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August 11 2016

Where There's Fire There's Smoke

Charlotte Allen

Smoke gets in your eyes at the NYT:

When early humans discovered how to build fires, life became much easier in many regards. They huddled around fire for warmth, light and protection. They used it to cook, which afforded them more calories than eating raw foods that were hard to chew and digest. They could socialize into the night, which possibly gave rise to storytelling and other cultural traditions.

But there were downsides, too. Occasionally, the smoke burned their eyes and seared their lungs. Their food was likely coated with char, which might have increased their risk for certain cancers. With everyone congregated in one place, diseases could have been transmitted more easily.

Diseases like TB:

The second study, published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that with fire’s advantageous effects for human societies also came profound new damage. It offers conjecture that the early use of fire might have helped spread tuberculosis by bringing people into close contact, damaging their lungs and causing them to cough.

With mathematical modeling, Rebecca Chisholm and Mark Tanaka, biologists at the University of New South Wales in Australia, simulated how ancient soil bacteria might have evolved to become infectious tuberculosis agents. Without fire, the probability was low. But when the researchers added fire to their model, the likelihood that tuberculosis would emerge jumped by several degrees of magnitude.

It is thought that tuberculosis has killed more than a billion people, possibly accounting for more deaths than wars and famines combined. Today it remains one of the deadliest infectious diseases, claiming an estimated 1.5 million lives each year....

She and Dr. Tanaka believe that fire might have helped spread other airborne diseases, not just tuberculosis. “Fire, as a technological advantage, has been a double-edged sword,” Dr. Tanaka said.

And if that weren't bad enough:

Investigating how fire’s harmful effects have shaped human history and evolution can provide a rich look into the relationship between culture and biology. Did we evolve biologically to guard against the health risks of inhaling smoke? Did that help us pick up the cultural practice of smoking? There are many other possibilities.

Ya gotta have a flame to light up a cigarette.

And then we have:

Humans have long used fire to modify their environment and burn carbon, practices that now have us in the throes of climate change. Fire is even tied to the rise of patriarchy — by allowing men to go out hunting while women stayed behind to cook by the fire, it spawned gender norms that still exist today.

Yup, fires are hot. Hence--global warming! But the patriarchy study, published in 1999, is particularly amusing:

[T]he critical logic is that cooking, whenever it evolved, led rapidly to the evolution of males’ scrounging from females and thence to sexual alliances.

"Males scrounging from females"--isn't that the way it always goes? Or as your mom would say, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.

I'm waiting for the next thick cloud of black smoke to emanate from the New York Times: How fire contributed to the "beauty myth" by encouraging women to comb their hair and put on makeup extremely early in the morning.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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