Saturday, 3 August 2013

Peeing on the fire

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. (I already read and enjoyed one of his previous books, A Room of My Own, about building his own Walden-style log cabin in his back garden in Connecticut.) Barbecues are often dismissed as pieces of alpha-male theatre but Pollan uses the arguments of the anthropologist Richard Wrangham – that cooking with fire is what made us human and lifted us out of our animal existence – to suggest that barbecues are ‘ceremonial acts of remembering — who we are, where we came from, how nature works’. He is such a light, witty, elegant writer. Here he is skewering Freud and turning him over on the barbie until he’s nicely done:

‘Freud traces the control of fire to the fateful moment when man – and by “man” in this case he really means man – first overcame the urge to extinguish whatever fires he chanced upon by peeing on them. For countless millennia this urge apparently proved irresistible, much to the detriment of civilization, the rise of which awaited its repression … The course of human history shifted on the fateful day when it dawned on some fellow possessed of an unusual degree of self-control that he didn’t have to pee on the fire, and could instead preserve the flames and put them to some good use: keeping himself warm, say, or cooking his dinner. Freud believed this advance, like so much else of value in civilization, owed to the unique human ability to govern, or repress, the inner drives and urges before which other animals are powerless. (Not that we have many reports of animals putting out fires with their urine.) For him, the control of self is the precondition for the control of fire and, in turn, for the civilization that that discovery made possible … In all the time I’ve now spent with pit masters, whiling away the hours before the smoldering logs, I’ve never once brought up Freud’s fire theory. I’m just not sure how well it would go over.’


  1. Freud's comments do not always go over very indeed, a good decision not to mention this. However, Freud did have much to say about the development of, and preservation of advances in civilization...
    Enjoying your blog...glad I have bumped into it...Rudy

  2. The reason he doesn't see many animals putting fires with their own urine is that humans are bipedal and most land animals aren't. Be easier to be at a safe distance and aim. Also the large size of human genitals relative to other apes/primates and mammals. Sexual selection? Women who in Freud's original formulation don't have the same urge to urinate on fire, may have helped to increase men's penises by mate choice.

    In any case, for the learning of such a skill foreign to past hominids and primates, the discoverers must have been in a state of safety and relative comfort as well as distance from the fire to relieve themselves. Thus the sexual instinct would have guided their learning for these pre-historical hominids. Also they most likely aren't in lack of water and sustenance. So it could have been a playful encounter. What's better and more immediately accessible, and more pleasurable for males to put out fires than urine? Putting out a fire with water would be wasteful, especially in a non threatening situation.

    Freud's explanation is as good as many others since we don't have any historical record of this time before language and writing, and have to infer from artififacts.

    1. Getting fire back to the women would be advantageous to the male who accomplished relative to other male competitors, so sexual selection again. The women at home then could use it for cooking, warmth etc according to the sexual division of labor, and have the same urge to urinate the fire out.