On the ethics of eating.

On the ethics of eating.

Every living thing needs energy.  But our world is finite.  Energy has to come from somewhere.

Luckily, there’s a lot of potential energy out there in the universe.  For instance, mass can be converted into energy.  Our sun showers us with energy drawn from the cascade of nuclear explosions that transpire in its core. A tiny difference in mass between merging hydrogen atoms and the resultant helium atom allows our sun to shine.

Our sun radiates about 10^26 joules per second (which is 100,000 times more than the combined yearly energy usage from everyone on Earth), but only a fraction of that reaches our planet.  Photons radiate outward from our sun in all directions, so our planet intercepts only a small sliver of the beam.  Everything living here is fueled by those photons.

When living things use the sun’s energy, we create order – a tree converts disordered air into rigid trunk, a mouse converts a pile of seeds into more mouse, a human might convert mud and straw into a house.  As we create order, we give off heat.  Warming the air, we radiate infrared photons.  That’s what night vision goggles are designed to see.  The net effect is that the Earth absorbs high-energy photons that were traveling in a straight beam outward from the sun … and we convert those photons into a larger number of low-energy photons that fly off every which way.

We the living are chaos machines.  We make the universe messier.  Indeed, that’s the only way anything can live.  According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the only processes that are sufficiently probable so as to occur are those that make the world more random.

We’re lucky that the universe started out as such a bland, orderly place – otherwise we might not even be able to tell “before” from “later,” let alone extract enough energy to live.


The earliest living things took energy from the sun indirectly – they used heat, and so they were fueled by each photon’s delivery of warmth to the Earth.  (Please allow me this little hedge – although it’s true that the earliest life was fueled only by warmth, that warmth might not have come from the sun.  Even today, some thermophilic bacteria live in deep sea vents and bask in the energy that leaks from our Earth’s molten core.  The earliest life might have lived in similar nooks far from the surface of the Earth.  But early life that resided near the surface of the seas seems more likely. Complicated chemical reactions were necessary to form molecules like RNA.  Nucleic acids were probably first found in shallow, murky pools pulsed with lightning or ultraviolet radiation.)

Over time, life changed.  Organisms create copies of themselves through chemical processes that have imperfect fidelity, after all.  Each copy is slightly different than the original.  Most differences make an organism worse than its forebears, but, sometimes, through sheer chance, an organism might be better at surviving or at creating new copies of itself.

When that happens, the new version will become more common. 

Over many, many generations, this process can make organisms very different from their forebears.  When a genome is copied prior to cell division, sometimes the polymerase will slip up and duplicate a stretch of code.  These duplication events are incredibly important for evolution – usually, the instructions for proteins can’t drift too far because any change might eliminate essential functions for that cell.  If there’s a second copy, though, the duplicate can mutate and eventually gain some new function.

About two billion years ago, some organisms developed a rudimentary form of photosynthesis.  They could turn sunlight into self!  The energy from our sun’s photons was used to combine carbon dioxide and water into sugar. And sugar can be used to store energy, and to build new types of structures.

Photosynthesis also releases oxygen as a biproduct.  From the perspective of the organisms living then, photosynthesis poisoned the entire atmosphere – a sudden rise in our atmosphere’s oxygen concentration caused many species to go extinct.  But we humans never could have come about without all that oxygen.

Perhaps that’s a small consolation, given that major corporations are currently poisoning our atmosphere with carbon dioxide.  Huge numbers of species might go extinct – including, possibly, ourselves – but something else would have a chance to live here after we have passed.

In addition to poisoning the atmosphere, photosynthesis introduced a new form of competition.  Warmth spreads diffusely – on the early Earth, it was often sheer chance whether one organism would have an advantage over any other.  If you can photosynthesize, though, you want to be the highest organism around.  If you’re closer to the sun, you get the first chance to nab incoming photons.

That’s the evolutionary pressure that induced plants to evolve.  Plants combined sugars into rigid structures so that they could grow upwards.  Height helps when your main goal in life is to snatch sunlight.

Animation by At09kg on Wikipedia.

