Customer Reviews

100 Reviews
5 star:
4 star:
3 star:
2 star:
1 star:
Average Customer Review
Share your thoughts with other customers
Create your own review

The most helpful favorable review
The most helpful critical review

166 of 181 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant and important hypothesis
Around 1.8 to 1.9 million years ago, Homo habilis (a chimpanzee-like primate, but with a bigger brain and tool-making skills) evolved into Homo erectus. The changes were spectacular: Homo erectus had a 40% larger brain than Homo habilis; looked much more like a modern human than a chimpanzee; had lost its tree-climbing skills, but gained running skills; had a much...
Published on June 9, 2009 by George Sand

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting read
This is an interesting read. It certainly gives one a lot of food for thought. I debated on giving this work four stars since it is entertaining and presents a compelling set of arguments for the role of cooked food in human evolution. I always have problems with any set of arguments that describes one behavior as the driving force in evolution hence three stars. My...
Published on August 26, 2011 by White Raven

‹ Previous | 1 210 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

166 of 181 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant and important hypothesis, June 9, 2009
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Around 1.8 to 1.9 million years ago, Homo habilis (a chimpanzee-like primate, but with a bigger brain and tool-making skills) evolved into Homo erectus. The changes were spectacular: Homo erectus had a 40% larger brain than Homo habilis; looked much more like a modern human than a chimpanzee; had lost its tree-climbing skills, but gained running skills; had a much smaller, and less energy-consuming digestive system (smaller mouth, teeth, jaws, jaw muscles, stomach, and colon); lost most of its coat of fur; and developed a social system based on economic cooperation: the husband hunted, the wife gathered and cooked, and they shared the food.

Wrangham argues that Homo habilis learned to control fire and that that fact is both a necessary and sufficient explanation for this evolutionary leap.

First, fire is used for cooking, as all primates find cooked food more delicious (even monkeys know to follow a forest fire to enjoy the cooked nuts). Cooking gelatinizes starch, denatures protein, and softens all foods, permitting more complete digestion and energy extraction. As a result, the food processing apparatus shrinks, freeing energy to support a larger brain. (After the gut shrinks, the animal can no longer process enough raw food to survive, but is dependent on cooking. Wrangham reports that humans with even a large supply of well-processed, high-quality food lose both weight and reproductive capacity on a raw diet, and that there are no known cases of a modern human surviving on raw food for more than a month.)

Second, fire provides defense against large carnivores, permitting Homo erectus to descend from the trees and live on the formerly preditor-dangerous ground. The group would sleep around the campfire while an alert sentinel watched for predators, which would be repelled with a fiery log. Living on the ground led to the development of long legs and flat feet--ideal for running.

Third, fire permits loss of fur, as a hairless animal could warm itself by the fire. Hairless animals can dissipate heat much more quickly, giving them the ability to outrun furry animals. Homo erectus could simply chase a prey animal until it collapsed from heat exhaustion.

Fourth, cooking permits specialization of labor. Without cooking, both males and females must spend most of their day gathering and chewing vegetable matter. Because hunting success is unpredictable, they could devote relatively little time to it, because an unsuccessful hunter would have inadequate time to gather and chew vegetables. Cooking, however, reduces chewing time from 5 hours per day to 1 hour, freeing time to hunt. A hunter who returned empty-handed could still enjoy a cooked vegetable meal and have time to eat it.

Here Wrangham (who teaches, inter alia, a course named "Theories of Sexual Coercion") indulges in academic feminism when he says that "cooking freed women's time and fed their children, but also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated culture" as if this were a diabolical choice by patriarchal males. A more neutral explanation for the emergent sex roles might be as follows: Females, with their noisy, not-very-portable suckling infants and toddlers, cannot hunt because hunting is necessarily a stealthy and mobile activity. Therefore, males do the hunting. Because both hunting and cooking are time-consuming activities, males cannot do both. Therefore, females do the cooking. (They are trapped into cooking not by males but by their mammary glands.)

The various effects of control of fire were mutually reinforcing, leading to rapid evolutionary changes, resulting ultimately in modern humans.

Interestingly, Charles Darwin, while calling fire-making "probably the greatest [discovery], excepting language, ever made by man," thought that cooking was a late addition to the human skill-set without biological or evolutionary significance, and anthropologists agreed with him until quite recently.

