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So, I have a species of sapient aliens I'm designing, but I have one big problem: Cooking is widely (although not universally) considered to be a major factor in the evolution of sapience in humans, and this species has several features which would significantly slow the evolution of fire usage, and especially cooking.

In case you're wondering, the contra-indicators for fire usage and cooking are:

  • They did not change their diet in the process of becoming sapient.

  • They have fur and so do not need fire for warmth as much.

  • They evolved in forests where fire is much more likely to get out of control than open plains.

For reference, this is a species is omnivorous but has a carnivore preference and cannot consume anything especially high in fiber. They are tool-users although not as heavily reliant on tools as humans. They are about 75% as large as a human on average, although it varies a lot based on sex and biological caste. They have a complex and hierarchical social structure which includes a biological caste system with sterile workers.

With that out of the way, how can they become sapient? Are these contra-indicators for cooking not as strong as I had feared? If you are of the opinion that cooking was not a major factor in the evolution of human sapience, it would be appreciated if you would give a clear and detailed description of why you believe this.

Answers that revolve around their sapience having been artificially engineered or granted by supernatural means will not be appreciated, as this question is strictly about natural evolution.

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    $\begingroup$ Last time I checked dolphins and whales can already be considered sapient and can use tools, but we're yet to see any of them light a fire underwater and start cooking what they catch. $\endgroup$ Jan 21 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ "Cooking is widely considered to be a major factor in the evolution of sapience in humans" really, so where did you hear that then because I've never heard it? so I think you may be reaching somewhat with a word like "widely" & I'd be unsurprised to find you'd misinterpreted something that you heard or read about the development of either 'civilisation' or' 'technology', neither of which is the same thing as "sapience". $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Jan 21 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ Quick reminder that evolution has no endpoint, no playbook and no actual rules. It is a list of possible outcomes being narrowed to a smaller list of possible outcomes because some things usually work better than other things. Sapience and opposable digits make the list of possible outcomes quite large. $\endgroup$
    – Sean Boddy
    Jan 21 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ My cat is VERY sapient and he does not cook. $\endgroup$ Jan 21 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ Point of fact: Fires are a lot more likely to get out of hand in open plains than in forests. Grass is tinder, it burns fast and lights easily; wood burns much slower and is much harder to light, as any Boy Scout will tell you. Moreover, forests have a lot of wind shadowing, so fires spread slower. The reason modern forest fires are so prevalent, dangerous and out-of-control is because humans got into the habit of putting every single fire out as it comes up, so there is a lot of tinder coating the forest floor, which burns long enough to start lighting the trees. $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Jan 21 at 19:18

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Sapience is not a result of cooking,, but a requirement to be able to cook.

What cooking enables is more efficient usage of available food, thus allowing the already-sapient chef the additional free time to do something with their newfound sapience, rather than spend 99% of their time scrounging for more food.

Not proven, but civilization is likely impossible for a primitive species without first developing cooking (and, of course, developing the prerequisite use of fire).

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    $\begingroup$ Also even that is not a guarantee. For example chimps are intelligent enough to use tools and fire and even cook food, but unless they start doing it "en mass" and systematically, there's no way any chimp civilization would arise. $\endgroup$ Jan 21 at 9:36
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    $\begingroup$ A slight clarification: cooking allows you to eat more kinds of food. Generally speaking, cooking food that does not need to be cooked wastes a lot of its nutritional value. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 21 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki That really isn't true, cooking food generally begins the process of breaking down larger food molecules like starches and proteins into smaller and more digestible pieces, which is a process that your body has to do if you don't cook the food. That means that you both save the energy that would normally need to go into digestion and it means that fewer calories are missed by passing through your digestive tract without being digested. Yes we can eat meat without cooking it for example, but cooking it actually allows us to gain more calories overall compared to raw $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Jan 21 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Kevin Nutritional value is a bit more than just calories. Vodka has plenty of calories, but very low nutritional value. Nosajimiki is correct, the nutritional value of food that does need to be cooked may be lowered/wasted by cooking. The chief example of this is vitamins that are destroyed by cooking. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Jan 21 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Kevin 1kg of raw 70/30 ground beef contains ~3320 calories. When you cook it, it looses ~36% of its mass due to fat and water lose dropping it to 640g of meat and ~1500-1800 calories depending on how it was cooked. The mineral content of cooked meat is about the same as raw meat, but it is way fewer calories. This makes cooked meat great in a modern context, but wasteful in a survival scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 21 at 20:14
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Well, I am in the camp that it is not cooking at all, it is just a higher caloric requirement.

Dolphins and Killer Whales and Octopi are all highly intelligent problem solvers that are clearly conscious, thinking beings. There is a great deal of evidence that Dolphins can communicate with each other vocally. Octopi can solve puzzles that the average 6 year old human cannot solve.

I'm not sure how you define "sapience", but I would include 3-4 old humans.

