In Catching Fire, Wrangham postulates that cooking lead to the evolution of humankind. He proposes that cooking is the definitive trait of humanity, if not in so many words. That cooking sparked our evolution from large brained boorish habilines into more gracile, temperate sapians with even larger brains. To support this hypothesis, he presents human biology to make up for the lack of archeological evidence. In a nutshell, he show cases our small digestive system to brain ratio and highlights the easy digestibility of food. He also proposes that cooking lead to the evolution of the current social structure we have today. (Though I find it highly probable that cooking contributed, his explanations still appear to me to be contrived to suit his own personal predilections.) The argument he presents is entirely based upon the conjecture that female habilines would have needed male protection for their food and offspring from their male counterparts.
One thing Wrangham failed to address was that females had fire. They had a weapon that the attacking males clearly did not have. It was not like they were completely defenceless. One might argue that the males superior strength would have given them an advantage. True, it would have definitely been a factor in the favor of the males. But think about this: an average human can scare off a lion with fire. A lion has strength far greater than that of any hominid male. Wrangham does not deny fire’s use as a weapon; indeed, it is one of his main points. In his final chapter, as he is discussing the possible origins of fire and it’s uses, he states, “The practice of scaring others with fire was then transferred to the serious job of frightening lions, saber tooths and hyenas, similar to how chimpanzees use clubs against leopards” (Wrangham 192). It is not too far of a stretch to believe that a female habiline would have been able to defend herself, offspring, and food if she had fire.
Also, Wrangham bases this entire hypothesis on the physical vulnerability of the female. He states this quite clearly; “Because females were smaller and physically weaker, they were vulnerable to bullying by domineering males who wanted food” (155). However, he does not present any archaeological evidence for the comparative size and strength of the females and males. Granted, habiline skeletons are a bit hard to come by. Still, if our habiline ancestors were anything like our chimpanzee relations, they would have been far less dimorphic than modern humans. (Though, amongst the chimpanzees at least, the male is still larger and physically stronger than the female.) There is simply not enough evidence to support his conjecture.
For another thing, it is hard to imagine that these female habilines would have been alone. If our ancestors are anything like our chimpanzee cousins then they are highly social animals. It would be highly unlikely that these female habilines would have cooked alone. Also, Wrangham emphasized how difficult it may have been to create and maintain fire. One of his points is that fire would have required constant attention, making the female in the pair-bond the more likely candidate to maintain the fire while the males went off and did whatever the hell they wanted. Since these habilines were probably social creatures, it would have made sense if they had shared a fire rather than have individual fires. In many hunter-gatherer societies, there is a central hearth and each family has there own individual hearth as well. It is not so far of a leap to conclude that when fire was first discovered the fire was shared by the people maintaining it. Especially if it was so hard to maintain on ones own.
For another thing, the pair-bond system that Wrangham proposes would have had to develop fairly quickly. If the females were being attacked because they were cooking and their cooked food was being stolen, they would have stopped cooking the food. At this point in evolution it was not necessary for them to cook their food. Though, as Wrangham points out, modern primates will chose cooked food over non-cooked food any day. However, it is really hard to believe that these early females would have endangered the lives of themselves and their young for the sake of tastier leaves. That simply does not make sense. Cooked food would not have been enough of an incentive for a potentially life threatening venture. In this scenario that Wrangham proposes, the females would have had virtually no reason to keep cooking. They would not have been aware of the digestibility benefits of cooking or the time-saving aspect. They would have only realized that it was easier to chew and, possibly, tasted better.
One thing Wrangham proved is that women are the cooks. However, he failed to recognize that women, according to his own hypothesis, are the ones who lead the evolution of Homo erectus from the habilines. He was all over the “Man-the-Hunter” hypothesis and how males lead to the evolution of habilines from the austrolopithicenes. But he completely ignored the fact that women are cooks who probably lead to the evolution of humanity. Just slipped his mind, I suppose. Also, he continually presented cooking as a menial task, as if it was unworthy of the distinction of importance. He failed, yet again, to recognize the implications of his own hypothesis.
And I’m going to stop this here because I just topped 900 words……Also, this is turning into a rant…..
Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire. New York: Basic, 2009. Print.