Book Review — Catching Fire, by Richard Wrangham

Savage Minds was invited to review Catching Fire by the publisher, Basic Books. As SM’s resident evolution enthusiast and General Anthropology instructor, I was happy to rise to the occasion.

Throughout contemporary socio-cultural anthropology researchers are again turning to the biological, reexamining the relationship between the human body and the environment. Like some of the best recent anthropology this “new” vein of inquiry can be quite theoretically rigorous with language that appeals primarily to experienced professionals. Inverting this trend is a new book written at the popular level for an educated lay reader from primatologist Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Every living thing must eat but humans are unique in that the food we eat is processed and cooked. In the study of diet, anthropology may find a fruitful realm to explore the relationship among the human and animal worlds.

Catching Fire is a book of ideas. It makes a case for its thesis and rallies to its corner evidence from archaeology, human evolution, anatomy, and primatology. It also makes claims that are speculative and without direct evidence. Still the argument is compelling. At the crux of the book is Wrangham’s assertion that cooking kick-started the transition from Homo habilis to Homo erectus. In order for cooking to play the significant role that Wrangham says that it has, human ancestors must have controlled fire by 1.8 million years ago, almost twice as old as the current archaeological evidence. He bases this conclusion by claiming that the morphology of Homo erectus is one that is already largely adapted to the consumption of cooked foods, logically control of fire and thus cooking would have occurred prior to those physical transformations.

That our bodies are adapted to eating cooked food is obvious. The modern human body is so well suited for acquiring energy from cooked food that some seek to lose weight by going on a raw food diet! Compared to other apes humans have a drastically reduced gut size, only about 60% of what is expected for a primate our size, and without spending energy on all that expensive tissue we can afford to have an oversized brain. This idea that extra energy going to the brain is offset by reduced energy going to the gut is known as the “expensive tissue hypothesis” and in primates the tendency towards using energy saved for added brain tissue is strong. Presumably this is because primates tend to live in groups where social intelligence can reap big rewards.

Wrangham argues that the benefit of a smaller gut is not accessed simply by including meat in the diet, as has long been argued, but by switching to a diet that is based on cooked foods. Thus the addition of cooked vegetable matter is just as significant a dietary shift as the increasingly prominent role of meat, “We are cooks more than carnivores.” Nevertheless improving the quality of diet through the addition of meat is not a simple task for living apes because they do not have a carnivore’s dentition. As a result eating raw meat can be a very time consuming process simply due to the fact that it requires a great deal of chewing. The great advantage of cooking meat is that it becomes less costly to digest and the diner is freed from spending extended periods of time chewing it.

Cross-culturally there is a clear pattern as to who is called upon to invest time in cooking food: most commonly it is women. Wrangham believes that the ancient date of when cooking began, 1.8 million years ago, explains this division of labor by sex. I agree that behavioral ecology must play some role in the unique way that humans procure food. This has been observed among living hunter-gatherers. Women seek vegetable matter and men hunt then they both return from their daily foraging to a home camp and share. Usually the woman cooks and both sexes eat the foods the other acquired. No other animal behaves in this way. Why should the woman cook?

If food was raw, the sexual division of labor is unworkable. Nowadays a man who has spent most of the day hunting can satisfy his hunger easily when he returns to camp, because his evening meal is cooked. But if the food waiting for him in camp had all been raw, he would have had a major problem. The difficulty lies in the large amount of time it takes to eat raw food.

Before our ancestors cooked, then, they had much less free time. Their options for subsistence activities would therefore have been severely constrained… Males who did not cook would not have been able to rely on hunting to feed themselves. Like chimpanzees, they could hunt in opportunistic spurts. But if they devoted many hours to hunting, the risk of failure to obtain prey could not be compensated rapidly enough. Eating their daily required calories in the form of their staple plant foods would have taken too long.

For Wrangham it ultimately comes to this: the long hours of chewing a raw diet would have prevented males from specializing in hunting. Thus humans would not have benefited from the addition of substantial helpings of nutritious meat nor would they have been able to power their energy-needy big brains. There simply is not enough to time to hunt and chew raw food if one is not a carnivore. Only with cooking is the sexual division of labor possible.

But why should it be that women cook for men? Why is it not that men cook for each other in bachelor groups? Or women cook for other women, for that matter? Or why do men not cook for women on the days they do not hunt? The author’s answer is not entirely satisfying.

Cooking in the open is a very conspicuous activity. From quite a distance it produces attractive smells. Furthermore, among chimpanzees if a low-ranking individual manages to kill a small animal a higher-ranking individual will likely steal it. Female chimps get hardly any meat at all. If human behavior prior to the advent of cooking was at all similar then a cook needs a bodyguard otherwise the strong will take advantage of the weak. Since males are physically larger they make better fighters. Thus if a female wants to eat cooked food she cannot count on a male to provide it, she needs a male to protect her while she cooks it herself. The result is a mutually beneficial “household,” not organized around sexual relations but feeding behavior.

Wrangham concludes, “Cooking brought huge nutritional benefits. But for women, the adoption of cooking has also led to a major increase in their vulnerability to male authority. Men were the greater beneficiaries.”

