Archive for June, 2009

“Catching Fire, How Cooking Made us Human”– a must-read!

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

“We are the cooking apes….” according to Professor Richard Wrangham

Went to a reading last night at the Porter Square Bookstore, given by Professor Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard. This is a great, even funny, book that upp-ends that argues that it was the actual idea of cooking food––both animal and vegetable –– that enabled human evolution.

For a Brit with the perfect, “I’ve spent years in the hills of Africa” kind of voice, Wrangham is incredibly witty. In both speech and the written word. His last reading for his book “Demonic Males” had three in attendance. At this one, it’s SRO. I guess food is a bigger seller for book readings than males with sharp teeth and clubs. In Rwanda where he studied the apes, he said he wanted to understand what they ate, so he ate everything that “did not make me vomit.”  In order to understand how important cooking is for the human constitution, he studied explorers who lasted longest in the wild, presuming that they only could find raw food to eat. The one’s that lasted longest — not more than a month — about the sam eas on a hunger strike.

Some of his arguments: Darwin thought fire was irrelevant to human evolution, that fire was already controlled before we evolved. But Wrangham et al found that the discovery of how to control fire (and then span of time between that discover and the idea of throwing edibles into the pot which he says, took our Australopithecus (sp?) probably a lapse of a week to figure out), meant that humans evolved with a different digestive tract, different teeth, and different bone structure than the buddies in the primate crowd. Since cooking any kind of food ensures more calories from it than from raw food, we could gather less and get more zest from it. As a result, our brains got bigger, our digestive tracts (handling less fibrous intake) shrank, and we became a crowd that hunkered down by the campsites toasting marshmallows and the odd chunk of animal.

“Cooking is the missing link”

“Cooking symbolized the control of human over nature. (describing the views of Claude Levi Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked)

“The Index of humanity came from the ability to turn raw food with low calories into cooked,more  digestible and therefore higher calorie nutrition.”

Gender issues: Women cook so that males are free to do “manly” things. Like hunting for seal, trapping a bison, or hanging out under the baobab tree or the neighborhood bar. Early on, cooking became women’s work. According to Prof. Wrangham. Absolutely everywhere other than in newly industrialized societies like ours, women cook for men.  He thinks that it is the discovery of cooking that determned the family and gender roles that govern human relationships.  Women were prized, acknowledged as necessary for men because without a wife to cook and supply calories,  men wouldn’t have had the energy to do all those “manly” things.