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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human | [Richard Wrangham]

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

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 the key factor in human evolution.
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Audible Editor Reviews

There are good reasons why, given a choice between raw and cooked food, most primates - including monkeys, chimpanzees, and the vast majority of humans - prefer their food cooked. For starters, cooked food is easier to eat and richer in both flavor and nutrients. Although we humans aren’t the only animals who would rather eat our food like this, we are the only ones who get to make the choice. In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, author Richard Wrangham argues that the extra energy provided by the cooking process paved the way for the evolutionary transition from ape to man.

Though the purpose of his book is to illustrate this “cooking hypothesis”, Wrangham’s skill as a writer obviates the need for compromise between entertaining and informing his audience. His narrative is replete with fascinating examples and well-chosen anecdotes, like the story of Dr. Beaumont, whose significant contributions to our understanding of digestion came largely from his experiments on St. Martin, a patient whose life he had saved after St. Martin was accidentally shot. The incident left Beaumont’s patient with a permanent hole in his stomach - and a window through which to view gastric processes.

Kevin Parseau delivers a wonderful narration of Catching Fire that is consistently in harmony with the book’s tone and content. Parseau has a deep, musical voice and an unhurried but lively sense of pacing. His reading contains an element of wonder common to the greatest science and nature narrators, without ever taking on an undesirable, zealous character.

Wrangham’s compelling scientific discourse is, in itself, a little like cooked food. Significant studies from the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, and nutrition are carefully distilled and broken down. Each of Wrangham’s arguments is carefully thought-out, rich in a variety of evidence, and clearly presented - in short, his ideas are both easy to digest and substantive, and the result is an intellectually satisfying, fascinating exploration of what makes us human. –Emily Elert

Publisher's Summary

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 the key factor in human evolution. When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began. Once our hominid ancestors began cooking their food, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be used instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a sexual division of labor.

Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors diets, Catching Fire sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. A pathbreaking new theory of human evolution, Catching Fire will provoke controversy and fascinate anyone interested in our ancient origins - or in our modern eating habits.

©2009 Richard Wrangham; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.

What the Critics Say

  • Top 10 Books of 2009 (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)

  • Books of the Year 2009 (The Economist)

"[A] fascinating study...Wrangham's lucid, accessible treatise ranges across nutritional science, Paleontology and studies of ape behavior and hunter-gatherer societies; the result is a tour de force of natural history and a profound analysis of cooking's role in daily life." (Publishers Weekly)

"Catching Fire is convincing in argument and impressive in its explanatory power. A rich and important book." (Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

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  •  
    Augustus T. White 06-12-12

    ATW

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Undercooked"

    I approached this book with optimism. It's an interesting, perhaps persuasive, argument by someone who knows what he's talking about. What could go wrong?

    To be fair, I would have been much more impressed if the book had been published 25 years ago. Today it reads like a blog post: good ideas, relatively well written, but short on detailed evidence.

    Post-post-modernism and post-internet, that just isn't good enough. Today, every fledgling new scientific idea has to fight for its life in the blogosphere against all kinds of criticism, both well- and ill-informed, before gaining much acceptance. Scientists, as a group, have also lost a good deal of the moral authority they once had. Readers are beginning to realize that what a scientist writes isn't always good science -- or science at all -- and we automatically try to identify and compensate for the writer's personal agenda as soon as we're past the title page.

    This makes Wrangham's Paleolithic Cook Book look a little under-done. Sure, the idea that cooking was instrumental in turning habilenes into modern humans is attractive; but cool ideas aren't enough. Wrangham includes some interesting comparative physiology (humans have unreasonably small guts), and that's a strong point. However, his argument that we traded guts for brains is more or less pure speculation -- to say nothing of all the social psychology he attempts to extract from this observation. Wrangham relies a good deal on hunter-gatherer ethnology, but it's all anecdotal. Plus, that kind of anthropology has never recovered from its politicized self-immolation after the Chagnon/Yanomamo controversy and carries little weight today.

    The discussion of human evolution is weak. If, for example, Neanderthals really developed the advanced cooking techniques he ascribes to them, and if cooking is really that important, then why doesn't Wrangham have a sloping forehead and brow ridges? Wrangham isn't much bothered by that issue because he seems to have a linear, 1960's-style idea of human evolution. Neanderthals came "before" H. sapiens in the Great Chain, right?

    This is getting too long for a review, so I'll stop. The main point is that the book makes for a good snack, but it's not substantial enough to make a solid meal today. It may work up an appetite for the subject; but, like our distant ancestors eating raw food, you can chew on this presentation a long time and still not get enough out of it.



    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    James 05-01-12
    James 05-01-12 Member Since 2009
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    "The Way To A Man's Brain is Through His Stomach!"

    This was a fascinating audio book about some of the early behaviors of human beings. The author does a wonderful job and the style in which he writes the book, to help the readers get a visual picture of what life must of been like in the very beginnings of human existence. And he manages to do this without becoming “overly technical or scientific”.

    This would be a great book for anyone to read who's interested in the evolution of humans and how the advent of fire/cooking rapidly begin to shape us into the modern human beings we are today.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joe Dijon, France 12-12-11
    Joe Dijon, France 12-12-11 Member Since 2011
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    "Interesting ideas, well presented"

    I really enjoyed this book. It was thoughtful, well-argued, and engaging. Definitely worth thinking about for fans of pre-history and broad social history in general.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Alexander culpeper, VA, United States 01-11-11
    Alexander culpeper, VA, United States 01-11-11 Member Since 2010
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    "Blah"

    I purchased this book for a road trip my brother and law and I took. He loves anything to do with cooking so I figured it would at least mildly interest him and I. I was wrong. The author failed to spark any interest or thought with this book. Except for some facts here and there, he strayed on to subjects like spiders who secrete wax to feed males on their backs or how one tribal woman slept with every bachelor in the village. The narrator reminded me a lot of Scott Brick.... whom has spoiled many otherwise good books for me in the past with his snide reading style. If your expecting a warm, enlightening and entertaining book about the subject of using fire to cook... this is NOT it.

    1 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Peter Bellevue, WA, USA 04-18-10
    Peter Bellevue, WA, USA 04-18-10
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    "Too long"

    Interesting idea - but only interesting enough to carry me for about 30 minutes. After that, it felt repetitive, and was just adding more details to prove an argument that was already proved.

    3 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Noreen 12-26-11
    Noreen 12-26-11
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    "Hum drum facts"
    What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

    I think the content was just too dry- filled with many cited facts leading to the hypothesis of how cooking separated us from other animals- but it was too long and I found my interest waning with each new fact presented.


    Has Catching Fire turned you off from other books in this genre?

    No- I'm still interested in this genre and recently purchased a similar book that will hopefully be more entertaining while enlightning.


    How did the narrator detract from the book?

    The narrator had a flat voice without much inflection (recognizing that there wasn't much emphasis to be put on the content he was reading).


    You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

    If you are REALLY interested in this topic then the book will be worthwhile. Otherwise, I suggest you borrow books from the library and research the topic yourself.


    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
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