Catching Fire is a nonfiction book by Richard Wrangham. (He even has a wikipedia page on him.) It is not about pyromaniacs. (Thanks, by the way to www.obit-mag.com for the picture of fire!) Nor is it about playing with matches. It is about the entanglement of evolution with cooking. Wrangham is a scientist -- and a Harvard scientist at that -- who brings a wealth of knowledge about apes (chimps and others) as well as other material to his thesis. (According to the bio on the back flap, Wrangham is the "Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology at the Peabody Museum and Director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda.")
And yes, this 2009 book is about the hunting males and the foraging female in some sense. (After all, he co-authored Demonic Males and co-edited Sexual Coercion in Primates.) Wrangham even attributes the origin of a gender-based division of labor to the invention of cooking. Why? Without cooking, males would not have enough TIME to hunt because, like their ape relatives, they would have had to spend the vast majority of their time CHEWING. Why did they have to spend so much time chewing? Because their food was uncooked and therefore was harder and therefore. . . (If you really care, check out the 1996 article "Biological Aspects of Meat Toughness" by E. Tornberg in the journal Meat Science.) In all this, Wrangham differs from Levi-Strauss, in The Raw and the Cooked (which I have not read but want to . . Levi-Strauss's book argues that first came the hunter (and meat eating) and then came cooking). Wrangham thinks the famed anthropologist had the order backwards. (And this despite the anthropologist's longevity; click here for an NPR report on his 100th birthday in 2008.) Wrangham's book draws, as well, on data showing that folks who eat only raw food have trouble maintaining their weight (and this despite their argument that what they are doing is "natural" and the weight loss is also the case even when the number of calories is held constant in comparisons of cooked-food-eaters and raw-food-eaters). Also of interest are various anatomical features of humans which support Wrangham's thesis (or, as he labels it, hypothesis); teeth, for example, the relative proportion of our body devoted to digestion (low compared to related animals who do not cook), the relative size of our brains (high relative to related animals who do not cook), etcetera. (He notes, too, the negative impact of raw food diets on the capacity to reproduce. . . ) All of this happened circa 2 million or so years ago in Wrangham's argument. Like Darwin, he points to the crucial role of fire; unlike Darwin, he places its transformative imact substantially earlier in human evolution.
The book's subtitle is "How Cooking Made us Human" and so the theme includes shifts from various pre-human hominids to truly human beings. I am out of date so was unfamiliar with some of the stages in the transformation and the dating of all this, but he's pretty clear in his text. Wrangham argues that humans became human when we discovered (and harnessed) fire (and so there to Freud with his emphasis on controlling fire by urinating on it). What I noticed, in part, that made me take Wrangham seriously as a totally clueless person was his citation of feminists (e.g., Kate Millett) and his analysis not just of a "sexual division of labor" but of the inequalities constructed thereby.
Of course, the chapters entitled "How Cooking Frees Men" and "The Married Cook" are Wrangham's entries into the troubled terrain of the history of gendered divisions of labor -- and thus of the history (and origins) of sexism. (In fact, a customer review at amazon.com (dated June 9, 2009) claims that Wrangham "indulges" in academic feminism in some of his claims. I simply think he shows smarts when he does so.) His views make some attempt to disentangle cultural from biological evolution (insofar as that is even imagineable) and definitely see male as hunter as following from the invention of cooking.The relative roles of female and male food provision, the near universality of women as cooks, and related matters are key to his thesis. So too is the nearly humanity-defining notion that partners share what they find in the way of food. Cooking, he claims, made us human (and social, and intelligent and. . . ) rather than vice versa.
I liked this book. I found it accessible to a nonspecialist and intriguing. It is well written, well documented, and my only complaint -- for a hardback which cost a lot a bit short! I even intend to re-read it. Which, I guess, makes it worth it! And, I recommended Catching Fire to a friend who teaches in related areas. Turns out she knows Wrangham's work. Was I the only one who did not?
For a Q and A with Wrangham in Scientific American, click here. And for a review in Slate's very own food issue, click here. On The Raw and the Cooked, see, for example, this piece which draws on Levi-Strauss's conceptualization in a discussion of Decameron.