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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human Hardcover – May 26, 2009

4.4 out of 5 stars 141 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Contrary to the dogmas of raw-foods enthusiasts, cooked cuisine was central to the biological and social evolution of humanity, argues this fascinating study. Harvard biological anthropologist Wrangham (Demonic Males) dates the breakthrough in human evolution to a moment 1.8 million years ago, when, he conjectures, our forebears tamed fire and began cooking. Starting with Homo erectus—who should perhaps be renamed Homo gastronomicus—these innovations drove anatomical and physiological changes that make us adapted to eating cooked food the way cows are adapted to eating grass. By making food more digestible and easier to extract energy from, Wrangham reasons, cooking enabled hominids' jaws, teeth and guts to shrink, freeing up calories to fuel their expanding brains. It also gave rise to pair bonding and table manners, and liberated mankind from the drudgery of chewing (while chaining womankind to the stove). Wrangham's lucid, accessible treatise ranges across nutritional science, paleontology and studies of ape behavior and hunter-gatherer societies; the result is a tour de force of natural history and a profound analysis of cooking's role in daily life. More than that, Wrangham offers a provocative take on evolution—suggesting that, rather than humans creating civilized technology, civilized technology created us. (June)
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Publishers Weekly
“[A] fascinating study… Wrangham's lucid, accessible treatise ranges across nutritional science, Paleontology and studies of ape behavior and hunter-gatherer societies; the result is a tour de force of natural history and a profound analysis of cooking's role in daily life.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review
“[A] fascinating study… Wrangham’s lucid, accessible treatise ranges across nutritional science, paleontology and studies of ape behavior and hunter-gatherer societies; the result is a tour de force of natural history and a profound analysis of cooking’s role in daily life.”

Kirkus Reviews
“An innovative argument that cooked food led to the rise of modern Homo sapiens.... Experts will debate Wrangham’s thesis, but most readers will be convinced by this lucid, simulating foray into popular anthropology.”

The Harvard Brain
“With clear and engaging prose, Catching Fire addresses a key and enduring scientific issue central to the quest to understand our species. It offers new insights for anyone interested in human evolution, history, anthropology, nutrition, and for everyone interested in food."

Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University
“In this thoroughly researched and marvelously well written book, Richard Wrangham has convincingly supplied a missing piece in the evolutionary origin of humanity.”

Matt Ridley, author of Genome and The Agile Gene
“Cooking completely transformed the human race, allowing us to live on the ground, develop bigger brains and smaller mouths, and invent specialized sex roles. This notion is surprising, fresh and, in the hands of Richard Wrangham, utterly persuasive. He brings to bear evidence from chimpanzees, fossils, food labs, and dieticians. Big, new ideas do not come along often in evolution these days, but this is one.”

Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible and How to Grill; host of Primal Grill
“A book of startling originality and breathtaking erudition. Drawing on disciplines as diverse as anthropology, sociology, biology, chemistry, physics, literature, nutrition, and cooking, Richard Wrangham addresses two simple but very profound questions: How did we evolve from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens, and what makes us human? The answer can be found at your barbecue grill and I dare say it will surprise you…”

Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma
Catching Fire is convincing in argument and impressive in its explanatory power. A rich and important book.”

Seed Magazine
“…makes a convincing case for the importance of cooking in the human diet, finding a connection between our need to eat cooked food in order to survive and our preference for soft foods. The popularity of Wonderbread, the digestion of actual lumps of meat, and the dangers of indulging our taste buds all feature in this expository romp through our gustatory evolution.”

Discover Magazine

The New York Times
“‘Catching Fire’ is a plain-spoken and thoroughly gripping scientific essay that presents nothing less than a new theory of human evolution...one that Darwin (among others) simply missed.”

“Brilliant… a fantastically weird way of looking at evolutionary change.”

The San Francisco Chronicle
“As new angles go, it's pretty much unbeatable.”

The Washington Post
“Wrangham draws together previous studies and theories from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, biology, chemistry, sociology and literature into a cogent and compelling argument.”

Texas Observer
“Wrangham’s attention to the most subtle of behaviors keeps the reader enrapt…a compelling picture, and one that I now contemplate every time I turn on my stove."

Providence Journal
“Richard Wrangham presents this thesis in a concise, cogent, and accessible way.”

The New York Times Book Review
“A new theory of human evolution – ‘the cooking hypothesis’ – is related in plain-spoken, gripping language.”


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (May 26, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465013627
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465013623
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (141 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #441,824 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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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.
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