Archives for November 2013

Playing with Fire: Noted primatologist and Harvard professor to visit Lexington

Professor Wrangham in Tanzania with Hadza hunter-gatherers.

Professor Wrangham in Tanzania with Hadza hunter-gatherers.

By Laurie Atwater

Sometime between the origin of Homo habiline (2.3 million years ago) and Homo erectus (at least 1.8 million years ago) evolving man learned to cook.

That’s right. At some point, and it’s unclear just when that was, our ancestors learned to control fire and thereafter they began to barbeque.

It’s at that time, when our ancestors harnessed the power of the flame and cooked their meat, posits Richard Wrangham, that we “become human.” Because food was softer and more digestible more energy could be directed to evolution: Bigger brains, smaller rib cages and guts, less prominent jaws and smaller teeth. Precisely because of cooking. So kiss the cook, because without her (and he also thinks it was the female of the

catching fire richard wrangham cooking food diet evolution science book review

Wrangham’s book Catching Fire will be available for sale at his appearance in Lexington.

species that cooked) we would never have evolved into the amazingly complex creatures that we are.

Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University and his research group is now part of the newly established Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. He has made a career of observing and studying chimpanzees in the wilds of Africa. He is the co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the long-term study of the Kanyawara chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. He has always been fascinated by the effects of the environment and ecology on animals and by extension on humans. Specifically he has been captivated by explaining the evolution of human social systems through the observation of primate behavior.

In his book Catching Fire (Basic Books, 2009) Wrangham presents this theory of evolution and cooking. It has become a controversial and exciting topic in the scientific world. For Wrangham it seems so logical that he can’t believe that it’s “new.”

The traditional line of thinking says that it was simply the transition from a diet of berries and veggies to eating raw meat that allowed the chimp-like australopithecines to evolve into the pre-Homo erectus habilines. Accepting that, what accounts for the huge biological leap between habilines and Homo erectus? Is it the cooking of meat that tipped the balance? Wrangham says cooking allowed humans to get more calories and nutrients from their food spurring the huge biological changes witnessed in Homo erectus. And then there are the sociological changes that arose from cooking—organizing the community around the fireside, the family around feeding of the young and protecting the food and the relegation of women to the “kitchen.”

In Catching Fire Wrangham takes us on a journey that begins with raw foodists and ends with a discussion of the modern diet in this age of plenty. With humor, keen observation and plenty of science along the way, he makes his case. From fascinating factoids about the amount of time early humans would have spent chewing fibrous foods just to get enough nutrition to live, early experiments on a man with a visible colon and discussion of the social norms around food preparation in various parts of the world, Wrangham entertains and educates. This is a book for everyone; it is accessible and fun.

In advance of his appearance in Lexington I was able to chat with Professor Wrangham from his office and his enthusiasm and humor are contagious.



Q. Just how did you happen upon this topic and begin to develop your new ideas about human evolution?

A. I was home in my house in Weston and I was thinking about the lecture that I was giving the next day on Homo erectus. The context that I was thinking about it—I was sitting in front of my fireplace with a fire going and the lights out—reminded me of what it was like sitting around a fire in Africa. I started thinking about how long into the past people would have been sitting around fires just like that. Then I started thinking about my experience eating chimpanzee foods and I suddenly realized that there’s no way a human could survive on that diet. Within a half hour I was developing the idea. I wrote it down that night and it had all of the essential elements that I ultimately came to think about.

Q. At the time did you know anything about food and how it changes through cooking?

A. No, that was all intuition! I went into the department [at Harvard] the next day and I was grabbing my students and my peers and saying, ‘all of a sudden it appears to me that cooking should have this huge importance in evolution.’ I was motivated to burrow into the literature and find out what the story was and I was AMAZED to discover that there was no systematic information on the impact of cooking on the energy values that we get from food.

Q. This seems to undermine the idea popularized by the raw foods movement that raw food is nutritionally better for humans than cooked food. According to your theory raw foods would not have yielded enough calories for the huge evolutionary jump between habilines and Homo erectus. You spend a lot of time discussing the benefits of cooking—how it made all food, and meat specifically, safer and more digestible.

A. It seems to me absolutely vital and one really has to get the fact that cooking has huge effects on the food and therefore on our bodies. When I present raw foodies with this evidence they don’t like it. It undermines a philosophy that is quite dear to them!

Q. Most anthropologists accept that meat eating made a difference in evolution, but not meat cooking specifically.

A. I think that people have failed to spot the fact that the raw meat argument doesn’t work very well and I think they have accepted it because they couldn’t think of anything better. Raw meat is incredibly tough and hard to digest. Now, I feel there were two transitions. What has always been accepted, that cooking was not important, is not the case. Whether we are talking about plants or meat, eating cooked food provides more calories than eating the same food raw.

