The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food

June 14, 2012

Eating is not only a complex physiological process; it is a complex cognitive process, too. It begins with chewing, which is controlled by what is called the "central pattern generator" in the brainstem. Put some food in a mouth and the mouth will automatically start chewing it. But "higher level" parts of the brain, in the cerebrum, are involved in eating too, including such activities as conscious choice, memory, sensory association, anticipation, categorisation, moral scruple and inter-subjectivity. Eating for human beings is inevitably a social activity, even as it is also intensely personal. But how is that possible? How can the structure of the human brain be said to account for all this, or be understood to have evolved to feature such a structure?

John Allen is a US neuroscientist with a background in biological anthropology, and The Omnivorous Mind is a work of popular science that also tries to make an original contribution to scientific thought. Allen conceives of the brain as a "bio-cultural" phenomenon, and points out how the science of the brain has to account not only for such obvious elements of eating as the sending of signals from the taste buds to the gustatory centres of the brain, but also such less obvious elements as conscious self-regulation and the predilection of people in prosperous parts of the world to unhealthy overconsumption.

In the end, Allen proposes, the "acquisition, preparation and consumption" of food "has contributed directly to shaping aspects of human cognition" and "we have evolved a 'theory of food'". Evolution has made us eaters of a certain kind, but being eaters of a certain kind has caused us to evolve in certain ways, too. In the end, human eating has come to demand, universally, a "theory of foods", a "complex adaptation that each individual uses to organise and engage the food environment in which he or she lives".

The phenomenon of eating, as Allen explains it, probably has more to tell us about the "bio" side of the brain than the cultural side. Amateurs will be interested to learn how complex the brain is, and must be, for human eating to take place. But although Allen has a number of pertinent things to say about culture, many of them are banal, and most of them, rather than being broadly based in comparative ethnology, are fixated on the obsessions of contemporary US life: "Dieting involves changing not just what is eaten but also how food is thought and mentally processed." "All menus are external reflections of how food is organised in a chef's mind, or in the case of corporate restaurants, in the collective mind of chefs, food scientists and marketing consultants."

Despite the book's title and his insistence that what really counts for human eating is a "theory of mind", what Allen lacks in his analysis is, precisely, a theory of mind that can invent a "theory of food". As a brain scientist he can confidently claim that brain scientists haven't got there yet. But to claim that the brain is cultural and inter-subjective, and therefore indefinitely relative to the social systems that enable it, one needs to have an idea about what people are. And people aren't just brains fed by bodies, or adaptors to their environments, bent upon organising things to survive. They are also beings with minds. And minds, as Claude Lévi-Strauss alerted us long ago, are savage.

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