Cooking makes us human?

Interesting book review with a fresh look at our evolutionary past. Contributed by my friend and editor, Frank DeMarco of ape cook

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)

simply missed.

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.”

Original article on below link.