The main text of the book comprises just 207 widely spaced pages, yet is somewhat repetitive. It includes many entertaining, if sometimes marginally relevant, anecdotes and a gratuitous chapter on contemporary food labeling and healthy eating. Despite these nits, I award 5 stars because Wrangham's cooking-makes-the-human hypothesis is both brilliant and important and the book is a highly enjoyable read.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

50 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New Theory On What Makes Us Human, June 8, 2009
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Anthropologists, historians, and theologians have many theories about how humans became "human". Dr. Richard Wrangham here posits that humans became "human" because we learned to cook our food over a million years ago, when homo erectus first tamed fire. Conventional theory holds that humans began to cook their food long after their path diverged from other primates, so its interesting to read Dr. Wrangham's belief that cooking was a cause rather than an effect.

Dr. Wrangham provides some fascinating material on how humanity began to physically separate from the apes, and how eating cooked food intensified the process and hurried it along. This has the potential to become impenetrably technical, but Dr. Wrangham writes clearly with the general reader in mind. I also enjoyed his coverage of the claims of present day raw-foodists, some of whom he interviewed. After that chapter I was left feeling simulataneous admiration for the dedication of raw-foodists and repulsion at the thought of following a similar diet myself! Dr. Wrangham has a good ear for an entertaining anecdote, such as the story of poor Alexis St. Martin, who survived a horrifying injury that permanently opened his stomach, thus involuntarily becoming an assistant to a researcher who wished to observe the process of digestion.

The text of this book is only about 200 pages. It is exhaustively researched and documented, with over 40 pages of notes, a 30 page bibliography, and a 20 page index. It will appeal to students of early man and to followers of Michael Pollan, with whom Dr. Wrangham shares a concern that humanity return to more natural and less highly processed food.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important contribution to anthropology, June 27, 2009
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Anthropology is supposed to be the scientific study of humankind. Unfortunately, since its inception, it has been inundated by carefully disguised pseudoscience - attempts to use scientific data to support the preconceived biases of the investigators. Typically these biases (aka hypotheses) have been ethnocentric and agrocentric, and the arguments used to support them are often composed of flawed logic in the service of false implications. How relieving to read Wrangham's book, which actually appears to draw hypotheses from observations rather than a self-aggrandizing belief system. The author then analyzes realistic and sensible implications of these hypotheses, testing them in a simple but logical way that makes his conclusions seem obvious.

This is the kind of book that makes one wonder, "Why hasn't this been argued before?" While his book is rather small and the ideas are not deeply explored, this is largely because the hypotheses that Wrangham presents are quite new. I believe that his ideas will be supported, refined, and expanded by further investigation.

While some of his ideas appear outdated or unsupported (for example, he seems to suggest that hunter-gatherers were poorly nourished compared to later farmers, when in fact a substantial body of archeological evidence points to the contrary being true), and he makes some assumptions that are unfounded (for example, that human diets without cooking would be comparable to those of chimpanzees. This is highly unlikely, since pre-humans were bipedal, which suggests a far greater mobility geared toward different food preferences than apes that move on all fours or in trees. It is possible, if not likely, that human ancestors used their greater mobility to extract higher quality food from a larger home range more selectively than chimps.)

However, despite these shortfalls, the ideas presented in the book are extremely important to the study of human evolution and anthropology, as well as the endless and robust contemporary debates about nutrition and health. The book reflects something that I have been telling participants in my wild food foraging workshops for years: that cooking and processing food is the most significant human invention of all time. We would be wise to remain aware of that, and I am grateful that this author has increased my understanding of this issue.

Indeed, I feel that this is the single most important contribution to anthropology in decades. It is also well written, enough so to keep the interest of the casual reader.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Me Tarzan, You Make Dinner, September 5, 2009
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This is a mind-bending book. While I was reading it, I bored everyone in my family (especially at every meal) with the details of Richard Wrangham's startling thesis: that of all the changes that distinguish ape from man, the ability to control fire and cook one's food comes first. It's cooking, argues Wrangham, that liberates us to travel widely and hunt effectively (other primates spend too much time chewing); it's cooking that creates the conditions for differentiated sex roles (and the relegation of women to the kitchen); it's cooking that denudes us of our hair (the fire keeps us warm), making us better runners (less overheating) and again adding to our ability to travel distances; cooking gives us small guts (well, not mine) and big brains (guilty as charged!).

The implications of this thesis are both historical and contemporary. The reader gains insight into how family structure evolved, and at the same time is enlightened about what kinds of foods are really contributing to 21st-century obesity and its related health problems. The epilogue, which explains and criticizes how calories are counted by the food industry, is quite illuminating on this last point.

