As a vegetarian, I was intrigued and rather worried by Craig Stanford's opening assertion that human intelligence is the product of eating, and hunting for, meat.
The Hunting Apes is of course a backward look at our evolutionary origins,not a dietician's prescription for a 12-bore-assisted IQ boost, but nevertheless I had thought that Man the Hunter theories had gone the same way as the woolly mammoth.
But now meateating is back on the menu thanks to Stanford's plea for a more cerebral, less testosterone-filled New Man the Hunter. Apparently it is not what you hunt, but the way you share it afterwards. Stanford's conjecture that the politics of meat distribution selected for intelligence, thus hitches a ride on the fashionable view that primate intelligence evolved to serve Machiavellian one-upmanship.
He has some interesting things to say about meat, in particular the differences humans and chimpanzees show in its acquisition. Hunter-gatherer humans eat more meat than chimpanzees, but the latter will pursue prey when they encounter it. But only humans search for prey. Given its patchy distribution, meat may only be a viable objective for a primate with efficient long-distance locomotion. Bipedalism may thus have kickstarted a human carnivorous tendency. Stanford also notes that hunter-gatherer societies that eat a lot of meat tend to be more patriarchal and suggests that "meat served males well throughout human evolution as a political currency used to enhance male alliances, snub rivals and control females". Certainly, humans show a great deal of interest in meat and most societies have prescribed methods of dividing it up. Paradoxically, meat is both the most valued resource of hunter-gatherers and, at least according to the rules, the most fairly shared.
The Hunting Apes also contains a near-exhaustive review of current ideas in evolutionary anthropology. Meat slots in there somewhere, but it does not emerge as the unifying principle Stanford hopes for. The heart of the problem is the lack of a clear, testable hypothesis linking meateating and intelligence. Stanford argues that if it can be shown that meat distribution requires intelligence, then perhaps that is what selected for increased intelligence in the first place. Since humans do many clever things, they make nut cutlets for example as a byproduct of their intelligence, this reverse logic requires a demonstration that reproductive gains could be made by using meat as a political tool. To my mind neither strand of evidence is forthcoming.
In support of Stanford, it is difficult to demonstrate which human activities require intelligence and which do not, and equally difficult to demonstrate the reproductive gains of a hypothetical ancestor about whose ecology we know very little. Furthermore, the active pursuit of, and the societally governed distribution of, meat as something unique to humans might be a plausible area to look for the spur to future human uniqueness. But this book needs a little more flesh on the bones.
Thomas Sambrook is a fellow in psychology, University of Stirling.
The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior
Author - Craig B. Stanford
ISBN - 0 691 01160 5
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 253
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