Catching Fire – Richard Wrangham

Catching Fire – Richard Wrangham

By Donald McKenzie

August 29, 2013

Catching Fire:  How Cooking Made us Human – Richard Wrangham*

 *Not to be confused with the volume of The Hunger Games trilogy that bears the same name.

Catching Fire:  How Cooking Made us Human, by Richard Wrangham is less a book about food, as it is a book about how cooking our food, accounts for our evolutionary development as human beings.

Catching Fire photo
The Cover photo for Catching Fire

The most notable argument in the book is about when cooking developed.  Traditional evolutionary thought views cooking as a late development.  In particular it connects it with migration to Northern climes(10-12). Cooking had no real connection to our biological development according to this view.

Catching Fire Hypothesis

In Catching Fire, Wrangham argues that cooking began much sooner. That cooking is what allowed us to become more efficient in digesting.  In essence cooking our food allowed the energy in it to be released and made available to us faster than before.

After offering his hypothesis, Wrangham goes on to examine the case for adopting a raw food diet.  There are two things of note here.  One, that a raw food diet would work against fertility rates increasing, in which case our population would have died off.  Two, that even people who follow raw food diets need periodic binges of cooked food.

As a result of needing less time and energy to digest our food, we had more time to focus on other activities.  Among them, we could hunt longer, because food could be prepared and eaten by firelight.  This resulted in more efficient hunters.

It also meant that there was more time for other activities.  Over time this resulted in the growth of our brains. The human brain, as a percentage of body weight, being very large in comparison with other animals.

Wrangham also suggests that cooking relationships, rather than sexual relationships were at the core of household formation.  At the same time Wrangham realizes that while this was beneficial for everyone, men certainly received a far greater benefit out of this arrangement. (177)

While Wrangham speaks out in favour of the act of cooking our food, he doesn’t fail to see the dangers that cooking brings to our diet. At the conclusion of Catching Fire, he states:

The big problem of diet was once how to get enough cooked food, just as it is still for millions of people around the world.  But for those of us lucky enough to live with plenty, the challenge has changed.  We must find ways to make our ancient dependence on cooked food healthier. (207)

Whether you find yourself in agreement with what he says, or not, Catching Fire will present you with a lot of food for thought.

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