The Absurd Naturalist: Thoughts on chewing

The author, naturally.By Gene Twaronite

(Personal Note: My deepest sympathy to the families of the 19 firefighters who gave their lives protecting our community, and to the Prescott Fire Department, whose members risk so much to keep us safe.)

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We humans are enthralled by the eating exploits of other species.

We watch with wonder the bulge of a large fish gliding downstream through a heron’s gullet or the lump of a toad being squeezed through a garter snake’s pencil-thick body. Yet daily, within our very homes, we can observe feats of eating no less wondrous.

Indeed, as I sit at the breakfast table this morning and watch my young niece being fed by her mother, I am amazed that such creatures as children (forgive me, Nicole) continue being born. Not that Nicole’s behavior is any worse than that of any other little girl or boy — and certainly no worse than her mother at that age. Never having had any offspring, I tend to watch this game of life from the position of a detached observer. But the creature before me is far more absorbing than a giant python swallowing a pig or a blue whale swilling krill.

I realize that it is me I am watching in this real life nature drama. So, this is what it’s like growing up — taking entire slices of bread that your mother has thoughtfully broken into convenient bite-sized pieces and methodically stuffing them, one by one, into your mouth until it can hold no more. At this point, poor Nicole, you are faced with a dilemma that all of us must eventually face. Not a bit more of that tasty stuff can be crammed into that orifice between your chubby cheeks. You must chew, dear child, and that is a most dreary fact of our existence.

You can always spit it out and start all over again, which is exactly what you do several times. As I look up from my newspaper and gaze upon the partially masticated, brownish lump on the plate across from me, I wonder how any of us ever learns to chew. And, more to the point, how any human parent finds the necessary faith in our species to sit patiently by as we learn to do this.

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Chewing, or mastication, is primarily something that mammals do and, more specifically, mammals that eat plants at least part of the time. You don’t see carnivorous mammals like lions or wolves chewing; they much prefer to slash and gulp.

According to some scientists, chewing may have evolved long ago when animals first colonized the land. It has to do with the tongue. Whereas fish tongues mostly just move food from front to back of mouth, mammalian tongues evolved to move food around in the mouth for teeth to chew it. Who knew we would evolve to eat pizza and Twinkies?

Some of the dinosaurs might also have been chewers. The shape of the teeth in certain duck-billed hadrosaurs suggests that they chewed plants. Scientists hypothesize this might’ve given them an evolutionary advantage over the big sauropods, who had to swallow rocks to grind up their food. As time-consuming and inconvenient as chewing is, I’d take it over swallowing rocks any day.

Though chewing is mainly an unconscious reflex, there’s much more to it than that. It also involves an intricate set of motor skills that must be learned. Indeed, we can also think about our chewing, as when my mother used to tell me, and now my wife reminds me to chew, not wolf, my food.

Human babies start learning to chew at around 7- to 9-months. As with all things, they learn about food by touching and playing with it. You can imagine how messy a process this can be.
In some cultures, parents pre-chew their infant’s food into a wet, pulpy mass called a bolus before giving it to them. This is referred to as premastication, and it’s just as yucky as it sounds.

I guess the only thing that saves us all from extinction is that most of the world’s mothers- and fathers-to-be are blithely unaware of these gruesome details until it’s too late, when they are up to their necks in the lumpy brownish mess of child raising. But if they were to watch and think about such things as I’ve just witnessed, it’s quite possible they might decide to postpone or even indefinitely delay their plans for a child. We might very well become the first species on the planet doomed to extinction merely by watching a child chew.

As for my own parents, they had three children. Each of us probably stuffed our faces with entire loaves of bread before learning how to chew. Remarkable creatures, my mother and father.

© Gene Twaronite 2013

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Gene Twaronite’s writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines. He is the author of “The Family That Wasn’t,” “My Vacation in Hell,” and “Dragon Daily News.” Follow Gene at TheTwaroniteZone.Com.

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14 Responses to The Absurd Naturalist: Thoughts on chewing

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