Homo sapiens or homo igniferens

Editor’s note: This essay is the second in a series that will explore issues in energy literacy and energy policy.

[Fire] provides warmth on cold nights; it is the means by which they prepare their food, for they eat nothing raw save a few fruits... the Andamanese believe it is the possession of fire that makes human beings what they are and distinguishes them from animals. —A. R. Radcliffe-Brown1

When it comes to energy, most discussions focus on narrow specifics: Should we use less oil? Should we use less coal? More nuclear? Wind power? Solar power? Should we use less power altogether? All of these questions are important, of course, but they are too often discussed in the complete absence of context. The bigger picture is that biology and anthropology tell us something very interesting about human beings: We are not simply beings that use energy, we are beings that exist only because we harnessed energy, and our use of energy has shaped our bodies and culture for millions of years.

All known human societies, from the most advanced to the most primitive, rely on the controlled use of fire (or more advanced forms of energy) for cooking, lighting, and protection. And human beings are the only species known to do so (apes taught to smoke cigarettes don’t count). Virtually all of society’s advances in security, food availability, physical comfort, time for study and to practice the arts, and ability to influence the world stem from the direct or indirect use of energy. In a real sense, we might best be identified as homo igniferens: Man who ignites fire.

The full text of this article is available at The American website.

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Kenneth P.
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