Catching Fire is a well written, well argued account of a new hypothesis in human evolution.
Many scientist believe that better nutrition obtained by hunting and eating meat was the key to development of human intelligence. Richard Wrangham proposes in his book that hunting on a large scale wouldn't have been possible without cooking, and that even with plant foods alone, cooking provides huge nutritional benefits. Food that is cooked and/or processed in other ways is more digestible, and allows the body to extract more energy at a lesser metabolic cost.
Common sense practice and folk knowledge knows it without a doubt: anybody who ever had to feed a baby, an elderly or convalescent person realizes that soft, cooked food is needed to provide maximum nutritional benefit. There is also a wide-spread intuition that processed foods are inherently more fattening. This defies all food labeling practices, but, fascinatingly, is supported by numerous field observations and experiments on animals and humans.
Experiments on people as well as some very creative animal studies involving rats eating puffed rice and pythons digesting variously presented portions of meat show that processing (e.g. mincing and chopping) and cooking food increases its calorific value by over 20%.
Demonstrating the adaptation to cooked food is the major strength of Wrangham's book: the argument is extremely convincing and supported by data from a variety of disciplines: biochemistry, physiology, medicine, primatology, modern anthropology and fossil records. All of this has, clearly, enormous consequences for food labeling practices and, at least indirectly, for tackling obesity risks faced by modern, affluent societies.
Showing that humans are adapted to eating cooked food is, however, by no means the end of the story in Catching Fire. According to Wrangham, cooking not only allowed proto-humans to extract more nutrients and thus grow bigger bodies and brains, but also contributed to the sexual division of labor Wrangham sees origins of such division of labor in cooking, or rather in the need of the cooking females to be protected from stronger, piratical males stealing food. Marriage in general and male dominance in particular is seen as a result of cooking.
The notion that the origins of human household lie in economics of food production and consumption is not entirely new, although economics is usually seen as an add-on to the sexual behavior The cooking hypothesis provides an attractive alternative (without completely discounting the role of mating behavior) and there is at least some data that supports it.
All in all, Wrangham's book is certainly worth reading and it should be accessible to most of the educated readers and will inform and stimulate thought.
An extended version of this review has been originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk