The Atlantic's '50 Greatest Innovations' misses the Mother of them all

The Atlantic's '50 Greatest Innovations' misses the Mother of them all

Summary: It's a technology that boosted our brain power, made us better looking, and propelled all the other innovations...

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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The Atlantic’s columnist James Fallows recently listed the top 50 innovations by polling “a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others.”

Strangely, I counted only 11 panelists (math wasn’t on the list), which included Silicon Valley VC John Doerr;  Joi Ito from MIT Media Lab; and the perennial favorite of every editor: whoever happens to be around the office at the time, which in this case was The Atlantic’s senior editor Alexis Madrigal.

 The list starts off with:

- The printing press (1430s not the earlier Chinese one). 

Then you have all the ones you’d expect: electricity, semiconductors, optics, internal combustion engine, Internet, of course. But they missed the most important technology breakthrough of all time: Gastronomy.

The editors said they wanted to list the most important innovations since the wheel, or about 6,000 years ago, so that they could avoid listing fire. But that makes little sense because fire is not an invention but a natural phenomenon. And some recent civilizations, such as those in the Americas, didn’t use the wheel for transportation, or like the Mayans used the wheel only for toys. Atlantic could have just said 50 most important breakthroughs (fire and wheel not included).

Mind expanding technology

When we developed the technology of cooking it literally blew our minds — our brain size quadrupled and our stomachs shrank. We became much smarter and we looked fabulous — what other breakthrough technology did that?!

Gastronomy unlocked a vast amount of energy in raw food and we used it to build a much larger brain.

But that brain had to be used for serious things because it is very expensive to maintain, requiring 25% of daily calories in the form of high octane glucose for just 2.5% body mass. And the brain has to be fed 24/7 even if other organs have to be shutdown. 

The cooking pot allowed us to build a Ferrari of a brain, expensive to maintain but incredible in performance. We left the other raw food primates in the dust and now we’re on the doorstep of our next big leap forward, into the mashed-up singularity of some kind of bio-digital reality.

Cooking gave us time to think. Eating raw food takes a tremendous amount of time to chew enough to fulfill daily needs, and so does foraging for it when you haven’t figured out yet how to grow it.

Innovation comes from thinking. In fact, when you think about it, all good things in our society come from having the time to think.

If gastronomy hadn’t been invented there would be no civilization, science, arts, computer technologies, or top 50 lists because we wouldn’t have the time to invent them all — we’d still be chewing.

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The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel - James Fallows - The Atlantic

The Science Of Food - Gastronomy Night at The Exploratorium

Topic: Tech Industry

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11 comments
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  • Good point!

    I totally agree, cooking food (raw food luddites aside) was the Great Leap Forward!
    Master668
    • Yeah but I consider that more of a discovery than an invention.

      And don't get me started on wheel-less "civilizations" that were still dragging things around on sleds and paddling around on logs millennia behind the rest of the world...
      Johnny Vegas
  • I am sorry

    Would you want to live in a world without duct tape and aerosol cheese? Those are the two greatest inventions in redneck history. This list is a perfect example of why Jeff Foxworthy fans and the republican faithful don't respect elitist, ivory tower academics.
    krossbow
  • even chimps get it

    If you have ever seen a chimp eat hot cooked food, you'll see what I mean. They squeak with delight the entire time!
    Mac_PC_FenceSitter
  • Lamarckism has been debunked

    Over and over and over again. You do not get tailless rats by chopping off rat tails, and you don't get larger brains by eating high calorie foods.
    baggins_z
  • Well they did say "since the wheel"

    That leaves out the really early stuff like fire and cooking. There can be no doubt that humans evolved to take advantage of "cooked food". We have much smaller and weaker jaws than other primates as well as much smaller stomachs, both needed to process raw foods. It surely opened up whole new possibilities for socialization and division of labor that ultimately led to the need and uses for our growing brain capacity.
    oncall
  • Not so convinced

    Chewing takes time, but someone has to spend lots of time cooking healthy food before eating. We can always go for "fast-food", but they're not really known for making bigger brains. By this logic, having a nice pair of shoes or the invention of transports would be far more important than time-saving with cooking. We wouldn't have to walk for hours.. to reach our working place and start inventing. Anyway, its a good though from the writer and that's how ideas come up.
    RCOperations
    • You are confusing causality

      Cooked food did not "cause" our brains to become larger. It allowed for the evolution of larger brains. Chewing is not a social activity, cooking is. Cooking allows for preservation and portability of high caloric content foods, thus making tribal hunting a viable activity for humans. These activities allowed us to evolve and survive with much weaker bodies while at the same time devoting additional biological resource towards larger minds and the relatively longer developmental time required to grow and "socialize" such minds.
      oncall
      • Never mentioned it

        Last post was entirely about time-saving and, as said, allowing humans to evolve. It was not my intention to go into nutricionism. But as you say below, we have smaller and weaker jaws and probably spend more time at the dentist too, and many times chewing for long times at old ages. Cooking may have helped evolution or even had the opposite effect. There are so many variables on determining how important cooking was, that time-saving assumptions do not seem very legit. Time-saving would suit other breakthroughs much better than chewing-times. (Telephone, Transports,..)
        RCOperations
        • Ahh I found the article I was looking for

          I read this some time ago,
          h t t p://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/cooked-food-diet-primates-brains_n_2033975.html
          oncall
  • Well they did say "Since the wheel"

    That leaves out the really early stuff like fire and cooking. There can be no doubt that humans evolved to take advantage of "cooked food". We have much smaller and weaker jaws than other primates as well as much smaller stomachs, both needed to process raw foods. It surely opened up whole new possibilities for socialization and division of labor that ultimately led to the need and uses for our growing brain capacity.
    oncall