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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human Hardcover – 5 May 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (5 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465013627
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465013623
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.9 x 21 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 937,715 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Absolutely fascinating (Nigella Lawson)

Cooking completely transformed the human race, allowing us to live on the ground, develop bigger brains and smaller mouths, and invent specialized sex roles. This notion is surprising, fresh and, in the hands of Richard Wrangham, utterly persuasive. He brings to bear evidence from chimpanzees, fossils, food labs, and dieticians. Big, new ideas do not come along often in evolution these days, but this is one (Matt Ridley, author of Genome and The Agile Gene)

A feast of new ideas on human evolution (Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought)

In modern times we are all obsessed with how to cook, but this book answers the much deeper question of why we cook, and in doing so highlights the fact that what has become an art form, was at it's inception the driving force for us, humans-to-be, becoming the dominant species on the planet.

Wrangham's explanations are always thorough without feeling like you're swimming through treacle. They are simple, logical and compelling, whilst answering some of the biggest questions out there.

At a time when less people are cooking, this book gently reminds us that we in the developed world are walking away from the very thing that made us what we are, and we should squander this defining skill at our own peril.

(Allegra McEvedy, founder of LEON)

How exciting to see a distinguished scholar proving unequivocally that cookery is at the centre of our humanity (Sam Clark, Moro)

A compelling chain of logic (Economist 2009-02-21)

Catching Fire is convincing in argument and impressive in its explanatory power. A rich and important book (Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma)

[Wrangham] has delivered a rare thing: a slim book ... that contains serious science yet is related in direct, no-nonsense prose. It is toothsome, skillfully prepared brain food. (Dwight Garner New York Times)

The claim that 'cooks made us' now has exciting evolutionary support. Let cooks lead the celebrations! (Michael Symons, author of A History of Cooks and Cooking)

Richard Wrangham is the perfect master of paleoanthropology, primatology, archaeology, human biology, and the chemistry and physics of food. No one else could combine these disciplines to yield revolutionary insights about food history. He convinces us that food preparation techniques, including cooking with fire, started deeper in the hominid past than most historians thought possible, and that its legacy and effects have shaped our bodies as well as our cultures. Along the way, he helps us understand what has gone wrong with modern nutrition (Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, author of The World: A Global History)

This superbly lucid and comprehensive book shows how important cooking was to making us human. Food, its composition, and how it's harvested and processed are critical in the evolution of every animal species. This masterful work shows how cooking was-and continues to be-an essential part of humanity (David Pilbeam, Henry Ford II Professor of Human Evolution, Harvard University)

Catching Fireis a brilliant, pathbreaking book. Every reader will be inspired by it (Nicholas Humphrey, author of The Mind Made Flesh and Seeing Red)

This is a fascinating tour through an everyday event so important we hardly notice--cooking--a human habit for some two million years, which turns out to be a key to much of who we are. Beautifully written, with convincing logic and evidence throughout (Robert Trivers, winner of the 2007 Crafoord Prize)

Richard Wrangham's book is a tour de force on how to study human evolution, combining original ideas with an extraordinary range of science. With elegance and clarity, he has shown how cooking permeates all human life, and must have played a major part in making us what we are as a species (Robert Foley, Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge)

Wrangham has provided both an innovative hypothesis and a good read-a must for all who are interested in understanding how we became human (Dr. Leslie C. Aiello, President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research)

Catching Fire is an extraordinary book-a truly important insight into our human past, and as always with Wrangham's work, a real page turner. He has the great gift of making hard and accurate science seem like an adventure story, as indeed it is. Like Demonic Males, Catching Fire will be read in many circles, from classrooms to general readers, to the enlightenment of us all. (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas)

A book of startling originality and breathtaking erudition. Drawing on disciplines as diverse as anthropology, sociology, biology, chemistry, physics, literature, nutrition, and cooking, Richard Wrangham addresses two simple but very profound questions: How did we evolve from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens, and what makes us human? The answer can be found at your barbecue grill and I dare say it will surprise you... (Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible and How to Grill; host of Primal Grill)

It's nice to have it confirmed that the raw foodists are not just annoying but also wrong... [Richard Wrangham] writes in this brilliant and original piece of science writing, which explains nothing less than who we are and how we got here... With devastating clarity he shows that the "Man the Hunter" thesis simply does not add up... Wrangham convincingly argues that unlike animals, human beings could not flourish on a raw diet (so yah-boo to the wheatgrass evangelists!)... you have to pinch yourself from time to time to remember just how new Wrangham's argument is. Something this big and original in evolutionary studies doesn't come along very often... In many ways, this is an exhilarating book... It is, too, a good book for vegetarians, who for too long have endured the Neanderthal taunts of carnivorous chefs (Bee Wilson The Times)

A daringly unorthodox book, and one that might just transform the way we understand ourselves. (James McConnachie The Sunday Times)

Compelling [and] brilliant (William Leith Daily Mail 2009-09-11)

Brilliantly original and illuminating (Michael Kerrigan Scotsman)

Able to see my preparations for Sunday lunch in a dizzying new perspective... Catching Fire is very readable and not in the least technical. Wrangham makes a compelling case... Wrangham's placing of cooking at the centre of what it is to be human carries a great deal of emotional conviction too. The ritual of the family Sunday lunch now also celebrates the birth of our species (Ian Irvine Evening Standard 2009-10-01)

Good, big ideas about evolution are rare... Catching Fire is that rare thing, an exhilarating science book. And one that, for all its foodie topicality, means to stand the test of time (Simon Ings Sunday Telegraph 2009-10-04)