Nothing can live without curtailing the chances of other living things.  Whenever a plant absorbs a photon, it reduces the energy available for other plants growing below.

Plants created the soil by trapping dirt and dust, and soil lets them store water for later use.  But there is only so much desalinated water.  Roots reach outward: “I drink your milkshake!”, each could exclaim.

For a heterotroph, the brutality of our world is even more clear.  Our kind – including amoebas, fungi, and all animals – can only survive by eating others.  We are carbon recyclers.  Sugar and protein refurbishers.  We take the molecular machines made by photosynthesizing organisms … chop them apart … and use the pieces to create ourselves.

Some heterotrophs are saprophages – eaters of the dead.  But most survive only by destroying the lives of others.

For the earliest heterotrophs, to eat was to kill.  But, why worry?  Why, after all, is life special?  Each photosynthesizing organism was already churning through our universe’s finite quantity of order in its attempt to grow.  They took in material from their environment and rearranged it.  So did the heterotrophs – they ingested and rearranged. Like all living things, they consumed order and excreted chaos.

The heterotrophs were extinguishing life, but life is just a pattern that repeats itself.  A living thing is a metabolic machine that self-copies.  From a thermodynamic perspective, only the energetics of the process distinguish life from a crystal.  Both are patterns that grow, but when a crystal grows, it makes matter more stable than its environment – life makes matter less stable as it’s incorporated into the pattern.

Your ability to read this essay is a legacy of the heterotrophs’ more violent descendants.  The earliest multicellular heterotrophs were filter feeders – they passively consumed whatever came near.

But then, between 500 and 600 million years ago, animals began to hunt and kill.  They would actively seek life to extinguish.  To do this, they needed to think – neurons first arose among these hunters.

Not coincidentally, this is also the time that animals first developed hard shells, sharp spines, armored plates – defenses to stop others from eating them.

The rigid molecules that allow plants to grow tall, like cellulose, are hard to digest.  So the earliest hunters probably began by killing other animals.

With every meal, you join the long legacy of animals that survived only by extinguishing the lives of others.  With every thought, you draw upon the legacy of our forebear’s ruthless hunt.

Even if you’re vegan, your meals kill.  Like us, plants have goals.  It’s a matter of controversy whether they can perceive – perhaps they don’t know that they have goals – but plants will constantly strive to grow, to collect sunlight and water while they can, and many will actively resist being eaten.

But it makes no sense to value the world if you don’t value yourself.  Maybe you feel sad that you can’t photosynthesize … maybe you’d search out a patch of barren, rocky ground so that you’d absorb only photons that would otherwise be “wasted” … but, in this lifetime, you have to eat.  Otherwise you’d die.  And I personally think that any moral philosophy that advocates suicide is untenable.  That’s a major flaw with utilitarianism – rigid devotion to the idea of maximizing happiness for all would suggest that you, as another organism that’s taking up space, constantly killing, and sapping our universe’s limited supply of order, simply shouldn’t be here.

At its illogical extreme, utilitarianism suggests that either you conquer the world (if you’re the best at feeling happy) or kill yourself (if you’re not).

We humans are descended from carnivores.  Our ancestors were able to maintain such large brains only by cooking and eating meat.  Our bodies lack an herbivore’s compliment of enzymes that would allow us to convert grass and leaves into the full compliment of proteins that we need.

And we owe the very existence of our brains to the hunts carried out by even more ancient ancestors.  If they hadn’t killed, we couldn’t think.

Just because we were blessed by a legacy of violence, though, doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate that violence.  We can benefit from past harms and resolve to harm less in the present and future.

Writing was first developed by professional scribes.  Scientific progress was the province of wealthy artisans.  None of the progress of our culture would have been possible if huge numbers of people weren’t oppressed – food that those people grew was taken from them and distributed by kings to a small number of privileged scribes, artisans, philosophers, and layabouts. 

When humans lived as hunters and gatherers, their societies were generally equitable.  People might die young from bacterial infections, dehydration, or starvation, but their lives were probably much better than the lives of the earliest farmers.  After we discovered agriculture, our diets became less varied and our lives less interesting.  Plus, it’s easier to oppress a land-bound farmer than a nomadic hunter.  Stationary people paid tribute to self-appointed kings.

