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How Cooking Made Us Human

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We were apes before we were humans. But humans were the onetime apes who ultimately mastered fire and cooked.

Primatologist and anthropologist Richard Wrangham says that in evolutionary terms, that made all the difference. And not just because it put flambé on the menu.

Fire meant proto-humans could cook. Cooking, he says, meant they could get dense, empowering nourishment. Then came bigger brains, a different body and — voila! — homo sapiens. Complete, he says, with a social structure built around that fire.

This hour, On Point: Fire, cooking, and human evolution.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guest:

Richard Wrangham joins us from Seattle, Wash. He’s professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University and a primatologist who has spent four decades studying chimpanzee behavior and what it tells us about human evolution. His new book is “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.”

You can read an excerpt from “Catching Fire” at NYTimes.com.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Roni Jordan

    What do you make of the ‘raw foods’ movement? Doesn’t that fly in the face of our evolution?

  • Dylan Pocock

    Lynn Margulis has claimed that all speciation arises from
    new symbioses. Termites are termites because of the
    bacteria in their gut that can digest cellulose. Maybe
    humans are humans because we (and our endosymbionts) are
    tuned for the mix of nutrients in cooked or concentrated
    proteins.

  • Jeff Hart

    As a songwriter, I was able to draw upon the image of Prometheus to make a statment about what it is to be human. Does your guest have any suppositions about how the mastery of fire has entered the Cultural Memory? Since he suggests that mastery of fire predates the earliest archeological evidence of funerals or weddings (usually attributed to Neanderthals, and considered ‘hard’ evidence of the development of religion or spiritual thinking) can it be assumed that fire contributed to spiritual understanding? That it entered the cultural memory at that point?

  • Marion

    The only food that a woman actually PRODUCES is milk!

  • Helen Rabin

    What about the Inuit who eat raw sealmeat — and cooked as well, but mostly raw — and have no trouble chewing and digesting? Any leftovers could be frozen, outside or in the entryway of the dwelling. Maybe the difference is that cooking allows meat to be stored longer in temperate climates.

  • Susan

    With regard to the women in Bolivia who take hours to something which might only take an hour to cook at sea level, I would just like to say that water boils at a much lower temperature at the lower atmospheric pressure you get at high altitudes. Also the chemical reactions that take place during cooking will generally be much slower at lower temperatures.

    Climbers overcome this problem by using pressure cookers.

  • Nigel

    Although an interesting theory, all evolutionary theories can normally be tested using flies, or some other species with a very high rate of reproduction.
    Will a population of flies who have been given a “super diet” (providing more energy) evolve differently than that of a control population?

  • Clinton

    I love this talk of energy being diverted from other organs to the brain, as if the brain is a default circuit from excess energy…

    Perhaps a much simpler reason for increase in brain size, other than the shot of protein, is that we had to figure out how to capture and eat prey animals as a pack. Humans are, lets face it, pitifully equipped to take down a mammoth.

    Also in terms of the ability to digest lactose, we’re mammals…we’re born with the enzymes to digest lactose. The problem with your point, is that the reason people become lactose intolerant is because they stop taking in milk as they stop nursing. Not that we’ve evolved the ability to digest lactose since we’ve domesticated livestock.

  • Tony

    Has Dr. Wrangham touched on the issue of how having eating cooked food may have have led to smaller jaw muscles and therefore allowed the volume of the cranium to increase, along with the brain?

  • Nigel

    Also, in regard to the question from the Bolivian woman, it is generally agreed that we descended from apes that dwelled in grasslands, and other low lying regions, so that wouldn’t be an issue… furthermore, I doubt that boiling food was part of our evolution, due to the lack of fire proof containers (no metal pots); our early attempts at cooking were probably burnt thing on the end of a stick. :-)

  • http://none shep abbott

    Two comments:
    1. The professor states first that cooking attracts hungry bullies, requiring pro-
    tection of the camp presumably my males. On the other hand, he states that
    women cooked so men could be out hunting (division of labor) and come home to a hot meal. These two statements seem at odds.

    2. The professor provides a cooked food causation for increased brain size. But
    dolphins don’t cook their food yet have developed brains nearly as large as humans.

  • Norm M.

    If cooking makes us human, then it is smoked barbecue that makes us man. :)

  • Patrcik ONeill

    I find the conclusion of Elaine Morgan’s “The Descent of Woman”, that humans evolved in shallow water, ocean shore areas, quite convincing, especially the value of less body hair, enlarged breasts and the existence of a salt gland.

    However, tha premise of “Catching Fire” also fits well with this theory of evolution because of the increased digestibility of raw sea food. Humans evolving in tidal water areas would have the necessary high protein food more accessible than their non-cooking on land relations. This would allow for the faster development of brain complexity necessaty for evolution.

  • Mark S.

    At what point along the ascending (or descending) continuum of evolution would be find the Big Mac?

  • John O’Connell

    Dr. Wrangham talked about the transition from eating raw food to cooked food creating a ‘vulnerable cook’ because of the longer length of time between food aquisition and food consumption. He then talked about the division of labor that developed in the household with women being the primary and often the exclusive cook, while men did other things.

