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How Man Became the Fire-Maker

Photo: Glass-making, by Hessam / CC BY-SA (

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present a series adapted from biologist Michael Denton’s book, Fire-Maker: How Humans Were Designed to Harness Fire and Transform Our Planet, from Discovery Institute Press. Find the whole series here. Dr. Denton’s forthcoming book, The Miracle of the Cell, will be published in September.

Seeing the perfection of the hand, we can hardly be surprised that some philosophers should have entertained the opinion with Anaxagoras, that the superiority of man is owing to his hand… [I]t is in the human hand that we have the consummation of all perfection as an instrument.

Charles Bell, The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, as Evincing Design, in The Bridgewater Treatises, Vol. IV (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Blanchard, 1833), 157.

As we have seen in this series so far, there is a remarkable suite of elements of fitness in nature for the harnessing of fire and for the development of metallurgy. But in order for fire to unlock the vast potential of metals, in order for it to lead to major technological advances, one more thing is necessary. There must also be a creature capable of maintaining and controlling fire, of building kilns, of mining for ores, of felling trees and manufacturing charcoal, and so on. On our planet there is one such creature uniquely endowed for the task: our own species, Homo sapiens

One of the unique things about modern humans that allowed us to master fire and metallurgy and develop an advanced technology is of course our high intelligence compared with any other species. But our technological empowerment and our advance from the Stone Age to our modern 21st-century industrial society depended on more than just our high intelligence. It also depended critically on a number of additional factors, including our possessing a unique suit of physical attributes.

A Terrestrial Life

Being terrestrial is one obvious requirement. No fully aquatic species could master fire and thus develop metallurgy and the host of fire-assisted technologies from glass-making to chemistry that enabled our own species to explore and ultimately comprehend the world. It is impossible to imagine how an aquatic species — no matter how intelligent — could develop any technology utilizing fire in any sort of underwater environment. 

In addition to our being a terrestrial organism, it was our unique upright android design and possession of that supreme manipulative instrument — the human hand — which in conjunction with our high intelligence enabled our species to manipulate and master fire and develop over subsequent centuries an advanced technology that has enabled us to pry open nature’s deepest secrets. 

Tomorrow, “Being the Right Size.”