Photo by Sean Fraga
I don't think about chimps very much. But Harvard University Professor Richard Wrangham's new book caught my eye. Wrangham is a primatologist and anthropologist, and is about to publish a new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. To my mind, this was a surprising, and delightful, premise.
According to Wrangham, it was cooking, not tool-making or meat-eating, that facilitated our evolution from ape to human. This is a bold claim, and it's not terribly surprising that I like it.
In an interview with Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times, he expounds:
Now once you had communal fires and cooking and a higher-calorie diet, the social world of our ancestors changed, too. Once individuals were drawn to a specific attractive location that had a fire, they spent a lot of time around it together. This was clearly a very different system from wandering around chimpanzee-style, sleeping wherever you wanted...We had to look each other in the eye. We couldn't react with impulsivity. Once you are sitting around the fire, you need to suppress reactive emotions that would otherwise lead to social chaos.
Reading Wrangham's postulation made me pause. Are we "wandering around chimpanzee-style" in the U.S. when it comes to food culture? We spend very little time at the communal fire (table). One in five meals is eaten in front of a car or a computer. College dining rooms around the nation are now more like gigantic food courts, and the majority of meals are eaten on the run.