    Given the vulnerability of the person doing food preparation, would it be reasonable to suspect that they fell into those roles as a result of the male being better equipped to guard and protect the women from other hungry people while they cooked?

    Toward the end of the show, Tom – somewhat tongue-in-cheek pointed out the phenonmenon of the modern day male stepping up to the grille – and in fact doing it proactively and willingly. Men also tend to build fires when camping and tend fire places in homes. I wonder if there is not some anthropological reason for all this where men will generally be the one to set and maintain the fire because it is dangerous. In modern homes, men pipe in oil, gas and electricity and turn the cooking over to the women, knowing that everything is safe. But the grill is still an open flame with more danger potential, so do males feel compelled to take charge?

    Good show – thanks

  • JP

    I’d like to know what Dr. Wrangham thinks of the “raw food” movement in the U.S. — is it anti-evolutionary?

  • George Pomerantz

    Wonderful program – looking forward to reading the book.

    The best program I’ve ever heard on your station -especially
    from ‘On Point’.

  • klay Ydell

    Hi

    Dudes (that is inclusive, male and female make ur show possible)

    great show most of the time (i don’t remember a rally bad one)

    thanks

    no really

    I mean that.

    honest.

    trust me.
    :)

    klay

  • William Bryant

    Perhaps the most interesting interview I have heard on NPR, ever. I think the author is on to something, natural selection driven by culture changes, not envirnomental. Wonder what Darwin would think? The best On Point shows are when Tom talks less and the guest talks more, per Bob Edwards–the best in the business by a mile.

  • Emily Whittredge

    It’s modern food production that often causes “intolerance.” Pasteurization of milk, for example, kills the enzymes and many health benefits of milk–my boyfriend and I can’t tolerate supermarket milk, but can drink gallons of pure unpasteurized milk from our local farm.

    Commercial yeast has superseded sourdough leavening in most bakeries, but it’s the slow fermentation that breaks down the phytic acid in grains that inhibits mineral/calcium uptake. Some gluten-intolerant people can eat sourdough.

  • Mike

    Interesting, I would like to read this.

    I think it makes sense that our transition into introducing cooked foods into the diet allowed for more advanced evolution (alongside many other factors of course).
    However I am skeptical to believe it is anywhere reasonable to say that we are now fully adapted to eat cooked foods in PLACE of raw foods (in particular botanical fruits – INCLUDING nuts, seeds, vegetables like cucumber etc) as 100% of the diet. Cooking is KNOWN to destroy/reduce MOST of the nutrients (some nutrients like iron can be more easily absorbed possibly by some cooked foods), and I don’t think the human body could endure a loss of so many nutrients without some sort of raw food source regularly – it’s the reason we have such a high rate of degenerative diseases and cancers in developed nations!

    I lived most of my life with as many would call the S.A.D (Standard American Diet), which is obviously an abundance of cooked foods. Of course the S.A.D is obviously different than the cooked foods that humans or our ancestors would have eaten during the first several thousands of years (now we have un-natural foods like processed flours, granulated sugars and concentrated fat and protein sources that come in packages). Alongside an amputation from birth, I suffered some weight problems as well as other health conditions including skin eczema and Staph infection.
    Over the past two years I have transitioned into a mostly (about 98%) raw food diet of a large abundance of fresh fruit, veggies, nuts/seeds and the occassional cooked brown rice/quinoa and a nice spicy Thai dish with Tofu for a treat!
    Within this transition I am experiencing the best health of my entire life – I am in better physical condition than pretty much everybody I know personally but most importantly this makes me feel good, I have mental clarity, clear skin and haven’t gotten sick SINCE. I’m serious – I am experiencing life that I NEVER would have thought possible. My energy is never-ending and my digestive tract passes with complete ease almost all of the time.

    Of course foragers long ago didn’t have the access to abundance of fresh produce (most of the time, that is) that we do today, and cooked foods contain a much higher calorie/energy content which is beneficial in a hunter/gatherer lifestyle…

    I’m sure that, at the point of evolution we are at in modern day, our bodies are adapted to IDEALLY having a diet that incorporates a combination of fresh raw and healthy cooked foods. However I believe that our internal components still react best when exposed to the foods that were eaten for the VAST majority of the evolution of LIFE (not just our present humans) – which is RAW life energy.

    Anyway, that’s just my experience. I would like to read this book!

  • http://Gnarlodious.com/Conceptt Gnarlodious

    Cooking food is the chemical equivalent of controlled ripening. Take any underripe food and cook it and suddenly it is edible. This includes meat, which is why dogs love well-aged meat. To adapt to more defined growing seasons, savannah dwelling primates would have needed much more unripe food than jungle dwellers. This underripe food would require large dentition and bulk digestion of coarse food during non-harvest season. Remove the need to process underripe raw food, and it amounts to a huge adaptive advantage.

    So when you personally compare todays raw food with the food a savannah primate may have eaten to survive, that is an unrealistic comparison. I found the radio lecture to be rather misleading without including underripe and other coarse fibrous foods, and the level of starvation thos savannah primates must have adapted to.

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