefer cooked foods,” like something ripped from the headlines on the Planet of the Apes. Or perhaps in the movie Dunston Checks In, which of course nobody remembers (and rightfully so). The paper comes to mind again because John Hawks recently blogged about it.
The motive behind the paper is the question of how long it took early hominins to adopt food-cookery after the control of fire–an interesting question, as this new dietary niche probably is responsible for myriad changes that occurred in human evolution. Nevertheless, I lamented then that the paper was a bit silly. Hawks’s post made me think of another qualm with this paper–a problem that arises often for me. Specifically, ‘how important are some aspects of biological anthropology in light of the current state of the world, how is what we study relevant?’ I’ve battled with this as I am working toward a degree in this field–will anything I do make a difference (hopefully a positive one) for anyone or anything?
The relvance here comes from the paper’s Methods sections: apes were variously given carrots, apples, potatos, and beef prepared in different ways, cooked and raw. For the research question, the methods more or less make sense. But one has to wonder that since there are starving people all over the world, children (even in developed nations like the USA) who go to bed hungry at night, have anxieties because they don’t know when and where their next meal will come from–in light of all this, does it really matter whether apes prefer cooked foods? You’re going to let an ape choose between mashed or diced carrots, when there are people–probably right outside the zoos and facilities where these experiments were run–who don’t get a choice on whether they’ll eat, let alone what they’ll eat? This, in a world where great apes themselves are hunted because the people living around them don’t have adequate alternate protein sources . . .
I know that the food from these experiments would not have solved the problem of global hunger, or even satisfied a single person for maybe more than a day or two. And I do my fair share of throwing foodstuffs away (it’s the American way). But it raises a great question about priorities, about what’s ultimately important. I can only hope that my future research will be so important and beneficial to justify the carbon footprint I’ll make traveling for research, the resources I’ll consume in the name of science.
Wobber V, Hare B, Wrangham R. 2008. Great apes prefer cooked foods. J Hum Evol 55: 340-348.