Lucidly written and accessible... What makes his thesis so gripping to read is that it is elegantly argued, step by step (Harry Eyres Financial Times 2009-10-03)

A fascinating read, to be sure, and a very accessible one (The Herald 2009-09-19)

Wrangham's enjoyably expressed theory is utterly persuasive, especially if you happen to place a high importance on cooking (Boyd Tonkin Independent 2009-10-09)

Richard Wrangham's ingredients are freshly gathered from an impressive variety of fields (Steve Jones Guardian 2009-10-17)

Transforms a daily chore into a pivotal existential act stretching back millennia... a hugely readable history of our culinary pedigree... an energetic and enjoyable book... In this vivid account of human evolution, there's no need to cook the books (Sunday Business Post 2009-10-27)

An intriguing theseis... Wrangham's basic thesis, that cooking is the key to the human condition, is convincing and is presented in a lively and readable manner (Robin McKie Observer 2009-11-01)

Startling and persuasive (Economist 2009-12-05)

An unusual and compelling read (Times Higher Education Supplement)

A revelation (Caroline Cranbrook Country Life 2009-12-30)

Delectable reading (Anita Sethi Independent on Sunday 2009-12-13)

This is the best kind of scientific writing: clear, strongly argued and provocative. That it's still contentious makes it all the more exciting. (The Weekend Australian 2010-01-16)

A real expert in his field (Time Out)

Richard Wrangham presents a powerful thesis - and the more you think about it, the more it seems to be true. As a very considerable bonus, his book is an excellent read (Colin Tudge Literary Review 2010-02-01) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

A groundbreaking new theory of evolution --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What is the originality of the ideas in this book - to what extent has Richard Wrangham taken the theory of evolution forwards with the fundamental assertion that the use of fire and development of cooking was not simply an adjunct but was the key factor in advancing the evolution of homo erectus over apes and the beginning of humanity some 2 million years ago? Richard is immensely convincing.

As he says " Fleas do not suck blood because they happen to have a proboscis well designed for piecing mammalian skins ; they have a proboscis because they are adapted to sucking blood. Similarly humans do not eat cooked food because we have the right kind of teeth and guts; rather we have small teeth and short guts as a result of a cooked diet. " And he brings this together with Aiello and Wheeler's expensive tissue hypothesis " Big brains have evolved in some animals because they have small guts and small guts are made possible by high quality diets".

All major scientific "discoveries" are the expression of accumulated knowledge of many diligent people. Richard Wrangham fully acknowledges his inspirations. But his combination and deep understanding of a range of sciences - from nutrition, digestion, neuroscience, archealogy to all types of anthropology - provides crucial evidence to support his theory. From his own original work among apes in East Africa, he can draw on first hand evidence but it is the rich variety of interesting examples, evidence and case studies quoted together with the clarity of explanation that makes this book fascinating reading.

But the book goes beyond evolution of the biological species into social evolution with Perles's assertion that "cooking ends individual self sufficiency...
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I liked this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in human evolution, food or diet, or to anyone who eats food.

Over the evolutionary series of: early Habilines (the author's term for Australopithecus Habilis and Homo Habilis), Home Erectus to Homo Sapiens, this book discusses the timing and importance of fire and cooking and that it was cooking as much as meat eating that provided the calories required to develop and support an increasingly larger brain. Cooking is evolutionarily and biologically significant, it is no just a cultural development. The author discusses the importance of cooking in diet which allows more calories to be digested from some food, for meat to be digested more efficiently and for may foods, indigestible raw, to be eaten.

Human internal plumbing matches cooked food. It is only recently in the fat developed world that the rate of change in industrially processed food has overtaken digestive evolution.

The author starts by discussing raw-foodism, which is a very good way to lose a lot of weight. He notes that raw-foodists depend on exceptionally high quality foods produced by agriculture. In the wild, foods are considerably smaller and take much longer to find than a stroll down a supermarket aisle. Raw-foodists taken away from a modern society would have a very hard time.

Habilines may have tenderised their raw meat by pounding but the author considers it was during the Habiline to Homo Erectus transition when food and fire first met to produce cooking and cooking vegetables is just as important as cooking meat.

The Epilogue discusses the
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Cogito ergo sum, said Descartes. Coquo ergo sum is the gist of this book. According to largely accepted scientific knowledge, Homo erectus sprung up from the earlier Australopithecines by eating meat.The transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens, us, is owed to a major innovation: cooking.

Levi-Strauss, in his The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology (Pimlico), wrote that fire marks the transition from nature to culture. Few would dispute that the cuisine of any nation is a major trademark of its cultural somplexity and sophistication. And cooking, in its many diverse methods (grilling, steaming, boiling, baking etc) is an essential part of any major cuisine in the world.

Our bodies evolved because we learned to cook: besides a smaller stomach and larger brain, we lost our climbing ability (no need to climb if fire can protect camp on the ground) in favor of better running skills. And we have much smaller teeth compared to our ancestors who did not cook.

Cooking also played an essential role in making mankind a carnivore, as it makes it efficient to digest and store large amount of animal proteins in a way that would have been unthinkable with just raw meat. But for vegetarians there is some consolation as well: cooking made it possible to digest many more types of roots.

Finally, this book dwelves on the social implications of cooking: how it shaped the man/woman relationship in the house, and how it made it easier to use meals as a social event. Some cultures have peculiar (to us) habits: among the Bonerif of Papua, a woman will sleep with every man in the village except her brothers before finally getting married; but the moment she feeds a man she is irrevocably considered his wife!
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