June 23, 2009

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

I heard about this book on NPR - an interview on On Point with Tom Ashbrook. From the publisher's website:
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.

Sounded interesting, so I ordered it. Could not put it down - I've read it pretty quickly despite a fairly busy life and other reading obligations and opportunities.
Wrangham makes a strong case for control of fire, and cooking being the primary driver of human intelligence and evolution. Making his case via the fossil record (things like brain size, tooth characteristics, pelvis and rib cage signatures), via evidence of human culture (fire pits, tools, animal bones showing signs of being cooked / eaten), and human / animal physiology (experiments done with raw food, vegetarian diets, etc.)

An incredibly interesting theory, and presented in a very engaging manner. And an interesting tangeant from the whole food / vegetarian / raw food perspectives I normally encounter in the yoga world.

He expands his theory past the physiological to the social, making the case that cooking food drove humans to pair up into M/F households - with the woman cooking so as to provide a higher quality of food and the man providing protection (physical or through social relationships) from other men for the otherwise vulnerable larder of cooked / stored food. (other primates eat food as soon as it's available, so that there is less need to guard the family food supply)

Does not really change too much - we in the west still eat a too rich diet, filled with additives and chemicals, carrying a high carbon footprint, and we need to change. But it certainly makes me appreciate the value of cooking, the possible historic significance, and provide some basis for better understanding food and physiology.

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