December 15, 2009


How Cooking Made Us Human

By Richard Wrangham
320 pages. Basic Books.

Review by Kate Kasserman

Hypotheses about the development of (very) prehistoric hominids, including mankind itself, give me a queasy thrill. It’s intriguing terrain for speculation, but even the most appealing, plausible, uncontradicted-by-what-little-physical-evidence-we-have notions are of course utterly untestable. Researchers frequently apply to the modern-day reference supplied by chimpanzees, bonobos, and other apes (as Wrangham in fact does here); and that’s really the best we can do, at least right now, but it is always worth remembering that several MILLION years of evolution separate us from chimps – we’ve been going down divergent paths for QUITE SOME TIME, and the level of applicability of modern apes to humanity’s past is, well, simply unknown.

The basic premise Wrangham proposes in Catching Fire is that cooking reduces the physical cost of feeding oneself at the same time as it increases the social risk – both of which had massive implications once our precursors stumbled onto this interesting discovery. Cooking makes things squishy and easy to digest, and consequently saves a lot of digestive energy on two fronts: you don’t have to spend bloody hours a day MASTICATING (yay, time-bonus!), and your guts don’t have to spend a third of your metabolic energy grind, grind, grinding through the mass that your jaws present to your innards once your teeth have done whatever they can do.

Wrangham asserts that this physical energy savings gave our ancestors capital to spend on what would otherwise be a luxury (particularly insofar as, like the digestive tract, it is also a major energy-hog): our brains. We took our digestion-bonus and turned it into what was next highest on our priority list, intelligence. And thus, he says, the technological/cultural innovation of cooking is literally and directly responsible for making us us, rather than some feeb gorilla wanna-be. (He discusses other major implications that he lays at the feet of the domestication of fire/cooking, such as the loss of our pretty, strokable pelts and the sexual division of labor, but I can’t go into everything in this short review.)

The book takes the basic approach of an excitable professor giving his intro-level undergrads a break by devoting one day’s lecture to his pet hypothesis. This makes Catching Fire accessible and fun, but also makes it prone to some overstatements and oversimplifications that can be a little vexing at times; I’ll deal with the mild annoyance factor first. One example:

Wrangham discusses modern raw-foodists (people who try to eat all, or as much as possible, of their food uncooked) with considerable respect and interest – and gives all due allowance to that in modern society, it is possible for a dedicated human being who REALLY puts his or her back into it to manage to derive adequate sustenance from raw food. The difficulties of doing so do provide a vivid lesson in just how much harder it is to suck energy out of minimally processed food, and in that sense it is on-point.

However, while some raw-foodists seem to think that they’re adhering to a more natural lifestyle and one to which we were adapted, Wrangham sets up a bit of a straw man when discussing (for those of us who are not ideologues on the issue) how what they’re doing just wouldn’t work in the wild – as in the remarkable reduction of the fertility of raw-foodist women. Yes, a huge drop in fertility would be a MAJOR deal-killer as a lifestyle choice for a small group of up-and-coming hominids; but a cornerstone of Wrangham’s whole argument is that we have developed itsy-bitsy (in the animal scheme of things) digestive tracts that aren’t up to the task of low-quality food inputs, and that it is more or less inconceivable that any creature with our gut would be subsisting on anything but very easy-to-digest, high-energy-return food. In short: a hominid group wouldn’t even HAVE the abbreviated digestive tract that drops the ball and sacrifices fertility with hard-to-digest food IF it were on a hard-to-digest-food diet. So saying that its fertility rate would be dismal and deadly, while certainly eye-catching, is also a bit disingenuous, except as a gentle suggestion to the very, very, very few people who think that a raw-food diet is the one for which we are specifically adapted (rather than one we can arguably tolerate) that perhaps they might want to reconsider that particular plank of their platform.

It’s like a tabloid headline from 100,000 BC: RAW FOOD DIET FAD DOOMS HUMANITY TO EXTINCTION – CHIMPS LAUGH, EAT FRUIT. It’s sensationalist when Wrangham doesn’t need to be, as if he either got carried away (which I bet he does, often, and I do love him for it) and wasn’t edited or else he simply didn’t trust the implicit coolness of his idea (HUMANITY OUTSOURCES “BORING” PART OF DIGESTION, GETS RICH, CONQUERS WORLD WITH SPARE TIME) and the breadth of support he has mustered in its defense to hold the reader’s interest. Cf. previous remark about intro-level undergrads.

For such a short book, Wrangham does an admirable job of hinting at the wide range of research and disciplines (and experience, as when he and his chimp-watching buddies tried out the chimpanzee technique of chewing raw meat wrapped in a tough leaf to test whether this improves the speed and quality of mastication – EWWWW, but good on you, Dr. W!) factoring in to his conclusions. Okay, I will admit that I side with the undergrad-tickling approach here, because it is just pure fun to have a bright and intellectually curious guide cherry-picking amusing tidbits from a vast field for my delectation. Freaky nineteenth-century gut wounds! Instinctotherapists sniffing spoonfuls of marrow! Edible poop! Gorilla sex! Skeletons! Baby fat! Wilbur Atwater’s plan to SAVE THE WORKING MAN by telling him how to get the most food bang for his buck!

The effect that humanity has had on humanity itself is both a fascinating and productive line of inquiry. Whether or not you’re convinced by Wrangham’s arguments (and I’ll come clean: I didn’t wholly buy into all of them, mostly because of the overstatement problem where I think he is undervaluing other factors for the purpose of dramatic emphasis, but I found most of ’em compelling), they’re worth thinking about – and, in Catching Fire, they’re entertaining too. If so many of his stories weren’t so GROSS, he’d make a great dinner-party guest. Maybe just tell him kindly to shut up until it’s time for brandy!

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