These sea animals are well on their way, and obviously they don't cook. But they are all expert and prolific hunters in an environment with plenty of calories, in fact so many calories that feeding themselves is very much a part-time job that does not occupy their whole day.

Which is all that caloric density does; cooking means you don't have to hunt so much or spend very much of your day eating, like grazers eating raw food must do.

I could say the same thing for tribal animals, like wild wolves. They don't cook. But they are quite smart; on par with 3-4 year old humans in terms of puzzle solving.

On top of that, all the sea creatures live in a dangerous environment with predators. The development of sapience is likely in response to that danger.

Your aliens can evolve sapience by

  1. Being social tribal animals, this boosts intelligence by making social success a survival trait, and that requires understanding what others in your tribe are thinking or feeling; intelligence becomes an arms race against other humans: The smarter humans outfox the dumber humans in terms of reproduction.

  2. Making calories fairly plentiful and easy to obtain.

  3. Making the environment relatively dangerous, one in which outsmarting predators is a necessity, not only to protect one's self, but others, like the young or the elderly that still contribute to overall tribal survival (e.g. through childcare or food preparation without cooking; e.g. peeling, separating food from waste like skin, bones, organs, seeds, etc.)

Just like us humans, that are completely underwhelming in every aspect as physical predators*, you design your environment so that sapience and high IQ are very instrumental in survival and reproduction, for a physically incompetent predator. (If adult humans with 2-year old mentalities had to compete with lions for prey, even if the lions were no danger to them, we'd go extinct pretty damn quick.)

  • (We humans are good pursuit predators, but that is one step above scavengers, it is not really "hunting" like a big cat or even wolves that take down their prey; we run them until they have a heat stroke and fall down on their own. The same is true for traps and snares, we don't tackle a moose, we engineer a way to trick the moose into killing itself by falling into a spike pit or whatever.)
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  • $\begingroup$ "The smarter humans outfox the dumber humans in terms of reproduction." Clearly you haven't seen any high IQ group meetings. ;) $\endgroup$ Jan 21 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @coppereyecat On the contrary, I am a PhD and I work with literally hundreds of other PhDs; their kids are smarter and ultimately more successful than most kids. I think you must think in stereotypes of nerds. Higher IQ for the last 250,000 years has been, on average, a survival and reproduction advantage, or we would not have evolved it. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Jan 21 at 19:58
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They don't need to cook, but they do need habitual fire use.

I can not express how important fire is to the development of technology. Nearly every invention humans have ever made uses fire at some point it its production. Without fire there is no metal, no glue, no leather, no pottery, no brick making, no mortar, no heat treating, no candle making, and way fewer options for carpentry, rope making, and textiles. Even something so simple as mounting a stone tip to a spear head or feathers to an arrow can not be done well enough to be worth it without fire to boil your resin.

Unless you create a reason for your aliens to make habitual use of fire, their tool using will never become much more advanced those used by Chimpanzees.

This means your species NEEDS a reason to make a fire every night to expose them to enough fire to make the accidental discoveries that led to the technologies which made the Mesolithic Period possible. While cooking is sometimes attributed to this reason, a far more likely reason for the rise of fire usage is warmth and light. Only after we started using it to do the obvious things (keep warm and see at night) would we start experimenting with it enough to discover other uses for it like cooking.

this is a species is omnivorous but has a carnivore preference and cannot consume anything especially high in fiber.

This diet makes your species very likely to develop cooking once they have fire. Humans are perfectly capable of eating raw meat, it is actually the grains and roots in our diet that make cooking so important. Cooking breaks down fiber allowing us to eat plants that are otherwise too hard for us to digest. Cooking meat also has the benefit of preserving it better. If you want to take away cooking as a useful discovery, you need to make them herbivores. If they can eat a large varieties of nuts, roots, seeds, etc. without cooking and don't eat enough meat to need to preserve it, then cooking becomes a much less desirable use of fire.

The real reason for the development of fire is population growth or climate change. If thier population expands quickly or climate change rapidly contracts thier existing territory, they will not be able to stay in thier native temperate forests/jungles. Normally for a species this means they would hit a wall where thier population becomes restricted. But, if they discover fire, then they can migrate out of thier warm forests into the colder north in pursuit of more territory without having to wait on slow evolutionary processes.

So migration to colder climates plus a herbivore diet would give them a reason to develop habitual fire use without needing to develop cooking.

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Create another scarcity or challenge that requires the members of this species to cooperate, e.g. predators that only can be beaten by the cooperation of the multiple members, harsh weather that requires elaborate shelters, the sudden lack of some resource... Or if you want to take a more individualistic path, sexual selection: a mating ritual that becomes more and more complicated in each generation, and individuals that are more intelligent will perform better, therefore reproduce more.

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The evolution of sapience does not occur because of the use of fire or the invention of cooking. That is an advancement made possible by sapience.

Rather, sapience evolves because of other factors, revolving around a need for complex thought:

  • A complex, dynamic social structure: Earth's most sapient species have a complex society. Social status may change depending upon relationships with others. Competition between individuals for higher social status exists.