The book is billed as being path-breaking and original. While written for the educated rather than academic reader, it does contain thorough and informative endnotes (they are unobtrusive as you read, since subscripts are not inserted in the text). I have not reviewed these notes completely, but my impression is that many parts of the book, rather than being paradigm changing, chiefly synthesize work on food that has already been done. I do not say this as a criticism -- his references demonstrate his impressive command of the field and range from well known sources (like Stephen Jay Gould) to the most up-to-date breaking scientific studies (for example, evidence that the digestion of hard foods is more costly than soft comes from a scholarly article that at the time of this writing [2009] is in press rather than in print; see p. 255). But it may be that the book as a whole can be characterized mostly as putting together work that others have done.

Still, I do think that there are some very original insights here and that the synthesis itself is distinctive. Wrangham is a biological anthropologist, whose academic work is in the study of chimpanzees. The observations he offers about the differences between the organization of human society and that of other primates seem less derivative and related more closely to his his own empirical observations. I would put in this category the insight that it is food rather than sex that really drives behavior. I was fascinated by the speculations on sex roles in which Wrangham engages, which fly in the face of some traditional explanations of the origin of human society in the regulation of sex relationships. He is quite persuasive that the hunter's need for a cooked meal and the gatherer's need for a protected hearth are more fundamental than the father's desire to know that his children are his own and the mother's appreciation for male help raising and protecting her young.

Whether you agree with everything that Wrangham proposes (or it squares with your own observations and experiences as closely as it did with mine), this is a well written and thought provoking book that should find a wide readership.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Up-ends All Assumptions About the Paleolithic Diet!, August 15, 2009
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
I first encountered Richard Wrangham some years ago, while searching the internet for information on when humans started cooking their food. I came across a video of a talk he gave at the International Association of Culinary Professionals 2005 International Conference called "The Natural Cook: The Significance of Paleo-Gastronomy". It was electrifying. I'd never heard this theory before, and it totally made sense. I bought the talk on CD and then went searching the internet for articles he'd written. So I was excited to see this book.

The reason I was researching whether paleolithic people cooked is because the paleolithic diet defines "good nutrition". People argue endlessly about whether we should eat cooked food or raw, meat or vegetarian, low carb or high carb, etc. The answer to all questions such as these is found in the answer to this question: "What did we evolve eating?" What we are adapted to eat is what we should eat. I talk about this - and how the processed food industry turns our instincts against us - in my own book, "Normal Eating for Normal Weight".

There's a movement of people trying to eat according to the paleolithic diet, and quite a few books attempt to describe what this is (e.g. The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat). The touchstone for what's paleo has always been, "Can you eat it raw?" since it was assumed that cooking came later in human evolution. Wrangham turns this touchstone on its head. If humans are human BECAUSE they cook, if there is no such thing as a human who didn't cook, then there's no reason to believe that we evolved eating only those foods that could be eaten raw.

It was my hope that "Catching Fire" would give an outline of the paleolithic diet in light of this new "cooking" perspective. But it did not, and that is my one disappointment with the book. Traditionally, the paleolithic diet was thought to exclude grain, beans, potatoes, and milk products (and, of course, anything refined or factory processed). Grain, beans, and potatoes cannot be eaten raw, and wild animals cannot be milked. Are grain, beans, and potatoes still to be considered "not paleo" in light of the cooking hypothesis? What was the nutritional profile of the paleo diet - fat, carb, protein? What was the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio? I wish he'd addressed these issues.

Sadly, the only aspect of our modern diet that he addressed was the calorie density of our food, and flaws in how we count calories. He said nothing at all about any other aspect of our modern diet. There is a lot more to nutrition than calories! The book ended with an endorsement of Michael Pollan's recommendation to eat whole, unprocessed foods, but I already knew that. I was hoping for specifics. Maybe Wrangham will write a second book that gives more detail on the nutritional profile of the paleolithic diet, especially as compared to the modern diet. An increase in calorie-dense food is by no means the only difference!

That said, there is much to love in this book. The analysis is brilliant, it's extremely well-documented, and at the same time it's highly readable and often amusing. Some aspects of the theory are disturbing. He gives a very strong argument for how cooking led to a patriarchal social system where women serve men by performing the cooking and all other domestic tasks - a social system that persists to this day.