Q. You also contend that cooking became the basis for pair bonding and led to a sexual division of labor—where men protected a particular woman’s food and he gave her meat in exchange for cooking.

A. Once the females are able to provide so much food that a male can rely on her to feed him, the male goes off and hunts. He stops being a gatherer and he can devote more time to hunting. If he has a bad day hunting, he goes off with the rest of the guys in the middle of the camp doing stuff like telling jokes, but he still eats. Overall one has to say women are starting from a disadvantageous position!

Q. Your critics say there is little archeological proof of controlled fire going back far enough to support your claims.

A. We certainly can’t currently make the case on archeological grounds, but something was going on. I imagine that they were pounding away with stones for tens of thousands of years and regularly starting little fires. And that’s where I imagine the young picking it up and playing with it and eventually realizing that other animals are afraid of it. It’s as good a story as any.

Q. And eventually cooking over it?

A. Yes. It’s hard for me to underestimate the control of fire. Once you have an animal that is smart enough to use fire constructively—it’s huge. It’s a fascinating area and if there’s a question of not knowing something, well let’s put it out there so that people will find out what the answer is.

Q. I can’t let you go without thanking you for introducing me to another Atwater—Wilbur Olin Atwater.

A. Ah, yes. The Atwater convention which is still used today, totally misses the impact of food processing on food, but nobody has thought of a way to replace it with anything that is cheap and convenient.



In the final chapter of his book Professor Wrangham discusses the Atwater convention—a system for measuring calories in food that was developed in the latter part of the 19th century. The USA still uses the Atwater Convention for assessing calories in food despite its known flaws. Highly processed foods require less energy to digest. Yet, the Atwater system is based on calculations that do not take this energy factor into account. The more processed our diet becomes the more net calories we absorb. Obesity is becoming prevalent in cultures where food is plentiful and over-processed.

Once we struggled each day for enough food; now we suffer the consequences of abundance. As a species we are still evolving. What’s next? n



Share this:

Trick or Treat in Lexington Center

Share this:

Ave Atque Vale

Michael Fiveash

Michael M. Fiveash, Ph.D.


Lexington’s Beloved Teacher Michael Fiveash


Michael M. Fiveash, Ph.D., was a classics scholar and beloved Mythology and Latin teacher at Lexington High School for thirty-eight years. He died at his home in Jamaica Plain on Thursday September 19, 2013. He was 67. His long career was filled with awards and accolades. He was celebrated as teacher of the year at LHS in 1983.

Dr. Fiveash retired from the high school in 2011. At that time we visited with Dr. Fiveash and Mme. Girondel who retired the same year. During that visit former students Ting Ting Shiue and Dan Choi, Class of ’05, stopped by the classroom just to visit with their former teachers. Ting Ting says she now realizes, “It wasn’t about the text or the material; it was about a lot more than that. A lot of the thing I took away from the class influences the way I think about what I want to do.” Dan Choi adds, “Obviously, we didn’t’ understand it at all then, but now we do. You didn’t just teach language and art. You taught us how to live life.”

Plans are currently underway for a memorial celebration in Lexington for January. When the date and time are finalized we will publish a notice in the paper. A scholarship is being planned in his memory to be awarded to a student planning to study the classics in college. Donations can be made to the Michael Fiveash Scholarship Fund, c/o Town of Lexington, 1625 Massachusetts Avenue, Lexington, MA 02420 (attn: Board of Selectmen). An annual Fiveash award is also being considered to celebrate this outstanding educator.

For this special tribute we have asked several of “Doc Five’s” Lexington friends and colleagues for their remembrances of him: Fellow LHS Language Department (French) teacher and close friend Karen Girondel, former LHS Principal and friend Van Seasholes and new colleague, friend and Director of Lexington Community Education, Craig Hall. Additionally, former student Sonya Taaffe (LHS 1999) has kindly written a very special essay about her beloved teacher. Sonya went on from LHS to study the classics and to become a writer.


Karen Girondel

Karen Girondel




I am truly honored to have found myself in the same time and space as this amazing man. A couple of weeks before he died, he confided to me that he still didn’t understand what he did for so many people to say such wonderful things about him. I told him that he was simply himself and that he shared with all of us who he was and what he loved: the ancient world, music, poetry, art, books, the natural world and the Simpsons!

When he first came to Lexington High School, he thought he would not like teaching at a public high school, but it took only a couple of months for him to realize that this was where he belonged. He was surprised and very impressed by the caliber of both his students, so many of his colleagues and Cary Library.

