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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human [Hardcover]

Richard Wrangham
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 26 2009
<p>Ever since Darwin and<i>The Descent of Man</i>, the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. But in<i>Catching Fire</i>, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Wrangham shows that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution. When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began. Once our hominid ancestors began cooking their food, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be sued instead to huntand to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a sexual division of labor. Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors&rsquo; diets,<i>Catching Fire</i> sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. A pathbreaking new theory of human evolution,<i>Catching Fire</i> will provoke controversy and fascinate anyone interested in our ancient origins&mdash;or in our modern eating habits.</p>

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Publishers Weekly
“[A] fascinating study… Wrangham's lucid, accessible treatise ranges across nutritional science, Paleontology and studies of ape behavior and hunter-gatherer societies; the result is a tour de force of natural history and a profound analysis of cooking's role in daily life.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review
“[A] fascinating study… Wrangham’s lucid, accessible treatise ranges across nutritional science, paleontology and studies of ape behavior and hunter-gatherer societies; the result is a tour de force of natural history and a profound analysis of cooking’s role in daily life.”

Kirkus Reviews
“An innovative argument that cooked food led to the rise of modern Homo sapiens.... Experts will debate Wrangham’s thesis, but most readers will be convinced by this lucid, simulating foray into popular anthropology.”

The Harvard Brain
“With clear and engaging prose, Catching Fire addresses a key and enduring scientific issue central to the quest to understand our species. It offers new insights for anyone interested in human evolution, history, anthropology, nutrition, and for everyone interested in food."

Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University
“In this thoroughly researched and marvelously well written book, Richard Wrangham has convincingly supplied a missing piece in the evolutionary origin of humanity.”

Matt Ridley, author of Genome and The Agile Gene
“Cooking completely transformed the human race, allowing us to live on the ground, develop bigger brains and smaller mouths, and invent specialized sex roles. This notion is surprising, fresh and, in the hands of Richard Wrangham, utterly persuasive. He brings to bear evidence from chimpanzees, fossils, food labs, and dieticians. Big, new ideas do not come along often in evolution these days, but this is one.”

Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible and How to Grill; host of Primal Grill
“A book of startling originality and breathtaking erudition. Drawing on disciplines as diverse as anthropology, sociology, biology, chemistry, physics, literature, nutrition, and cooking, Richard Wrangham addresses two simple but very profound questions: How did we evolve from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens, and what makes us human? The answer can be found at your barbecue grill and I dare say it will surprise you…”

Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma
Catching Fire is convincing in argument and impressive in its explanatory power. A rich and important book.”

Seed Magazine
“…makes a convincing case for the importance of cooking in the human diet, finding a connection between our need to eat cooked food in order to survive and our preference for soft foods. The popularity of Wonderbread, the digestion of actual lumps of meat, and the dangers of indulging our taste buds all feature in this expository romp through our gustatory evolution.”

Discover Magazine

The New York Times
“‘Catching Fire’ is a plain-spoken and thoroughly gripping scientific essay that presents nothing less than a new theory of human that Darwin (among others) simply missed.”
“Brilliant… a fantastically weird way of looking at evolutionary change.”

The San Francisco Chronicle
“As new angles go, it's pretty much unbeatable.”

The Washington Post
“Wrangham draws together previous studies and theories from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, biology, chemistry, sociology and literature into a cogent and compelling argument.”

Texas Observer
“Wrangham’s attention to the most subtle of behaviors keeps the reader enrapt…a compelling picture, and one that I now contemplate every time I turn on my stove."

Providence Journal
“Richard Wrangham presents this thesis in a concise, cogent, and accessible way.”

The New York Times Book Review
“A new theory of human evolution – ‘the cooking hypothesis’ – is related in plain-spoken, gripping language.”

