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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  3,092 ratings  ·  403 reviews
Ever since Darwin and The Descent of Man, the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. But in Catching Fire, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Wrangham shows that the shift from raw to cooked foods was th ...more
Hardcover, 309 pages
Published May 26th 2009 by Basic Books
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Dec 28, 2009 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I did not enjoy this book.

The main premise was that cooking makes food easier to consume as well as easier to digest. This advancement allowed humans to consume more energy to support a bigger brain.

Now you do not have to read this book.
Summer Bock, Holistic Nutrition & Herbs
From the first page I liked the writing style. I found it easy to follow and understand, although a good knowledge of either nutrition or anthropology will make it a faster and more comprehensible read.

According to Wrangham, there are no raw food cultures ever recorded in human history. Yes, people eat foods raw but no culture has ever done this exclusively. Using this and other points, he provides an interesting critique to the raw movement.

Throughout the book Wrangham impressed me with the q
Jun 22, 2012 rated it liked it
I learned so many random facts in the first chapter, including the little-touted fact that raw foodism is unhealthy— eating completely raw doesn't provide the amount of energy necessary, despite the fact that calorie intake is sufficient. Basically, the amount of energy required to digest the fruits and vegetables isn't enough to keep someone alive for a long period of time. This was very good to know, as I'd been thinking of going raw when we got back home (merely to see what it was like). Now, ...more
I'm feeling especially lazy at the moment and not wanting to think enough to write even my standard lazy review, so I'll just say that I thought parts of this were very interesting, and other parts of it were stretching a bit to make things fit the theory.

It was well-read though, and I would recommend it, so that's a plus.
Apr 04, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
How did australopithecines develop into Homo erectus? The traditional answer has been that the use of tools allowed them to hunt, and that the increased protein in the diet allowed the developmental spurt toward a bigger brain. But there are two, not one, major jumps in development along this road toward Homo sapiens. Richard Wrangham argues that the first, as has been established, resulted from hunting and eating more meat (and not just consuming scavenged meat), but that the second came from c ...more
Amy Raby
Mar 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating book! Just so you know, it is NOT the Hunger Games sequel! This is an anthropology/evolutionary biology book that posits the theory that what made us human--that is, what allowed us to develop bigger brains and many of the unique aspects of human culture--was not hunting, but the use of fire to cook our food. And that the acquisition of fire happened much earlier than is generally assumed, at the time of homo erectus, not homo sapiens.

There is a really interesting discussio
Jan 01, 2014 rated it it was ok
Any time you see the phrase "How _____ made us human" you know you're going to see a whole lot of over-selling of an idea. Bipedality, language, cooperation, tool use, cooking of food, and many other factors went in to making us the species we are today.

How the cooking of food shaped our evolution is an interesting topic but I did not find this a particularly interesting book. Wrangham starts out by spending an inordinate amount of time bashing people who eat raw food diets. It went way beyond p
Mar 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
I know I’ve been reading and reviewing a lot of non-fiction lately, but this is probably one of the more entertaining and accessible of the bunch in style. It’s a convincing idea: what caused humans to be able to evolve such big brains and short digestive tracts, compared to other species? The answer, according to Wrangham: first the ability to hunt and eat raw meat, then control of fire for cooking meat.

It’s a very readable book, making all the science and history easy to follow. For me, it was
Dave Riley
Jul 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ecology, food, history
Great review of the possibilities of our origins with a persuasive argument about cooking being a driving force for human evolution. Cross species comparisons make a lot of sense as Wrangham develops his argument.

Essential read, especially when he addresses gender issues. He sidesteps the challenge of the origins of language but nonetheless locates humans in the context of changing and challenging environments.
Wrangham's thesis is that fire is what made modern humans. We didn't just learn to use fire because we were so smart: using fire actually gave us an evolutionary advantage which led to our being smart. In a nutshell: cooked food is more nutritious and easier to eat, thus allowing our evolutionary ancestors to acquire more calories for less effort, increasing their survival and also freeing up more time for things like inventing the wheel.

At first this may seem counter-intuitive, but Wrangham mak
Jane Louis-Wood
This author makes a convincing case for consumption of cooked food and nocturnal fires being the spur to humans developing the physiological characteristics that made them properly human: slow to mature, large of brain and free of fur (n.b. hipsters are not properly human). Wrangham refutes other hypotheses effectively and goes into riveting detail about the consequences of cooking on the evolution of the human body.

