Richard Wrangham - Rediscovering Fire

August 27, 2010

Host: Chris Mooney

This is a show about evolution—but not, for once, about the evolution wars. Instead, it concerns one of the most intriguing ideas to emerge in quite some time about the evolution of humans.

In his much discussed book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues that we’ve been ignoring a critical catalyst in the creation of our species—a little technology called cooking.

Cooking was the game changer, says Wrangham. It upended everything. It altered how we obtained energy, which in turn morphed our anatomy and cranial capacity. Cooking even changed how we came to spend our days, and divide labor between the sexes.

According to Wrangham, learning to cook therefore ranks among the most important things that ever happened to our ancestors. In this episode of Point of Inquiry, he discusses why cooking was so pivotal—and why its role has so long been overlooked.

Richard Wrangham is the Ruth Moore professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, and the author, with Dale Peterson, of Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. His new book is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Comments from the CFI Forums

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I bet the raw food movement people would have some delightfully colorful things to say about this.

Posted on Aug 27, 2010 at 4:26pm by Dead Monky Comment #1

I bet the raw food movement people would have some delightfully colorful things to say about this.

Those fanatics are loony.

Posted on Aug 27, 2010 at 6:07pm by asanta Comment #2

Excellent interview. I have read Dr. Wrangham’s book and found it accessable to the non scientist and compelling.  Thanks for the excellent podcast, y’all have hit it out of the park two weeks running now, please keep up the good work.

Posted on Aug 28, 2010 at 5:08am by Old Hoplite Comment #3

I’m really glad you liked this one. I think Wrangham’s book is amazing so I’ve been blogging about it regularly, and wanted to have him on ever since I did a BBC segment with him and realized what a good interview he is.

He starts off the book critiquing the Raw Food movement…I don’t know if they’ve responded to him.

chris

Posted on Aug 28, 2010 at 9:18am by CMooney Comment #4

I’m really glad you liked this one. I think Wrangham’s book is amazing so I’ve been blogging about it regularly, and wanted to have him on ever since I did a BBC segment with him and realized what a good interview he is.

He starts off the book critiquing the Raw Food movement…I don’t know if they’ve responded to him.

chris

I haven’t listened yet (I’ll do that today) but raw food nuts don’t realize that the ability to cook foods allowed us to eat a wider variety, extract more nutrition from it and store it, freeing us to advance our species in other ways.

Posted on Aug 28, 2010 at 12:29pm by asanta Comment #5

I’m not an intellectual, but as a former farm hand, auto plant assembly line worker, college student, helicopter mechanic, feed mill employee, gas man, truck driver, airline pilot and rancher, I would conjecture that O rings would be the second best discovery.

Without O rings; the rubbery little gadgets that allow hydraulic cylinders to work, we would not have had skyscrapers, freeways, bridges and dams.

Without O rings, we would not have had bulldozers, construction cranes, dirt haulers, dump trucks and all the other assorted machinery required for construction.

But cooking fires were good too.

Posted on Aug 29, 2010 at 9:33am by twinbeech Comment #6

I had to laugh at his characterization of bachelors as sad, malnourished individuals.  In today’s society, I think it’s clear that bachelors are better looking on average than the married man.  I think that’s because bachelors are still out there in the dating world, and many married people just stop trying - being attractive isn’t as valuable as it is for someone unmarried.  Additionally, one could even argue that it’s in the interest of wives to make their husbands overweight and unattractive.  That way, he’s less likely to stray (like the old phrase “a man is only as faithful as his options”).  If he doesn’t stray, then he’s more likely to stick around and help raise and provide for the children.  From that perspective, it makes a lot of sense for wives with children to make their husbands unattractive.

Posted on Aug 30, 2010 at 1:24pm by tinyfrog Comment #7

I enjoyed this podcast -thanks Chris.

The book is now available in paperback…yay…
http://www.amazon.com/Catching-Fire-Cooking-Made-Human/dp/0465020410/ref=tmm_pap_title_0#_

There is a story in Time this week—Can Zapping Potatoes Make Them More Nutricious—- which my wife found right after I told her about the podcast…

Posted on Aug 30, 2010 at 5:35pm by Jackson Comment #8

I got to listen to it last night and it was fascinating.
Revolutionary even, and it makes all the sense in the world.

The last time I heard anything near as interesting regarding human evolution it was a gal telling me about a scientists (sorry don’t remember the name, it was ages ago) who was developing the idea that the hand-eye coordination of throwing stones and spears, enabled certain neural connects to be made that ultimately facilitated our ability to speak.  I wonder whatever happened to that one in the past two decades.

I got the feeling this mastery of fire and cooking will be a home run, affecting* a lot of different fields.


*did I get it right? :cheese:

Posted on Aug 31, 2010 at 7:56pm by citizenschallenge.pm Comment #9

Oh, but then the ‘hobbit people’ was pretty fantastic too,
I’ll probably think of more later on.

Posted on Aug 31, 2010 at 7:57pm by citizenschallenge.pm Comment #10

Great interview, Chris. I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

Posted on Sep 08, 2010 at 8:12am by George Comment #11

I listened while cooking a recipe of “weapons grade ratatouille”.

I think anthropological speculation benefits from the kind of clear situational visualization Prof Wrangham engages in:
looking at how much time it actually takes to chew those raw foods into something digestible leads to understanding which parameters restrain development.

I’m reminded of similar analyses about how cities (and more complex civilizations) required peasants supplying food, and how an entire pyramid of goods and services is necessary to free up time, allowing specialized professions to develop and expand.

Posted on Sep 18, 2010 at 6:20pm by moreover Comment #12

I read Catching Fire on the weekend and I enjoyed it very much. I only wished Wrangham explained why he disagrees with the thrifty gene hypothesis, but other than that this book is absolutely amazing. Thanks again, Chris, for the interview.

Posted on Sep 27, 2010 at 6:33am by George Comment #13