Book Review: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham

The fact that we humans are different from our ape cousins is self evident. We have bigger brains, walk upright and we make and use tools. But ever since the publication in 1871 of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man the question was and is how we got to be so different.

Richard Wrangahm offers us a good, new answer to that question in his book: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The answer is simply that we cook our food. Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University and also the Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology for Peabody Museum, so he knows of what he speaks.

Written in clear, accessible prose the book draws on diverse scientific disciplines such as Wrangham’s own studies of ape behavior, paleontology, biology, chemistry, sociology, physics, and nutritional science as well as studies of hunter-gathers to draw the conclusion that cooking “made” humans, well, human.

Wrangham knowledgably speculates that about 1.8 million years ago our ancestors brought fire under control, turning it from a fearful destroyer to a tame helper and then cooking was invented. According to Wrangham, it was this ability to cook that drove the development of the first “true” humans, homo erectus. Cooking started to drive evolution. The ability to cook and eat cooked food gave a huge advantage to our forbearers. It made food easier to chew and digest and therefore less body energy was required for these activities allowing more investment into hunting and gathering. Further homo erectus’ body started to change; teeth and jaws became smaller, as did the digestive tract and more calories started to go to the burgeoning brain.

Cooking also drove social changes. Cooking created the pair-bond and specialized sex-roles. Wrangham makes the point that monogamy developed as a deal in which men would provide and protect the food source, while women cooked it. In short men hunted and defended the food, while women prepared it. This wandering into evolutionary psychology is Wrangham’s weakest argument, but he doesn’t put too much reliance on it.

Finding new, interesting and sweeping ideas in the field of evolutionary science are rare. Even rarer is a clear, concise and truly fascinating treatise on these any of these big new ideas. Wrangham has written just such a book with Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

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