New York Review of Book, Oct. 22: Steven Mithen, a professor of prehistory at Reading, reviews two new books on human evolution:
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Humanby Richard WranghamBasic Books, 309 pp., $26.95
Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Languageby Dean FalkBasic Books, 240 pp., $26.95
And the news that we mattered comes as a relief! Well, I had been worried; hadn’t you? I mean, as Steven Mithen says,
There was once a time—not too long ago—when men could wallow with pride in the Stone Age accomplishments of our sex. It was slaying beasts, making tools, and fighting each other that transformed a Stone Age primate, physically and mentally little different from a chimpanzee, into the big-brained language-using primate that strode out of Africa to dominate the world. How lucky for women that their Stone Age menfolk were so brave and clever.
BUT now we realize that a huge factor in human evolution was cooked food. Cooked food is nutritionally much more dense, requires much less in the way of teeth and colon size, and generally was a big factor in the evolution of our brains.
AND GUESS WHO DID THE COOKING?!?! YES, WOMEN. Believe it or not.
So we can now relax and know that we count too. Of course, there’s the nice question of why we were doing the cooking. One book suggests that we did it in order to get protection. Mithen offers another hypothesis:
If cooked food has all of the nutritional benefits that Wrangham describes, then surely a motivation—perhaps the prime one—for cooking by women would have been to feed the kids. Getting them strong and healthy as quickly as possible after weaning would have been reward enough for cooking food; feeding the man in your life would have been an afterthought. But maybe I am too influenced here by my own experience of married life.
Don’t you love it when men interpret things in terms of their own experience with women?
Of course, most feminists are well aware that the official versions of our past that write out women’s contributions are pretty bizarre. I mean, there is the giving birth/nursing stuff, even if the guys think hunting wild boar was so much harder. Further, given all the recent work on women in evolution by people like Hrdy, one is puzzled by the excitement over recognizing a role for women.
The review is puzzling. At times it looks very like scholarship, but at other times it looks like a feminist parody of men’s writing. Of course, the two are compatible, especially if we understand scholarship in terms of men’s scholarship. I’m wondering if we’re seeing another one of those cases where men try to joke about something in which in too many men have been complicit.