Wrangham’s “Catching Fire” and Selection for Calmness

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.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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