Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
by Richard Wrangham
Basic Books, 309 pp., $26.95
Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language
by Dean Falk
Basic Books, 240 pp., $26.95
Who’s cooking your dinner? Who’s looking after your kids? If you are a man, it is probably the woman—or women—in your life. You know that women mainly do the daily domestic grind. And so it has been, not just throughout history but also throughout the last two million years of human evolution, according to Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire, and Dean Falk, author of Finding Our Tongues.
There was once a time—not too long ago—when men could wallow with pride in the Stone Age accomplishments of our sex. It was slaying beasts, making tools, and fighting each other that transformed a Stone Age primate, physically and mentally little different from a chimpanzee, into the big-brained language-using primate that strode out of Africa to dominate the world. How lucky for women that their Stone Age menfolk were so brave and clever.
It is now men who need to nod in acknowledgment at the accomplishments of the Stone Age women who undertook the cooking and childcare. For according to Wrangham and Falk, it is those activities that provided the causes and conditions for the evolution of large brains and language. Women should particularly appreciate these two fascinating books about our evolutionary past.
The evolutionary history of our species is by far the best story ever to be told. It is one that needs continual rewriting and retelling as our knowledge of the fossil and archaeological records improves, as the genomes of humans, apes, and monkeys are revealed and compared, as neuroscience penetrates the working of the brain, and as we appreciate the evolutionary significance of activities that have previously been neglected, cooking and childcare being the two cases in point. While the details remain under debate, astonishing progress has been made in our understanding of human origins ever since Darwin explained how natural selection works and the first human fossils were found 150 years ago.
The common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees lived in Africa between seven and five million years ago, a date established by DNA studies rather than the discovery of fossil remains. We have found fossilized fragments of pre-human bone substantial enough for meaningful interpretation that can be dated only as far back as 4.5 million years ago. Anthropologists have found the remains of a diverse range of hominid species from after that date, all slightly different in shape and size, testifying to multiple adaptations to different niches in the African landscapes. Some became highly specialized, exploiting dry seeds and other plant foods, which resulted in species that had a physiology not unlike that of gorillas today but with chimpanzee-sized brains (circa 450cc).
Natural selection took others in a different direction so that after 2.5 million years ago they were adept at making stone tools, reliant on meat eating, and committed to walking on two legs …