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darkskywatcher

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Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham [Aug. 28th, 2011|11:24 am]
darkskywatcher
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I bought this book during a Borders closing shopping spree at the beginning of the month. I decided, after picking out several volumes from the historical section, that I wanted to branch out only the teensiest bit and get something from the science section. Catching Fire caught my eye with bright colors and a bold subtitle, and held my attention with pages of gushing excerpts from book reviewers and field authorities.
Wrangham is a Harvard Professor himself (which diminishes the value of his colleagues testimonials somewhat), and the book definitely contains aspects of the academic style. However, Wrangham understands that he's writing for a non-academic audience, and the prose moves quickly. I finished the book, 200 pages, in 4 days, showing I was both interested and not bogged down in the prose or the details.

If there was one thing that might improve the book for some readers, it might be visual aids. From years of reading National Geographic, not to mention my anthropology textbooks, I remembered pretty well the physiological differences between the various human ancestors and their evolutionary relatives. That definitely enriched the reading for me, as I had a good idea of what Wrangham was talking about as he went along (he does give basic descriptions of each type, but I don't know what it would be enough for someone encountering the types for the first time).
The funniest part of the book is early on, when Wrangham lapses into a bit of elite aspiration about some particularly ridiculous rhetoric coming out of the "raw food" movement.

If there's a reach in the book, its that cooking underlies the basis for traditional ethnographic marriage, and by extension all marriage. The argument is basically that marriage started out as, and still often is, a protection racket: the wife has a man who will prevent other men from stealing her food, either directly or through social censure, and the man has a woman who will always provide cooked food for him.
I'm just going to leave that idea there. It doesn't sit well, but I don't know that I have an argument against it.

Other than that, its hard for me to say too much about it. It's extremely solid. The book is an obvious authority synthesizing a number of disparate article ideas together to come up with a big picture, and present it well to a lay audience. Wrangham knows what he's doing, has a lot of interesting information, and puts it together well. Definitely recommended for those that have an interest in physical anthropology, human evolution, or the biochemistry of food.
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