163 of 177 people found the following review helpful
A brilliant and important hypothesis,
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This review is from: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 12, 2009 11:46:43 AM PDT
Lowell Erickson says:
I found the mammaries-rather-than-males counter-theory quite interesting. Always fun to theorize about things we can never subject to laboratory experimentation.
Posted on Aug 30, 2009 7:13:09 AM PDT
Diana Allen says:
"No known cases of a modern human surviving on raw food for more than a month"?! That's funny. There are plenty of people alive today who have been living on raw foods for years! Which is not to say that all people should eat only raw foods, or only cooked foods or any specific combination of the two. The proper ratio of raw to cooked food for each person may be determined by many factors - always with respect to biochemical individuality as well as personal preference.
Fire undoubtedly both changed and created Homo sapiens, and cooking was certainly one fire-based influence of this evolutionary change. But it is wrong to conclude that today, cooking provides superior nutrition and should be hence considered the preparation method of choice. Every scientist knows that, as one example, the cooking of vegetables reduces nutrient content, destroys B-vitamins, denatures proteins including enzymes, destroys fiber integrity, etc. Just because our prehistoric ancestors started doing something accidentally doesn't make it the most educated choice for health in the twenty-first century!
Speaking as a clinical nutritionist, I find Wrangham's research to be excellent and his hypothesis compelling. But the author's apparent need to prove a point (cooked food diet=good, raw food diet=bad) prevents him from following his data all the way to its logical conclusion. See my article Eat to Evolve to learn more.
Diana Allen, MS, CNS
Posted on Sep 9, 2009 7:13:38 PM PDT
Interestingly, when I was in college in the early 1970's I heard Louis Leakey say in a lecture, "the drilling of holes preceded the growth of the hominid brain". His point was that harnessing fire was a formative step in human evolution. I haven't yet read the book but the enthusiasm of this reviewer and others, and the intriguing topic, have me reserving it at the local library.
Posted on Sep 26, 2009 5:06:24 AM PDT
Arthur Veilleux says:
A wonderful review. It certainly increases my desire to read the book. However, I find point three, that fire permits loss of fur, to be quite far-fetched. As a long time camper I know that being near a fire warms the body, but it is no substitute for covering. And you can't spend all your time around it. Heat dissipation for speedy and prolonged running alone is a better bet as to why we have evolved hairless.
Posted on Oct 13, 2009 10:34:28 AM PDT
Perkka Saami says:
I was disappointed that he didn't talk more about the role cooking plays in destroying zoonoses. In my view that is the major contribution fire made to human evolution: it exempted us from diseases communicated through raw food.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 28, 2009 3:13:43 PM PDT
Salty Saltillo says:
I would have thought the advent of hunting larger game (perhaps together with fire) made us less hairy insofar as it made the hair-genes less relevant to reproductive fitness. A hominid born with less hair could survive and reproduce because whatever disadvantages being less hairy presented could be compensated with the addition of animal skins and furs. Somewhere in there, some sort of selection preference for less hairy mates may have emerged as well, although I personally cannot think of an explanation.
Posted on Nov 15, 2009 10:12:02 PM PST
Glenn D. Taylor says:
Yes, I have to agree: this author has an interesting theory but after reading a couple of the above exerpts I feel his scientific background is highly suspect. Most people in reasonable health can survive on NO food for three months, or more. A good example of the reverse scientific method.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2009 8:53:39 AM PST
M. Clark says:
The sexual prefence point surely has a place here. Males have taken great pains (pun) to be clean-shaven even before the development of the safety razor. Does having a hairless face promote hunting? I mean for animals, not females.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 13, 2010 2:56:20 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 13, 2010 2:58:06 AM PDT
Robert Ruddy says:
Its true that raw foodists in an affluent society where one can purchase a wide range of raw foods, domestic and foreign along with modern conveniences to facilitate meal preparation, i.e. food processors, can survive on a raw food diet. This is the raw foodist's perfect world. Despite that, the raw foodist still faces physical problems due to deficiencies. I'd like to see how a raw foodist would make out in a less affluent country or better yet I'd like to see a raw foodist survive in the wilderness living only on what the local environment can provide.
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 15, 2012 9:26:08 PM PST
Steven Smallwood says:
It is not the affluence of a region that allows for raw foodism. Here in South Korea, I have been a "raw foodist" for a year now, and I find it extremely difficult. The society offers the cutting edge as far as appliances go. The difficulty does not come from lack of tools, it comes from lack of produce. Cold climates are difficult to survive while eating only raw food. In the winter, I find myself eating mainly leafy greens and a small selection of mostly imported fruit (from the non-affluent countries). If I had the opportunity, I would live in a tropical climate, eating a diet of leafy greens, fruits, and occasionally insects. I am interested to know which deficiencies you are speaking of? I recently had blood panels done, out of curiosity, and I had no deficiencies. I supplement vitamin b12, and I supplement vitamin D in the winter. I only supplement b12 because there are no insects available to me. As a side note, did you know that the "in 1936 the U.S. congress found that 99% of Americans were deficient in some minerals?" Other than b-12 and vitamin D, it is clearly a fine option to eat only raw foods while having no nutritional deficiencies. Here, I will prove it-- this is an average day of raw food for me: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/recip
"Many people have heard that vegans are low in B-12. That's absolutely true. Meat-eaters are deficient, too. There is a minimum level of B-12 you need to survive and a maximum level that is optimal for long-term health. At the minimum level, (180-200 nano-grams of B-12), 80% of vegans are deficient, but 40% of meat eaters are deficient at these levels as well. When you look at optimal intake of B-12, (400 units in your blood), meat eaters are equally deficient. It is likely that 90% of meat eaters and vegans are deficient at optimal levels. The best thing for everyone is to take a B-12 supplement. When I was at Columbia Medical School in the 1960's, they did a study that found that 30% of people judged to have adequate B-12 levels (mostly meat-eaters), had dramatically positive responses to getting B-12 shots. Depression went away, and sense of wellbeing was reported in many study participants. Even in 1960's they knew that on average people are low in B-12. I just want to emphasize the point that everybody is low in B-12. It is a big problem."
Quotes taken from Gabriel Cousens