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Tom Standage – An Edible History of Humanity

May 28, 2009

64. An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage (2009)

Length: 270 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 17 May 2009
Finished: 24 May 2009

An Edible History of Humanity was published by Bloomsbury USA on 12 May 2009; you can order it from Amazon here. Many thanks to the publishers for sending me a copy to review!

Where did it come from? From the publishers.
Why do I have it? I like foodie books, and I like microhistories and other unique ways of looking at history, so I was hoping that this would combine the two.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 02 May 2009.
Verdict? I’ll probably keep it as a reference, but I doubt I’ll be re-reading it.

Everyone throughout
history needed to eat.
See where it’s got us?

Summary: In An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage looks at how food – its acquisition, distribution, and use – has shaped the course of our civilization’s history. On the one hand, food’s role in history might seem obvious; because, of course, every action made by every person who fills every history book was fueled by food. But on the other hand, innovations in food technology – for instance, the adoption of agriculture, the desire for exotic spices from faraway lands, the process of preserving food by canning, or the invention of chemical fertilizers – have had far-reaching (and often surprising) effects on the path that our culture has traveled.

Review: I suspected, when I requested this book, that it had about a 40% chance of annoying me. I feared, when I received it, checked the “Sources” list at the back, and saw nary a mention of Daniel Quinn, that it had a 95% chance of frustrating the heck out of me. And, when, after twenty five pages, I’d nearly filled the slip of paper that I was using as a bookmark with notes-to-self complete with multiple overly-emphatic exclamation points, I knew that it was probably going to continue to be problematic for the next 250 pages.

(A side note about Daniel Quinn: Even though he’s one of my absolute favorite authors, I don’t talk much about his books, because when I do, I’ve noticed that people have a tendency to start looking at me like I just asked them to shave their eyebrows and join my nifty new cult. Suffice it to say, his novels – particularly The Story of B – are the books that have most influenced the way I think about humanity, and about our place in the world. They also have some very astute things to say about a) early history and the adoption of agriculture, and b) overpopulation, and it’s impossible for me to read a book that deals as intimately with these topics as An Edible History of Humanity does and not compare the two.)

Let me see if I can sum up my issues with this book. Tom Standage is clearly an intelligent and well-informed guy who did a lot of research for this book. My frustration comes from the fact that although he’s got his facts right, his conclusions so frequently seem to be off base.

To put it another way: Standage needs to spend less time hanging around with economists, and more time hanging around with ecologists. There is one glaring omission that bothered me throughout his book, and that is that he doesn’t seem to get the fundamental connection between food production and population growth. To quote from Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (which is in turn quoting from Peter Farb’s Humankind): “Intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population.” Or, to put it into an ecologist’s terms, increasing the carrying capacity of an environment will lead to a proportional increase in population.

Run, fundamental principles of ecology, run!

Run, fundamental principles of ecology, run!

I would bet that Tom Standage knows this. What he doesn’t seem to believe, however, is that it applies to humans just as much as it applies to lynxes and snowshoe hares. If there is more food available, there will soon be more individuals around to eat it. Full stop. This is a law of ecology in the same way that gravity is a law of physics, and humans don’t get an exemption to this law just because we’re so darn clever – and that’s the part of the equation that’s missing from Standage’s reasoning.

To give a concrete example from the book:

With hindsight, of course, we can appreciate the irony that Malthus pointed out the biological constrains on population and economic growth [i.e. that population has the power to grow exponentially while food production can only grow arithmetically, leading a population to soon outstrip its power to feed itself] just at the moment when Britain was about to demonstrate, for the first time in human history, that they no longer applied.

Yet Britain did not hit the ecological wall that Malthus anticipated. Instead, it vaulted over it and broke free of the constraints of the “biological old regime” in which everything was derived from the produce of the land. Rather than growing most of its own food, Britain concentrated on manufacturing industrial goods, notably cotton textiles, which could then be traded for food from overseas. During the nineteenth century the population more than tripled, but the economy grew faster still, so that the average standard of living increased – an outcome that would have astonished Malthus.

See what I mean? Right facts, wrong conclusions, and humans somehow exempting themselves from the laws of biology. The nineteenth century British didn’t defy the laws of ecology for the same reason that lining up a bunch of paperclips doesn’t violate the second law of thermodynamics: neither is a closed system. By importing food, the British effectively increased the carrying capacity of their environment, and their population responded exactly as the laws of ecology predict.

