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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human Paperback – September 7, 2010
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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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.”
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.”
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."
[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.”
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.”
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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.
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.
What does that mean? How has it affected our history as a species? What does cooking do to food and to us?
Dr. Wrangham lays it out with the best evidence we have from history, anthropolgy, archeology, biology, primatology and a little biochemistry. This isn't a "scientific detective story". It's a literature review expanded into book length with explanations for the intelligent layman and needs to be seen this way. The point of the exercise isn't to entertain, although it shouldn't bore the reader. It is to inform and give the general shape of a subject.
The book succeeds wonderfully at this. It lays out how cooking (profoundly) affected our evolution and our most basic social impulses.
The first and last thing it does is deal a few well-placed body blows to raw food fadism. Our relatives have mouths and jaws and digestion well adapted for raw food. We don't. Our tiny teeth, weak jaws, shortened guts and universal preference for easily-assimilated cooked foods represent important evolutionary trade-offs which allowed us to develop our large brains. Much, perhaps too much, evidence is given for this. But it turns out to be important. One of the things which distinguishes us from the other great apes is processing food with heat to make the nutrients more available.
What are the implications? They are shown to be profound from the institution of marriage to food sharing as one of the fundamental human social rituals. It's all clearly laid out and well-developed.
This is what Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality should have been but didn't quite live up to. It will change the way you think about everyday things.