How important was cooking in human evolution?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

campfire_at_nightPublished in spring 2009, Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books) argues that the ability to use fire for cooking foodstuffs allowed the changes that have made humans a distinct species.

Layout 1Says Wrangham, “cooking is the signature feature of the human diet, and indeed, of human life—but we have no idea why. It’s the development that underpins many other changes that have made humans so distinct from other species.”

Cooking changed digestion and, Wrangham argues, freed up physiological energy that made the larger brains we see in the fossil record possible. Cooking made many foods easier to chew, and increased the potential for food preservation. Also, using fire meant more warmth and protection during dark hours.

In the introduction, Wrangham writes,

Nowadays we need fire wherever we are. Survival manuals tell us that if we are lost in the wild, one of our first actions should be to make a fire. In addition to warmth and light fire gives us hot food, safe water, dry clothes, protection from dangerous animals, a signal to friends and even a sense of inner comfort. In modern society fire might be hidden from our view, tidied away in the basement boiler, trapped in the engine block of a car, or confined in the power-station that drives the electrical grid, but we are still completely dependent on it. A similar tie is found in every culture.

Wrangham says he’s the first to advance this argument, that the shift to cooking food made such a difference in human evolution. If this hypothesis is so plausible, why hasn’t it been put forth before? Also, what do you think of this argument?

Links

Harvard University press release by Steve Brandt.

Book review by Simon Ings on Telegraph.co.uk.

Book review on Powells books website, including link to author interview.

Book review by Dwight Garner on the New York Times website.

Basic Books webpage on this book.

Excerpt from the book’s introduction on the New York Times website.