Reveling in Books: Catching Fire

Catching Fire

“If there hadn’t been women we’d still be squatting in a cave eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to impress our girl friends. And they tolerated it and let us go ahead and play with our toys.”
Orson Welles, actor, director, producer, writer (1915-1985)

My big Homo-sapiens brain caught on fire while reading Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), by Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham.

The truth is this: Catching Fire is one of the most exciting and stimulating books that I have read in a very, very long time. Weeks after turning the last of the 206 pages, I continue to mull over what Wrangham wrote.

Anyone who cooks at all knows that cooking separates us from the so-called “lower animals.”  The subject of cooking, until now, never lit the fires of many scholars.

Those scholars who did examine cooking skirted around the issue, mostly peering at fire as the main focus and going no further. Wrangham briefly discusses several of these previous commentators on the subject, including Charles Darwin, Claude Levi-Strauss. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and Michael Symons.

But Wrangham takes cooking to a much higher level. A whole new latitude, actually.

And a mere 500 words won’t quite do justice to Wrangham’s radical ideas, which he calls “the cooking hypothesis.” Catching Fire essentially tosses out the entrenched “Man-the-Hunter” hypothesis, “because it does not explain how hunting was possible without the economic support gathered foods provided.” And “it does not solve a key problem concerning the anatomy of Homo erectus, which had small jaws and small teeth that were poorly adapted for eating the tough raw meat of game animals.”

As Wrangham says, “Something else must have been going on.”

The first groundbreaking idea Wrangham proposes is that cooking literally made us human. By changing our bodies from the form common to primates (large pelvises for holding large guts, large teeth for chewing raw foods, and smaller brains), cooking triggered evolution of the human species. The act of cooking food made food softer, more easily chewed, and better digested, enabling the emergence of Homo erectus from the habilines and Australopithecus.

The second groundbreaking idea presented in Wrangham’s book lies in what occurred once the brain caught up to the body. With larger brains, proto-human ancestors — by not having to spend hours chewing raw food* — could devote more energy to hunting and developing social structures.

Photo credit: Steve Wall
Photo credit: Steve Wall

One of those social structures was pair-bonding, or marriage, between male and female members of the species, thanks to the sexual division of labor generated by cooking. And the other was the need for individuals to maintain enough self-restraint to sit around the fire and eat together, thus beginning the social structure that characterizes humans over chimpanzees and other primates. One of the outcomes of this, according to Wrangham who co-authored Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, turns out to be the definition of gender roles.

Cooks needed protection from marauding bands, mostly unattached males, so the pair-bonding grew up at first as an economic arrangement for the sharing of food between a stronger male and a cooking female. Sex, according to Wrangham, came second in this arrangement. Females fed their males and not other males. In conclusion, Wrangham writes,

Cooking freed women’s time and fed their children, but it also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated culture. Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture.

Filled with well-thought-out arguments and augmented with examples taken from archaeological evidence, primate studies, and observations of modern hunter-gatherer groups, Wrangham’s Catching Fire could turn evolutionary theory on its ear. Cooking has, up until recently, played an immensely important part in day-to-day life, especially for women, and that Wrangham has questioned its being put on the backburner by scholars is to be commended. Much of what he says cannot be proven absolutely, but that is what a hypothesis does: it provides a question and a probable route to the answer.

Yes, anyone who cooks knows in their heart the aptness of much of what Wrangham proposes in his controversial book.

Photo credit: Aaron Wagner
Photo credit: Aaron Wagner

Especially the part about people sitting around the fire (a euphemism for today’s table?) and the sense of peace that comes from the gazing into flames. Is it possible that our cells remember?

*Chapter 1 refutes the argument of raw-foodists and makes for fascinating reading. Wrangham uses the chapter to set the stage for his theories on the importance of cooking in human evolution and history.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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4 comments

  • Mae, one more thought just occurred to me in regard to your question: what we are talking about with animals is innate behavior, whereas with humans (we’d like to think anyway!) is due to culture or learned/acquired behavior and status.

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  • There were such traits beforehand, obviously due to child-bearing, etc. Wrangham is talking mostly about food-related behavior, and how that solidified sex-related labor differences. Wrangham bases his argument on his observations of the behavior of apes, saying that their food behavior is very different from that of humans. Apparently there’s not much difference between apes gender-wise when it comes to food. Don’t forget, it’s not fire per se that created this difference, but the act of cooking. At least according to the hypothesis.

    Much food for thought. I encourage you to read the book and I would like to hear what you think if you do.

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  • I haven’t read the book, but I’m curious about the claims about pair bonding and sex-role differentiation being due to cooking. These traits are shared by many other species, including many birds, so fire isn’t necessary for their development. Is there clear evidence that these traits were absent prior to our species learning to cook?

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