His teaching quickly became legendary and the Latin program at LHS attracted students who didn’t care that the Latin courses weren’t designated as “honors” classes. He frequently had classes of thirty or more students clamoring to learn about the passive periphrastic so they could read Vergil in eleventh grade and Catullus as seniors.

Michael always incorporated art, maps and archeology into his teaching and embraced technology if it would help him share pictures and language. He received the first LEF grant for a display panel that connected his (ancient) Apple IIe to an overhead projector.

When we decided to retire, I knew he would miss teaching, so I suggested that he sign on to Lexington Community Education to teach the parents who had been begging for a night class in mythology. He did. And the parents of former student arrived in droves. (This was somewhat selfish on my part because I also wanted to finally have the time to study formally with him after decades of being in awe of his teaching.)

Over the past two years, Michael taught six different classes at Lexington Community Education and had a following of about 50 people who couldn’t get enough of his teaching. He wove language, philosophy, history, truth and beauty into the stories from the ancient Greeks and Romans. At the end of each course, they asked what the next class would be. He kept coming up with new classes and the “grownups” kept coming. One woman whose husband was in Michael’s classes confided to me that her husband had a “man crush” on him!

Michael loved Lexington and the values of this town. On the day he died he talked about how LEF and LCE reflected those values and how much he appreciated that both organizations “gave us a chance” to do what we loved the most. Whenever we gave presentations to teachers about interactive white boards, he always began with a plug of appreciation to LEF in Latin and in French!



E. Van Seasholes

E. Van Seasholes




Van Seasholes first heard about Michael Fiveash from his son Brian. “He took this mythology course at Lexington High School and he kept raving about it.” To this day Brian says it was the best course he ever had and that’s saying a lot because Brian has been to some pretty top notch schools Van says.

At that time Van was serving as the Principal of Newton South High School. In 2001 he became both the interim Principal at Lexington High School and a colleague of Michael Fiveash. “He was a great colleague,” Van says. “He was supportive and willing to help people.” Even though he taught the most traditional classes, Seasholes says that Fiveash loved new technology and took it on very early. “He went way beyond preparing for his classes. It was very exciting.”

“He was one of the very best teachers I have known in my long career,” Van says with affection. He admired him so much that when Fiveash went on to his second career at Lexington Community Ed, Seasholes enrolled in his class! Talk about coming full circle. “He had a tremendous following in Adult Ed,” Van says, “He really knew his stuff. What a magnificent teacher.”

-Laurie Atwater interviewed Van Seasholes for this tribute





Director of Community Ed Craig Hall will not be replacing Michael Fiveash on his faculty. “We can’t fill that void,” he says of “Doc Fiveash.” Going forward Craig says they will try to honor his memory by hosting speakers, teachers and events that Fiveash would have liked, but there is no replacing the teacher that inspired a whole group of Lexington adult learners (many of whom had heard their children rave about his classes).

“Everyone was in love with Doctor Fiveash,” Hall says. “People resonated with the teaching and the teacher. There are two poles that have to happen for resonance to occur and Michael Fiveash created resonance every time he stepped before a classroom full of students.”

“He had such a way of teaching these myths and in turn helping students figure out their own mythic journeys,” he says. “It was heart to heart.”

Hall says that they had one student who would take the red eye from whatever location he happened to be working just to make it back in time for Fiveash’s class. “It meant that much! That’s a life being moved by something.”

Fiveash moved his LCE students through the force of his intellect and the nature of his caring soul. “He created a community in the classroom and people ended up knowing each other and caring about each other and looking forward to seeing each other each week,” Hall says.

He loved these ancient stories Hall explains. “These stories that speak to the essence of what it is to be alive. They needed to be remembered and championed! This wasn’t business for Michael; it was about something deeper and more human. Michael cared about his students and he was bringing them these stories that helped them to understand where they were, and how to go further. It’s very rare that you get to hear a grown man talking about things at that deep level. Very rare.”

Hall was always struck by Doctor Fiveash’s humility. “There was nothing superficial about Michael,” he says. “I think that is such a rare thing to come across. It’s remarkable. After he had brought the gods into the class room, he would ask, ‘was that alright?’” When Doc Fiveash was teaching Hall says, “The Greek gods were happy.”

-Laurie Atwater interviewed Craig Hall for this tribute


Sonya Taaffe photographed by Roger Gordy

Sonya Taaffe Photographed by
Roger Gordy






Sonya Taaffe graduated Lexington High School in 1999 and now holds master’s degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale. Her collected short fiction and poetry can be found in Postcards from the Province of Hyphens and Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime Books), A Mayse-Bikhl (Papaveria Press), and anthologies including Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and The Best of Not One of Us. She is currently senior poetry editor at Strange Horizons and once named a Kuiper belt object.