His theories about how food affected social behaviour, however, are largely supp
Judyta Szaciłło
"Cathing fire" is an interesting book. It presents some ideas that are original and thought-provoking about the phenomena that made us human. Some of them are perhaps too far-stretched and the author is too busy focusing on his main subject - processing the food - to notice the conglomerate of many other influences, not rooted in the food (pre)history. In short, the book offers interesting contents, but it is too biased.
It is also too repetitive - the same arguments appear dozens of times on its
Apr 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
This basically offered everything I wanted out of it. The book explored how fire affected human development, but went beyond humans, stating it likely that Erectus and maybe even Habilis began our love affair with cooked food. Wrangham didn't just conjecture, but used similar species as well as primitive societies still in existence in order to demonstrate natural inclinations. Sure, it went sort of gender history toward the end, but Wrangham's reasoning did seem rather believable, if slightly o ...more
Muhammad Nusair
Sep 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Kevin Keating
Nov 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting book about the harnessing of fire and our becoming human and surviving as a species because of it. Cooked food vs raw food has had a tremendous impact and this book covers very many of the results without being boring.
Aug 07, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-read
Wrangham presents and defends well the hypothesis that cooking had major evolutionary consequences for the development of anatomically modern humans, including diminishment in size of mandibles, dentition, and intestines. He presents good arguments for the early control of fire and for its use in cooking by at least one group of habilines who then evolved into Homo erectus. His arguments for the evolutionary advantages provided by cooked food (less time spent in chewing, more calories available ...more
Before reading this book, I was leery of the raw food movement, but now I know why. Wrangham exposes the pseudoscientific justifications for the movement, some of which are unbelievably ridiculous (such as that the cessation of a woman's menstrual period is a good thing because it means that the raw foodist no longer has any toxins to clear out of the body). Apparently, a strict raw-food diet would not give a person enough energy to meet his/ her needs. I don't have to feel any guilt for my most ...more
Feb 08, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
OK, forget the raw food movement. This book presents an interesting theory that a breakthrough moment in human evolution was when man began cooking his food. Cooking the food allowed more calories to be absorbed, changing the shape of primates from having large digestive tracts to large brains. Although the book is very technical, it is presented in a way such that people without a background in biology or anthropology can easily understand. I especially enjoyed the chapters on how social roles ...more
Jan 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The best popular science books I read are the ones that I'm constantly reminded of while just living my ordinary life, which in a way helps make the point of the author that cooking is a fundamental part of human life and has been for a long time.
Dec 13, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I've been waiting since around page 50 to write this: For a book about cooking, this thing is half-baked.
May 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book offers a compelling case for the idea that cooking is the main reason why we evolved from australopithecines to Homo erectus and then to Homo sapiens. It challenges at several points the mainstream notion that meat-eating was a keystone of (at least some parts of) this evolution, for having comparatively limited explanatory power. Besides the anatomical changes it uses cooking to explain some things I wouldn't have expected, such as marriage and the sexual division of labor.

I thought t
Jan 05, 2020 rated it liked it
Some interesting data. My recommendation is to skip over the endlessly detailed chewing section and read the parts that are more idea -related. I take some issue with the conflicting notions that women were nearly valueless but yet critical for survival. Maybe...maybe not. I was amused by an invitation to think about kissing a chimp with it's superior lip skills. And by the idea that Freud thought pissing into stone age fires was a big deal for early man. But mostly this is pretty dry work. Usef ...more
Mattheus Guttenberg
Mar 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: anthropology, food
An excellent anthropological overview of the emergence of man from pre-human hominids and the indispensable role that fire and cooked food had on our social, sexual, cultural, and particularly biological evolution. A wonderful story of our ancestral relationship with food for carnivores, raw food vegans, and everyone in between. WE ARE COOKS!
Jul 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very informative. Worth reading if you're interesting in the foundations of human civilization and the family unit.

But what bad luck to put out a book called "Catching Fire" in 2009, right?
Dec 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Mostly anthropological. Just because people took great pains to do something doesn't mean its the best way to do things (though it does suggest a good hypothesis that one should test). Perhaps this was implied, but it wasn't done so strongly enough for me
May 11, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Dr. Wrangham is a British Primatologist over at Harvard and his book, “Catching Fire,” is an interesting science book full of nothing but science. He starts with a basic supposition that something happened on the evolutionary boundary between the habilines, largely shown as Homo Habilis and our buddy Home Erectus. By examining the skull structure, chest cavity, molar structure, and the analysis of diet, nutrition and food science, his theory states that humanity made two major jumps:

1. Australop
Mar 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: health-books
The author makes an extremely convincing and logical argument for his theory that cooking food (as well as meat eating) helped make us who we are.

Eating raw vegetables makes me feel terrible and has a huge metabolic cost. They just sit in my stomach like a rock - while properly cooked meat and vegetables are digested well. Nuts and seeds are better digested when soaked and then dried as well. I am tired of reading that raw vegetables contain all the enzymes we need to digest them easily, and tha
10/25/17 For more than half of this book I thought I would be giving it a 4 not because it was so engrossing, but because the science was so good. It was really well supported with everything from fossil evidence to modern studies of primates, to what happens to people who only eat raw food. I thought "wow! This is one of the first books I've read about speculations on our origins that hasn't left me feeling they hadn't considered other alternative explanations. They've really looked at this fro ...more
I'm not usually a fan of evolutionary psychology, since much of it is un-provable/un-falsifiable "just-so" stories. But some of the ideas in this book seem plausible and have good supporting evidence.
Wrangham shows that true raw foodists are very rare. Even hunter-gatherer societies cook their food whenever they get a chance, and they even grind grains into flour and bake things (despite what all the "Paleo diet" pseudo-prehistory would have you believe).
We seem to get much more out of digesting
Romantical Skeptic
Mar 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
This was a quick and easy-to-digest (ahem) read on the prehistory of cooking.

Wrangham's main points

1) Cooking as a way of "processing" food must have happened before homo erectus (hominids who looked like sapiens and very different from australopithecus - small jaws, smaller guts)
2) Cooking explains how homo erectus, habilis and sapiens was freed up to do other things than chew raw things (which can take 40% of a primate's time)
3) Cooking made food more bioavailable so that it took less "mass" t
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Richard Wrangham (born 1948, PhD, Cambridge University, 1975) is Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University and founded the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in 1987. He has conducted extensive research on primate ecology, nutrition, and social behaviour. He is best known for his work on the evolution of human warfare, described in the book Demonic Males, and on the role of c ...more

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54 likes · 38 comments
“I believe the transformative moment that gave rise to the genus Homo, one of the great transitions in the history of life, stemmed from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals.” 2 likes
“Hundreds of different hunter-gatherer cultures have been described, and all obtained a substantial proportion of their diet from meat, often half their calories or more.” 2 likes
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