Fire and Civilization

by Johan Goudsblom. Penguin/Allen Lane, $22.00. The author points out that use of fire is the only trait that human beings can with certainty be said to share with no other species—a fact so obvious that it can easily be overlooked, like Poe’s purloined letter. “The original domestication of fire formed,” Mr. Goudsblom argues, “the first great ecological transition brought about by humans.” He holds that subsequent cultural developments have all depended on fire, and supports his opinion with assorted and effective examples, from slash-andburn agriculture to the internal-combustion engine. His book is an interesting discussion of a force seldom considered in such all-encompassing terms.