About the Author

<B>Richard Wrangham</B> is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University and Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology at the Peabody Museum. He is the co-author of<I>Demonic Males</I> and co-editor of<I>Chimpanzee Cultures</I>. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Customer Reviews

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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bold hypothesis June 11 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
To start with, I have a lot of sympathy for Wrangham's hypothesis that fire was the central evolutionary force driving human evolution towards larger brains in that I think (control of) fire was the single greatest invention. Or at least it could tie with language for that honor. Fire almost certainly was a tremendous influence on human evolution, and whenever our ancestors were able to to tame it, it then certainly exerted a strong force on their ability to survive and reproduce. But there's one big problem with Wrangham's hypothesis- we don't know when that was.

Certainly, newer evidence suggests that it was farther back then we thought. At least 400,000+ years ago. But Wrangham suggests it was at the start of (and indeed was the cause of) the Homo line- over 1,800,000 years ago! That's a bold speculation that has no archeological evidence for it, and instead relies solely on skeletal remains as evidence that our diet must have changed. That Australopithecene physiology changed over to Homo is certainly true. That some of the changes (e.g., smaller rib cage) were due to dietary changes is almost certainly true. That dietary changes due to eating cooked food were the primary change is far more speculative, and relies completely on correlational data that is far from certain. For example, much of his own arguments could equally apply to a fire-mastery date of ~800,000 years ago with Homo heidelbergensis instead of H. erectus.

This is were the book falters slightly. Wrangham is right in that decisive evidence may well be waiting in our genes if there are genetic adaptations towards eating cooked foods (e.g., dealing with cooking-created carcinogens).
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4.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Approach to Evolution Oct. 31 2013
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

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.

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..

Wrangham argues, that cooking began much sooner, and that cooking is what allowed us to become more efficient in digesting. In essence cooking our food allowed the energy in 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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Even Anthology can be Fun Oct. 24 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
You might think that a study of the cave man and his eating habits would be as dry as dust. This book was not. I do not normally read non-fiction. I prefer advernture novels and thrillers. But I really enjoyed this book. Not only did it pose a theory about how we moved on from the apes to what we are today, it also defined the relationship between male and female humans, and it is not based on sex. This is a great read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Convincing and engaging Nov. 16 2012
By Ben
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
After the first chapter, in which Wrangham outlines his hypothesis that the advent of cooking is what catalyzed the more rapid evolution of our ancestors' brains, I thought, 'what more is there to say--how can he fill another 200 pages with this single idea?' I kept reading and was well rewarded. Wrangham underpins the central idea with surprisingly engaging arguments from all possible angles, including from the Homo fossil record, anthropological finds, basic physiology & biochemistry, customs of present-day nomadic peoples, early experiments (including one in which an early 18th century doctor directly observes an accident victim's protruding stomach for years) and current studies. Wrangham's argument is convincing not because of the strength of any one of these prongs, but by their combined weight. In sum, the author has taken material that in its raw form might be less palatable, and through careful preparation has transformed it into a digestible and satisfying read.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Convincing Jan. 29 2012
By Jodi-Hummingbird TOP 100 REVIEWER
The author makes an extremely convincing and logical argument for his theory that cooking food (as well as meat eating) helped make us who we are.

Eating raw vegetables makes me feel terrible and has a huge metabolic cost. They just sit in my stomach like a rock - while properly cooked meat and vegetables are digested well. Nuts and seeds are better digested when soaked and then dried as well. I am tired of reading that raw vegetables contain all the enzymes we need to digest them easily, and that raw vegetables are far easier on the digestion than cooked ones. My own experience and that of many people I know, and books on the SCD diet, the GAPS diet and also books on nutrition such as 'Eat Fat, Lose Fat' and books by Dr Sherry Rogers and others just don't bear this out at all.

Cooked vegetables are what you very often need, especially if you are very weak and ill and have digestive and/or metabolic issues. Cooked food is also much nicer to eat, easier to eat and tastes better. Don't believe the raw food hype! Especially don't believe the vegan or almost vegan raw food hype!

Persevering with such an unnatural eating plan despite feeling awful on it just because you've been convinced (wrongly) that it is the healthiest possible way to eat for all of us, is not a good idea.

Having said that, foods very high in enzymes (far more so than raw vegetables) such as sauerkraut and apple cider vinegar are very effective digestive aids, as are properly made enzyme supplements - which do survive the acid stomach environment. Fresh vegetables juices also digest very easily.
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