On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

Stories are powerful things.  A world in which workers are brought into a country as farmhands is very different from one in which barbaric kidnappers torture their victims to extract labor.  A world in which death panels ration healthcare is different from one in which taxpayers preferentially fund effective medical care.

You’ll feel better about your life if you sit down and list the good things that happened to you each day.  There’s only one reality, but countless ways to describe it.

Like most scientists, I love stories of discovery.  These stories also reflect our values – many years passed before Rosalind Franklin’s role in the determining the structure of DNA was acknowledged.  Frontal lobe lobotomy was considered so beneficial that it won the Nobel Prize – sane people didn’t have to tolerate as much wild behavior from others.  Of course, those others were being erased when we ablated their brains.

Even equations convey an ideological slant.  When a chemist writes about the combustion of gasoline, the energy change is negative.  The chemicals are losing energy.  When an engineer writes about the same reaction, the energy change is described as positive.  Who cares about the chemicals?  We humans are gaining energy.  When octane reacts with oxygen, our cars go vrrrooom!

I’ve been reading a lot of mythology, which contains our oldest stories of discovery.  The ways we tell stories haven’t changed much – recent events slide quickly into myth.  Plenty of people think of either George W. Bush or Barrack Obama as Darth-Vader-esque villains, but they’re just regular people.  They have myriad motivations, some good, some bad.  Only in our stories can they be simplified into monsters.

In Ai’s poem, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” she writes that

512px-JROppenheimer-LosAlamosI could say anything, couldn’t I?

Like a bed we make and unmake at whim,

the truth is always changing,

always shaped by the latest

collective urge to destroy.

Oppenheimer was a regular person, too.  He was good with numbers, and his team of engineers accomplished what they set out to do.

My essay about the ways we mythologize discovery was recently published here, alongside surrealistically mythological art by Jury S. Judge.

theft of fire

On food and willing sacrifice.

On food and willing sacrifice.

Agni_devaIn ancient Indian mythology, fire was a god.  The word for fire is agni, and Agni the god who ate oblations.  Agni served as mouth and gullet for the entire pantheon – when sacrifices were offered to any god, Agni would eat them, ferrying goods from our world to the spirit realm.

When the gods were cursed such that they could not sire children with their wives, Agni, who’d once consumed Shiva’s semen, was asked to stray.  From Robert Goldman’s translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana:

(note, in terms of safety for reading at work, that the following passage is decidedly less circumspect than you might expect based on a familiarity with other sacred texts, e.g. the King James rendering of Genesis 38:9)

[A]ll the gods proceeded to Mount Kailasa, adorned with metallic ores, and charged Agni, the god of fire, with the task of begetting a son.  ‘You are a god, eater of oblations, and should carry out this task of the gods.  Great is your splendor.  You must release the semen into the Ganges, the daughter of the mountain.’

Agni, the purifier, promised the gods he would do this and so, approaching the Ganges, he said, ‘Bear this embryo, goddess, as a favor to the gods.’

Shantanu_Meets_Goddess_Ganga_by_Warivick_GobleHearing these words, she assumed her divine form, and he, seeing her extraordinary beauty, scattered the semen all over.  Agni, the purifier, showered it all over the goddess, so that all the channels of the Ganges were filled with it. 

In ancient Indian mythology, the semen of powerful males will sprout children wherever it lands, no female gamete required.  Numerous heroes were engendered when males chanced across beautiful women bathing and shortly thereafter just happened to ejaculate – their children might be born from baskets, butter jars, or someone’s mouth.

A fetus soon formed from the material sprinkled over Ganges’s body, but although she’d consented willingly to bear the child, she soon declared it to be too powerful, that the embryo was burning her body.  She tucked it into the base of the Himalayas to finish gestation.

Later in the Ramayana, Sita attempts to sacrifice herself – but Agni will not take her.  Sita was kidnapped and so her husband Rama comes to rescue her.  With the help of a monkey army, Rama destroys a South Indian kingdom and slays his wife’s captor.  But he assumes that Sita has been tarnished by rape.  He tells her (in the Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman translation):

I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

Heartbroken, Sita decides to jump into a fire – she’d rather die than lose her husband.  But the fire doesn’t burn her.  Instead, her presence is said to burn the fire itself.  Agni lifts her from the bonfire and tells her husband that she is beyond reproach.  The man agrees, briefly, to take her back.


More often, Agni simply burns things.  Objects from our world disappear, leaving nothing but ash.

