Thinking Food

John S. Allen's 'The Omnivorous Mind'

by Robert Alford

19 August 2012

How do human beings “think food”? This question provides the impetus for John S. Allen’s sweeping inquiry into the evolutionary, cultural and cognitive processes that have shaped the human species’ relationship to their food environment.
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The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food

John S. Allen

(Harvard University Press)
US: May 2012

How do human beings “think food”? This question provides the impetus for John S. Allen’s sweeping inquiry into the evolutionary, cultural and cognitive processes that have shaped the human species’ relationship to their food environment. As a research scientist whose interdisciplinary approach encompasses the overlapping fields of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and biological anthropology, Allen is interested in the human relationship to food as a “biocultural” phenomenon formed by both the biological and cultural conditions in which humans have evolved.

He argues that the human brain interacts with the food environment through a range of cognitive adaptions that combine to form a “theory of food” which operates in the brain much like the capacity for language acquisition. And, just as language can only be understood as the product of both physiological and social processes, the human “theory of food” must be considered as it has evolved through biological adaptions, as well as through its constitutive role in the cultural construction of human behavior.

Drawing upon a range of research from the fields of cognitive neuroscience imaging, evolutionary biology and the social sciences, Allen’s attempts to connect the dots between these various windows into the human condition can feel a bit murky and speculative at times, especially in the case of recent neuroimaging discoveries which he admits are still only beginning to be understood by the individuals working in this emerging field. But his exploration of the human relationship with food as a distinctly biocultural development is expressly against deterministic or reductive explanations of human behavior.

Rather than seeking to locate behavioral determinants within one of each opposing realms of biology or culture, Allen understands physiological and cognitive development as the product of a complex synergy between these two interdependent and overlapping forces of biology and culture. And nowhere is this relationship more clearly evidenced for Allen than in the unique human capacity to “think food”.

The title, The Omnivorous Mind is a reference to the ways in which the human species’ varied diet contributed to the evolutional development of our large and highly specialized brains, but it also speaks to the book’s own distinctly holistic approach to its subject matter. For a case in point, consider Allen’s exploration of why humans seem to have a nearly universal predilection for crispy food. He begins by citing the celebrity chef Mario Batalli’s claim that “there is something innately appealing about crispy food” that transcends cultural boundaries, indicating that the human taste for the crispy may have an “underlying biological and evolutionary basis”. And while Allen acknowledges that it may be a bit far fetched to defend the proposition of an innate crispy instinct (and that the words “innate” and “instinct” are considered fighting words in some academic circles), he does consider the human desire for the crispy “as an exemplar of my biocultural approach to the human diet and eating behavior in general”, arguing that “if we want to understand why we like crispy, then we need to understand how we think crispy”.

This search for understanding begins with an examination of sources of crispiness in the natural food environment. Insects are one such readily available source of crispiness that form an integral part of many primate diets and were probably a regular staple of our early hominid ancestors. Insects have also been incorporated into human diets in regions where they are widely available as a source of nutritional sustenance, and continue to be eaten to this day in many non-Western cultures. These facts lead Allen to conclude that “perhaps there is a connection between crickets and extra-crispy fried chicken, beyond the occasional unwanted visitor to the deep fryer”. Another likely source of an evolved taste in humans for the crispy is that of fresh, leafy vegetables which played a critical role as “fallback foods” for our primate ancestors when more nutritional and tasty options such as fruit were not available. 

The process of cooking food is another critical source of crispiness, and one that has played a highly significant role in human cultural and biological evolution. When food is cooked, a chemical transformation called the Maillard reaction occurs, resulting in both crispiness and the development of flavor molecules. And many highly nutritional foods such as tubers and the meat of other animals become more palatable and easier to digest when cooked. Cooking, therefor “allowed our human ancestors to exploit a greater range of foods, to obtain calories and nutrients in larger packages, and to chew and digest them using less energy. These factors all allowed our species to support a large, energy-hungry brain”.

In the brains of modern humans, crispy foods engage with multiple sensory pathways, and Allen cites neural imaging findings to argue that the sound of biting into something crispy “staves off the boredom and habituation” of eating by providing a “stronger and more varied sensory mix” than other foods. And the brain’s overlapping neural networks of language, hunger and emotional response are stimulated by the onomatopoetic nature of the word crispy, as it “evokes eating before the food is consumed”.

Allen’s study of the human desire for crispy foods serves as an entryway into his larger consideration of “how we think food and how we eat food” as “complex products of multiple histories”. Throughout the book, he examines these cognitive, evolutionary and cultural histories through a range of specific elements of the food experience, from a detailed examination of the early human diet to an exploration of the neurocognitive interactions between food and memory to the cultural expression of creativity through food preparation.

His study culminates with a proposed paradigm for understanding the human diet as operating according to a uniquely evolved human “theory of food”. As Allen explains: “Our theory of food cannot be just about nutrition, because when it comes to the most important and critical aspects of our survival, the boundaries between the merely physiological and the cultural become blurred … We need a theory of food not simply for sustenance but also to understand one of the basic currencies of human social existence”.

Allen’s own appetite for understanding the complex origins of human behavior is quite voracious indeed, and while his attempts to extract all encompassing theories from such a diverse range of scholastic sources can at times be a bit hard to swallow, there are some pretty tasty morsels in there to enjoy, as well.

(My deepest apologies for concluding this review with these terrible food puns, but I just couldn’t help myself).

The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food


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