My high school Latin teacher, Dr. Michael Matthew Fiveash, died on September 19th, 2013. He had been diagnosed in June with neuro-endocrine tumors. I’d had no idea.

I hadn’t seen him in two years, since his retirement from Lexington High School. (No one except the new superintendent of schools was pleased to see him go.) I do not want to say that he was the reason I became a classicist, because I had wanted Latin ever since I knew it was a language, but I stuck out Latin I and its painfully repetitious lessons because everyone told me that Latin II–IV with Dr. Fiveash was worth the trouble and everyone was right. His classroom was Room 410 in the Greatest Block on Earth, with hubcaps over the blackboard and a poster of the Ministry of Silly Walks on the closet door. The Simpsons were everywhere. I do not remember the origin story of Snappy the rubber alligator, but the brittle Peeps that appeared each spring by the overhead projector were the sacred chickens such as Publius Claudius Pulcher once unwisely tossed overboard in 249 bce. Other classrooms had whiteboards, but Dr. Fiveash still worked in chalk, eraser, and hypertext stacks projected onto the pull-down screen from an ancient toaster Mac. The random sentence generator was stocked with the names of Fabio and Madonna and discreetly indelicate verbs. There was graffiti from the Carmina Burana in the corner of the blackboard the first time I walked in.

Because beloved teachers gather epithets like Odysseus, he answered to “Doc 5” and “Magister Quinquecineres” as well as the name on his diploma; he was accustomed to call his students victims and varmints, himself the village idiot, and exhort us to do our duty for Zeus and country. As Pontifex Maximus, he would sacrifice Twinkies to divine whether the day would be fas or nefas. (The day the gutted Twinkie revealed entrails of bright Red 40 was undeniably nefas. There was a pop quiz.) But I do not want to reduce him to a character, even if it’s perfectly true that he loved The Simpsons and had an entire shelf of terrible romance novels donated by students over the years because Fabio had posed for the covers. He was my mother’s age almost exactly, with thick brown hair and a creased catlike face and a baritone as mellow as a radio announcer’s, though he let the Boston in his accent show through now and then, as when he threatened to stomp somebody’s sorry ass. He had been a student of Albert Lord’s at Harvard, meaning that we were taught about Homeric epic and oral tradition as matter-of-factly as third-declension i-stems and poetic elision; we knew ourselves to be in descent from Milman Parry. We got, too, a small current of class rage with our classics, in the middle of affluent Lexington—he had come to Harvard from Boston Latin and was thirty years later still proud that his working-class hard study had stood its ground against the rich kids from prep schools, because it didn’t matter how they smiled down at him, he was reading the Iliad in Greek. I read my first Catullus with him. My first Vergil. I had to wait until college for Greek, but I memorized the first five lines of the Odyssey when he wrote them out on the board: he loved when his students asked him for more than the lesson plan. I learned the word liminal from him. And I learned Latin, so that when it came time for me to register for my first semester of classes at Brandeis, I tested directly into the complete works of Catullus. The poet had been the last thing I read for Latin IV, anyway: O dulces comitum valete coetus, longe quos simul a domo profectos diversae varie viae reportant.

I don’t have to worry that I didn’t let him know, at the time, how much he mattered to me. I drew cartoons for him: on my exams, on quizzes, on notecards. I discovered historical novels and brought him copies; I dedicated fiction of my own to him. Years after I had fallen out of touch with anyone else from high school, I came back to tell him that I was reading Greek, reading Akkadian, singing in an opera; I wrote him a terrible poem and he was kind enough to accept it. So there’s that.

But I would have written to him in the spring, if I’d known he was ill; I can send these memories to his family, but I can’t tell him again and finally that he changed the course of my life, even if I know that in thirty-eight years of teaching I was not the only one. (He was always threatening to quit teaching and take up a peaceful life as a long-haul trucker, as facetious a dream as his designation of favored students as “wretched toads.”) I didn’t even know he loved Tolkien until my senior year, I knew so little about the things he liked outside of the ancient world. He was married twice. He had children. He read my name at graduation and hugged me as he handed me my high school diploma. “No longer liminal, child,” he said. After the aimless, waiting, neither-here-nor-there week between end of classes and graduation, it meant something: it was ritual. The dead cross over and are in another state, more settled than that of the dying. With him, I read of Aeneas in the underworld, trying to hold Creusa, feeling her fall like a shadow or a breath of wind through his arms. I had not imagined my teacher disappearing, then or ever, into that darkness with her.

Share this: