American Society For Nutrition

How Cooking Made Us Human

How Cooking Made Us Human

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
Posted on 02/01/2011 at 03:51:51 PM by Student Blogger

By Lenis C.

Cooking serves many purposes. It nourishes, it makes food tasty, and it provides enjoyment for the cook and for the people being served. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found that many nutrition students and faculty like to cook. Of course, this comes as no surprise; for those who love to study food, meal creation is yet just another outlet by which we nutrition foodies can commune with what we eat. As a food lover, I myself take pleasure in cooking. I once thought of cooking solely as a pastime or hobby for some, or as a career or passion for others. Little did I know that cooking could be responsible for something as significant as the evolution of man.

A couple of months ago, my friend introduced me to a new non-fiction piece for her book club, entitled Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, by Richard Wrangham. Now available in paperback, this well-annotated book offers a fascinating alternative theory to the idea that meat eating was what propelled the evolution of man. Wrangham, the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, proposes that it is the harnessing of fire and cooking that was fundamental to man's evolution.

I have found this book to be an intriguing read, particularly the first part of the book that examines Wrangham's new theory in the context of scientific studies and evidence. For example, Wrangham makes note of the trouble that raw-foodists have in fulfilling their daily energy needs. Compared to females on cooked diets, female raw-foodists are relatively more prone to menstrual problems or an inability to menstruate, a reproductive consequence that could have severe implications in relation to evolution. These issues support Wrangham's theory that cooking is fundamental to man's evolution and survival.

Wrangham also presents human physiology as evidence of the important role that cooking plays in the evolution of man. It is eating cooked food that allows humans the ability to have smaller, more efficient digestive systems, argues Wrangham. Furthermore, Wrangham, citing research by Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler [1] , contends it is the small size of our guts that allows us to develop larger brains.

An intriguing combination of science, archaeology, and anthropology, Catching Fire is innovative in the importance it places on cooking in the span of human evolution.Not being an anthropologist, I personally found the latter parts of the book on more social topics, such as gender roles, to be less convincing than the relatively more scientific passages presented in the first half. However, all in all, this book's unique ideas and interdisciplinary nature make it a worthwhile read.

Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

[1] Wrangham does, however, provide later evidence that Aiello and Wheeler “. . . were wrong in their specifics because they assumed there was only a single increase in brain size from australopithecines to Homo erectus.”