This is a brilliant book and a great read. It's just oddly lacking in a nutritional profile of the paleolithic diet. I hope he follows up with a second volume.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Culture as biology, June 17, 2009
Jonathan A. Turner (Nashua, NH United States) - See all my reviews
A fascinating and quite compelling argument that the eating of cooked food triggered the evolution of humans' large brains, by providing more usable energy per unit chew. We are accustomed to the notion that our physical evolution has affected our culture, but this is the first strong argument I've seen that the reverse is true as well.

I am intrinsically suspicious of single-causation arguments, but this one is thoroughly researched and very well presented. The only real weakness of the idea is that it's hard to see how anyone could falsify it; in spots (e.g. the discussion of when fire was discovered) the book can't avoid a descent into mere speculation. Quite likely Wrangham hasn't gotten hold of the whole story, but I'm willing to believe he's found an important piece of it.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why cooking mattered, September 11, 2010
K G R "K G R" (Alexandria, VA USA) - See all my reviews
"Catching Fire" is the first book by Richard Wrangham that I have read. I picked up by chance due to the novel and interesting theorum stated on its cover, i.e. that cooking food led to the evolutionary changes that made our primate ancestors into modern humans. I was not disappointed.

The book's main thesis is that cooking food provided an evolutionary advantage due to the overall increased nutrient absorption and digestibility resulting from cooking. Many social and behavioral changes resulted due to the consumption of cooked food, such as male-female pair bondings to hunt, obtain and prepare meat, communities developing around the hunt, and consumption of nutritious tubers and organs that are undigestible when raw leading to more stamina and intelligence.

Wrangham provides ample evidence for his theory. However, he repeatedly presents many of the same ideas in support of this theory. The book frankly became tiring after a certain point due to this repetition. I also do not understand why no pictures were included. For example, comparisons of the different hominid teeth, pictures of the digestion process, fossils, etc. would have been interesting.

But overall the book was a fairly good read, and I would recommend it to anyone seriously interested in human evolution, physical anthropology, or prehistorical cooking.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I Cook Therefore I Am, September 15, 2009
Author and Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham takes a fresh look at what makes us human, and he comes to a conclusion that is both original and in hindsight obvious - cooking. Our capture of fire not only helped us to keep warm and scare off predators, but allowed us to turn difficult to digest and bland edible fare into such mouthwatering delectables as Sacher tortes, cassoulet and 8 treasures rice. More importantly than satisfying our gourmet (or gourmand) instincts, cooking has had profound impact on both our biology and our society. Wrangham skillfully weaves together a number of different lines of evidence, e.g., comparative anatomy, archaeology, biochemistry, anthropology, and sociology, to demonstrate that it is by this simple heating of food we have literally become human. No other animal cooks their food. Even our closest relatives - the primates - have not only very different behaviors around food, but even their taste and anatomy (geared for long hours of chewing and long times and alimentary tracks for processing the food) are quite divergent from hours. Cooking not only improves the flavor, but increases the accessibility to the protein and nutrients. Because we are able to more efficiently extract nutrients from cooked food, in essence our guts could shrink and our brains to grow. Alas, the American diet of late has been effecting the reverse, but that is another series of books. Wrangham extensively documents and cites the research that supports his hypotheses and findings. These notes are fortunately in the end of the book, so they do not distract from the reading. If there is a weakness, it is his repetitive style of writing. The book is divided into chapters that each support one major point in his hypothesis. However, he often repeats the same set of arguments 2 or 3 times within the chapter. This gets tiresome. However, the novelty of his arguments and clarity of his discussion make this book well worth reading.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting read, August 26, 2011
White Raven "zxy" (west sacramento, ca United States) - See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This is an interesting read. It certainly gives one a lot of food for thought. I debated on giving this work four stars since it is entertaining and presents a compelling set of arguments for the role of cooked food in human evolution. I always have problems with any set of arguments that describes one behavior as the driving force in evolution hence three stars. My training is as an archeologist/anthropologist. Much of the discussion in this book looks at hunter/gatherers societies. I found this discussion to be simplistic. In his description of male/female relations in cooking it often sounds as if the male hunts, returns home to a meal, then retires while the women return to the major work in the society. Actually, hunting is inherently dangerous. Sometimes it is unproductive but it can also be deadly. Males can be killed or injured during this activity. Neanderthal bones show wide spread evidence of this inclination to injury. Replacing a skilled, adult male in this kind of economy takes time and training. The discussion also fails to mention the importance of the construction of tools in hunter society. As any anthro student can attest stone knapping is a difficult task that takes time to master. Cut fingers and smashed thumbs are some of the benefits of this activity. Men need tools. Further, there are other forms of hunter/gatherer culture than knocking over large animals. Some cultures use fishing or trapping as a primary means of producing protein. This work also neglects the role of environment in these cultures. A more thorough discussion of seasonality would have helped this work. Hunter/gatherer societies uses management of their ecologies to increase food production. California natives used fire to increase cereal grasses. They also managed plants used in basketry. Village structure grew around the processing of acorns which was the main source of food. There are some very gapping areas in this book but it is still a really interesting read. And I have to say I love any author who writes a book that makes me want to sit down with him and have a good argument. The number of notes scribbled in the margins of this book are a really positive indication of how much I enjoyed reading it. I would like to see him do a follow up and address some of my questions.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why we exist: fire. Another Big Brain Prime Mover., September 4, 2011
Alice Friedemann (Oakland, California) - See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
I've always loved creation myths. How we came to be is a question all cultures ask. The Iroquois believed we were created by the Sky People. The Australian Aborigines by the Sun Mother, the African Bushmen believed people emerged from the depths of the earth, and the Hebrew Bible believes in a god that constructed the universe in seven days and started humans with Adam and Eve.