This misery befell the vast majority of our world’s population, and persisted for thousands of years.  But the world we have now couldn’t have come about any other way.  It’s horrific, but, for humans to reach our current technologies, we needed oppression.  Food was taken from those who toiled and given to those who hadn’t. 

Mostly those others created nothing of value … but some of them made writing, and mathematics, and rocket ships.

Although the development of writing required oppression, it’s wrong to oppress people now.  It was wrong then, too … but we can’t go back and fix things.

Although the origin of your brain required violence, I likewise think we ought to minimize the violence we enact today.  We can’t help all the animals who were hurt in the long journey that made our world the place it is now.  And we can’t stop killing – there’s no other way for heterotrophs like us to live.

To be vegan, though, is to reckon with those costs.  To feel a sense of wonder at all the world pays for us to be here.  And, in gratitude, to refrain from asking that it pay more than we need.

On food and willing sacrifice.

On food and willing sacrifice.

Agni_devaIn ancient Indian mythology, fire was a god.  The word for fire is agni, and Agni the god who ate oblations.  Agni served as mouth and gullet for the entire pantheon – when sacrifices were offered to any god, Agni would eat them, ferrying goods from our world to the spirit realm.

When the gods were cursed such that they could not sire children with their wives, Agni, who’d once consumed Shiva’s semen, was asked to stray.  From Robert Goldman’s translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana:

(note, in terms of safety for reading at work, that the following passage is decidedly less circumspect than you might expect based on a familiarity with other sacred texts, e.g. the King James rendering of Genesis 38:9)

[A]ll the gods proceeded to Mount Kailasa, adorned with metallic ores, and charged Agni, the god of fire, with the task of begetting a son.  ‘You are a god, eater of oblations, and should carry out this task of the gods.  Great is your splendor.  You must release the semen into the Ganges, the daughter of the mountain.’

Agni, the purifier, promised the gods he would do this and so, approaching the Ganges, he said, ‘Bear this embryo, goddess, as a favor to the gods.’

Shantanu_Meets_Goddess_Ganga_by_Warivick_GobleHearing these words, she assumed her divine form, and he, seeing her extraordinary beauty, scattered the semen all over.  Agni, the purifier, showered it all over the goddess, so that all the channels of the Ganges were filled with it. 

In ancient Indian mythology, the semen of powerful males will sprout children wherever it lands, no female gamete required.  Numerous heroes were engendered when males chanced across beautiful women bathing and shortly thereafter just happened to ejaculate – their children might be born from baskets, butter jars, or someone’s mouth.

A fetus soon formed from the material sprinkled over Ganges’s body, but although she’d consented willingly to bear the child, she soon declared it to be too powerful, that the embryo was burning her body.  She tucked it into the base of the Himalayas to finish gestation.

Later in the Ramayana, Sita attempts to sacrifice herself – but Agni will not take her.  Sita was kidnapped and so her husband Rama comes to rescue her.  With the help of a monkey army, Rama destroys a South Indian kingdom and slays his wife’s captor.  But he assumes that Sita has been tarnished by rape.  He tells her (in the Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman translation):

I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

Heartbroken, Sita decides to jump into a fire – she’d rather die than lose her husband.  But the fire doesn’t burn her.  Instead, her presence is said to burn the fire itself.  Agni lifts her from the bonfire and tells her husband that she is beyond reproach.  The man agrees, briefly, to take her back.


More often, Agni simply burns things.  Objects from our world disappear, leaving nothing but ash.

And we are also like fire.   In David Shulman’s essay for the New York Review of Books, he writes:

Fire_from_brazierFor Vedic thinkers, all that lives survives by consuming other living beings.  Humans, too, have a hungry fire burning in their bellies; they have to sacrifice other creatures to that fire every day if they are going to stay alive.

We are heterotrophs.  Unlike plants, we can’t create ourselves by drinking in water, air, and sunlight.  We have to eat – sacrificing something – to survive.

