On fire myths and the origin of knowledge


EDIT 5/4/2018: a finished essay based on this research was published here.

If you’re writing about conflicts between religious and scientific worldviews, there is absolutely no reason why you’d be forced to write about fire. But, c’mon… fire is cool. Eventually you probably would.

While researching myths about the origin of fire, I realized that my criteria for classifying something as a fire myth are significantly more inclusive than other people’s. For instance, there was an afternoon about three or four years ago when K left school during her lunch break to drive me to the university library. That morning I’d received an email notifying me that my hold request for Sir James George Frazer’s 1930 book Myths of the Origin of Fire: An Essay had been processed.

During our car ride to the library I was babbling nonstop about how excited I was to have a chance to read this book. Eventually I told K, “I can’t wait to see how he spins Adam and Eve…”

K interrupted me. “There’s no fire.”

“Well, no. But it’s still clearly a fire myth. Because many culture’s fire myths feature humans who lack fire and are trying to steal it from powerful creatures that have it. But they are never really stealing fire — no culture has one single flame that they have to keep burning in order to maintain their lifestyle. The stories are about humans stealing knowledge. The knowledge of how to make fire, sure, but why not include myths where humans are stealing knowledge or wisdom in general? So, voilá! We have Adam and Eve, we have Buddha’s snake-shielded initial enlightenment…”

“Oh, I get it,” K said. “So do you think he’ll write about electricity?”

“Electricity?” I sounded incredulous. Despite having claimed that naked people in a garden eating an apple was actually a story about fire, I couldn’t see what electricity had to do with it.


“Sure. The whole story about Ben Franklin with a kite in the rain. Clearly a myth. Our origin myth for electricity. And since electricity is like fire…”

Oh. Right. I definitely should have thought of this. I could’ve thought about Orthodox Jews who won’t flip light switches in order to honor Exodus 35:3, “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.” The equation of electricity with fire has a long history in folkloric analysis. And, besides, the Ben Franklin myth is great. Mad man out in the rain, risking death, discovering the phenomenon that enables our modern world.

So I nodded. “Yeah, maybe he wrote about that… or even the invention of the atomic bomb…”

At the time, I didn’t realize that his book was published in 1930. So I started daydreaming that soon I would be reading his analysis of the mythologized version, Oppenheimer out there aghast in the desert and rattling off some Sanskrit, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Plus, the discovery of atomic fission has an elegant interpretation within the general mold of ‘humans gain fire but then are punished for their transgression.’ Because atomic power is useful, but knowing how to use it is its own punishment. Ever since gaining that knowledge, we have also lived with the fear that we might wipe ourselves away.

Many people answer the Fermi paradox (Hey! Look at all those stars! But… where are the starpeople?) by postulating that there is a bottleneck few civilizations can pass. The knowledge of how to wield atomic power, or how to build sufficiently effective particle accelerators, might contribute to such a bottleneck — it’s knowledge that is probably necessary before you can travel amongst the stars, but the knowledge also allows your species to potentially delete itself.

All of which is to say that I was incredibly excited at the prospect of reading Frazer’s book. And, perhaps inevitably, I was disappointed after K dropped me off and I jogged up to the checkout desk and borrowed it.

CaptureThis isn’t Frazer’s fault. His book is an impressive piece of scholarship: he collected the myths about the origin of fire from many different cultures around the world. But that’s all it was. A collection of stories. I was tricked by his subtitle, “An Essay.” To me the word “essay” implied that there would be an effort toward analysis and synthesis. I wanted Frazer to address the idea of what makes something a fire myth (although his definition seems to have been narrowly, a story about humans learning how to initiate oxidative combustion).

Or Frazer could’ve speculated about what the typical structures of fire myths tell us about humanity (although he might respond that there are enough different varieties — the young person who wrestles fire away from his elders, the humans who are aided by a fire-stealing relay of animals, the thief who hides fire away in flammable wood as soon as capture seems imminent — that there are no general conclusions to draw. But, phooey, I say! Jung would find some generalities to analyze).

There was none of that.

