Why Are Humans Different From All Other Apes?
It’s The Cooking, Stupid
New York Times
May 26, 2009
How Cooking Made Us Human
By Richard Wrangham
309 pages. Basic Books. $26.95
Human beings are not obviously equipped to be nature’s
gladiators. We have no claws, no armor. That we eat meat
seems surprising, because we are not made for chewing it
uncooked in the wild. Our jaws are weak; our teeth are
blunt; our mouths are small. That thing below our noses?
It truly is a pie hole.
To attend to these facts, for some people, is to plead
for vegetarianism or for a raw-food diet. We should
forage and eat the way our long-ago ancestors surely
did. For Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological
anthropology at Harvard and the author of “Catching
Fire,” however, these facts and others demonstrate
something quite different. They help prove that we are,
as he vividly puts it, “the cooking apes, the creatures
of the flame.”
The title of Mr. Wrangham’s new book – “Catching Fire:
How Cooking Made Us Human” – sounds a bit touchy-feely.
Perhaps, you think, he has written a meditation on
hearth and fellow feeling and s’mores. He has not.
“Catching Fire” is a plain-spoken and thoroughly
gripping scientific essay that presents nothing less
than a new theory of human evolution, one he calls “the
cooking hypothesis,” one that Darwin (among others)
Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo
erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham
argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame
fire and heat our food.
“Cooked food does many familiar things,” he observes.
“It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious
tastes and reduces spoilage. Heating can allow us to
open, cut or mash tough foods. But none of these
advantages is as important as a little-appreciated
aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our
bodies obtain from food.”
He continues: “The extra energy gave the first cooks
biological advantages. They survived and reproduced
better than before. Their genes spread. Their bodies
responded by biologically adapting to cooked food,
shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of
the new diet. There were changes in anatomy, physiology,
ecology, life history, psychology and society.” Put
simply, Mr. Wrangham writes that eating cooked food –
whether meat or plants or both -made digestion easier,
and thus our guts could grow smaller. The energy that we
formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far
more energy than you might imagine) was freed up,
enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts
of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire
enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run
farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we
stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead
gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize,
and our temperaments grew calmer.
There were other benefits for humanity’s ancestors. He
writes: “The protection fire provided at night enabled
them to sleep on the ground and lose their climbing
ability, and females likely began cooking for males,
whose time was increasingly free to search for more meat
and honey. While other habilines” – tool-using prehumans
– “elsewhere in Africa continued for several hundred
thousand years to eat their food raw, one lucky group
became Homo erectus – and humanity began.”
You read all this and think: Is it really possible that
this is an original bit of news? Mr. Wrangham seems as
surprised as we are. “What is extraordinary about this
simple claim,” he writes, “is that it is new.”
Mr. Wrangham arrives at his theory by first walking us
through the work of other anthropologists and
naturalists, including Claude Levi-Strauss and Darwin,
who did not pay much attention to cooking, assuming that
humans could have done pretty well without it.
He then delivers a thorough, delightfully brutal
takedown of the raw-food movement and its pieties. He
cites studies showing that a strict raw-foods diet
cannot guarantee an adequate energy supply, and notes
that, in one survey, 50 percent of the women on such a
diet stopped menstruating. There is no way our human
ancestors survived, much less reproduced, on it. He
seems pleased to be able to report that raw diets make
you urinate too often, and cause back and hip problems.
Even castaways, he writes, have needed to cook their
food to survive: “I have not been able to find any
reports of people living long term on raw wild food.”
Thor Heyerdahl, traveling by primitive raft across the
Pacific, took along a small stove and a cook. Alexander
Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe, built fires and
cooked on them.
Mr. Wrangham also dismisses, for complicated social and
economic reasons, the popular Man-the-Hunter hypothesis
about evolution, which posits that meat-eating alone was
responsible. Meat eating “has had less impact on our
bodies than cooked food,” he writes. “Even vegetarians
thrive on cooked diets. We are cooks more than
Among the most provocative passages in “Catching Fire”
are those that probe the evolution of gender roles.
Cooking made women more vulnerable, Mr. Wrangham
ruefully observes, to male authority.
“Relying on cooked food creates opportunities for
cooperation, but just as important, it exposes cooks to
being exploited,” he writes. “Cooking takes time, so
lone cooks cannot easily guard their wares from
determined thieves such as hungry males without their
own food.” Women needed male protection.
Marriage, or what Mr. Wrangham calls “a primitive
protection racket,” was a solution. Mr. Wrangham’s
nuanced ideas cannot be given their full due here, but
he is not happy to note that cooking “trapped women into
a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated
“Cooking,” he writes, “created and perpetuated a novel
system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty
picture.” As a student, Mr. Wrangham studied with the
primatologist Jane Goodall in Gombe, Tanzania, and he is
the author, with Dale Peterson, of a previous book
called “Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human
Violence.” In “Catching Fire” he 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.
“Zoologists often try to capture the essence of our
species with such phrases as the naked, bipedal or big-
brained ape,” Mr. Wrangham writes. He adds, in a
sentence that posits Mick Jagger as an anomaly and boils
down much of his impressive erudition: “They could
equally well call us the small-mouthed ape.”
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