Much of the time, the sacrifices that allow our lives are violent.  Humans evolved as meat eaters – scavengers, likely, then hunters.  We stalked, killed, and butchered mammoths.  On contemporary industrial farms, plants are culled by nightmarish threshers, ripped from the ground and shaken clean by machines.

We are heterotrophs.  It’s either us or them.

But sometimes we’re fueled by willing sacrifice.

apple-1122537_1280Fruit-bearing plants co-evolved with animals.  Fruit is a gift.  When a plant bears fruit, it hopes for reciprocity, but in a generalized way.  The plant isn’t trading – it can’t guarantee that any one offering will procure a service.  But over time, many hungry animals have willingly spread the plants’ seeds – that’s the gift we offer in return.

(This is true of all fruit.  I’d say it’s foolish to trust our Supreme Court justices’ opinions on just about anything – I definitely wouldn’t expect them to correctly identify the parts of a plant.  In addition to bananas, grapes, and apples, things like tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers are fruit.  It’s thought that each type of fruit co-evolved with a specific animal that was originally responsible for spreading its seeds.)

Even if a plant gives fruit to us willingly, though, you could wonder whether the fruit agrees with the sacrifice.  No matter what the tree might want, perhaps an apple would rather not be eaten.

Any one cell might prefer not to die.

1024px-Mucinous_lmp_ovarian_tumour_intermed_magCancer is a rough equivalent to libertarian philosophy.  Cancer is the ultimate freedom.  In a multicellular organism, most individual cells will voluntarily cease to grow when their industry infringes upon their neighbors.  They experience “contact inhibition.”  As soon as a cell touches another, it respects the established boundaries as inviolable.

If a cell’s usefulness has waned, it undergoes apoptosis – voluntary suicide.

In a multicellular organism that practices sexual reproduction – even unilateral reproduction like Agni showering sperm over Ganges’s prostrate body – every cell that isn’t part of the germ line is doomed to die.  From the perspective of evolution, your body is like a disposable rocket ship, built only to ferry the lineage of cells in your genitalia forward through time.  Those cells matter – their descendants might survive forever.

The cells in your hand?  They might have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – but their line will come to an abrupt end.  Maybe you were bitten by a radioactive super-power-granting DNA-altering spider and the cells in your hand became amazing.  Doesn’t matter.  Their glorious kind will go extinct.

And if the cells in your hand decide that this isn’t fair, and instead liberate themselves from the shackles of self-restraint and suicide, growing as much as possible – well, that’s cancer.  The host organism will die.  And those renegade cells, the ones who adopted the mantra look out for number one, will inevitably also die, starving fruitlessly, progeny-less.

It’s the same old tragedy of the commons, the same reason why there are now so few fish in the sea, and why Easter Island has no trees.  Sometimes personal persistence dooms you more completely than would sacrifice toward a common cause.

On hunting.

I saw many posts on the internet from people upset about hunting, specifically hunting lions.  And eventually I watched the Jimmy Kimmel spot where he repeatedly maligns the Minnesota hunter for shooting that lion, and even appears to choke up near the end while plugging a wildlife research fund that you could donate money to.

And, look, I don’t really like hunting.  I’m an animal lover, so I’m not keen on the critters being shot, and I’m a runner who likes being out and about in our local state parks.  Between my loping stride and long hair, I look like a woodland creature.  I’m always nervous, thinking somebody might accidentally shoot me.  Yeah, I wear orange during the big seasons, but I still worry.

But I thought Jimmy Kimmel’s segment was silly.

141202150915-lion-exlarge-169For one thing, he’s a big barbecue fan — you can watch him driving through Austin searching for the best — and pigs are a far sight smarter than lions.  Plus, most of the lions that people hunt had a chance to live (this isn’t always true — there are horror stories out there about zoos auctioning off their excess animals to hunters, which means they go from a tiny zoo enclosure to a hunting preserve to dead — but in the case of Cecil it clearly was.  He was a wild animal who got to experience life in ways that CAFO-raised pigs could hardly dream of).  Yes, Cecil suffered a drawn-out death, but that seems far preferable to a life consistently horrific from first moment to last.

