Part 2: Humans and Fire
What are human’s most significant achievements? According to Charles Darwin, they are language and fire.
Staring at a fire is one of the simple pleasures in life. It’s primal. It’s meditative. Language we may have been able to live without. But not fire. No primitive tribe has been found that didn’t have the ability to cook. It was a breakthrough that allowed us to burn fewer calories. Chewing, swallowing and digesting raw food is actually quite hard work. The calories we burned from all that didn’t leave much energy for thinking.
So developing fire probably led to humans developing language. Harvard biologist Richard Wranghambelieves cooked food required less energy to consume and freed up energy for the human brain to think up language.
Wrangham argues that humans have evolved to eat cooked food. (Sorry, raw food fanatics - he says it’s possible to starve to death even if you have lots of raw food to eat.)
Of course, fire - specifically, the burning of fossil fuels - may also be our undoing.
Ironic, isn’t it?
A recent archeological discoveryin China shows humans were burning coal for fuel 3500 years ago. In 1306, a good 400 years before the industrial revolution kicked off, King Edward I tried to ban coal. London’s air was dark and polluted with coal smoke. This may have been the first environmental law ever, but it didn’t last. Coal was easier to get than the alternative, wood, and so metalsmiths, brewers and others just kept using it. When the steam engine was invented in the 1700s, our real addiction to fossil fuels kicked off.
Soon we were burning coal, oil, gas - the lot. And we were pretty pleased with all the new innovations we were churning out because of that extra energy we’d discovered.
Irish physicist John Tyndallfigured out that CO2 warmed the earth way back in 1860, but no one really took much notice for about 150 years.
Now, we’re going to have to move away from our beloved combustion model and towards the decidedly less fiery renewable energy. Hopefully, a few millennia of cooked food has helped our brains become big enough to handle the challenge.
Read more: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Humanby Richard Wranghamand Energy and Civilisation: A Historyby Vaclav Smil.
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