Reflections on a BBQ

Roasting meat over a fire. Photo by Chi sin Gweilo, CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Roasting meat over a fire. Photo by Chi sin Gweilo, CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Our previous post blog post explored how curiosity and imitation could be unique human traits. But what helped us to evolve into the beings that exhibit these unique traits? A recent theory attributes our evolutionary success to, believe it or not, cooking, and, specifically, to cooking with fire. So, here is something to ponder on for when/if we next have a few days of barbecue summer.


Well before Darwin’s time, Boswell, in his Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, (1773) called humans the “cooking animal”. Darwin himself considered the art of making a fire was “probably the greatest [discovery], excepting language, ever made by man” (Descent, 1871, 1:132). However, in spite of this he did not regard cooking as anything more than a way for humans to respond to a natural challenge, and to make hard and stringy roots digestible. Edward Burnett Tylor, an author praised by Darwin in his correspondence, argued in 1878 that “People in Every culture know how to make fire, and everywhere they use it to improve their food”.


In the 1960s, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in The Raw and the Cooked that “cooking marks the transition from nature to culture” but “through it and by means of it, the human state can be defined with its entire attribute.”  Levi-Strauss’ theory, however, was purely cultural and psychological. The use of fire – and cooking – could have happened after human biological evolution.


So what is the more recent thinking on this front?


In 2009, Richard Wrangham, The Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, published Catching Fire, how cooking made us Human. Wrangham crossed a bridge and argued that not only are humans the only species to use fire for cooking, but are in fact biologically adapted to eating cooked food.  We became what we are because we ate cooked food, and there is a biological and nutritional explanation to our uniqueness…


If you want to know more about Richard Wrangham’s interesting theory, you can enjoy an interview and PowerPoint presentation on “the impact of fire on human evolution” that he gave as part of the Darwin 2009 Festival in Cambridge.



So, when you are about to barbecue that rib or vegetable kebab, remember that this is what “helped make our brains uniquely large, providing a dull human body with a brilliant human mind”.

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