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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by…
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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009)

by Richard Wrangham

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As I live in an area that is perhaps the world capital of raw food veganism, the contrarian in me just had to read How Cooking Made Us Human. [disclaimer: I'm naturally a quasi-vegetarian, although I eat plenty of fish, eggs & poultry] Wrangham's thesis is a fairly simple one: it's not "man" the hunter but rather "man" the fire-tender and cook who best explains the change from australopithecine (habiline)to human (homo erectus). As cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food, less energy has to be expended in chewing and digesting raw foods, which allows us to have smaller intestines than our ancestors the great apes and frees up energy for our larger brains. ("Cooked food is better than raw food because life is mostly concerned with energy. So from an evolutionary perspective, if cooking causes a loss of vitamins or creates a few long-term toxic compounds, the effect is relatively unimportant compared to the impact of more calories.") Wrangham posits a secondary claim that is both intriguing and more debatable. He proposes cooking as the technical invention that "made possible one of the most distinctive features of human society: the modern form of the sexual division of labor." He goes on to say that while men have historically engaged in cooking when alone or for ceremonial purposes, domestic cooking has been an almost exclusively female activity. And it is to the dominant male's need to secure his source of cooked food and the physically "smaller and weaker" female's need for a "food guard" that we can attribute the advent of patriarchy. Thus, in the author's view, the advent of patriarchy dates not from the invention of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago, but rather much earlier, at the very beginnings of our species. I find this argument a bit reductive as it fails to explain how human females came to be "smaller and weaker" in the first place. If sexual selection prompts humans of both sexes to choose the most evolutionarily fit and healthy members of the opposite sex for reproduction and if size and strength are accurate indicators of such fitness and health, then it would make sense that females would choose larger and stronger males as mates and that over time, size differences between the sexes would increase. However, wouldn't males also choose larger and stronger females as more reproductively fit with the result of equalizing size and strength between the genders? That said, I can't help finding some amusement in the author's statement that "females feed males to reward them for behaving well." How Cooking Made Us Human presents a strong argument for cooked food as THE cultural innovation that resulted in humans, while leaving some questions unanswered regarding the advent of patriarchy with its division of labor and attribution of social power and status according to gender.
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  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
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 sued 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. ( )
  MarkBeronte | Mar 4, 2014 |
By the halfway point, I was thinking, "okay! I'm convinced! Enough!" ( )
  Turrean | Feb 15, 2014 |
OK, forget the raw food movement. This book presents an interesting theory that a breakthrough moment in human evolution was when man began cooking his food. Cooking the food allowed more calories to be absorbed, changing the shape of primates from having large digestive tracts to large brains. Although the book is very technical, it is presented in a way such that people without a background in biology or anthropology can easily understand. I especially enjoyed the chapters on how social roles developed - males hunting and females cooking. Very informative! ( )
  jmoncton | Jun 3, 2013 |
Excellent overview of the importance of food in human evolution. While not 100% persuasive--I think that an uncooked diet based on sashimi would be quite palatable--Wrangham presents a research-based thesis full of new (for me) ideas. Nearly a third of the book is given over to footnotes and bibliography, so while the book is written for a general audience, the curious or academic reader can delve into the professional literature. ( )
  IreneF | May 9, 2013 |
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More of a discussion than a review, but some review commentary: In “Catching Fire” he has delivered a rare thing: a slim book — the text itself is a mere 207 pages — that contains serious science yet is related in direct, no-nonsense prose. It is toothsome, skillfully prepared brain food.
 
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Epigraph
[Fire] provides us warmth on cold nights; it is the means by which they prepare their food, for they eat nothing save a few fruits ... the Andamanese believe it is the possession of fire that makes human beings what they are and distinguishes them from animals. -- A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, The Andaman Islanders: A Study in Social Anthropology (epigraph to introduction, p.1)
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The question is old: Where do we come from?
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Although the australopithecines were far different from us, in the big scheme of things they lived not so long ago. Imagine going to a sporting event with sixty thousand seats around the stadium. You arrive early with your grandmother, and the two of you take the first seats. Next to your grandmother sits her grandmother, your great-great-grandmother. The stadium fills with the ghosts of preceding grandmothers. An hour later the seat next to you is occupied by the last to sit down, the ancestor of you all. ... She is your ancestor and an australopithecine, hardly a companion your grandmother can be expected to enjoy. She grabs an overhead beam and swings away over the crowd to steal some peanuts from a vendor. (Introduction, pp. 2-3)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465013627, Hardcover)

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 sued 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:06:36 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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