  • A challenging environment requiring improvisation and/or memorization of the location of essential resources and storage of those resources: It is thought that early humans survived a period of extreme drought, requiring that they memorize the locations at which water may be found, and carrying and storing water for later use away from its source.

That said, I am not sure that the OP's species has what it takes to become sapient.

That they have a 'complex and hierarchical social structure' and biological castes with sterile workers suggests that while their society has a certain degree of complexity, it is not likely dynamic. Each individual appears to be born or raised into a particular role, and there is likely little prospect of changing caste or social status. Without the possibility of social conflict and a struggle for position, that's one major stimulus for sapience missing.

Secondly, there is no suggestion that their environment presents them any problems that they haven't been able to solve through their biological adaptations. Perhaps some resources are seasonal, perhaps they require discriminating senses to identify, but this doesn't require great sapience. It may require a bit, but once their level of sapience is sufficient, there's little need for more.

Ants and bees also have sterile castes and a potentially challenging environment, but they have adapted to overcome their problems not with sapience, but with cooperation. Resources may be difficult to find, but by having many individuals foraging and reporting the location of resources, others can come and assist in the task of harvesting. This is likely the case with the OP's species: they don't likely need sapience because all the smarts they need is to recognize resources when they stumble across them, and the ability to notify others as to the location of the resources. Ants do that with pheromones. Bees do it by dancing. Neither requires much brainpower at all.

That's not to say that a species with castes couldn't become sapient. It would require that the caste that an individual takes on is not fixed, but is the result of internal social competition. If there are sterile castes, their sterility must be temporary, and in the event of the death or demotion of a breeder through social competition, a sterile individual must be able to be promoted to being a breeder. By encouraging internal social competition, this applies an evolutionary pressure toward greater sapience.

Of course, the OP may want their castes to by physiologically distinct. There is no reason why this could not occur, as long as the physiological changes are reversible and/or cumulative, with the reproductive caste having features of other castes as well as the ability to reproduce.

Another pressure toward sapience would be a changing environment. Perhaps the ancestral forests are dwindling, perhaps there are floods brought about by climate change. This species has been forced out of their comfortable ancestral home, and must now improvise or die. Many of them will likely die, but those that can improvise will survive and reproduce.

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  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough, I suppose biological castes do reduce evolutionary adaptablility somewhat. To be fair, I foolishly left out the evolutionary history I asked about in my previous question, so they're not as lacking in evolutionary incentives as you probably think, but all the same you make a valid point. The castes were never really distinct beyond size and fertility, so removing them shouldn't be an issue. $\endgroup$ Jan 22 at 5:59
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I won't debate intelligence vs cooking, others have done an adequate job of that. I would disagree that cooking is the only way of breaking down fibers. We know that pounding meat, for instance, tenderizes it pretty well. So can the application of enzymes via fruit juice or other materials. Acids have also been shown to do this.

It's also possible to raise the temperature of something to the point where internal chemical reactions take place that don't require a fire. Sous vide is a whole branch of cooking devoted to that.

There's also nothing preventing people from domesticating crops or animals with a goal of improving digestibility. We've been doing that ourselves.

There's no denying that fire (and fire-related temperatures) go a long ways towards powering our civilization but that's completely separate from maintaining and growing intelligence.

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There are a number of mammal species on Earth which might possibly have intelligence ranges that overlap considerably with the intelligence range of humans. Thus members of those mammal species might possibly be considered to be sentient and thus people.

They include at least four species of apes (plus a number of now extinct species more closely related to Homo sapiens), plus three species of proboscideans (plus a number of now extinct species of proboscideans), plus about eighty to ninety species of cetaceans (plus now extinct species of cetaceans going back many millions of years).

And that is just the mammals. There are also some species of birds which might have high enough intelligences to be sentient.

And there are a number of highly intelligent cephalapod species which might possibly be sentient.

And of all those species with intelligence ranges similar to that of humans, species that might possibly be sentient and thus people, only Homo sapiens (and a few now extinct species closely related to Homo sapiens) have been known to use fire.

Thus there are reasons to doubt that the use of fire was a precondition, instead of a result, of sentience.

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I had a similar question when wondering if advanced sapient creatures would have soft facial features like humans because intelligence would lead to them cooking food so their strong animal jaws and large teeth would shrink over time with their softer food diet.

If heating food never takes place this will affect other advancements. Most chemistry involves heating materials so the advancement of many scientific fields will be hindered, although they could still choose to use fire for those purposes but still keep a raw food diet but it is unlikely that they will use fire for scientific processes and not cooking.

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    $\begingroup$ "Hindered" is a strong word to use. If fire isn't used for cooking, it will eventually be used for metallurgy. Even if that is a setback of 100,000 years, that's not very long when dealing with a scale of time measured in the millions of years. Metallurgy and chemistry are useful on their own, and once that utility becomes obvious, they're back on track. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jan 21 at 14:55

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