The Literary Horizon: Catching Fire, Reading on the Brain

Both of these nonfiction books focus on humanity and its inventions, which was an interesting theme that jumped out at me twice in the past few weeks. Clearly, that was a sign I needed to post about it.

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham

Ever since Darwin and The Descent of Man, the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. But in Catching Fire, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Wrangham shows that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution. When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began. Once our hominid ancestors began cooking their food, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be used instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a sexual division of labor. Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, Catching Fire sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. A pathbreaking new theory of human evolution, Catching Fire will provoke controversy and fascinate anyone interested in our ancient origins—or in our modern eating habits.

via Amazon

I think I stumbled over this in an issue of The New York Times Book Review. I’m looking for more and more nonfiction that interests me to fulfill my New Year’s resolutions, and this certainly fits the bill. The idea that cooking makes us human more than anything is quite interesting to me.

Reviews seem mostly positive, praising Wrangham especially for writing such a concise piece of work. At 207 pages (for the actual text–the book is a hundred pages longer!), it sounds downright swift. The New York Times gleefully points out Wrangham’s swipes at proponents of the raw food diet, which is not how you’re supposed to do things. (I guess my myriad “I’m not at the top of the food chain so I can…” jokes, or at least those relating to food, are quite sound!) Slate‘s review is equally positive, although it mainly just outlines the book.

Catching Fire was released on May 24, 2009.

Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention by Stanislas Dehaene

A renowned cognitive neuroscientist’s fascinating and highly informative account of how the brain acquires reading

How can a few black marks on a white page evoke an entire universe of sounds and meanings? In this riveting investigation, Stanislas Dehaene provides an accessible account of the brain circuitry of reading and explores what he calls the “reading paradox”: Our cortex is the product of millions of years of evolution in a world without writing, so how did it adapt to recognize words? Reading in the Brain describes pioneering research on how we process language, revealing the hidden logic of spelling and the existence of powerful unconscious mechanisms for decoding words of any size, case, or font.

Dehaene’s research will fascinate not only readers interested in science and culture, but also educators concerned with debates on how we learn to read, and who wrestle with pathologies such as dyslexia. Like Steven Pinker, Dehaene argues that the mind is not a blank slate: Writing systems across all cultures rely on the same brain circuits, and reading is only possible insofar as it fits within the limits of a primate brain. Setting cutting-edge science in the context of cultural debate, Reading in the Brain is an unparalleled guide to a uniquely human ability.

via Amazon

How could I not be interested by a book that ponders the very nature of literacy itself? As a little kid, I occasionally pondered how this whole thing came to be. It ties into Catching Fire quite well in that both contemplate development very early on in our species that seem a bit of a leap to a modern person.

The Washington Post gushes over Reading on the Brain, but the AV Club warns that the first third of the book can be tedious, a complaint I’ve seen in other reviews. Hopefully, that won’t be too much of a deal breaker, and the answers will more than make up for it.

Reading on the Brain was released on November 12, 2009.

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