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A Burning Desire: Steps Toward an Evolutionary Psychology of Fire Learning

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Although fire is inherently dangerous, leading many animals to avoid it, for most of human history, mastery of fire has been critical to survival. Humans can therefore be expected to possess evolved psychological mechanisms dedicated to controlling fire. Because techniques for starting, maintaining, and using fire differ across ecosystems, the postulated adaptations can be expected to take the form of domain-specific learning mechanisms rather than fixed behavioral templates. After outlining features that such mechanisms are predicted to possess, I review the literature on fire play in western children, finding that attraction to and interest in fire is widespread, experimentation with fire often begins in early childhood, and fire play typically peaks in late childhood or early adolescence. The latter aspect stands in contrast to results from a survey of ethnographers which reveals that, in societies in which fire is routinely used as a tool, children typically master control of fire by middle childhood, at which point interest in fire is already declining. This suggests that fire learning is retarded in western children, arguably due to patterns of fire use in modern societies that are atypical when viewed from a broader cross-cultural perspective. Together with the fact that western entertainment media provide a distorted portrait of the properties of fire, this pattern, while limiting the value of naturalistic observations of fire learning in the West, nevertheless has the benefit of providing a strong testing ground for future experiments exploring the universality of the psychology underlying the control of fire.


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