Most people eat meat.  And humans are heterotrophs.  We aren’t obligate carnivores the way cats are, but a human can’t survive without hurting things — it bothers me when vegetarians pretend that their lives have reached some ethical ideal or other.  Especially because there are so many ways you could conceptualize being good.  I have some friends who raise their own animals, for instance, and they could easily argue that their extreme local eating harms the world less than my reliance on vegetables shipped across the country.

I think it’s good to consider the ramifications of our actions, and I personally strive to be kind and contribute more to the world than I take from it, but I think it’s most important to live thoughtfully.  To think about what we’re doing before we do it.  Our first priority should be taking care of ourselves and those we love.  I don’t think there’s any reasonable argument you can make to ask people to value the lives of other animals without also valuing their own.

That said, if people are going to eat meat, I’d rather they hunt.  We live in southern Indiana.  Lots of people here hunt.  In general, those people also seem less wasteful — hunters are more cognizant of the value of their meals than the people who buy under-priced grocery store cuts of meat but don’t want to know about CAFOs or slaughterhouses.

Hunters often care more about the environment than other people.  They don’t want to eat animals that’ve been grazing on trash.  Ducks Unlimited, a hunting organization, has made huge efforts to ensure that we still have wetlands for ducks and many other creatures to live in.

To the best of my knowledge, Tyson Foods hasn’t been saving any wetlands lately.

Hunters generally don’t kill off entire populations.  And they don’t pump animals full of antibiotics (which is super evil, honestly.  Antibiotics are miracle drugs.  It’s amazing that we can survive infections without amputation.  And the idea that we would still those compounds’ magic by feeding constant low levels to overcrowded animals, which is roughly what you would do if you were intentionally trying to create bacteria that would shrug off the drugs, is heartbreaking.  There are virtually no medical discoveries we could possibly make that would counterbalance the shame we should feel if we bestow a world without antibiotics on our children’s generation.  See more I’ve written about antibiotics here).

"Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park (4516560206)" by Daughter#3 - Cecil. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cecil_the_lion_at_Hwange_National_Park_(4516560206).jpg

Sure, Cecil wasn’t shot for food.  I would rather people not hunt lions.  But lions are terrifying, and they stir something primal in most humans — you could learn more about this by reading either Goodwell Nzou’s New York Times editorial or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, in which she argues that humanity’s fear of predators like lions gave rise to our propensity for violence (a thesis I don’t agree with — you can see my essay here — but Ehrenreich does a lovely job of evoking some of the terror that protohumans must have felt living weak and hairless amongst lions and other giant betoothed beclawed beasts).

The money paid to shoot Cecil isn’t irrelevant, either.  It’s a bit unnerving to think of ethics being for sale — that it’s not okay to kill a majestic creature unless you slap down $50,000 first — but let’s not kid ourselves.  Money buys a wide variety of ethical exemptions.  The rich in our country are allowed to steal millions of dollars and clear their names by paying back a portion of those spoils in fines, whereas the poor can be jailed for years for thefts well under a thousand dollars and typically pay back far more than they ever took.

The money that hunters pay seems to change a lot of host countries for the better.  Trophy hunting often occurs in places where $50,000 means a lot more than it does in the United States, and that money helps prevent poaching and promote habitat maintenance.  Unless a huge amount of economic aid is given to those countries (aid that they are owed, honestly, for the abuses committed against them in the past), the wild animals will be killed anyway, either by poachers or by settlers who have nowhere else to live.  So, sure, I dislike hunting, but hunters are providing some of the only economic support for those animals.

And, look, if you think about all of that and you still want to rail against hunters, go ahead.  But if you’re going to denounce them, I hope you’re doing more than they are for conservation.  And I hope you’re living in a way that doesn’t reveal embarrassing hypocrisies — I’m sure any one of those pigs Jimmy Kimmel eats would’ve loved to experience a small fraction of Cecil’s unfettered life.


Photo by Jessika.
Food at our house (taken by Jessika).

p.s. If you happen to be one of those people who can’t imagine living happily without eating meat, you should let me know and I’ll try to invite you to dinner sometime.  I love food, and I’m a pretty good cook.  I should be honest — it is a little bit more work to make life delicious if you’re only eating vegetables, but it definitely can be done.

