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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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."
“[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.”
“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.”