But it was only the invention of science, which is basically a method of testing reality, that has finally allowed us to understand our true origins. The disciplines of evolution, genetics, and archeology have allowed us to trace our ancestry back millions of years.

Wrangham's book "Catching Fire" makes the case that we couldn't have evolved our large brains without fire.

Fire played a role in our evolution in many ways. We could have never become the "Naked Ape" without fire, or we would have died of cold at night. Losing our hair opened a new niche - we became the best creature on earth at running long distances, and could do it in mid-day heat when furry creatures would have died from overheating (1).

Fire kept dangerous animals at bay, gave us safe food and water by killing bacteria, dried our clothes, signaled friends, made otherwise indigestible or poisonous food edible, and reduced spoilage. Cooked food tastes much better than raw food -just ask Koko the gorilla, who signed that that was why she liked it. Children can be weaned earlier and grow faster. All of the above led to longer lives, which greatly shaped human societies.

When you ask people what's essential to survival, they'll usually say food, water, and shelter. But by the end of this book, I'm sure they'll add fire to the list. We still depend on the "fire" in the fossil fuels powering electric lines, combustion engines, gas stoves, and so on.

Of all the ways fire has helped us, the most important may be due to cooked food having more usable calories than raw food, and cooked food can be consumed much faster. So instead of spending more than six hours a day chewing fruit and leaves like our chimpanzee relatives do, we spend about an hour a day chewing.

The higher number of calories from cooked food versus raw was surprisingly only discovered recently when tests were done on people who've had their large intestines removed. Food was taken out after the small intestine, which is where most of our ability to get nutrition takes place. After that, the bacteria in our large intestine steals most of the remaining food for themselves.

For example, your body can digest 94% of the protein in cooked eggs, but only 65% raw. This is because heat increases the digestibility of protein. Besides heat, proteins are more digestible if denatured in acids like lemon juice - think of ceviche, pickling, marinades, salt, or drying.

If you're a food geek, you'll love all the details Wrangham gives about what cooking does to food, why we get more calories from cooked than raw food, or the minutiae of your digestive system. Perhaps you'll even become a better cook learning how heat breaks down starches and protein, at what temperatures meat is most tender, food safety, and so on.

Wrangham makes the case we're adapted and dependent on cooked food in the first few chapters showing how we've lost the ability to survive on raw food alone. Although more studies need to be done, the current scientific consensus is that a strict diet of raw food does not provide an adequate energy supply. Dieters take note! Yes, there are raw food consumers who are alive and well, so you'll need to read the details to find out why their food is quite different from what our ancestors would have found in the wild.

Rumors that tribal people like the Inuit ate their food raw turned out not to be true. Certainly some food is eaten raw, especially the softer organs like liver or stomach, but most of the calories the Inuit eat are cooked. Women use twigs in summer, and seal oil or blubber to boil meat in the winter.

All species of mammals digest cooked food easier. Farmers like to give cooked swill to their animals because they gain weight much faster. And that's why your pets get so fat, all pet food is cooked.

Our anatomy shows that we've adapted to cooked food. We have weak jaws, and really small mouths and lips compared to our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, who need big mouths, lips, and strong jaws to digest leaves and fruit.