On fire myths and the origin of knowledge


EDIT 5/4/2018: a finished essay based on this research was published here.

If you’re writing about conflicts between religious and scientific worldviews, there is absolutely no reason why you’d be forced to write about fire. But, c’mon… fire is cool. Eventually you probably would.

While researching myths about the origin of fire, I realized that my criteria for classifying something as a fire myth are significantly more inclusive than other people’s. For instance, there was an afternoon about three or four years ago when K left school during her lunch break to drive me to the university library. That morning I’d received an email notifying me that my hold request for Sir James George Frazer’s 1930 book Myths of the Origin of Fire: An Essay had been processed.

During our car ride to the library I was babbling nonstop about how excited I was to have a chance to read this book. Eventually I told K, “I can’t wait to see how he spins Adam and Eve…”

K interrupted me. “There’s no fire.”

“Well, no. But it’s still clearly a fire myth. Because many culture’s fire myths feature humans who lack fire and are trying to steal it from powerful creatures that have it. But they are never really stealing fire — no culture has one single flame that they have to keep burning in order to maintain their lifestyle. The stories are about humans stealing knowledge. The knowledge of how to make fire, sure, but why not include myths where humans are stealing knowledge or wisdom in general? So, voilá! We have Adam and Eve, we have Buddha’s snake-shielded initial enlightenment…”

“Oh, I get it,” K said. “So do you think he’ll write about electricity?”

“Electricity?” I sounded incredulous. Despite having claimed that naked people in a garden eating an apple was actually a story about fire, I couldn’t see what electricity had to do with it.


“Sure. The whole story about Ben Franklin with a kite in the rain. Clearly a myth. Our origin myth for electricity. And since electricity is like fire…”

Oh. Right. I definitely should have thought of this. I could’ve thought about Orthodox Jews who won’t flip light switches in order to honor Exodus 35:3, “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.” The equation of electricity with fire has a long history in folkloric analysis. And, besides, the Ben Franklin myth is great. Mad man out in the rain, risking death, discovering the phenomenon that enables our modern world.

So I nodded. “Yeah, maybe he wrote about that… or even the invention of the atomic bomb…”

At the time, I didn’t realize that his book was published in 1930. So I started daydreaming that soon I would be reading his analysis of the mythologized version, Oppenheimer out there aghast in the desert and rattling off some Sanskrit, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Plus, the discovery of atomic fission has an elegant interpretation within the general mold of ‘humans gain fire but then are punished for their transgression.’ Because atomic power is useful, but knowing how to use it is its own punishment. Ever since gaining that knowledge, we have also lived with the fear that we might wipe ourselves away.

Many people answer the Fermi paradox (Hey! Look at all those stars! But… where are the starpeople?) by postulating that there is a bottleneck few civilizations can pass. The knowledge of how to wield atomic power, or how to build sufficiently effective particle accelerators, might contribute to such a bottleneck — it’s knowledge that is probably necessary before you can travel amongst the stars, but the knowledge also allows your species to potentially delete itself.

All of which is to say that I was incredibly excited at the prospect of reading Frazer’s book. And, perhaps inevitably, I was disappointed after K dropped me off and I jogged up to the checkout desk and borrowed it.

CaptureThis isn’t Frazer’s fault. His book is an impressive piece of scholarship: he collected the myths about the origin of fire from many different cultures around the world. But that’s all it was. A collection of stories. I was tricked by his subtitle, “An Essay.” To me the word “essay” implied that there would be an effort toward analysis and synthesis. I wanted Frazer to address the idea of what makes something a fire myth (although his definition seems to have been narrowly, a story about humans learning how to initiate oxidative combustion).

Or Frazer could’ve speculated about what the typical structures of fire myths tell us about humanity (although he might respond that there are enough different varieties — the young person who wrestles fire away from his elders, the humans who are aided by a fire-stealing relay of animals, the thief who hides fire away in flammable wood as soon as capture seems imminent — that there are no general conclusions to draw. But, phooey, I say! Jung would find some generalities to analyze).

There was none of that.

