I’m often annoyed when I see a journalist get a simple label wrong. When it happens in an otherwise reliable journal such as Scientific American, I despair for the language. “Homo carnivorous” begins the title of an article whose subheader asks “Are we genetically optimized to down chicken wings?” Excuse me, but we are omnivores which means that our diet is varied and includes both animal and plant materials. Carnivore refers to animals who get their meat strictly from hunting other animals.
Such faults stem from the choice of editors, a creature who unlike the reporter need not couch his decisions in fact.
Despite the interference of a higher power with a lower intellect in the headline choice, the article bears further mention. It notes that scientists and doctors have become interested in how our meat-eating proclivities evolved. We come from a long line of fruit-eaters: our color vision helps us distinguish the ripe from the unripe. But our nearest relatives among the apes, such as the chimpanzees, have problems digesting meat without resorting to a lot of physical activity. The authors of an article that appeared in a recent Quarterly Review of Biology — gerontologist Caleb Finch and anthropologist Craig Stanford — claim that at least eight “meat adaptive” genes figure in the human DNA. These make it easier for us to handle chloresterol and saturated fats better than our nearest primate relations.
About 2.4 million years ago, the size of the human jaw decreased. It made it more difficult to crack walnuts and pecans, but we made up for it with larger brains that filled the space which had been vacated by intricate jaw musculature. The brains figured out that if we took a rock, we could do the job more efficiently with less muscle strain and damage to the teeth. About the same time, we started eating meat as an efficient means of obtaining proteins and nutrients. Evolution then selected for those individuals who could digest it better.
The article includes some warnings for health faddists:
Finch and Stanford’s paper is not an apologia for high-protein diets. “The problem with the Atkins diet is a failure to appreciate that in human prehistory there was no downside in beginning to eat a lot of meat, because meat was a rare and hard to get commodity,” Stanford says, adding that eggs, another Atkins-friendly item, were available only in the spring, when wild birds nested. Daily bacon-and-effs breakfasts are sure to foster untoward consequences without the levels of calories expenditure of our ancestral hominid hunters and foragers. “Meat eating is a natural diet, given sufficient physical activity,” Finch says. [p. 26]
There’s no call to go whole hog* in the eating of meat. Nuts, berries, and grains should continue to feature prominently in our omnivorous diet.
* Damn. Wasn’t that just too fucking cute?