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The New York Times Can’t Best Prometheus Over Fire’s Downsides


Last week The New York Times captioned an article on Twitter this way: “First We Made Fire! But It May Have Come With Some Downsides.” Among the downsides listed were smoking and “the patriarchy.”

The twisted assertion here was that, had mankind never discovered fire, smoking would be impossible and women would not be stuck at home doing the cooking. The obvious problem with these claims is that without fire there would be no civilization at all. There really isn’t any point to wishing that instead of fire ancient humans had discovered solar panels.

The reason for the article was two new studies that show the evolutionary impact of fire and smoke on human beings over hundreds of thousands of years. That’s pretty dry stuff. Even The New York Times can be forgiven for indulging in a hot take (ha) to try to jazz up the story. But giddy conservative social media users can also be forgiven for saying “everybody point and laugh at The New York Times” over the Twitter caption.

To the Grey Lady’s credit, they titled the piece with the more reasonable, “Smoke, Fire and Human Evolution.” The headline notwithstanding, the body of the article still woefully confuses the impact humanity’s control of fire had over civilization’s very creation. It did have a downside, so to speak. As it turns out, the ancients understood it much better than today’s paper of record.

Fire Means Power and Lost Innocence

The downside of discovering fire was described by the Greek poet Hesiod in the eighth century BC, in the Prometheus myth. It is similar to the downside of Eve eating the apple. Zeus would have provided everything for humanity, but after Prometheus stole fire mankind became responsible for itself. Consciousness and civilization are the downsides of discovering fire. It is meaningless to describe smoking and the creation of the patriarchy as downsides of fire because fire is a prerequisite for the concept of a downside, or consequence.

Hesiod writes: “Son of Iapetus (Prometheus), surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire — a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.”

That evil thing was Pandora, the first woman. Just as Eve led Adam away from the peace and ease of Eden to a world of hardship and responsibility, so too did Pandora lead the men of Greece to eternal struggle. Women catch a hard time in ancient texts, but Hesiod is doing more than being misogynistic here. He understood that fire fundamentally transformed humanity. It gave us an almost magical way of controlling our environment and each other, one that birthed the power of human civilization but also stole our essential innocence.

Progressive New York Times writers would naturally miss this because religious or foundational stories hold little weight for them. Everything is measured in small doses of science. In the hands of the progressive religion of science, the philosophical implications of human civilization are boiled down to observable phenomena that depict but do not describe the true nature of existence.

The Question of Liberty Versus Determinism

The Times piece is steeped in determinism. One doesn’t choose to smoke; one smokes because human beings discovered how to control fire. Women don’t choose to stay home with the kids and cook; they do so because the use of fire demands it. This is distinctly at odds with the ancient story of fire. In the ancient version, fire imposed choice; it did not dictate our evolutionary outcomes as demographics on a social scientist’s spreadsheet. Fire was, rather, an angry invitation from the gods to fend for ourselves and see how we like it.

This matter of choice versus predetermination is central to the progressive worldview. On every issue including sexual orientation, transsexuality, even drug and alcohol abuse, the virtue or fault is never in us or our choices. While the conservative or religious person sees free will with all of its challenges and tests, the progressive or atheist sees inescapable tendencies born of ancient ancestors rubbing sticks together.

Even political free will has fallen victim to deterministic destiny. In dozens of articles and studies we read about how conservatives and liberals are hardwired in different ways. The upshot is that we do not base our political decisions on reason and life experience; instead, these ideas are essentially imposed upon us. This leads not only to intellectual laziness, but also to smugness at our good fortune in being hardwired the right, or left, way.

Novelist G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” He could easily have been talking about our obsession with science in the current year. What good are the studied opinions of dead white men who lived before microscopes? What could ancient texts possibly teach us about the human condition in our enlightened age? As it turns out, they can teach us quite a bit.

Power: A Warming and Singing Flame

The humble beginnings of human control of fire differ less from mutually assured destruction than we might imagine at first glance. The ancients knew flame gave us the power to create, but also to destroy. They express the melancholy nature of this power. Like a child leaving his warm and comforting home in a journey to adulthood, fire presented man with the hard choices and limitations that are the prerequites of freedom. But along with the sadness and consternations of that freedom came joy, and the power to create a world not as it is, but as we wish it to be.

In his prologue to “Henry V,” Shakespeare begins by saying “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” He is begging the audience’s pardon for being unable to present Henry’s story with anything more than mere words, actors, and flimsy set pieces. He knew reality contains a vastness we will always struggle to wrangle into our vain, weak words and ideas. The bard’s humility should serve as a model for us all.

Did the discovery of fire have a downside? Of course it did. But it does not lie in the specific harms of one age or another. It is not the scourge of tuberculosis, the cigarette I smoke, or the woman tied to her kitchen. The true downside of fire is power.

Like life itself, fire comes with no instruction manual. But ancient voices mused on its meaning, its imposition of responsibilities. The New York Times was remiss in ignoring the ancient context of its critique of fire. But for those of us who want it, our remote ancestors continue to provide more sage advice regarding the flicker of flames.