Even the conclusion of his “Conclusion” seems strange to me. Oddly devoid of essayistic interpretation. Because Frazer seems to want folklore to be a companion science to archaeology, whereas I consider folklore to be primarily useful as a companion to psychology. For instance, no matter what you think about the historical veracity of the Bible or the Ramayana or the epic of Gilgamesh, like all literature those works reveal truths about the minds of the authors. And I’d argue that religious literature also reveals important truths about the peoples who revered these stories and considered them worth preserving.

Instead, Frazer concludes his book with this:

“When we consider how often, in the long ages which preceded the discovery of the metals, men in palaeolithic and neolithic times knocked stones together for the purposes of fashioning those rude implements which still exist in countless thousands scattered over the face of the globe, we can hardly avoid concluding that the mode of kindling fire by the percussion of stones must have been discovered independently over and over again in many parts of the world; and as little in this as in the case of the fire-drill need we resort to the hypothesis of a single discoverer, a solitary Prometheus, whose fortunate invention was spread from hand to hand to all the ends of the earth. The Yakuts of Siberia tell how fire was at first accidentally discovered by an old man who, having nothing better to do, amused himself by knocking two stones together, till sparks leaped from the stones and set fire to the dry grass. We need not accept the tale as historical, but it is probably typical of what must almost certainly have happened over and over again in prehistoric times.

“Thus, in spite of the fantastic features which distort many of them, the myths of the origin of fire probably contain a substantial element of truth, and supply a clue which helps us to grope our way through the darkness of the human past in the unnumbered ages which preceded the rise of history.”

Um, sure. The myths tell of humans gaining fire. And humans did indeed gain fire. But…

CaptureAt least his book was a great compilation of stories. After my initial dismay, I was pretty happy to be reading it. Probably my favorite myth is the South American one in which jaguars originally had fire. Humans did not. Humans crept up and stole it away… and then, spiteful, jaguars stopped using it. Claimed they didn’t even want it anymore. And, also, they decided to start occasionally mauling and eating humans in punishment.

The jaguars in some ways resemble hipsters who, as soon as their favorite bands become popular, decide they don’t even want to listen to them anymore. Pfff… fire? That’s so 300,000 BCE.

If you’re interested in a clever analysis of the myths, though, Frazer’s book might not be for you. Perhaps you’d be more pleased by the second chapter of Gregory Schrempp’s The Ancient Mythology of Modern Science. Schrempp’s goal was to analyze popular science books as though they were folklore; in the chapter on fire he centers his analysis on John Barrow’s The Artful Universe.

Barrow wrote that only creatures resembling Homo sapiens could have discovered the use of fire. Too-large creatures would overheat and die, too-small creatures would be endangered by the smallest sustainable fires. But the assumption that small creatures could not tame fire presupposes an unjustifiable assumption about the social organization of the species. Yes, the psuedo-individualistic approach used by Homo sapiens has been very successful. But on our own planet cooperative social organization has proven extremely successful and evolved separately numerous times, in bees, ants, wasps, termites, etc. These cooperative colonies also behave in ways that seem cognitively complex despite the extremely small brains of each individual. So it’s fair to speculate that technological advancement to the point of fire-wielding would be more likely to occur in a socially cooperative species.

Here is Schrempp’s rebuttal to the idea that the minimum fire size promotes human-like body morphs amongst any technologically-advanced species: “One could easily pull together a case in favour of small beings who manage to take advantage of centralized heating; the nice coincidence that the smallest peat fire can sustain one human could just as easily be the nice coincidence that it can sustain a tribe of small creatures.”

And, in rebutting the idea that the minimum-sized fire would seem dangerously large to small creatures, Schrempp points out that many social insects sacrifice individuals to attain a colony’s goals. There are ant species that use their own bodies to build bridges and the like; for instance, here’s a reference for ants constructing boats out of their own bodies. In some of these species the structural volunteers survive, in others they are left behind to die. So it’s not such a stretch to imagine a fire-weilding ant-like species in which individuals immolate themselves in order to deliver fuel to the colony’s central flame. Horrifying, sure, but evolutionarily reasonable.

