Several years back sociologist James McClenon speculated in a 1997 article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion that selection for prosocial calmness took place in Homo erectus when they started manipulating fire. I took issue with this, not because it is not plausible, but because he presented it as a “just-so” story with no supporting evidence. For several years running now, I have been engaged in exploring this hypothesis, which I will blog more about in the near future. However, when Mel Konner was on campus a few years ago for an ALLELE lecture, Catherine Buzney, one of the grad students then in my research group, was kind enough to tell him about our study, & it turns out he was intrigued. He recommended I check out Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. I ended up assigning it as part of my undergraduate “Introduction of Physical Anthropology” course to give myself the opportunity to read it. In addition to a fascinating synthesis of evidence to support his “cooking hypothesis,” Wrangham (2009:185) speculates similar to McClenon:
If the intense attractions of a cooking fire selected for individuals who were more tolerant of one another, an accompanying result should have been a rise in their ability to stay calm as they looked at one another, so they could better assess, understand, and trust one another. Thus the temperamental journey toward relaxed face-to-face communication should have taken an important step forward with Homo erectus. As tolerance and communication ability increased, individuals would have become better at reaching a mutual understanding, forming alliance, and excluding the intolerant. Such changes in social temperament would have contributed to a growing ability to communicate, including the evolution of language.
I will post soon on how McClenon implies that “fireside trance” may have influenced a relative human calmness & some of the implications for this.