Playing with Fire

It's the Fourth of July. And that means it's time to indulge in one of our guiltiest pleasures: Lighting things on fire.

The reason we celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks is simple. It's what we've always done. The spectacle was envisioned by John Adams, who insisted the date be commemorated with "guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations," a tradition we've continued (though we've gotten a little lax with the bells).

But why must we mark every other celebration - from home runs to birthdays with flames and explosions? According to UCLA evolutionary anthropologist, Daniel M.T. Fessler, it's not really all people that do this - it's largely just those of us in the West. For the rest of the world, fire is merely a tool, one that requires mastering at an early age. In "traditional, pre-industrial societies, where fire use is common....fire interest peaks in early childhood but declines rapidly after that". Fessler has written. By the age of seven, fire is "mundane".

Here in the West, though, most people aren't so rigorously exposed to fire at an early age and therefore never lose that childlike intrigue. "Adult fascination with fire may be an artifact of the stunted cognitive machinery dedicated to learning about the properties of fire," Fessler argues. Or more simply put: We get super excited by fire and explosions because we're culturally immature overgrown children. U-S-A! U-S-A!