There is also quite a bit of scientific research that bolsters the link between myths about the origin of fire and the origin of human knowledge. One example is Fonseca-Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel’s study “Metabolic constraint imposes tradeoff between body size and number of brain neurons in human evolution,” which claimed to demonstrate that human-sized brains would only be possible for primates that were using fire to cook their food.


Their work draws upon the well-established idea that brains are energetically expensive: it takes a lot of calories to keep your noggin churning. Other oft-expensive organs are the liver — it takes a lot of calories to keep you from inadvertently poisoning yourself — and the gut — which is cute because it mirrors the adage “It takes money to make money.” Here it takes energy to extract energy, although this is true only with foods that are difficult to digest. Raw root vegetables, leaves, stalks, etc. Hummingbirds don’t have that problem: sugary flower nectar goes down easy. Nor did fire-wielding carnivorous protohumans, which seem to have underwent significant simplification of the gut: cooked antelope practically eats itself!

Sounds great for a species that was struggling to obtain enough calories. Possibly less helpful given the rampant obesity amongst subpopulations of modern Homo sapiens.

In Fonseca-Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel’s paper, they plotted numerous production possibility frontiers for primates eating raw food. Which… have you run across the term “production possibility frontier” before? If so, my apologies for the digression. If not, perhaps you have heard that economists often discuss a trade-off between guns and butter.

A “production possibility frontier” is a graph of what you could possibly make. You have some finite set of resources, and depending on your priorities you might make different sets of things. A country that only cares about war and doesn’t mind having its people starve to death might produce 20 guns and 0 pounds of butter in a year. A country that only cares about food and doesn’t mind allowing its enemies to live might produce 0 guns and 80 pounds of butter. And a country interested in a little bit of this and a little bit of that might produce 18 guns and 70 pounds of butter. As in, the trade-offs are generally not linear. A butter churn is not very helpful for the manufacture of guns.

That unequal trade-off — using your churn to produce butter instead of guns doesn’t cost you much — explains why production possibility frontiers are often convex outward-bulging graphs. Like the one below, Figure 2 from their paper.


Oddly enough, they didn’t include a dot for humans. I’d imagine that most people would want to see that from a study purporting to be about human evolution. The human dot should be at about (80, 10.9), out in that dangerous zone for raw-food-consuming primates needing to spend ten hours per day eating.

This graph is of course based on an assumption about how many calories you can obtain per hour of effort. Ecological shocks can reduce this, so a species that was able to survive in lush times might die off during a drought. And, as expected, what a species eats can change this. Access to nutrient-dense food saves time.

celery-is-uselessFor instance, K likes celery. But I’m the one who does most of our grocery shopping, so she’s always stuck asking why I never buy it. My complaint is, does celery even count as food? I think of food as something I eat in order to have more energy… why would I purposefully ingest something that runs down my food clock faster?

With celery, not even cooking helps. But numerous other food sources, such as tuberous root vegetables, switch from being not-food (negative calories) to food (mmm, french fries) as soon as you cook them. Bacteria- or parasite-riddled meat also undergoes the same transition. As discussed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, protohumans were probably poor hunters. Much of the meat they ate was probably obtained by scavenging, and if your goal is to gain nutrition instead of contracting a vomit-inducing case of food poisoning, it’s might be necessary to cook that day-old half-eaten antelope corpse you found sitting out in the sun.

(Not that I’d eat it either way, but most evolutionary biologists have by now rejected the theory that protohumans should’ve gotten in their cars and driven to the local protogrocer to buy a block of prototofu whenever they were hungry.)

The point being that it may have been impossible for protohumans to obtain either their brain size or their culture-yielding free time without cooking their food. Which to me supports the conceptual link between fire myths and knowledge myths. From an evolutionary biology perspective, fire use and human knowledge seem inextricably linked. From a folkloric perspective, there are many parallels between the stories we tell about our origins (although the evolutionary biology story lacks the idea of divine retribution against those protohumans for transgressing their animalistic birthright… unless you want to tack on the cheesy Spiderman quote “with great power comes great responsibility” and assume that because humans can think, we must think, meaning we are saddled with the demands of morality).