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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Humanby Richard Wrangham
Richard Wrangham's lucid, fascinating book presents a strong case that the act of harnessing the power of fire to cook food might have created modern humanity. Convincing, thoughtful, and beautifully written, Catching Fire is a surprising look at the evolution of our species.
Synopses & Reviews
Click here to listen to an interview with the author (or right-click and select 'Save As' to download it to your computer).
Ever since Darwin and The Descent of Man, the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. But in Catching Fire, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking.
In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Wrangham shows that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution. When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began. Once our hominid ancestors began cooking their food, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be used instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a sexual division of labor.
Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors' diets, Catching Fire sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. A pathbreaking new theory of human evolution, Catching Fire will provoke controversy and fascinate anyone interested in our ancient origins — or in our modern eating habits.
"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)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Richard Wrangham is no fan of raw-food diets. It's not the faddish nature of the programs, which forbid followers to heat foods above 118 degrees to preserve their "life force." Nor is it the religious-like fervor of the diet's adherents. Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist, rejects raw food because the process of cooking is what makes us fundamentally human. In his new book, "Catching... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Fire," Wrangham argues that cooking, not meat-eating or social interdependence, is what differentiates us from other animals. Almost 2 million years ago cooked food helped a new species, homo erectus, with its large brain and small gut, emerge. And cooking is responsible for the development of agrarian societies, traditional gender roles and division of labor. In short, without a hot dinner, we would still be apes. Wrangham is not the first to connect cooking to evolution; Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gastronomist, suggested as much when he wrote in 1825: "It is by fire that man has tamed Nature itself." But Wrangham draws together previous studies and theories from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, biology, chemistry, sociology and literature into a cogent and compelling argument. Take the issue of digestion. Wrangham makes the case that our ability to heat food and thereby soften it spares our bodies a lot of hard work. And the calories saved in easy digestion reserve energy for other types of physical and intellectual activity. To understand why, simply consider how you feel after eating a light meal versus a heavy one. That shrimp salad demands less work from your intestines and makes you feel energetic afterwards; the 16-ounce steak makes you want to take a nap while your body attacks and breaks down the meal. The same differences apply to softer, cooked food versus raw, unprocessed food. Our ancestors instinctively understood these benefits. Even when cooking wasn't possible, they found ways to soften or tenderize food. Steak tartare, for example, is thought to get its name from the Tartars who rode in Genghis Khan's army. Moving swiftly and without time to make camp or cook a hot meal, the riders would put slabs of meat under their saddles, riding on them all day until they were tender enough to eat. Softer food can be eaten more quickly than raw food, and that fact has allowed the human species to reallocate the way it spends its time. In the Western world, men and women each spend an average of five percent of their time chewing, about 36 minutes in a 12-hour day, Wrangham reports. Raw food, in contrast, must be chewed longer. For a human being to eat the same diet as a great ape, researchers estimate that we would have to dedicate 42 percent or five hours simply to breaking down our food. With more free time, societies developed. Male hunters went farther afield in search of a prize, confident that they could get enough calories in a short time from cooked grains, nuts and berries collected by the community's gatherers. Women were bound to the fire. "Cooking freed women's time and fed their children but it also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated culture," Wrangham writes. "Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority." Similar fascinating details are often lacking in Tom Standage's "An Edible History of Humanity." The book is a follow-up to the author's previous, best-selling "History of the World in Six Glasses," which examined how beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola have influenced world history. Here, Standage, the business editor at the Economist magazine, applies the same principle to food, exploring the ways it fueled trade, industrialization and war. Standage begins with the invention of farming and how the ability to grow food led to the rise of cities and modern society. He looks at how food was used as power — village chiefs bestowed it as a reward and took it away as punishment — and at how population growth in England and a looming food shortage led to wholesale industrialization of the economy. As a food writer, I find it encouraging to see Standage acknowledge the sweeping role that food has played in history. But by isolating the topic, he makes his attempt to put food at the center sometimes feel flat or even false. Take his examination of food as a "fuel of war." He's right that the ability to feed soldiers affected military tactics; food supplies were key concerns in Napoleon's march on Russia and the British fight against American revolutionaries. But so was the weather. Standage admits that no "single food holds the key to understanding history." Still, after a whole chapter about food and war, it's disappointing when he suddenly excuses any holes in his theory with caveats such as "logistical considerations alone do not determine the outcome of military conflicts but unless an army is properly fed, it cannot get to the battlefield in the first place." He also falls short by illustrating his points with famous moments in history. In discussing famine, he cites the 19th-century Irish potato famine and 20th-century starvations under Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. They are, of course, dramatic examples, but any student of history will know the outlines already. The book sometimes feels like an obligatory "Intro to Food History" textbook. Still, like Wrangham, Standage succeeds in underscoring the crucial role that food continues to play in our lives. Thousands of years ago, the invention of agriculture shaped early societies. Today, it connects us to global debates about trade and the environment. The book is further proof of the gastronomist Brillat-Savarin's truism, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." Jane Black is a staff writer for The Washington Post Food section. Reviewed by Jane Black, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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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." Publishers Weekly
A startling new theory that the invention of cooking led to the creation of the human species.
In this stunningly original book, a renowned primatologist argues that cooking created the human race. A groundbreaking new theory of evolution, Catching Fire offers a startlingly original argument about how we have come to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today.
Until two million years ago, our ancestors were apelike beings the size of chimpanzees. Then Homo erectus was born and we became human. What caused this extraordinary transformation?
In this stunningly original book, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham argues that cooking created the human race. At the heart of Catching Fire lies an explosive new idea: The habit of eating cooked rather than raw food permitted the digestive tract to shrink and the human brain to grow, helped structure human society, and created the male-female division of labor. As our ancestors adapted to using fire, humans emerged as "the cooking apes."
A groundbreaking new theory of evolution, Catching Fire offers a startlingly original argument about how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today.
About the Author
Richard Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University and Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology at the Peabody Museum. He is the co-author of Demonic Males and co-editor of Chimpanzee Cultures. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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