Monday, April 27, 2009

Coquimus, Ergo Sumus

Richard Wrangham is a British anthropologist and primatologist who has been teaching at Harvard for 20 years. His new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, which comes out in May, makes a compelling case that the way to humanity was through the stomach. Wrangham noticed that chimpanzees, for instance, can range all day and find little of nutritional value. Indeed, much of their waking lives are spent chewing up really shitty food.

But once our ancestors got hold of fire, and cooked foods as a staple of their diet, less energy spent digesting made room for bigger brains, smaller teeth and guts, and the ultimate rise of the lean, striding animal that replaced chimp-like austrolopithicines. Wrangham evokes the image of communal cooking fires as centers of social development. It puts a whole new poignancy into telling tales around the campfire.

Another theory, the "running man" model---which has been treated on this page---also relies on nutrition as a key element, and finds no rival here. The two, in fact, could be viewed as complimentary. Wrangham's theory even purports to make a prediction of sorts. In order for his theory to stand, use of fire would have to stretch back nearly two million years, well beyond even the most remote archaeological estimates. Of sites that demonstrate earlier use, Wrangham says, "We'll get them."

I tend to think of language and art as early human technologies. Excellent theoretical modeling has been done to show how these innovations were not incidental but key to our evolution. The mastery of fire and developmental doors opened by cooking round the picture out nicely.


  1. So it's safe to say that vegans who insist on eating raw food are devolving?

  2. It's safe to say they are morons. But yeah, that's why they can't keep weight on and half the women lose their period.

  3. Amusingly, Greg Laden, whom you may recognize from my blog, has a couple of papers with Wrangham. You may find some stuff of interest at Greg's blog. You're almost certain to find some stuff that irritates the hell out of you too. :)

  4. Thank you, Stephanie. I immediately found one of my favorite post titles ever: "Grasping The Function of the Human Penis". Grasping, indeed.

    I love ScienceBlogs. No doubt I'll be following this one.

    I sent Wrangham an email asking whether I am correct in stating that his cooking theory fits neatly with the "endurance running" model, and he seems to endorse that view. His book, which comes out next month, briefly explores the compatibility between the two, he tells me.

    All hail the internet! A place where I can accost influential Harvard professors and get answers to my niggling questions within minutes!