Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, By Richard Wrangham

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The Independent Culture

In his "Dissertation on Roast Pig", Charles Lamb envisaged the invention of cooking by a Chinese boy who accidentally burnt the family pigs: "Some of the crumbs of the scorched skin had come away with his fingers, and... he tasted – crackling! The truth at length broke into his slow understanding, that it was the pig that smelt so, and the pig that tasted so delicious." Though located in the wrong continent – Africa was the birthplace of humanity – Lamb's early 19th century drollery may not have been too far from reality.

Richard Wrangham's revision of human evolution suggests that our ancestors were transformed after discovering an additional benefit of the fire intended to keep predators at bay. "Once they kept fire alive at night, a group of habilines (the missing link between primates and humans) in a particular place occasionally dropped food morsels by accident, ate them after they had been heated, and learned that they tasted better. Repeating their habit, this group would have swiftly evolved into the first Homo erectus." By "swiftly", Wrangham means 15-20,000 years.

The discovery of cooking has been dated to 1.9 million years ago. Because their diet was primarily cooked, Homo erectus enjoyed great nutritional benefits. As a result, the mouths and guts of our ancestors became far smaller than other primates. But the physical changes did not stop there. The brain increased in size and despite amounting to only 2.5 per cent of our total weight, it accounts for 20 per cent of our metabolic requirements. High meat intake and improved cooking methods may have been responsible for an increase in brain size from 950cc to 1,200cc around 900,000 years ago.

Fire freed man from constantly chomping raw roots. It also made him the naked ape. Because he didn't need hair for heat, man became the fastest primate with the ability to sweat off heat generated from hunting. Unfortunately, woman did not benefit. "Cooking... trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated culture," suggests Wrangham.

His lucid theory is most persuasive, especially if you happen to place a high importance on cooking in the general scheme of things, but the mystery remains: why didn't Darwin recognize the importance of cooking in jump-starting humanity? Darwin saw the control of fire as something that humans developed rather than something that developed humans. Though Wrangham does not draw the inference, could Darwin's omission of cooking be related to the low priority that many Victorians placed on culinary matters?

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