Unaddressed by the author is the place of children in this household feeding economy. Females invest more time and energy into the care of young than males. That women care for their children as they forage for food is a primary reason why they are not hunters. It seems likely that female desire to feed their young is also a primary motivator in a sexual division of labor that also happens to result in females cooking for males. If the offspring are fed nutritious cooked food then they are more likely to reach reproductive maturity thereby increasing the parents’ fitness. That is the most parsimonious explanation. Wrangham focuses so intently on the relationship of women to men he completely overlooks the equally basic relationship of parents and children.

Catching Fire is an easy read that makes a compelling and original argument about human evolution. Like the works of Michael Pollan, which it will no doubt be compared to, its pages are larded with filler. Of the nine chapters, three could have been cut and the book’s main argument preserved. There is also the usage of eye-rollingly old-fashioned language. Anthropologists need to swear off the phrase “missing link” and any hint of associating evolution with “progress.” The general public is just too ill informed about what evolution is for anthropologists to have any excuse for deploying such literary devices.

Experts in the field of physical anthropology may prefer to read Wrangham’s scientific publications, but this book is easily within the grasp of undergraduates and lay readers. I happen to think that my General Anthropology undergrads will benefit more from the use of a textbook, but I would enthusiastically assign this work in a Food and Culture course or topics course in Evolution and Ecology. It will definitely inform my lectures in General Anthropology.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

6 thoughts on “Book Review — Catching Fire, by Richard Wrangham

  1. Polynesians cooked food in earth ovens–and still do, for special occasions. Preparing an imu is hard, heavy work; it is done by men.

    Perhaps this is an irrelevant “amongthe” that doesn’t refute the main point. Perhaps not. Do we know for sure that women do all the cooking “amongthe” hunter gatherers? And that this has always been so?

  2. Most of these theories concerning human evolution often dismiss the evolutionary part, and from your discussion I wonder if Wrangham’s model deliberates whether cooking sprung de novo or by stages? We needn’t begin with cooking meat, but perhaps focus on vegetable material, nuts and tubers as the initial material to be cooked. Most evolutionary theories of human evolution often jump to the “meat eating” portion of human evolution and miss out on earlier possible forms of food consumption that just might be visible in the environment among animals. Consider Japanese macaques and their habit of washing potatoes, or chimps consumption of hard nuts, which once passed through the gut and are re-eaten ( a “do it yourself” form of “cooking”). If we are to offer a human evolutionary perspective of human diet, then by the premises of evolutionary theory there should be elementary or modified forms of it presented in the environment by other species.

  3. You are absolutely correct that the focus on meat consumption in human evolution has eclipsed the role of vegetable matter in human diets. What Wrangham says is that it is cooking, whether vegetable or meat, that was the most important.

    In my opinion the privileging of meat in anthropological analysis stems from the fact that it is primarily procured by men. That cooking is an activity primarily orchestrated by women could explain why it took so long to articulate an effective theory for its place in human evolution. For a very long time anthropologists simply did not consider female activities to be of great significance. Wrangham, however, does not explore “my” point in depth.

    Wrangham does situate cooking in an increasingly complex tradition of food preparation. In effect it grew out of such techniques as pounding and chopping. But he argues that once cooking was discovered the practice would have spread rapidly. In effect, once there was cooking there was no going back, certainly not once adaptations to a cooked diet set in.

    Yes, there are stages to consider too, the advent of cooking in containers for example. Wrangham intimates that such innovations may have contributed to further evolution of Homo, such as the emergence of Heidelbergensis.

  4. Matt, the thing about cooking is its very much like those theories about climate or social interaction and human evolution–each represents a causal factor explaining nearly all evolutionary traits. While I agree with your points, I also want to raise the issue of the “spread of cooking” as this suggests a distributed human population geographically separated into overlapping demes. Given a number of genetic studies which suggest paleolithic populations and even modern species of Homo were thin on the ground, we might have to consider less a “spread” situation. If there is no spread effect, then the earliest development of cooking may have been less advantageous than Wrangham might have considered (this does not imply that later improvements in cooking might not have confered greater fitness).

    Thus the earliest antecedents to cooking as Wrangham envisions might have very likely been preceded by selective pressures that contributed to cooking being developed. Such selective forces may have already begun to transform social dynamics as you outline in terms of children-parent relations to nutrition. Rather than seeing cooking as a cuase of the division of sexual labour, it may be possible to consider such a division arose only after nutitional needs were satisfied. In other words, long after cooking had been established. Following your suggestion we might consider the intial stage of cooking to arise out of the mother-child dyadic relationship, and that as the infant becomes more independent, the dyadic relationship dissolves and so too does “cooking.” In short, the early stage of “cooking” (in only the sense of processing food) may have been applied only to the child’s nutition and not to the adult.

  5. As is documented with the widespread standardization apparent in the Oldowan and Acheulian tool traditions, the spread of knowledge among paleolithic humans, however thin they might have been on the ground, did take place. It seems reasonable to suppose that cooking would have been useful enough to be quickly transferred across cultures of proto-humans.

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