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category: Health
Why Fire Makes Us Human
Illustration by Frank Stockton
Darwin himself considered language and fire the two most significant achievements of humanity.

Why Fire Makes Us Human

Post: May 29, 2013 11:47 pm
Author: Jerry Adler         Source: Smithsonian

Wherever humans have gone in the world, they have carried with them two things, language and fire. As they traveled through tropical forests they hoarded the precious embers of old fires and sheltered them from downpours. When they settled the barren Arctic, they took with them the memory of fire, and recreated it in stoneware vessels filled with animal fat. Darwin himself considered these the two most significant achievements of humanity. It is, of course, impossible to imagine a human society that does not have language, but—given the right climate and an adequacy of raw wild food—could there be a primpoitive tribe that survives without cooking? In fact, no such people have ever been found. Nor will they be, according to a provocative theory by Harvard biologist Richard Wrangham, who believes that fire is needed to fuel the organ that makes possible all the other products of culture, language included: the human brain.

Every animal on earth is constrained by its energy budget; the calories obtained from food will stretch only so far. And for most human beings, most of the time, these calories are burned not at the gym, but invisibly, in powering the heart, the digestive system and especially the brain, in the silent work of moving molecules around within and among its 100 billion cells. A human body at rest devotes roughly one-fifth of its energy to the brain, regardless of whether it is thinking anything useful, or even thinking at all. Thus, the unprecedented increase in brain size that hominids embarked on around 1.8 million years ago had to be paid for with added calories either taken in or diverted from some other function in the body. Many anthropologists think the key breakthrough was adding meat to the diet. But Wrangham and his Harvard colleague Rachel Carmody think that’s only a part of what was going on in evolution at the time. What matters, they say, is not just how many calories you can put into your mouth, but what happens to the food once it gets there. How much useful energy does it provide, after subtracting the calories spent in chewing, swallowing and digesting? The real breakthrough, they argue, was cooking.

Wrangham, who is in his mid-60s, with an unlined face and a modest demeanor, has a fine pedigree as a primatologist, having studied chimpanzees with Jane Goodall at Gombe Stream National Park. In pursuing his research on primate nutrition he has sampled what wild monkeys and chimpanzees eat, and he finds it, by and large, repellent. The fruit of the Warburgia tree has a “hot taste” that “renders even a single fruit impossibly unpleasant for humans to ingest,” he writes from bitter experience. “But chimpanzees can eat a pile of these fruits and look eagerly for more.” Although he avoids red meat ordinarily, he ate raw goat to prove a theory that chimps combine meat with tree leaves in their mouths to facilitate chewing and swallowing. The leaves, he found, provide traction for the teeth on the slippery, rubbery surface of raw muscle.

Food is a subject on which most people have strong opinions, and Wrangham mostly excuses himself from the moral, political and aesthetic debates it provokes. Impeccably lean himself, he acknowledges blandly that some people will gain weight on the same diet that leaves others thin. “Life can be unfair,” he writes in his 2010 book Catching Fire, and his shrug is almost palpable on the page. He takes no position on the philosophical arguments for and against a raw-food diet, except to point out that it can be quite dangerous for young children. For healthy adults, it’s “a terrific way to lose weight.”

Read more at Smithsonian.