The Problem With Catching Fire – March 31st

Though I didn’t much like the style in which Mr. Richard Wrangham wrote Catching Fire, I’ll readily admit that he has presented us with several pieces of very interesting and rather compelling evidence to the effect that cooked food influenced our physiological and, subsequently, social evolution far more deeply than formerly assumed or taught in modern Darwinian doctrine.  I have already posted about the issue I take with the chapters at the end of the book dealing with sexual division of labour, and I don’t want to be the overzealous feminist beating a dead horse in a room alone while everyone else is enjoying dinner, so I’m going to talk about the way Wrangham makes his transitions in this book.  The first few chapters are hymns to the virtues of cooked food – namely, digestibility and increased caloric value – yet he ends by admonishing us against the very processed foods that, he has spent two hundred pages trying to convince us, allowed us to become arguably the most successful species in history.  I am willing to leave Wrangham’s syntax alone, but have no qualms about taking issue with his organization, for I feel that it legitimately affects the effectiveness of what could have been a very admirable book.

Wrangham didn’t set out to write another book about the obesity epidemic, but I suppose he did have to pay it due attention if he was going to credibly discuss the phenomenon that is clearly its root.  It’s awkward status as an afterthought, and the amount of new information contained within his concluding chapter, cannot quite be forgiven out of gladness that he hit these points at all.  However, there is a strange sort of dichotomy in this organization, and it’s interesting that Wrangham addresses these two very different consequences of cooking and processing in the order in which they have affected human beings.  Early Australopithecines certainly didn’t fret about gaining too much weight, but now we’re in the awkward situation of having unconscionably large and approximately equal numbers of people on this earth who are unhealthy because they are extremely over- or under-weight.  And then, of course, there are those few mad raw-foodists who set themselves back gastronomically by millions of years without having the apelike intestines of steel to extract sufficient nutrients from what they’re eating – quantities of food that, if consumed and measured in a bomb calorimeter, would very likely be proclaimed satisfactory.

This is another thing that I find off about Catching Fire.  Wrangham’s discussion of Wilbur Atwater’s development of the system we still use to count our calories is only mentioned, almost as an afterthought, in the conclusion of an argument that could have benefitted enormously, at least in clarity, from its introduction in the first few chapters.  Pointing out this flaw in the way we calculate the value of what we eat is absolutely pertinent to his argument that how we eat it matters more, and explaining this at the beginning of the book might have helped to clear away a few of the misconceptions which he labours so hard to confute.

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One Response to The Problem With Catching Fire – March 31st

  1. Mr. Sturdy Knight says:

    Imogen,
    It seems to me that your criticism of Wrangham’s ‘afterthought’ about modern obesity is founded in the assumption that the human species is now static. While that is certainly a workable view for the purposes of the individual writer (who will never live long enough to see any real change in our species), it shouldn’t be blithely assumed. Yes, Wrangham argues that cooked, processed foods both allowed us to become the species we are now, while also causing problems with our current form, but that is precisely because we, like every other species, are constantly (if slowly) changing and adapting in new ways.
    Consider the horned gopher: in prehistoric times, this species of ground rodent experienced heavy sexual selection for males with larger, more impressive horns, who could fight more effectively and attract more mates. Eventually, however, the horns got so impractically large that males could no longer fend for themselves effectively, and the species quickly died out.
    The point is that large horns, or cooked food, are not in themselves good or bad. A species does not evolve to become ‘better,’ it evolves to become MORE FIT for its environment. As the environment changes, so does the meaning of that phrase. Wrangham does not ‘sing the praises’ of cooked food: he’s not trying to make it out to be a good thing or a bad thing. He isn’t trying to vilify or refute the raw-foodists, merely to highlight cooking technology as an important, relevant thing to our development as a species.
    So, do you think he succeeds?

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