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.🖨️ Print post
Hints of creationism?
I’m just interested in the whole “Lucy” comment – do I see some creationist tendencies here?
TJ Boyd says
Reply to Sasha
You see hints that there are just as many problems with other branches of science as there is with nutrition.
Understood. There are many flaws in current science of course, but I was just wondering if WAPF supports creationism or that was purely your standpoint? I do hope that the foundation still subscribes to proper science and not to religious and faith based dogmas.
On another note, it’s a myth that the theory of evolution implies we evolved from monkeys, or that the it somehow explains the origin of life – it only describes the evolutionary development of flora and fauna. Weston Price himself was an advocate of evolution and he’d had to be in order to properly interpret his findings…
TJ Boyd says
Another reply to Sasha
That is my standpoint (as far as questioning Lucy). Am I not allowed to do that? Is Lucy too sacrosanct to be questioned? WAPF does not promote any religion, including atheism.
Boyd, the WAPF may not espouse religion, but you do. If an author is wrong about nutrition, that is no reason, when he sticks evolution into his argument, to take potshots at evolution itself.
If an author who is wrong about nutrition sticks religion into his argument, you wouldn’t say “and not only that, he misses the fact that some people don’t believe in God.” It would be more appropriate if you did. You don’t make cracks about the scientific basics when you’re arguing that the author isn’t scientific.
Yes some scientists believe in creation and some people believe we don’t need any food. If schools have to teach creation “science” that would be like being forced to teach nutritional breatharianism. The system is bad enough, with the USDA pyramid, Pasteur disease theory and PC evolution.
Tim Boyd says
Reply to Lava
I don’t follow your reasoning. Solly Zuckerman and Charles Oxnard put forward good evidence a long time ago that Lucy has nothing to do with human evolution. They are not creationists, they are evolutionists. If someone devotes many pages of a book to outmoded and outdated science I will take potshots.
Poorly written review, heavy on sarcasm and weak on it’s arguments. I would have expected better from WAPF.
This is a non-review. Wrangham has made a stronger case on this matter than any contrary position I’ve known. We are cooking animals. The making and use of fire(or equivalent) his been fundamental and major in our evolution, – it appears all to clear. Here’s a challenge: Go live in the wild, raw. Much more can be said, I’m just being brief. Raw food is good too, it’s a matter of balance as your body indicates and your choices allow. The body reveals what is good and what isn’t, it’s up to you to figure out what your body is indicating.
Poor review. Why mention Pottinger’s cats when most cat food today is cooked and, last I checked, modern cats are fertile. It seems blidingly obvious that Pottinger’s cat experiement, which was cruel by the way, simply tested a taurine deficient (taurine is destroyed in cooking). Modern cooked cat food adds back the taurine because cats cannot synthesize it. But (oops for you!!) humans can synthesize it… If anything, it’s evidence that humans are evolved for a cooked diet.. WAPF is a great resource, sometimes, but is truly pseudoscientific other times. Gonzales at the WAPF conference? Really? Coffee enemas… Nice. Stock with the Masterjohns and Guyenets of the world and this organization may stay relevant.
Too bad that this train was derailed.
Dear Mr. Boyd,
I was hoping for a thoughtful treatment of the content of what looks to be a fascinating book, not for your personal opinions on evolution. If you reject evolutionary science entirely, I am not sure why would take it upon yourself to review a book about the evolution of human dietary habits. I wish the task had been given to someone who would have treated it with more seriousness and less bias. But since the task was given to you, you could have at least had the decency to treat it, and those who disagree with you, with more respect. Terms like “great grandmonkey” have no place in reasonable discourse. And dismissing evolution as “random chance” reveals only your own ignorance of the subject of which you speak. (This is a bit like saying that gravitational theory claims that “random chance” keeps the planets in orbit around the sun.)
Furthermore, as to your reply to Sasha, please be aware that evolution is not synonymous with atheism. Many, many people of a variety of faiths understand and accept evolution. You might be interested in reading The Language of God by Francis S. Collins to learn more about the peaceful coexistence of science and faith, of reason and religion.
To the Powers that be at the WAPF:
It was my impression that part of the mission of WAPF is to expose and oppose the nonsense that goes on in much of modern dietary and medical studies. This, I support. But if it is the position of the foundation that all of modern science is bunk, then that is another matter entirely. I am wondering if the opinions of this reviewer are indicative of the opinions and mission of the foundation. I have no wish to support an organization that is actively opposed to rational, scientific thought.
I thought this review was not so great. I read the book and re-read it adn loved it. I was a bit frustrated on the raw diet. I was striving to eat all raw for several years, believing it was better in principle. At various times I was 100 percent raw (vegan, low fat). I want to emphasize, I didn’t ‘fall apart’. I only had trouble getting enough energy and dealing with a stuffed gut. I read this book thinking I’d identify his errors and fallacies, but I was blown away with new understandings and insights. For example I had no idea we had smaller guts than other primates, and teeth and lips and so on.
I think we can survive on modern raw food. But in the wild, we can’t. The fruits at the market are NOT the (bitter, fiberous, ‘hot’ or tannic, calorie poor, etc) fruits in the wild.
It is not convenient always to cook. But it is less convenient to spend all day chewing. And it is more convenient with a ‘division of labor’ in cooking.
I thought this was a bit of a non-review. I like Wrangham. he says raw diets can work for some people, especially those in affluent western countries, and people who want to lose weight. He would probably say it doesn’t work in the wild, or in third world countries where sufficient energy consumption is a problem. He converted me to being even raw food in principle. I invariably still eat raw fruits and salads, every day and still more than most people. I was vegan. I am looking into what people like WAPF say about nutrition. It is interesting. I’ve added some organic dairy and egg and it tastes good but I stay vegetarian. I recommend the book. Wrangham even says he admires raw fooders for the discipline it takes to turn down good tasting cooked food. I admire Wrangham.
Has the reviewer tried the 100 percent raw food diet? I was hungry a lot. One person reviewed Wrangham negatively online at ecoslogos, but I found he was full of logical fallacies. I only learned new things and changed my mind because I had a truly open mind. I recommend everyone look into this book. I think anyone is healthy on whole foods. We should eat and live how the ancients lived, I believe, for health but also realize the ancients were not concerned about ‘nutrition’ per se. That goes along for the ride. What they care about are calories/energy. As logn as we eat whole foods, I think we are omnivores not in the sense that we need a bit of everything but that we can thrive on just a few things, all whole foods, of sufficient energy. People today are obsessed with ‘nutrition’ which I promise you all, they don’t understand, because nobody does. We can understand the big points- like eating whole foods, and getting sufficient sun. And fire may be one of these. WAPF people say that Price found no vegetarian society, and they use this as an argument. Well accordingly, nobody has found a raw food society, but this reviewer seems to think that doesn’t matter. Well then the fact that there’s never been a vegetarian society doesn’t matter either. And if he’s a creationist, then maybe we are designed for raw fruits and nuts and herbs. smilies/smiley.gif
energy dense foods equal smaller gut equal bigger brain. fire equals instant adaptation to more diverse climes, and protection from wild predators and ability to stay warm and shed our hair, so we can run farther and stay cooler. Thanks for the review that explained Pottengers cats and taurine. that makes so much sense for me now. It is the age of the death of myths and what I think I know. My logic hasn’t been bad but I’ve been assuming too much this whole time. I’ve been incredulous and über-naturalistic in my thinking