- 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 (154 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #440,804 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human Hardcover – May 26, 2009
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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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“[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.”
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Drawing on a number of food studies, ethnographic data, as well as his own primatological research, Dr. Wrangham argues that the transition from Homo habilis to Homo erectus would be impossible without a regular supply of cooked food. Citing the general unpalatability and undigestibility of a chimp's diet for modern humans, the seeming energy deficit seen in raw food proponents, the chemical changes that occur in foods that are cooked and the subsequent absorption of the unlocked calories, and the increasing reduction of our early ancestors' gastrointestinal tract through the millennia, he is convinced that the utilization of fire for cooking has its origins much farther in the past than the current evidence from the archaeological record tells us. The discrepancy between the archaeological record and his claim is around 1 million years, an incredibly large gap to bridge. In the latter third of the book, Wrangham makes the tangential argument that cooking is also what spurred our cultural evolution, e.g., concepts such as pair-bonding and the sexual division of labor, through the creation of a sort of "protection racket" that guards women from food thieves and ensures men a ready supply of food.
While I did enjoy reading Dr. Wrangham's book and readily admit that he makes some interesting and valid points, I am not convinced of the veracity of his hypothesis, especially in the light of more recent research on the variability and actions of the microbiome present in the digestive tracts of animals. In presenting his case for the need of cooked food for an increased energy supply in late habilines/early erectus, he ignores the fact that much of the successive change in the musculoskeletal morphology leading to our species had the effect of allowing us to conserve energy through increased efficiency of movement.
This does not necessarily mean that Dr. Wrangham is incorrect. However, the gaps in his arguments, coupled with the gaps in our own knowledge, have effectively rendered the cooking hypothesis unfalsifiable. There very well may come a time when the available physical evidence supports his position, but for now the only appropriate response is one of interest, skepticism, and further research.
Put briefly that major points of his argument are as follows. The emergence of humans in their modern form (still an imperfect work in progress. in my humble opinion) requires that we explain a couple of tricky things. One is the physiological changes that separate us from earlier species of hominid and from other primates. Another thing to be explained is the set of cultural changes. The thread Wrangham traces has to do with cooking as a central nexus.
Unfortunately, campfires do not fossilize well, so it is kind of hard to get comprehensive evidence. On the other hand, Wrangham cites good circumstantial evidence that the human mastery of fire (and with it cooking) started during the time of homo erectus, about 1.9 million years ago. One of the things that cooking does as increase the availability of nutrients in food. (It also makes it taste better). The connection Wrangham draws is enabled a process where are guts got smaller and our brains got bigger. The two are connected because the energy to power a bigger brain had to come from somewhere and most of the other organs in the body just could not be cut back by much. Cooking also has an inherent social component (or at least it did until we decided to outsource it to corporations), That provides a hook for the argument of cultural changes.
While anthropology is a science, it is a social science. I doubt it will ever be a science in the same sense as physics. Any argument like Wrangham's will always be vulnerable to the Gouldian argument of providing a "just so story." That said Wrangham provides us with a well researched argument and an extremely well written and interesting book. Strongly recommended.