Following his years on the faculty of the University of Michigan, he became the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University and his research group is now part of the newly established Department of Human Evolutionary Biology.
He is co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the long-term study of the Kanyawara chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. His research culminates in the study of human evolution in which he draws conclusions based on the behavioural ecology of apes. As a graduate student, Wrangham studied under Robert Hinde and Jane Goodall. Wrangham is known predominantly for his work in the ecology of primate social systems, the evolutionary history of human aggression (culminating in his book with Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence), and most recently his research in cooking (summarized in his book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human) and self-domestication. He is a vegetarian and a MacArthur fellow.
Among the recent courses he teaches in the Human Evolutionary Biology (HEB) concentration at Harvard are HEB 1330 Primate Social Behaviour and HEB 1565 Theories of Sexual Coercion (co-taught with Professor Diane Rosenfeld from Harvard Law School). In March 2008, he was appointed House Master of Currier House at Harvard College. He received an honorary degree in Doctor of Science from Oglethorpe University in 2011.
Wrangham began his career as a researcher at Jane Goodall's long-term common chimpanzee field study in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. He befriended fellow primatologist Dian Fossey and assisted her in setting up her nonprofit mountain gorilla conservation organization, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (originally the Digit Fund).
Wrangham's latest work focuses on the role cooking has played in human evolution. He has argued that cooking food is obligatory for humans as a result of biological adaptations and that cooking, in particular the consumption of cooked tubers, might explain the increase in hominid brain sizes, smaller teeth and jaws, and decrease in sexual dimorphism that occurred roughly 1.8 million years ago. Some anthropologists disagree with Wrangham's ideas, pointing out that there is no solid evidence to support Wrangham's claims., though Wrangham and colleagues, among others, have demonstrated in the lab the effects of cooking on energetic availability: cooking denatures proteins, gelatinizes starch, and helps kill pathogens. The mainstream explanation is that human ancestors, prior to the advent of cooking, turned to eating meats, which then caused the evolutionary shift to smaller guts and larger brains.
- Demonic males. with Peterson, D., Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. 1996. ISBN 978-0-395-87743-2.
- Smuts, B.B., Cheney, D.L. Seyfarth, R.M., Wrangham, R.W., & Struhsaker, T.T. (Eds.) (1987). Primate Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-76715-9
- Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 0-465-01362-7
- The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution. Pantheon, 2019. ISBN 978-1-101-87090-7
- Wrangham, R (1980). "An ecological model of female-bonded primate groups". Behaviour. 75 (3–4): 262–300. doi:10.1163/156853980x00447.
- Wrangham, R.; Smuts, B. B (1980). "Sex differences in the behavioural ecology of chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park, Tanzania". Journal of Reproduction and Fertility. 28 Suppl: 13–31. PMID 6934308.
- Wrangham, R.; Conklin, N. L.; Chapman, C. A.; Hunt, K. D. (1991). "The significance of fibrous foods for Kibale Forest chimpanzees". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences. 334 (1270): 171–178. doi:10.1098/rstb.1991.0106. PMID 1685575.
- Wrangham, R (1993). "The evolution of sexuality in chimpanzees and bonobos". Human Nature. 4 (1): 47–79. doi:10.1007/bf02734089. PMID 24214293.
- Wrangham, R (1997). "Subtle, secret female chimpanzees". Science. 277 (5327): 774–775. doi:10.1126/science.277.5327.774.
- Wrangham, R (1999). "Is military incompetence adaptive?". Evolution and Human Behavior. 20 (1): 3–17. doi:10.1016/s1090-5138(98)00040-3.
- Wrangham, R.; Jones, J. H.; Laden, G.; Pilbeam, D.; Conklin-Brittain, N. L. (1999). "The raw and the stolen: Cooking and the ecology of human origins". Current Anthropology. 40 (5): 567–594. doi:10.1086/300083. PMID 10539941.
- Eds. Muller, M. & Wrangham, R. (2009). 'Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans'. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- "About". Kibale Chimpanzee Project. Archived from the original on February 15, 2012. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
- Gerber, Suzanne (November 1998). "Not just monkeying around". Vegetarian Times.
- "Food For Thought: Meat-Based Diet Made Us Smarter". NPR. Retrieved May 2, 2012.
- "Animal instinct for finding treatment". The New Zealand Herald. The Independent. August 6, 2005. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
- "Richard Wrangham and Elizabeth Ross Appointed Co-House Masters of Currier House". Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 2, 2012.
- "Honorary Degrees Awarded by Oglethorpe University". Oglethorpe University. Archived from the original on March 19, 2015. Retrieved 2015-03-04.
- Mowat, Farley (1987). Woman in the Mists. New York: Warner Books. pp. 172–3. ISBN 978-0-356-17106-7.
- Wrangham, Richard; Conklin-Brittain, NancyLou (2003). "Cooking as a biological trait". Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A. 136 (1): 35–46. doi:10.1016/S1095-6433(03)00020-5. PMID 14527628.
- Wrangham, Richard (2006). "The Cooking Enigma". In Ungar, Peter S. (ed.). Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 308–23. ISBN 978-0-19-518346-7.
- Gorman, Rachael Moeller (2007-12-16). "Cooking Up Bigger Brain". Scientific American.
- Pennisi, Elizabeth (1999-03-26). "Did cooked tubers spur the evolution of big brains?". Science. 283 (5410): 2004–2005. doi:10.1126/science.283.5410.2004. PMID 10206901.
- Carmody, Rachel (2009). "The energetic significance of cooking". Journal of Human Evolution. 57 (4): 379–391. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.02.011. PMID 19732938.
- Aiello, L. C. (1997). "Brains and guts in human evolution: The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis". Brazilian Journal of Genetics. 20: 141–148. doi:10.1590/S0100-84551997000100023.