The People of Flame
came before the Talking Men,
& after the Blood.
In Adam's Tongue the argument was how language & proto-language drove the evolution from ape to man. Well, from animal ape to human ape, I should say. Or at least Homo ape. The premise of this book is that cooking was the impetus of that same change-- or I should say, that is how the premise is stated. Luckily, the book is more scholarly than that pithy statement, & the turn of a phrase that suggests cooking made humans out of apes veils the real thesis of the book: that fire is what made Homo habilis into Homo erectus. In fact, Bickerton's argument in Adam's Tongue regarding abstract displacement & "power scavenging" fits right into Wrangham's scheme-- or at least, the power scavenging does; Wrangham puts increased meat consumption as the kick in the pants that jumped Australopithecus into habilis. Though I should be clear on something-- Wrangham prefers the term "Habaline", much the same way one might say "Australopithicine." He reserves judgment on species or genus, which I think is overly conservative, but it really doesn't impact his argument but to make the stepping stone from Habaline to Homo erectus all the more discrete.
The first thing Wrangham does is sit down & spell out what cooked food means in terms of biological ecology. He also ends the book with a bit of a screed about caloric information-- which is a revisiting of his arguments. Simple as pie: cooked food lets you scrape out more calories, more quickly. Which frees up your time & your biology. Humans use the same amount of energy as you would expect for a primate our size-- but with a vastly larger brain sucking up a hugely increased proportion of that energy. How does Homo sapiens afford it? By externalizing digestion-- well, & then some. It isn't like cooking replaces digestion; it supersedes it, really. He talks about raw foodists-- not as a rant, but an example-- & sheesh, I never realized how recklessly awful raw foodists are to their bodies. Semen stops flowing, sex drive drops off, infertility & amenorrhea set in, metabolism drops & thus energy decreases, bones start melting & muscles coming unhinged. Just a disaster! & really if you stop & think about it, you can see that humans are pretty unarguably adapted to eat cooked food. The smaller teeth, the tiny mouth, & the radical change in intestinal length & processing. "Natural" is a cooked meal, for a human-- & Wrangham posits that it has been for a long time.
Wrangham folds in all the benefits of fire in with cooking-- & that is fine, but really the arguments terms are reversed I think. This is a study that dwells on cooking, but that is only a facet of fire. It is fire that we are really talking about. Catching Fire has no problem appealing to the other benefits of fire, but casts them almost as fringe benefits; protection from predators & light at night allowing sleeping on the ground, making bipedalism viable, for instance. The articulation of fire's role in bipedalism happens in two parts; elsewhere Wrangham speaks to fire's ability to warm allowing humans to shed their hair. The picture he paints is much more evocative than just heat dispersal on the savanna; it is long distance running or walking-- it is letting sweat bead on your skin, instead of under a layer of insulation. With fire, you don't need a heavy coat to protect you from the elements-- you can go naked of fur, ready to take full advantage of your bipedalism. He argues that clustering around the fire, whether for warmth, protection, or for shared food, results in self-domestication. Protohumans who are calm & share get a spot in the circle, prosper. It is fire that this book really speaks to-- not just cooking.
There is a chapter of the book that deals with cooking & the sexual division of labor. Now we're getting into some interesting territory! & choppy waters. Wrangham dismounts the chapter well, leaving you with a fairly decent couple of quips, but the body of the chapter is a little...heteronormative. Which I want to preface saying. I don't in any way think that discussing gender roles in societies & their place in evolutionary psychology or biological anthropology is something to shy away from. That said, there are dangerous corridors that must be carefully navigated, for here steps in many of the cultural assumptions of the viewer. Gender binary is a real social construct, but it is easy-- to easy-- to ignore queer outliers. Or to believe that the data you are looking at confirms your own biases. & I'm not saying Wrangham is bad, or heaven forbid misogynist, but just that this is a chapter to stay on your toes for. There are a lot of givens, a lot of sweeping pronouncements. Which are always difficult. Anyhow, I confess to a certain amount of essentialism in my feminism-- & I happily embrace the Industrial Age & Information Age for its ability to enfranchise women.
That disclaimer said, I do think there is a strong clustering at the poles, there are gendered divisions of labor all up & down human & the near-prehuman history. Heck, I even like the Neanderthal extinction theory that says human gender specialization is what drove them to extinction. Wrangham makes some compelling arguments about cooking, & its cross-cultural role. He doesn't split men & women into hunters & gatherers, but rather hunters & cookers. It is a fairly intriguing way to frame the data, & he backs it up with figures & statistics. The hook my interest is most piqued by is his argument that economics come before paternity. That cooking, as a means to split up time & to manage caloric economy, precedes sex & parentage in terms of marriage. The two pieces may very well fit together, but that survival beats out parentage-- I have to say I see strength in the idea. & it wouldn't be fair not to mention that my household operates by the schema he lays out. I bring home the meat (from the grocery store...) & then Jenny cooks it up. Of course, a lot of the societal surveys that Wrangham brings up enforce female subservience to the cooking pot with domestic violence, he ends the section with a brief discussion of this-- so it works out.
There are a few tidbits in here I will end this by discussing. Wrangham puts fire's discovery with protohumans pounding meat to make it more digestible, which is as good as any argument, but ultimately beside the point. Imagining the circumstances a thing like that caught on is fruitless. He also talks about how cooking might have happened-- food dropped into fires, or seeds left after you've moved it. Again, immaterial. People (& presumably proto-people) are weird. Who thought up eating rotting milk, or fermented grapes? Who knows? He also name checks Antalya's forever burning fire, mentioned by Homer, which is great, awesome, sweet. & WTF Kanzi the bonobo will make FIRE? Apparently, yes. Give Kanzi sticks & matches & he'll cook up marshmallows. What the heck. Lastly, this book has a lovely notes section, bibliography, & index. Oh it warms the cockles of my heart.