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4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 3 May 2017
Overall I enjoyed this book. However, at times it read like an undergraduate's essay in as much as there was a lot of cited information but didn't seem to develop into a coherent argument. The author would quote some research and then a little later quote something else which seemed a contradiction, without giving the chapter the structure of a for and against debate. This occurred more than once throughout the book. Also, I felt that the term habalines really should have been better explained earlier in the book.
Overall, an enjoyable and informative read, I'd really like to give 4.5 stars or 9/10 for this book.
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on 30 May 2017
Well written and argued. Enjoyed the book very much. Good balance between being too detailed and too general
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on 29 April 2017
Nice easy reading book that doesn't get to bogged down in figures and isn't a hard read like some science books out there while still covering the subject well
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A fascinating and thought provoking read. Richard's theory is skilfully constructed and his arguments are well supported. I found his writing style repetitive and slightly irritating - too much "egging the pudding" - which somewhat weakens the impact of his proposition. Never-the-less, I'd recommend it and suggest that he gets/uses a good editor for the next edition.
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on 21 June 2017
Easy and fun read!
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on 18 November 2009
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... without a social network defining, supporting and enforcing social norms cooking would end in chaos" He ascribes human pair bonding, the division of labour between men and women and the development of sophisticated social organisation to the use of fire and the development of cooking. And he does not shrink from voicing his opinions "cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture."

Even the epilogue with its critique of current methods of measurement of cooked food and the effects of modern day diet and cooked food on health maintains the stimulating read.
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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 Atwater convention, the method used to get approximate calorific values for food, familiar on food labels, and its inadequacies. Humans expend calories just to digest food and the amount expended varies between people. The calories available from food depend on whether it is cooked or raw, its physical state such as how finely ground it is, and the combination of foods it is eaten with.

CREDENTIALS: The author is a Harvard professor of anthropology and a director of a chimpanzee project.

THE BOOK has 211 pages spread over an Introduction, 8 chapters and an Epilogue plus Notes, Bibliography and Index. It is printed with a wide margin and a medium sized fount leading to 28 lines per page. There are no illustrations or maps. This is a serious book written accessibly for the mass market. This is reflected in the extensive Notes (43 pages) and a Bibliography (31 pages) which references more scientific journals than books.

Introduction: The Cooking Hypothesis
1. Quest for Raw-Foodists 2. The Cook's Body 3. The Energy Theory of Cooking 4. When Cooking Began 5. Brain Foods 6. How Cooking Frees Men 7. The Married Cook 8. The Cook's Journey
Epilogue: The Well-Informed Cook

McGee, Harold McGee on Food and Cooking
Cradock, Fanny The Homo Erectus Cookbook (just kidding)
Pollan, Michael In Defence of Food
Atwater, Wilbur Methods and Results of Investigations on the Chemistry and Economy of Food
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on 16 September 2017
Only 207 pages long, this book advances theory with significant implications for human evolution and paleo-anthropology.

Raw food is not good for humans, they lose body mass, men virility and women menstruation, suggesting man evolved to eat cooked food, from which energy is absorbed quickly and efficiently.

Speciation can follow rapidly a change in diet, usually consequential on ecological change. Wrangham suggests change, all in the direction of reduction in the size of the gut, necessary for other primates to digest a diet of raw vegetable food, allowed an increase in brain capacity. This happened in four steps. The first was on the appearance of Australopithecines, which, in addition to the fruits and choice plant food eaten by their ancestors, ate starch filled roots, the second Homo Habilis, which ate uncooked meat, made digestible by tenderising the meat or eating the soft innards, the third H Erectus, which cooked food, and the last H Heidelbergensis, which organised more efficient hunting leading to greater consumption of animal fat. Effectively energy no longer needed to digest food was switched to the larger hominid brain.

Cooking relies on control of fire. Critics say there is no archaeological evidence of hominids making fire as early as Wrangham is suggesting. He argues the physiological evidence that H Erectus had a less flared rib cage and narrower pelvis than its predecessors, indicating a smaller gut, is the proof. Whilst the argument is circuitous, I find it persuasive. If H Erectus was a tool maker, wasn’t it also a fire maker? One means of creating fire was with sparks produced when making stone tools.

Fire was not only used for cooking. It provided protection, so that hominids could sleep on the ground safe from predators rather than in the trees. They would have slept close to the embers, taking it in turns to remain awake. I have done exactly this in Alaska, when camping in an area where there were bears. Hunter gatherers sat around the fire at night telling stories, expanding their imagination. The fire provided warmth, allowing hominids to become the “naked ape”, able to walk and run without overheating

Wrangham argues control of fire and cooking were key not only in human evolution, but in social organisation. Man is unique not only in sharing food, but in the way in which it is shared with a constant the sexual division of labour. Amongst hunter gatherers, men and women seek different foods, typically women gathering roots and tubers, men hunting. The food collected by the women is kept for her family, that hunted or prepared by men shared more widely. Even when men cook for the community, the women cook for their family. Wrangham explains this as originating in a protection racket. Smoke from a fire can be seen from afar, inviting theft. Having a husband meant a woman’s food will not be taken by others. Having a wife means he can expect an evening meal.

Anthropologists have suggested successive, and in part competing, theories, Man the Hunter, Scavenger, Social Animal and Tool Maker. Aiello and Wheeler put forward “The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis: the Brain and Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution”. In “Catching Fire”, Wrangham developed it into the theory of Man the Cook, which is at least complementary to existing theories and potentially provides a general theory into which they can fit. Like the best theory it invites further testing.
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on 20 March 2011
I won't review this at length because some of the other reviews are so detailed. I am interested in diet, evolution, and anthropology but am not a specialist. I found this very thought provoking and well worth reading.
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on 27 December 2011
According to the "standard model" of human evolution we reached our current "form" with the emergence of homo sapiens some 200 000 years ago. Accordingly very few evolutionary developments have occurred in our species since this time. Although there have been some well documented adaptations at the genetic level since then, lactose tolerance in northern Europeans, springs to mind as a case in point. This is not withstanding the advances being made in the field of Epigenetics either.

What Richard Wrangham suggests in his book "Catch a Fire: how cooking made us human" is that the discovery and mastery of fire and cooking drove our evolution. Specifically it accounts for the biological facts of our evolution (since the Australopithecine Epoc over 2 million years ago), including our increasing brain size, and a concomitant shrinking of our digestive tract, and the transition for an ape like jaw to our human jaw which is both smaller and weaker, with smaller teeth. Unfortunately his argument is only partially supported by the archaeological record, however he contends that this is due to the sparseness of the records and not support for a counter argument.

From here the author goes on to elaborate how cooking might have formed the basis for many human characteristics. Such as our social arrangements, including our pair bonding behaviour, intelligence and biology.

A fascinating and truly engaging book.

Michael McDowell
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