Monday, October 11, 2010

Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham

...not to be confused with the sequel to Hunger Games which is, incidentally, my next book to read!

This book makes the claim that the ability to cook our food is what allowed humans to evolve. It starts out by disparaging raw food enthusiasts, who attempt to survive without cooking anything. Wrangham describes how the human body is evolved to thrive on cooked food and starve to some extent on only raw food, and how dietary changes towards cooked food may have allowed our wonderful brains to develop. Catching Fire also describes how early cooking might have begun, and affected human culture. And that's about it.

I was sort of disappointed by this book. I think it is hard to make studies of human evolution boring, but this book just almost succeeded. The ideas were interesting but the writing was dull and the organization of the book was repetitive. Wrangham's claims are backed up by a few modern diet studies, lots of anecdotes about extant hunter-gatherer cultures, and observations about the behavior of non-human primates. So it felt like it was all claim, anecdotes, summary, claim, anecdotes, summary... It read repetitively. Maybe the subject matter is better suited to a paper or article than a complete book.

I was happy that Catching Fire wasn't anti-vegetarian! I know that some scientists argue that it was our ancestors' ability and inclination to kill other animals for food that caused intelligence to evolve. I am not claiming that that hypothesis is wrong or right, but as a vegetarian it makes me irrationally sad. Wrangham made it clear that vegetarian or carnivore diets alike are made more efficient by cooking food, and either (or, probably, a combination) could have initiated our divergence from stupid primates.

Wrangham attributes certain ubiquitous aspects of human culture to food cooking. He posits that cooking led to marriage, the dominance of men over women, and traditional gender roles. I am not entirely convinced of all of Wrangham's ideas in Catching Fire, but they are definitely intriguing and seem as plausible as anything else I am aware of.

I am definitely not sorry I read Catching Fire. It is full of interesting ideas and descriptions of fascinating research. It's just written in a boring manner. Fortunately it's a quick read! Part of the way through, I was pleased to notice that almost half of the book was end-notes. It made it go way faster!


  1. That's too bad, it sounded like a really interesting book! Oh well. It happens.

  2. Sounds like a really interesting book! I haven't read something like this since college but sounds really thought provoking..

  3. There are so many theories out there. The blood type diet, carnivore diet, raw food etc. etc. I don't really buy into any of it to be honest. There have been so many cultures that have evolved with different diets due to environmental constraints like weather and soil conditions, that it's impossible to say if they were ideal as much as simply there. Fire was significant for so many reasons, but I don't know that putting advancement at the feet of cooked food takes enough into consideration. It's like a study that concludes alcohol is good for you without looking at the diet of the study subject.


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