12:00 PM

The Atlantic's 50 'Greatest Innovations' Misses The Greatest One


Gastronomy at the San Francisco Exploratorium.

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 -SVW