And we are also like fire.   In David Shulman’s essay for the New York Review of Books, he writes:

Fire_from_brazierFor Vedic thinkers, all that lives survives by consuming other living beings.  Humans, too, have a hungry fire burning in their bellies; they have to sacrifice other creatures to that fire every day if they are going to stay alive.

We are heterotrophs.  Unlike plants, we can’t create ourselves by drinking in water, air, and sunlight.  We have to eat – sacrificing something – to survive.

Much of the time, the sacrifices that allow our lives are violent.  Humans evolved as meat eaters – scavengers, likely, then hunters.  We stalked, killed, and butchered mammoths.  On contemporary industrial farms, plants are culled by nightmarish threshers, ripped from the ground and shaken clean by machines.

We are heterotrophs.  It’s either us or them.

But sometimes we’re fueled by willing sacrifice.

apple-1122537_1280Fruit-bearing plants co-evolved with animals.  Fruit is a gift.  When a plant bears fruit, it hopes for reciprocity, but in a generalized way.  The plant isn’t trading – it can’t guarantee that any one offering will procure a service.  But over time, many hungry animals have willingly spread the plants’ seeds – that’s the gift we offer in return.

(This is true of all fruit.  I’d say it’s foolish to trust our Supreme Court justices’ opinions on just about anything – I definitely wouldn’t expect them to correctly identify the parts of a plant.  In addition to bananas, grapes, and apples, things like tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers are fruit.  It’s thought that each type of fruit co-evolved with a specific animal that was originally responsible for spreading its seeds.)

Even if a plant gives fruit to us willingly, though, you could wonder whether the fruit agrees with the sacrifice.  No matter what the tree might want, perhaps an apple would rather not be eaten.

Any one cell might prefer not to die.

1024px-Mucinous_lmp_ovarian_tumour_intermed_magCancer is a rough equivalent to libertarian philosophy.  Cancer is the ultimate freedom.  In a multicellular organism, most individual cells will voluntarily cease to grow when their industry infringes upon their neighbors.  They experience “contact inhibition.”  As soon as a cell touches another, it respects the established boundaries as inviolable.

If a cell’s usefulness has waned, it undergoes apoptosis – voluntary suicide.

In a multicellular organism that practices sexual reproduction – even unilateral reproduction like Agni showering sperm over Ganges’s prostrate body – every cell that isn’t part of the germ line is doomed to die.  From the perspective of evolution, your body is like a disposable rocket ship, built only to ferry the lineage of cells in your genitalia forward through time.  Those cells matter – their descendants might survive forever.

The cells in your hand?  They might have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – but their line will come to an abrupt end.  Maybe you were bitten by a radioactive super-power-granting DNA-altering spider and the cells in your hand became amazing.  Doesn’t matter.  Their glorious kind will go extinct.

And if the cells in your hand decide that this isn’t fair, and instead liberate themselves from the shackles of self-restraint and suicide, growing as much as possible – well, that’s cancer.  The host organism will die.  And those renegade cells, the ones who adopted the mantra look out for number one, will inevitably also die, starving fruitlessly, progeny-less.

It’s the same old tragedy of the commons, the same reason why there are now so few fish in the sea, and why Easter Island has no trees.  Sometimes personal persistence dooms you more completely than would sacrifice toward a common cause.

On bread.

On bread.

In the King James version of Genesis, Adam and Eve began their lives as vegans.  They ate nuts and fruit.

16895519109_b0b8ea19eb_z (2)Then they ate Yahweh’s special fruit, so he expelled them from Eden.  Yahweh said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”  Adam and Eve would no longer live in a land of such abundance that they could survive on the raw produce of trees – instead, they’d have to cook bread.

And Yahweh rubs it in – even if you work hard, and procure food, and survive a while, still you will die.  You humans are mortal.

(To the other deities, Yahweh offers an aside: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”  Yahweh does not mention to the humans that their mortality was curable, His own doing, and His plan all along.)

In the beginning, bread was a curse.

752px-Odysseus_bei_den_LaestrygonenSoon, however, the Western world treated bread as a mark of civilization.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew sail to Laestrygonia.  Not knowing that the island is overrun by voracious giants who might slay and eat them, he asks who eats bread there.  In Emily Wilson’s new translation, he says:

I picked two men, and one slave as the third,

and sent them to find out what people lived

and ate bread in this land.


Bread is alchemy.  Flour and water and a speck of yeast aren’t enough to support a human life, but if you let yeast eat the flour, then bake it, suddenly you have a food that could nourish you for weeks.

In jail, meals are served with flimsy slices of airy white bread.  I’ve eaten one meal at our local jail – the guards let us stay for dinner with the men after class one week, just after one man’s partner was murdered.

