Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Publishers Weekly
“[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, starred review
“[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.”

Kirkus Reviews
“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.”

Seed Magazine
“…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.”

Discover Magazine
“…fascinating…”

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.”

Slate.com
“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.”

Texas Observer
“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."

Providence Journal
“Richard Wrangham presents this thesis in a concise, cogent, and accessible way.”

The New York Times Book Review
“A new theory of human evolution – ‘the cooking hypothesis’ – is related in plain-spoken, gripping language.”

Jane Black
Wrangham draws together previous studies and theories from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, biology, chemistry, sociology and literature into a cogent and compelling argument
—The Washington Post
Dwight Garner
Catching Fire is a plain-spoken and thoroughly gripping scientific essay that presents nothing less than a new theory of human evolution…[Wrangham] 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.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

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.
Kirkus Reviews
An innovative argument that cooked food led to the rise of modern Homo sapiens. Wrangham (Biological Anthropology/Harvard Univ.; co-author: Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, 1996, etc.), the curator of Primate Behavioral Biology at the Peabody Museum, begins by demolishing the fashionable raw-food movement. Despite claims that raw food is the natural human diet, the author finds no culture, however primitive, that doesn't cook. Studies show that a pure raw-food diet provides adequate nutrients but insufficient energy; subjects lose weight and half the women stop menstruating, a sign of malnutrition. Compared to apes, our gastrointestinal tracts (lips, mouth, jaws, teeth, stomach, colon) are tiny. The reason, he asserts, is that cooked food is calorie-dense, soft and easy to digest. Searching for and consuming food occupies most of the day for all primates except humans. Chimps spend six hours per day chewing, humans about one. Searching the fossil record, Wrangham describes earlier hominids, pinpointing the cooking revolution at the appearance of our direct ancestor, Homo erectus, in Africa 1.8 million years ago. "Cooking was responsible for the evolution of Homo erectus," he writes. Many anthropologists focus on its larger brain, larger body size and more stable upright posture. Wrangham emphasizes its smaller teeth and narrower rib cage and pelvis, which indicate a smaller gut. Sadly, the author concludes, modern, sedentary humans get fat, not because our bodies remain adapted to the constant threat of starvation but because we love our calorie-rich diet. Apes in captivity don't grow fat unless fed cooked food. Experts will debate Wrangham's thesis, but most readerswill be convinced by this lucid, simulating foray into popular anthropology. Author tour to Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465013623
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 5/26/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. He is coauthor of Demonic Males, and has been featured on NPR and in the Boston Globe, New Scientist, and Scientific American. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Cooking Hypothesis 1

1 Quest for Raw-Foodists 15

2 The Cook's Body 37

3 The Energy Theory of Cooking 55

4 When Cooking Began 83

5 Brain Foods 105

6 How Cooking Frees Men 129

7 The Married Cook 147

8 The Cook's Journey 179

Epilogue: The Well-Informed Cook 195

Acknowledgments 209

Notes 213

Bibliography 257

Index 289

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 24, 2010

    Pretty interesting

    A pretty interesting read. I would not recommend this book if you are not interested in human evolution. But if you are, I think you will find this as a good interesting read. After you think about the basic ideas behind his theory it makes a lot of sense, especially when comparing our species to other mammalian species. Also, he does site a lot of examples with native tribes around the world, especially Aborigines and the Bush people. But all in all, a very good book!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 7, 2010