Even the conclusion of his “Conclusion” seems strange to me. Oddly devoid of essayistic interpretation. Because Frazer seems to want folklore to be a companion science to archaeology, whereas I consider folklore to be primarily useful as a companion to psychology. For instance, no matter what you think about the historical veracity of the Bible or the Ramayana or the epic of Gilgamesh, like all literature those works reveal truths about the minds of the authors. And I’d argue that religious literature also reveals important truths about the peoples who revered these stories and considered them worth preserving.

Instead, Frazer concludes his book with this:

“When we consider how often, in the long ages which preceded the discovery of the metals, men in palaeolithic and neolithic times knocked stones together for the purposes of fashioning those rude implements which still exist in countless thousands scattered over the face of the globe, we can hardly avoid concluding that the mode of kindling fire by the percussion of stones must have been discovered independently over and over again in many parts of the world; and as little in this as in the case of the fire-drill need we resort to the hypothesis of a single discoverer, a solitary Prometheus, whose fortunate invention was spread from hand to hand to all the ends of the earth. The Yakuts of Siberia tell how fire was at first accidentally discovered by an old man who, having nothing better to do, amused himself by knocking two stones together, till sparks leaped from the stones and set fire to the dry grass. We need not accept the tale as historical, but it is probably typical of what must almost certainly have happened over and over again in prehistoric times.

“Thus, in spite of the fantastic features which distort many of them, the myths of the origin of fire probably contain a substantial element of truth, and supply a clue which helps us to grope our way through the darkness of the human past in the unnumbered ages which preceded the rise of history.”

Um, sure. The myths tell of humans gaining fire. And humans did indeed gain fire. But…

CaptureAt least his book was a great compilation of stories. After my initial dismay, I was pretty happy to be reading it. Probably my favorite myth is the South American one in which jaguars originally had fire. Humans did not. Humans crept up and stole it away… and then, spiteful, jaguars stopped using it. Claimed they didn’t even want it anymore. And, also, they decided to start occasionally mauling and eating humans in punishment.

The jaguars in some ways resemble hipsters who, as soon as their favorite bands become popular, decide they don’t even want to listen to them anymore. Pfff… fire? That’s so 300,000 BCE.

If you’re interested in a clever analysis of the myths, though, Frazer’s book might not be for you. Perhaps you’d be more pleased by the second chapter of Gregory Schrempp’s The Ancient Mythology of Modern Science. Schrempp’s goal was to analyze popular science books as though they were folklore; in the chapter on fire he centers his analysis on John Barrow’s The Artful Universe.

Barrow wrote that only creatures resembling Homo sapiens could have discovered the use of fire. Too-large creatures would overheat and die, too-small creatures would be endangered by the smallest sustainable fires. But the assumption that small creatures could not tame fire presupposes an unjustifiable assumption about the social organization of the species. Yes, the psuedo-individualistic approach used by Homo sapiens has been very successful. But on our own planet cooperative social organization has proven extremely successful and evolved separately numerous times, in bees, ants, wasps, termites, etc. These cooperative colonies also behave in ways that seem cognitively complex despite the extremely small brains of each individual. So it’s fair to speculate that technological advancement to the point of fire-wielding would be more likely to occur in a socially cooperative species.

Here is Schrempp’s rebuttal to the idea that the minimum fire size promotes human-like body morphs amongst any technologically-advanced species: “One could easily pull together a case in favour of small beings who manage to take advantage of centralized heating; the nice coincidence that the smallest peat fire can sustain one human could just as easily be the nice coincidence that it can sustain a tribe of small creatures.”

And, in rebutting the idea that the minimum-sized fire would seem dangerously large to small creatures, Schrempp points out that many social insects sacrifice individuals to attain a colony’s goals. There are ant species that use their own bodies to build bridges and the like; for instance, here’s a reference for ants constructing boats out of their own bodies. In some of these species the structural volunteers survive, in others they are left behind to die. So it’s not such a stretch to imagine a fire-weilding ant-like species in which individuals immolate themselves in order to deliver fuel to the colony’s central flame. Horrifying, sure, but evolutionarily reasonable.

