15 Questions with Richard W. Wrangham

Richard W. Wrangham, Currier’s House Master since 2008, has studied man’s hairier cousin—the chimpanzee—since his days as an undergraduate at ...

Richard W. Wrangham, Currier’s House Master since 2008, has studied man’s hairier cousin—the chimpanzee—since his days as an undergraduate at Oxford University. His book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” published last May, suggests that modern man owes his unique evolutionary trajectory to his ability to cook his food. FM caught him in a rare free moment to find out more about his time in Africa, his book, and the time he sampled raw monkey.


Fifteen Minutes: What is “Catching Fire” about?

Richard W. Wrangham:  The story of “Catching Fire” is the story of what cooking does for humans, and it comes into three parts. First of all, it shows that even though nutritional scientists have not given very much attention to this, the first big impact of cooking is to increase the amount of energy we get out of our food. This second thing it does is draw attention to the fact that humans appear to be biologically adapted to eating their food cooked. And the third part of the book looks at what it means for the human species to be adapted in this way, and there I think about both our anatomy and our behavior, and we can look at our anatomy and say that we’re biologically adapted to cooking in the sense that we have small intestines and small teeth.


FM:  Has it been difficult to balance House life and your duties as Currier’s House Master with promoting your book?

RWW: I think that everyone who is a housemaster knows that they have to juggle their lives in all sorts of ways, because the demands of teaching and research are themselves enough to create a very busy life together with being a housemaster. It’s an intense and enjoyable experience.


FM: With your interest in research and your successful writing career, what made you decide to live with undergrads at Harvard?

RWW: I had been teaching at Harvard for 19 years before I started getting engaged with the houses at all. My wife and I had just started experiencing the traditional empty nest. Our third son had gone off to college, and we were thinking about moving away from the suburbs where we had lived because of the good schools there. When the opportunity for housemaster came up, we realized that it would be a wonderful new way to experience Harvard and life in general, so we lost three sons and we gained 380 sons and daughters.


FM: You’re from Britain, which is known here in America for having bad food. Did you like the food around you growing up?

RWW: I’ve never been so insulted in my life. I do fieldwork in remote places for a lot of my life, and it helps me that I am willing to eat beans and rice for weeks and months at a time. Whether that comes from having had relatively uninteresting food in England, I’m not prepared to say.


FM: So what was your education like?

RWW: As I approached the end of high school I wrote endless letters in the hope of finding a position in a national park in Africa. I ended up spending nine months living in western Zambia in a national park at the age of 17. It was about the size of Switzerland, and it had about 20 people living in it. It was a wonderful introduction to the bush, and since then I have been traveling to Africa almost every year. I went to Oxford University and studied zoology because it was a great way to be able to continue going to really interesting habitats and living with wild animals.


FM: What was it like working with Jane Goodall as a student?

RWW: The training that you get at a typical university like Oxford is directed at ensuring that conclusions are based on generalizations across many individuals, many samples, many populations. What Jane Goodall did was to stress the interest and the value in looking at individual differences. She introduced me to a community of 50 chimpanzees where, in order to understand the way that the society worked, one had to pay attention to each individual personality, each individual family, and each individual’s strategies for negotiating their complex social world.


FM: Obviously there are many differences between life here in the ivory tower and life in the savanna, but what are some similarities?

RWW: Oh, similarities between chimpanzees and undergraduates, you mean? Well, chimpanzees like to show off by making a lot of noise and roaring about, and occasionally undergraduates will do the same.


FM: One of the main ideas in your book is that cooking your food makes it more nutritious. How did you come to this realization?

RWW: When I study chimpanzees, I sometimes try to survive on chimpanzee foods for a whole day, and the short story is that you end up being very hungry. I slowly realized that there must be something very special about cooked foods compared to raw foods, and I was astonished to find that within the nutritional literature, there is very little said about the consequences of cooking for the amount of calories that we get in our food. It took me some time to assemble all of the relevant information to be able to show that this was so.


FM: “Catching Fire” has gotten lots of good publicity. What is the most been the most exciting or unusual venue for you in promoting it?

RWW: I think the one I’m looking forward to most is that it’s been shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times science book prize for this year, so I’m invited to go attend the ceremony. But I’ve been able to speak about this in interesting places around the world, like Salamanca in Spain and Alexandria in Egypt. I think perhaps the Alexandria experience was greatest because that was a conference where the aim was to bring evolutionary thinking to a culture in which there is tremendous resistance to it.


FM: Was the audience polite, or were they unwilling to believe your claims?

RWW: Everyone was very courteous, and there was no open hostility, but at the same time, afterwards I did have people coming to me saying they didn’t believe a word of it because humans were created only a few thousand years ago.


FM: Some of your hypotheses about gender roles in human evolution could be construed as your saying that women are supposed to do the domestic work of cooking. Have you gotten any angry letters or e-mails saying that you have cast women in an unfavorable light?

FWW: I’ve had no letters of that type. There are people who occasionally ask me about it in a manner that suggests that they might be making the moralistic fallacy of thinking that an analysis of the situation is in any way prescripted. So I’ve been fairly careful, I think, in the way I talk and the way I write to point out that that is not the case. I personally think that the less defined that gender roles are the better, because it gives people the freedom to do what they want to do. I enjoy the fact that I live in a society in which sometimes men do the cooking and sometimes women do the cooking.


FM: In your house, who does the cooking?

RWW: Guess what—we live in Currier, so in our house the kitchen staff do the cooking, and they do a fantastic job. We thought that when we moved into Currier, we would eat maybe half the time with students and then have half the time to ourselves, but actually we almost never cook for ourselves.


FM: Have you ever tried to prepare a meal similar to one that the first humans would have had?

RWW: I haven’t tried to prepare a first human meal, but I often eat chimpanzee foods. It’s very difficult to fill your belly with them. I’ve eaten a little bit of the meat that chimpanzees eat because they sometimes kill monkeys, and after chewing parts of the body they leave the rest. That gives me the opportunity to see what the monkeys taste like. The answer is that they taste like probably any other really tough raw meat. I was interested in particular because there are some monkeys that they eat more than others, so I was wondering if the ones that they don’t eat so much taste bad. The meat does not taste bad, but I realize now that I should have chewed their skin, and that’s what I’ll do next time I find one of those species left by the chimps.


FM: Don’t you worry about bacteria or getting sick from eating the raw meat?

RWW: Well, I wouldn’t swallow it. I would just chew it a little bit and spit it out.


FM: So now that this book is done, what are you thinking of for your next project?

RWW: I’m not sure. This book is half of a book that I drafted about five years ago, and I’m wondering if I will take up the half that did not get published and complete that. It’s a book about the evolution of violence and peace. So I had a book previously with Dale Peterson called “Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence” and I think that there are more stories to tell about the evolutionary biology behind our propensity for violence and non-violence.

In The Meantime