    Revolutionary Theory on Human Evolution

    The question is old: Where do we come from? Contemporary evolutionists point out that we, as with all other organisms, are the result of eons of genetic mutations caused by environmental pressures. However, Richard Wrangham draws an eye-opening conclusion in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human; the invention of fire and hence cooking has shaped our intrinsic evolution from both biological and sociological standpoints, ultimately changing our own evolution as a species. Wrangham arrives at this powerful conclusion by drawing from various contemporary and archeological sources as well as evidence from gastronomical and chemical processes. Catching Fire sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today and provokes controversy by examining a different angle of human evolution. Wrangham first unravels the question of why humans are the only species to purposefully cook their food. Conventional wisdom has assumed that since humans are animals and animals eat raw food, ergo humans can eat and survive on raw food. However, since our gastronomical tract has evolved, we cannot efficiently process uncooked food. Wrangham draws an interesting conclusion that this was crucial for humans from an evolutionary standpoint. By unlocking caloric food potential through cooking by denaturing macromolecules, humans were able to expend less energy processing food and evolved a much smaller gut and the ability to travel long distances. In turn, this soon shaped our sociological viewpoints forming the rudiments of male-female interaction. That is, women becoming locked into cooking since raising infants and cooking are mainly stationary tasks. In essence, the author provides that human evolutionary success depends merely on inventiveness. Taken to extremes, our species seems to be free to create our own ecology, shaping the path of our evolution. The book gains its main strengths from anecdotes and relevant scientific studies pertaining to the chapter of choice. The informal writing style draws the reader in and assumes the appearance of enjoyable, novelistic writing rather than a hard, fact-driven scientific book. Scientific anecdotes merely enforce the logical thinking of the author as he divulges in various thought-provoking ideas. Wrangham weaves these together so elegantly that Catching Fire convinces and impresses the reader in argument and its explanatory power. However, the weakness in this book is mainly the repetitiveness. The author unfortunately states his main conclusions in the introduction and refers back to them again and again. His masterful work shows how cooking was and continues to be an essential part of humanity. Overall, Catching Fire was both an important and a highly enjoyable read.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 3, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Interesting and Innovative

    Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham provides an interesting and in-depth look at how the progression from raw to cooked food that has helped humanity evolve from an ape-like creature to today's Homo sapiens actually took place quite earlier than most scientists had realized. Wrangham seeks to show that the cooking of food began with the early human ancestor named the habilines instead of a much later descendent. To set up his theories, Wrangham begins by proving that cooked food is inherently more energy-beneficial than raw food and that humans had control over fire, a necessity for cooking, by the time the habilines evolved.

    Once these two principles are established, Wrangham moves into his real thesis - how the cooking of food could jump-start evolution. Wrangham focuses greatly on human biology and sociology throughout the remainder of the book. He extrapolates from the few skeletal remains of the ancient habilines and their descendents, the Homo erectus and Homo hederbergeisis, and the condition of modern-day Homo sapiens that the digestive system, teeth, jaws and lips of humans are considerably shorter and smaller than other mammals our size, and that our intelligence is also greater. He attempts to show that the condensed energy value of cooked food is responsible for such physical differences. He also hypothesizes such social conventions as marriage and the sharing of food between people also began with the cooking of food, and that the sexual division of labor, with women as the main cooks and men as hunters, also is a direct result of cooking.

    Catching Fire is a well-written, very organized and very well evidenced theory as to how humans evolved. Wrangham provides numerous examples to prove each of his points in a clear and concise manner that all readers can understand and crosses over several branches of science, including human biology, chemistry and archaeology in order to prove his theory. The only true shortcoming of the book lays in the last few pages when Wrangham seeks to tie in his results to a modern-day application. The lack of evidence and the abrupt switch in topic from theory to application in this final point are incongruous with the rest of the book and does not fit into the book as a whole.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2009

    Timely and Compelling

    This is an interesting and thought provoking theory on the leap from apes to mankind. The more you read and start to put the pieces together in your mind, the more sense the theory makes. Very well laid out and argued. It gets a little philosophical at times and assumes a few crucial events in history, but Wrangham's guess is as good as anyone's. Overall, though, this book is well researched and quite fascinating.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2009

    Warring statistics

    The basic premise of this book is clearly stated i.e. cooked food is easier to digest, produces more energy and thus supports a larger brain. However, once the author starts quoting authorities, confusion begins. Even though all of the above benefits of cooking are supposedly indisputable, he adds a lot of evidence about the benefits of other diets. Admittedly he picks some weird proponents- including people who bring their ouwn food (raw) to restaurants (one charming gentleman apparently dined on raw bone marrow) but he then proceeds to list some studies of the benefits of raw diets, including increased energy, healthier digeestive systems and, supposedly, a greater sense of well-being. He clearly disdains raw diets but in the early chapters, I had difficulty trying to understand why. Cooked food may have allowed an advantage in our early evolution but he really doesn't make a good case as to why a raw diet, outside of being difficult to maintain, is still to be avoided. The statistics he cites, do not appear to support the argument.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2012

    Very interesting. I disagree that one should not read this if n

    Very interesting. I disagree that one should not read this if not interested in evolution. I find it applicable to freshmen in college seeking general education credit. Content is applicable to general views on nutrition (humans as omnivores) and the social ramifications of food preparation techniques. The explanation of the evolution of society and sexually dimorphic roles is revealing.
    Blah blah blah. In other words, this is a darn good book.

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