Similarly, Standage doesn’t seem to believe that overpopulation is a problem. He believes that as industrialization occurs, food production can go up while the population simultaneously goes down. And maybe I am not well enough versed in the economic theory of demographic transition, but to me, this sounds fantastically implausible. Even if it’s true, I think the human population is already over the global sustainable carrying capacity, and that there simply aren’t enough natural resources to maintain seven billion of us indefinitely, especially at a rate of consumption equal to that of current industrialized nations.

There are other, smaller problems I had with other parts of the book – a tendency towards over-generalization, for one. Most of his statements about the hunter-gatherer lifestyle seem based on a single ethnography (Richard Lee’s seminal work on the !Kung), ignoring the broad diversity in social structuring that can be found in other tribal peoples. He also makes the occasional statement like “…man’s inherent tendencies toward hierarchical organization (clearly visible in apes and many other animal species)…” that are at best based on selective use of the evidence, and at worst totally wrong. And I could write a whole separate essay about his interpretations of the adoption of early agriculture and the beginnings of “civilization”, but this is already getting long.

Mmmm, spicy.

Mmmm, spicy.

To be fair, there were parts of the book that I quite enjoyed. Everything from about 400 BCE to about 1800 CE was fine – the section on how the spice trade drove exploration and shaped the modern world was a fascinating look at history, and was full of interesting facts. For instance, did you know that under the original definition of “spice” (etymologically related to “species”, or “kinds”), tigers counted as a spice? (Spices were things on a list of luxury items that were subject to a heavy import tax in the Roman Empire.) Similarly, his look at how the problem of provisioning troops during wartime shaped the outcome of most major world conflicts was also interesting and well done.

Ultimately, though, I have to look at this book from a biologist’s point of view, and on that scale, it was a disappointment. It’s an interesting (and relevant!) way to look at history, and there’s plenty of good information here, but I don’t agree with many of Standage’s conclusions, and hate to think that his opinions will be taken as fact by many readers of this book. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Fans of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel or Michael Pollan’s books will probably find this book interesting, as will anyone with a general interest in anthropology, economics, or history writ large. Just promise me you won’t read this one until you’ve picked up Daniel Quinn’s A Story of B first, okay?

Gah, sorry, that was long-winded. I obviously tend to get a little worked up about this sort of thing. Now, who wants to shave their eyebrows and join my cult?

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Tom Standage’s website, Daniel Quinn’s website

Other Reviews: The Book Nest, Book Nook Club
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: There are many ways to look at the past: as a list of important dates, a conveyor belt of kings and queens, a series of rising and falling empires, or a narrative of political, philosophical, or technological progress.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 51: “Tax, like rent, was also paid in the form of food, and tax collectors took the resulting goods to regional administrative centers, where they were redistributed as pay to government officials, craft workers, and farmers seconded to work for the state as corvée laborers.” – an obligation imposed on inhabitants of a district to perform services, as repair of roads, bridges, etc., for little or no remuneration.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. kellyholmes permalink
    May 28, 2009 3:12 am

    You killed me with the bit about filling up your slip of paper bookmark with !!! all over. :-) I do that for annoying books too!

  2. May 28, 2009 4:43 am

    I promise. I love your review for so many reasons. I’ve read Quinn’s Ishmael, but even though I loved it I’ve yet to pick up anything else. I really want to get my hands on The Story of B.

    *shaves eyebrows*

  3. May 28, 2009 12:42 pm

    Don’t apologize! You are clearly passionate about this, while still being fair to the book, and that made this a really interesting review. It may have been a little long, but I read every word.

  4. May 29, 2009 10:54 am

    I loved this review, for its passion, and its length!

  5. May 29, 2009 5:08 pm

    kelly – Usually my bookmark is just for jotting down vocab words or pages for quotes I particularly like, but sometimes it takes on the job of marginalia.

    Nymeth – Oh, if you liked Ishmael, then you definitely have to read Story of B. B is my favorite of his books… the population growth discussion is just one tiny part amidst so much else going on.

    DoB – Aww, well thank you! That’s good to hear that my rambling on isn’t annoying *everyone*. :)

    Jeanne – So, apparently I need to read and review more books that tick me off. Check. :)

  6. June 1, 2009 6:01 pm

    Lol, I may have to pass on the shaving eyebrows and reading this but though it was a disappointment, I’m glad it was at least interesting!

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