Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Diet of the Planet of the Apes

This month's Scientific American had within it a whole sequence of fascinating articles, but one of the most intriguing was an article exploring the connections between hunting, meat, and the evolution of human intelligence.

Human beings, or rather, those progenitor species that came before homo sapiens sapiens, were originally not meat-eaters.  Australopithecus and the like were primarily consumers of fruits and/or vegetables.  We lazed around, noshed on stuff, picked nits, and tried not to get eaten ourselves.  We were smart, but not that smart.

With the gradual introduction of hunting, though, came the opportunity for more protein and more physical development.  We grew stronger and smarter.  Those with shoulders more suited to throwing fared a little better, and ate a little more.  Those who could run longer and farther after a wounded prey-animal fared a little better, and ate a little more.  The healthier and stronger we were, the more we could support a large and energy-intensive brain, which allowed us to create more effective hunting tools.  Tools which we learned, quickly, to use on one another in the quest for territory and power.

It was a cycle of predation and the calories that came from predation, suggested the article, that pushed human beings from being a smarter-than-average animal to being what we are today.

This was interesting, but what struck me in the reading of it was the peculiar parallel with the archetypal stories in Genesis.  I've often marveled at the harmonics between the narrative of Genesis and what we're learning about the nature of our universe, up to and including the latest theories in cosmology.

What leapt out at me in the reading of the article was the way the scientific evolution of hominid diets mirrors the evolution of diet in Genesis.  We began, or so those ancient sacred stories go, as eaters of fruit and veggies.  Only later, after the fall and the flood, did our ancestors turn to meat.  From my understanding, that was one of the more accurate features of that recent Noah movie, which I'll look forward to watching on Netflix one of these years.

Is that diet narrative some primal echo from our collective subconscious, a remembrance of the meatless Eden in which we first glimmered into self-awareness?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.  It's too imprecise, hardly so matchy-matchy as to be cause for anything other than a slight Spock-like arch of an eyebrow.

But it's an interesting harmony.