02 December 2012

Why you can all stop saying meat eating fueled evolution of larger brains right now

Returning from hunt
Hadza returning from hunt in Tanzania. Credit Andy Lederer.
In William Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew, who was worried that a joke may have been made at his expense, reasons out loud that maybe his diet had something to do with his lack of intelligence, saying, "But I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit" (Act I, Scene III). Dialogue like that was how Shakespeare famously poked fun at what he considered "foolery" in his time; it was a common belief of the Elizabethan Age that eating too much meat made you a meat-head. Now, it appears the tables have turned. Vegetarians are getting a taste of similar medicine from comedians of our time.

On November 15th's episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert interviewed one of the world's foremost paleoanthropologists, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, about his newly published book. During their conversation, Stringer sums up nicely why meat eating may have been the primary force that drove evolution of a brain-gut tradeoff, where a shrinking gut allowed for more energy input into the brain. Here is Stringer's explanation at about minute 18:30 in the episode:
Chris Stringer: "There's a thing called 'expensive tissue hypothesis'. And this says we evolved our large brains by changing our diets. Our ancestors had great big guts because they were vegetarian. They never had enough spare energy because their guts were using 20 percent of their energy; they never had enough spare energy to evolve a large brain. When we started eating meat, a much more concentrated sort of food, it freed up energy and we could start to run a bigger brain."
Stephen Colbert: "That's why vegetarianism seems so stupid to me."