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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human

29 Oct 2009


A quick and easy read, Wrangham makes the argument that the key evolutionary feature that brought humanity out from the rest of the apes was the invention of cooking. The argument is well-supported, with some 50% of the book being references. No wonder it’s such a quick read.

The writing style is pretty dry. It amounts to little more than a recitation of facts in some places. But better dry and concise than flavorful and wordy, and it still kept up my interest.

Wrangham takes it a little further than his evidence supports, I think. He paints the argument that cooked food has been the defining feature of human gender relations since time began, without even bothering to poo-poo the myriad of other features of humanity. I think that’s a bit much.

But his core argument–that cooking and fire are what separated us from the rest of the apes–is quite well supported, really, and with much less speculative evidence than exists for a number of competing theories, like the aquatic ape theory, the juvenile ape theory, the fairly sudden acquisition of language, or other theories. Instead, Wrangham focuses on the idea that some group of habilines at some point learned the benefits of keeping a fire alive continuously, and that the numerous benefits would allow otherwise expensive adaptations to occur in fairly short order.

Fun reading, at any rate.