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Editorial 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.

Critic Reviews

  • 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

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  • Overall

Fascinating book about early human development...

This is a fascinating book that makes for great listening. One measure of a good book is how much I tell others about it. After listening to Wrangham's book about the effect of cooking on human development, I find myself mentioning it to all my friends and acquaintences (my family is probably sick of hearing about raw food diets, and the unappreciated effects of cooking on food and culture). In addition to those interested in early human development, this book also renders useful information about the dangers of today's hyper-processed foods (mostly obesity). Highly recommended. Great content and good narrator.

17 of 17 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Evolution of Man

Thought provoking look at the role of cooking in the evolution of man. In fact, the most important influence. Very logical argument that takes you to places that you night not have considered such as we are hairless upright running apes because we tamed fire thus making body fur unnecessary which makes us much more efficient at cooling and thus able to outrun furred game that overheats after a short period. Gets into the relationships between men and women, the expansion of the brain, the growth of society, etc., all traceable to cooking of food. Short and thought provoking. Arguments well supported and well narrated. I recommend.

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

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Food science and evolution, two great tastes

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 makes a convincing case, talking about the speed of evolution and how it's plausible that humans could indeed have evolved as a result of our control of fire, which Wrangham dates back to (possibly) up to a quarter of a million years ago. He talks about the physiology of chewing and digestion, how our australopithicene ancestors differed from us in how they ate, and crucial differences between human diets and monkey diets. Lots of talk about how the body handles cooked meat and vegetables differently than raw meat and vegetables. All of this is fascinating and convincing.

I think the second part of the book is weaker, as Wrangham goes into evolutionary psychology, which as usual involves a lot of speculation but without much evidence. Many of the later chapters felt a bit padded, like he had an obligation to bring in a social and cultural dimension to the argument. This I found less convincing -- we get a lot of talk about how cooking and food preparation shakes out in "primitive" societies, but this is all dealing with homo sapiens in our modern state. It's somewhat interesting but I don't think it really contributes much to his central thesis, which is supported strongly enough by the physical evidence.

Overall, a good food science and physical anthropology book.

Recommended for: Fans of evolution, monkeys, and cooked food.
Not recommended for: Creationists, vegans, or raw foodists.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Roger
  • South Orange, NJ, United States
  • 03-17-10


Wrangham presents a compelling, if not always well organized, argument for the importance of cooking in human evolution. Cooked food is easier to digest, allowing more nutrients to be abstracted more quickly. That allows humans to spend less energy digesting food, leading to a smaller digestive track, and more on a larger brain.

Wrangham also makes intriguing arguments both for the control of fire helping to lead to the loss of body hair and for cooking helping to lead to pair bonding. He asks the fascinating question whether cooking helped give rise to gender roles, but I found his argument incomplete. He ends with a somewhat preachy discussion of what the ease of digesting processed food means for today's couch potato society.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Very interesting and intriguing

This is a book that suggests a very interesting hypothesis that never occurred to me: that cooking made the apes human! This is a strong insight into the descent of man on Earth. The whole saga is revealed with "detective" skills by the author and this makes the lecture interesting to follow.
Some of the findings are also useful for the modern man trying to fight obesity and other are important from the anthropological perspective to the modern life issues as man-female relationship and place in society.
A very good book!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Not what I expected

True, I could have paid more attention to the title, or read the reviews carefully, but I thought this book was going to explain how cooking "grew up" over the ages. What it accounts...over and over and over again is the anthropology not so much of cooking in itself, but how cooking exists in primitive cultures. Interesting in one sense, but not at all what I was expecting. This book had promise it just couldn't deliver.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Fascinating and the narrator was perfect for this.

The subject seemed odd at first but became really believable with the careful presentation of arguments and supporting research. The narrator Kevin Pariseau was perfect for this book; I wish he had been the narrator of many of the other non-fiction books I've heard. The book gets a little slow in places and there is some repetition but overall it was a great listen.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

the most awesome book I have ever read (heard)

Being female and observing females of many species, I have found that female equates to interest in food and male equates to interest in something else, need I say? Cooking backburnered as unimportant even to the point of it being required female activity is appraised in a whole new light and well proved up in this awesome book. Hey it is cooking that got us big brains, you know that lowly female activity? It makes me laugh! I think the genius author of this book will probably be excommunicated from the male religion of male supremacy. I also thought his points about why women CHOSE to be mated is also very important as well. Anyone who cannot see the importance and genius of this book and the importance of every thought in it, well, needs more cooked food and non-processed cooked food.

On a personal note, I tried a raw food diet and gave it up and now I know why and I don't have to feel guilty that I do not serve up my dogs a raw food diet instead of opening a can.

11 of 14 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Andy
  • Westport, CT, United States
  • 12-23-09

arc of evolution

Wrangham lays out a plausible arc of evolution that ends with mom cooking dinner. While I zoned out in the minutiae from time to time,it was interesting to learn how a wide range of animals search for, share or don't share and finally eat their food.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Catherine
  • Decatur, IL, United States
  • 08-25-12

A Doctorial Dissertation

This is an excellent book to listen to if you want to go to sleep. I DO NOT recommend it for drivers. It reads like a doctorial thesis that was released to the general public. It is way too detailed about caloric absorption, raw versus cooked and hominid diets. It was well thought-out and convinced me thoroughly of his hypothesis. I slogged through the first 6 hours or so, dredging up long-forgotten college biology data. It wasn't until he went into the sociologial aspects of hearth-fires, gender-based work divisions and the rise of marriage in primitive societies that it became interesting to me.
This is not a work for the casual or the uneducated listener.
The narrator is excellent. He does his best to cut through the jungle of dense words; to give it life and even poetry.
I'm glad I bought it but I'm never going to listen to it again.

5 of 7 people found this review helpful