We use 20% of our energy to fuel our brains, which are only 2.5% of our body weight. The average primate uses 13% and mammals 8 to 10% of their energy to fuel their brains.

That energy came from smaller guts, because with cooked food we didn't need to have a large digestive system. Birds also evolved a small gut system, but they put their extra energy into wing muscles. We used the extra energy for brain power, because social intelligence helped people survive longer.

The shorter gut, bigger brain theory is far from proven, and since this book was published many examples of where this not being true have been proposed, so stay tuned to whether this ends up being completely, or partially true as an explanation of how we evolved.

The average human diet is two-thirds starchy food. The finer the flour, the more it's digested, and modern white flour is basically a starchy powder, which is why so many Americans are overweight. Worse yet, these calories are empty since wheat and corn flour has been stripped of protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.

The scientific human origin story unfolds like a mystery novel as each riddle is solved. One riddle that needs to be figured out is when humans first used fire. Unfortunately the evidence of the most ancient fires hasn't survived, but archeologically there is good evidence of fires going back for 790,000 years.

Another riddle is when did we first control fire? We couldn't have depended on cooked food until we could make fire from scratch, which probably happened first in a place where both flint and pyrite rocks existed. When struck together, they make excellent sparks and this method is used by hunter gatherers from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego.

We can also look at the skeletons of our ancestors going back 2 million years to see what and when changes in our anatomy happened. We know from the Grant's study of finches in the Galapagos and other research that evolution can happen very fast. It's likely that we evolved quickly once we became dependent on cooked food.

There have only been three times in the past 2 million years when evolution was so fast that our ancestor species names changed. Atello and Wheeler believe that cooking was responsible for the transition from Homo erectus to homo heidelbergensis 800,000 years ago, but Wrangham believes this transition was much earlier, when Homo erectus emerged over 1.5 million years ago, and explains why and alternative theories for the other times we evolved quickly.

Years ago Species.............Brain Size (Cubic inches)
2,300,000 Homo habilis..........37
1,800,000 Homo erectus..........53
..800,000 Homo heidelbergensis..73
..200,000 Homo sapiens..........85

It's the social ramifications of eating cooked food that may be of the most interest. A division of labor between men and women dramatically changed how we lived and related to one another, freed up time to pursue cultural activities, and made a much higher standard of living possible.

But the dark side is that men used their larger size to get out of the most boring and worst chores. In 98% of all societies, past and present, women do most or all of the cooking. Even in the most egalitarian societies that have ever existed, like the Vanatina of the South Pacific, women did the cooking, washing dishes, fetching water and firewood, sweeping, and so on. Meanwhile the men sat on verandahs chewing betel nuts.

It probably all started as a protection racket - men protected women from being robbed of their food by hungry groups of men in exchange for women cooking their meals.

Bonobo females form fighting alliances to protect themselves from male bullying, but in all other great ape species, including ours, women lose out to men. Although Wrangham says that women can try to use their cooking as a form of empowerment by threatening to leave or not cooking if their husband is too abusive, I believe more than that is needed.

I'm going to step up on a soapbox briefly now because I think the time when might makes right and men grow increasingly abusive is upon us. The days of less energy and scarce resources has arrived. In the future, the only way to get around male domination will be to create strong social support networks among women. For example, after the Chinese revolution in the 1940s, if a woman was beaten by her husband, the other women in her village jointly beat him up so he wouldn't do that again. (2)

Back to the book. In Inuit societies, wives made warm dry hunting clothes, and spent many hours cooking. A man didn't have time to hunt, make clothes, and cook, so a wife was essential to survival. Desperate bachelors often tried to steal other men's wives, usually killing the husband. So men killed strangers on sight to prevent their wives from being stolen.

In the Tiwi culture, old men got the young wives, so 90% of men's first marriages were to widows as old as sixty. But the young men didn't mind, because the wives cooked for them. In most societies, bachelors are miserable.

In the end, Wrangham unravels far more than some of the riddles of the mystery of our creation, but also why we are getting so fat today, and the way that cooking and eating created how humans live and how men and women relate to each other.

(1) Nina Jablonski. 2006. Skin, A Natural History. University of California Press.

(2) William Hinton. 1997. "Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village". University of California Press.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

‹ Previous | 1 210 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First


Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard W. Wrangham (MP3 CD - April 9, 2013)
$14.99 $11.54
In Stock
Add to cart Add to wishlist
Search these reviews only
Rate and Discover Movies
Send us feedback How can we make Amazon Customer Reviews better for you? Let us know here.