There is also quite a bit of scientific research that bolsters the link between myths about the origin of fire and the origin of human knowledge. One example is Fonseca-Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel’s study “Metabolic constraint imposes tradeoff between body size and number of brain neurons in human evolution,” which claimed to demonstrate that human-sized brains would only be possible for primates that were using fire to cook their food.


Their work draws upon the well-established idea that brains are energetically expensive: it takes a lot of calories to keep your noggin churning. Other oft-expensive organs are the liver — it takes a lot of calories to keep you from inadvertently poisoning yourself — and the gut — which is cute because it mirrors the adage “It takes money to make money.” Here it takes energy to extract energy, although this is true only with foods that are difficult to digest. Raw root vegetables, leaves, stalks, etc. Hummingbirds don’t have that problem: sugary flower nectar goes down easy. Nor did fire-wielding carnivorous protohumans, which seem to have underwent significant simplification of the gut: cooked antelope practically eats itself!

Sounds great for a species that was struggling to obtain enough calories. Possibly less helpful given the rampant obesity amongst subpopulations of modern Homo sapiens.

In Fonseca-Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel’s paper, they plotted numerous production possibility frontiers for primates eating raw food. Which… have you run across the term “production possibility frontier” before? If so, my apologies for the digression. If not, perhaps you have heard that economists often discuss a trade-off between guns and butter.

A “production possibility frontier” is a graph of what you could possibly make. You have some finite set of resources, and depending on your priorities you might make different sets of things. A country that only cares about war and doesn’t mind having its people starve to death might produce 20 guns and 0 pounds of butter in a year. A country that only cares about food and doesn’t mind allowing its enemies to live might produce 0 guns and 80 pounds of butter. And a country interested in a little bit of this and a little bit of that might produce 18 guns and 70 pounds of butter. As in, the trade-offs are generally not linear. A butter churn is not very helpful for the manufacture of guns.

That unequal trade-off — using your churn to produce butter instead of guns doesn’t cost you much — explains why production possibility frontiers are often convex outward-bulging graphs. Like the one below, Figure 2 from their paper.


Oddly enough, they didn’t include a dot for humans. I’d imagine that most people would want to see that from a study purporting to be about human evolution. The human dot should be at about (80, 10.9), out in that dangerous zone for raw-food-consuming primates needing to spend ten hours per day eating.

This graph is of course based on an assumption about how many calories you can obtain per hour of effort. Ecological shocks can reduce this, so a species that was able to survive in lush times might die off during a drought. And, as expected, what a species eats can change this. Access to nutrient-dense food saves time.

celery-is-uselessFor instance, K likes celery. But I’m the one who does most of our grocery shopping, so she’s always stuck asking why I never buy it. My complaint is, does celery even count as food? I think of food as something I eat in order to have more energy… why would I purposefully ingest something that runs down my food clock faster?

With celery, not even cooking helps. But numerous other food sources, such as tuberous root vegetables, switch from being not-food (negative calories) to food (mmm, french fries) as soon as you cook them. Bacteria- or parasite-riddled meat also undergoes the same transition. As discussed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, protohumans were probably poor hunters. Much of the meat they ate was probably obtained by scavenging, and if your goal is to gain nutrition instead of contracting a vomit-inducing case of food poisoning, it’s might be necessary to cook that day-old half-eaten antelope corpse you found sitting out in the sun.

(Not that I’d eat it either way, but most evolutionary biologists have by now rejected the theory that protohumans should’ve gotten in their cars and driven to the local protogrocer to buy a block of prototofu whenever they were hungry.)

The point being that it may have been impossible for protohumans to obtain either their brain size or their culture-yielding free time without cooking their food. Which to me supports the conceptual link between fire myths and knowledge myths. From an evolutionary biology perspective, fire use and human knowledge seem inextricably linked. From a folkloric perspective, there are many parallels between the stories we tell about our origins (although the evolutionary biology story lacks the idea of divine retribution against those protohumans for transgressing their animalistic birthright… unless you want to tack on the cheesy Spiderman quote “with great power comes great responsibility” and assume that because humans can think, we must think, meaning we are saddled with the demands of morality).