Catching Fire

Richard Wrangham

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human‘ (2009) is a book by British primatologist Richard Wrangham forwarding the hypothesis that cooking food was an essential element in the physiological evolution of human beings.

Humans are the only species that cook their food and Wrangham argues Homo erectus emerged about two million years years ago as a result of this unique trait. Cooking had profound evolutionary effect because it increased food efficiency by permitting human ancestors to spend less time foraging, chewing, and digesting. H. erectus developed via a smaller, more efficient digestive tract which freed up energy to enable larger brain growth.

Wrangham also argues that cooking and control of fire generally affected species development by providing warmth and helping to fend off predators which helped human ancestors adapt to a ground-based lifestyle. Wrangham points out that humans are highly evolved for eating cooked food and cannot maintain reproductive fitness with raw food.

Critics of the cooking hypothesis question whether archaeological evidence supports the view that cooking fires began long enough ago to confirm Wrangham’s findings. The traditional explanation is that human ancestors scavenged carcasses for high-quality food that preceded the evolutionary shift to smaller guts and larger brains.

Anglo-Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith considered that ‘of all other animals we spend the least time in eating; this is one of the great distinctions between us and the brute creation.’ Nakedness was bestial, for clothes, like cooking, were a distinctively human attribute. In 1999, Wrangham published the first version of the hypothesis in ‘Current Anthropology.’

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