Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
By Richard Wrangham
Catching Fire extensively documents the fact that cooking is not a recent, modern development. Wrangham traces evidence of cooking back through archaeology to at least the beginning of homo sapiens, if not before. I would certainly agree that cooking has been around for a very long time and that cooking is one of many things that distinguishes humans from other animals. However, the author cooks up a lot of points in the book that are a little hard for me to swallow.
Wrangham contends that animals thrive better on cooked food than raw food. Is that what Pottenger and his cats told us? Wrangham points to studies where animals fed cooked food gained weight more easily. Is weight gain really a good indication of an animal’s long-term health? How did those animals do over multiple generations on cooked food? I didn’t see any answers to those questions in the book.
Wrangham points out a lot of evidence that people trying to exist on raw food diets tend to eventually give it up because they are hungry all the time. I can believe that is true of most politically correct raw food diets because they are not nutrient-dense. The Weston A. Price Foundation does not promote exclusively raw food diets and does agree that many foods should be cooked and are more easily digested that way. I do know a person on a nutrient-dense raw diet who does not act or look hungry and is even a bit hefty. So there is some evidence that it can be done but, as Wrangham properly points out, we have no historical examples of traditional cultures doing that.
Many pages of the book are devoted to expounding on how we evolved and how cooking must have influenced that evolution. There is one intriguing comment that apparently Australopithecines died out due to climate change (too many SUVs and flatulent bovines?). For those who don’t have a good understanding of probability, it is not hard to believe random chance could turn australopithecine into human. Others who have the nerve to question established wisdom have difficulty believing “Lucy” is our great, great, great … great, grandmonkey. But suppose we let that go for the moment and follow the reasoning in Catching Fire. At some point long ago our predecessors got along reasonably well on raw food before they invented fire and cooking. By some random accident never explained in the book, they stumbled onto cooked food and liked it. Because it was easier to digest and hence more “convenient,” the cooking fad took off and is still going strong after hundreds of thousands of years.
I know a lot of people love to cook and that’s perfectly fine, but convenient? I also know people who drum their fingers impatiently waiting for 30 seconds to tick away on their microwave oven. Is it really more convenient to cook your food than to eat raw food you are adapted to? I’m pretty sure Australopithecines or their descendants for many generations after didn’t have very many modern appliances to make life easier. If you have ever tried to start a fire without any help from modern technology, you know the invention of fire probably paralleled the invention of cursing.
In summary, I see an already fantastic scenario being made even more fantastic. The careful reader may have already surmised that my thumb is pointing down for this one.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2009.