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Can Chimpanzees Cook?

Internet science discussions are abuzz about experiments showing that chimpanzees have the cognitive capacities for cooking. Scientists and laypeople alike are citing these discoveries as confirmation that chimps and humans are descended from a common ancestor. The discoveries also are fueling the growing legal movement to grant chimps and other large apes personhood status.1 However, as usual, the peer-reviewed paper (available for free here) that generated the Internet buzz is much more nuanced and cautious.2

The researchers’ experiments demonstrated something we already know: large mammals prefer cooked vegetable tubers to raw ones. What the researchers added are the following reasons why:

  • Cooked tubers are easier to digest.
  • Cooked tubers deliver many more calories.
  • Cooked tubers deliver more nutrients that can be assimilated.
  • Cooked tubers are free of the harmful toxins common to most raw vegetable tubers.

The experiments also showed that chimps will trade raw tubers for cooked tubers even if they must wait for the cooked tubers. With some additional training, chimps will place raw tubers into a pot if by experience they know that the tubers will be returned to them cooked. The researchers did note, however, that raw tubers contain very little food value for chimps and that chimps much prefer their typical diet of raw fruits to cooked tubers. Moreover, in their experiments humans did all the cooking.

I would be willing to bet that the behavior the researchers observed concerning chimpanzees and cooked tubers is not unique among nonhuman animals. Each one of the dogs I have owned much preferred cooked vegetables to raw vegetables. That preference was especially evident with tubers. As a child I had a cat that relished fried breaded oysters.

I would add that Japanese macaques (the largest of the Japanese apes) routinely wash and season their food with sea salt. However, even though they spend long hours soaking themselves in hot spring pools, they never “cook” their food in the pools. I also find the experimental findings consistent with observations that chimps in the wild often follow wildfires to harvest roasted seeds and nuts. Evidently, chimps always are on the lookout for easy-to-forage high-quality foodstuffs.

At the end of the day, these experimental results do not really prove that humans are no more than naturally evolved apes. But they do provide more support for the Bible’s description of three distinct kinds of life created by God:

  1. Life that is purely physical;
  2. Animal life that is both physical and “soulish,” in that the soulishness of the animals enables them to form emotional relationships with human beings whereby they can serve and please humans; and
  3. Human beings—which are physical, soulish, and spiritual—capable of forming relationships with God whereby they can serve and please Him.

These biblically based categories explain why so many soulish animals share some physical and behavioral characteristics with humans. Such shared features are critical for these animals to form strong emotional bonds with humans. They make these creatures exceptional among all nonhuman species of life. Likewise, because we humans were created to form relationships with God, we possess features that make us exceptional among all Earth’s life. I address these topics of “soulish” animal exceptionalism and human exceptionalism in much more depth in my book Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job.

  1. Brendan Borrell, “Chimpanzee ‘Personhood’ Case Sows Confusion,” Nature News, posted on April 22, 2015,
  2. Felix Warneken and Alexandra G. Rosati, “Cognitive Capacities for Cooking in Chimpanzees,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282 (June 2015): DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2015.0229.