(The trio charged with murder – a woman and two men – were incarcerated in that same jail.  The woman was placed into a holding cell adjacent to the dorm where the murdered woman’s partner lived.  He stayed up all night, shouting to her through the wall.  He was telling her to forgive herself.)

We received green beans, spaghetti, a slice of white bread, a cookie.  To drink, our choice of milk or sweet tea.  I’ve been told that our jail has better food than almost any other.

If you fold your spaghetti into the bread, they told me, you get to have a taco.


When we incarcerate people in this country, we force them to find ingenious ways to deal with deprivation.  Demetrius Cunningham built a practice piano out of cardboard.  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, she describes the jerry-rigged water heaters common at Attica Prison.

At the end of our poetry class recently, a man showed me his ear gauge, a round disc of purple and green.

“I’m surprised they let you keep it,” I said.

“They didn’t.  It’s bread.”


toast-74375_1280“Bread.  I made it here.”  He popped it out to show me – it wasn’t quite as shiny as the stuff you’d see on Etsy, but otherwise looked just as nice.  “While I been in, I must’ve went from a quarter inch to, what’s this, over an inch?”

“Bread,” I said, shaking my head.  I felt hesitant to touch it.

“I been making all sorts of things.  You need bread, and some pencil shavings, colored pencil, you know?  I been making flowers, little sea turtles.  I made a whole lot of flowers.  Gifts for people, when I get out.  It’s like therapy.  While I’m making them, gives me something to think about, you know?  It helps. Keeps the mind busy.”

The next week he brought a few of his sculptures to class.  The flowers were incredible, each an inch or two tall, with green stem and leaves, petals in blue and purple.  His sea turtle was only a quarter inch across and intricately detailed.  Like netsuke, except …

“Bread?” I asked him again.

“Yup,” he said, leaning back in his chair.

220px-Robert_Martinson,_Freedom_Rider,_1961.jpgI’d previously read about Robert Martinson making a chess set from bread, but I’d assumed the pieces would look gross.  In “Solidarity under Close Confinement,” Martinson wrote about his experience being incarcerated for 40 days with the Freedom Riders in the 1960s.  He reported that “chess sets and objets d’art could be molded from paste made from chewed bread and dried in the ventilator I gloated over a tiny nest of buttons, string, chicken bones, and chess pieces – an affection I now find difficult to remember.

Martinson was appalled by what incarceration does to people: “Of course, the persons we had become in our cells were difficult, boring things.”  After his release, he studied prisons, hoping that the way we punish people could be made less awful.  He was hired by the state of New York to address recidivism: did any type of programming reduce criminal behavior by ex-felons?

As described in Terry Kupers’s essay “How to Create Madness in Prison” (published in Hell Is a Very Small Place):

51iuyKezuuL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgA turning point occurred with the publication of Robert Martinson’s 1974 essay, “What Works?  Questions and Answers about Prison Reform.”  Martinson ran some numbers and announced that rehabilitation programs have no positive effect on recidivism rates.  This was the research that conservative pundits and politicians had been waiting for, and they made Martinson famous as they legislated a drastic turn from rehabilitation to harsher punishments.

With calls to “stop coddling” prisoners, prison education programs were slashed, weights were removed from the yards, the quality of prison food declined, prisoners were deprived of materials for arts and crafts, and so forth.

Even though Martinson really should have realized that this would be the consequence of his publication (and subsequent speaking tour), he was devastated.  After all, he was a firm believer in social justice.  He had risked his life to join the Freedom Riders.  He began to study incarceration because he hoped to improve prisoners lives.  As a result of his research, he’d written that prisons “cannot be reformed and must be gradually torn down.”

That’s not what happened.  Instead, we started sending more people to prison, and made the prisons worse.

Which is why Martinson soon recanted his findings.  It was true that the education and counseling offered in prisons weren’t very effective at staving off future crime.  It was also true that the education and counseling offered in prisons were terrible.

If the available “education” is just a guard and some textbooks, is it surprising that few people are rehabilitated by it?  What about counseling – with untrained counselors told to do “whatever they thought best” during five or so short meetings with their patients each year?

Nobody cared about Martinson’s 1979 publication, “A Note of Caution Regarding Sentencing Reform,” in which he apologized for flaws in his earlier work.  By then, the punitive reformers had already gotten what they wanted: a lefty intellectual arguing that nothing works and so prisons should be cheap and miserable.

Martinson was horrified by the damage he’d wrought.  That same year, he committed suicide – in front of his teenage son, he leapt from the window of their ninth story apartment.

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).