The other day, while making pancakes for breakfast, I began to wonder about evidence for intelligent design in the availability of ingredients and nutrients in the foods we eat. The question also entails the available technology to facilitate food production, transport, storage, and preparation. My guess is that most of us living in developed countries take for granted the whole gamut of factors involved in our being able to eat a nourishing meal.
The existence of progenitor food crops (edible plants) on Earth was a necessary starting point for the availability of our food.
There are more than 50,000 edible plants in the world, but just 15 of them provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake. Rice, corn (maize), and wheat make up two-thirds of this.
In addition to cereal grains, roots and tubers are common food staples, particularly in tropical regions.
Introduced to Europe by explorers of the 16th century, potatoes are now a food staple in Europe and parts of the Americas.1
Our “Daily Bread”
The prevalence of edible plants matching our digestive abilities and nutritional needs stands out as a first indicator of intelligent design in the provision of our “daily bread.” Sufficient food for an increasing population of people on Earth is dependent upon multiple factors, including vast areas of arable land, auspicious seasonal weather conditions, and the possibility of increased yields through human cultivation of wild grain crops.
The domestication of Fertile Crescent crops resulted in larger seed size leading to a larger plant size, and also a reduction in chaff, with no decrease in seed number per individual, which proved a powerful package of traits for increasing yield.
The origins of agriculture, 10,000 years ago, led to profound changes in the biology of plants exploited as grain crops, through the process of domestication.2
The Fertile Crescent in western Asia was one of the major centres of plant domestication, and a number of cereals, including wheat and barley, and several pulses (grain legumes), originated there approximately 10,000 years ago. A defining characteristic of domesticated seed crops is a loss of natural seed dispersal, whereby plants become totally dependent on people.3
Domestication of grain crops makes the life cycle of the plant dependent upon human agricultural practices, but the symbiotic result yields greater food resources for human need. Again, we see evidence of intelligent design in the complex interdependencies of life. The prior conditions necessary to provide large, arable land areas for agricultural use depend upon a multitude of finely tuned geological, atmospheric, and climatic factors that must exist throughout Earth’s history.4
An Almost Universal Human Activity
Another aspect of design seen in the conditions on Earth that contribute to human flourishing is related to what has become an almost universal human activity, namely cooking. How important to our well-being is the ability to cook our food, rather than eating food raw? After all, out of the millions of species of creatures on Earth, humans stand out as the only one that prefers or needs to eat cooked foods.
Is cooking only a gourmet preference that we indulge in simply because we can? Apparently not. As Harvard biologist Richard Wrangham states,
Human beings evolved to eat cooked food. It is literally possible to starve to death even while filling one’s stomach with raw food. In the wild, people typically survive only a few months without cooking, even if they can obtain meat.5
I’ll make a slight digression here to comment on the no-science presupposition of evolution in this statement. Just saying that humans evolved to eat cooked foods lacks a plausible naturalistic mechanism. The relevant unguided forces of nature (electromagnetic interactions between atoms) cannot do anything remotely as complicated as transforming an animal’s digestive system and categorically enhancing its neurological abilities.
Bypassing this reflexive reference to evolution, we can all acknowledge our dependence on cooked food. Historically, fire was the only available means to generate enough concentrated heat to bake bread, boil water, or cook meat. Michael Denton, in his book, Fire-Maker, has brought to light “an array of features built into the human body and the planet” that “equipped humans to harness the powers of fire and remake their world.” These design features present in our bodies and on planet Earth also appear to be essential ingredients in the diet of a thriving human civilization, characterized by not just language usage, but also cooking.
It is, of course, impossible to imagine a human society that does not have language, but — given the right climate and an adequacy of raw wild food — could there be a primitive tribe that survives without cooking? In fact, no such people have ever been found. Nor will they be, according to a provocative theory by Harvard biologist Richard Wrangham, who believes that fire is needed to fuel the organ that makes possible all the other products of culture, language included: the human brain.
A human body at rest devotes roughly one-fifth of its energy to the brain, regardless of whether it is thinking anything useful, or even thinking at all.6
According to Wrangham and his colleague Rachel Carmody,
What matters, they say, is not just how many calories you can put into your mouth, but what happens to the food once it gets there. How much useful energy does it provide, after subtracting the calories spent in chewing, swallowing, and digesting? The real breakthrough, they argue, was cooking.7
By eating food that has been cooked, humans gain the advantage of increases in caloric and nutritional yields, as well as enhanced flavor.8,9 Of course, certain foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, nuts, and others, can be beneficially eaten raw.
One Order of Pancakes
Now, what’s required to make some decent pancakes? The availability of domesticated grains requires agricultural lands resulting from prior geological conditions and glaciation cycles, domestication of progenitor crops, the development of fire and the art of baking (along with an understanding of the chemistry of leavening agents such as baking powder10), climate stability, economic and technological advances facilitating a farming culture (including, grains, poultry, and dairy) with transportation and storage facilities for harvested produce11, and somewhere along the line, access to a supply of salt (have you ever forgotten to put salt in the batter? — it’s a definite disappointment).
The fact is, every one of these necessary ingredients is available to us now as a result prerequisite conditions for some factors that took millions and even billions of years to reach fulfillment (we shouldn’t even take agriculturally rich soil for granted). For humans to be able to take advantage of their uniquely capable brains and to develop more than a subsistence civilization, the ability to cook food is arguably essential. Next time you sit down to dinner (or a breakfast of pancakes), remember to give thanks for the benefits of cooking.
- Catherine Preece, et al, “How did the domestication of Fertile Crescent grain crops increase their yields?” Funct Ecol. 2017 Feb; 31(2): 387–397, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5324541/ .
- Improbable Planet (reasons.org) .
- Jerry Adler, “Why Fire Makes Us Human,” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-fire-makes-us-human-72989884/ (June, 2013).