Cover image for Why did the chicken cross the world? : the epic saga of the bird that powers civilization
Why did the chicken cross the world? : the epic saga of the bird that powers civilization
Lawler, Andrew, author.
Personal Author:
First Atria Books hardcover edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Atria Books, 2014.
Physical Description:
ix, 324 pages ; 24 cm
"Throughout the history of civilization, humans have embraced it in every form imaginable--as a messenger of the gods, powerful sex symbol, gambling aid, emblem of resurrection, all-purpose medicine, handy research tool, inspiration for bravery, epitome of evil, and, of course, as the star of the world's most famous joke. In [this book], science writer Andrew Lawler takes us on an adventure from prehistory to the modern era with a fascinating account of the partnership between human and chicken--the most successful of all cross-species relationships"--
1. Nature's Mr. Potato Head -- 2. The Carnelian Beard -- 3. The Healing Clutch -- 4. Essential Gear -- 5. Thrilla in Manila -- 6. Giants Upon the Scene -- 7. The Harlequin's Sword -- 8. The Little King -- 9. Feeding Babalu -- 10. Sweater Girls of the Barnyard -- 11. Gallus Archipelago -- 12. The Intuitive Physicist -- 13. A Last Cause.
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SF487.7 .L28 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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From ancient empires to modern economics, veteran journalist Andrew Lawler delivers a sweeping history of the animal that has been most crucial to the spread of civilization across the globe--the chicken.

Queen Victoria was obsessed with it. Socrates' last words were about it. Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur made their scientific breakthroughs using it. Catholic popes, African shamans, Chinese philosophers, and Muslim mystics praised it. Throughout the history of civilization, humans have embraced it in every form imaginable--as a messenger of the gods, powerful sex symbol, gambling aid, emblem of resurrection, all-purpose medicine, handy research tool, inspiration for bravery, epitome of evil, and, of course, as the star of the world's most famous joke.

In Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? , science writer Andrew Lawler takes us on an adventure from prehistory to the modern era with a fascinating account of the partnership between human and chicken (the most successful of all cross-species relationships). Beginning with the recent discovery in Montana that the chicken's unlikely ancestor is T. rex, this book builds on Lawler's popular Smithsonian cover article, "How the Chicken Conquered the World" to track the chicken from its original domestication in the jungles of Southeast Asia some 10,000 years ago to postwar America, where it became the most engineered of animals, to the uncertain future of what is now humanity's single most important source of protein.

In a masterful combination of historical sleuthing and journalistic exploration on four continents, Lawler reframes the way we feel and think about our most important animal partner--and, by extension, all domesticated animals, and even nature itself.

Lawler's narrative reveals the secrets behind the chicken's transformation from a shy jungle bird into an animal of astonishing versatility, capable of serving our species' changing needs. For no other siren has called humans to rise, shine, and prosper quite like the rooster's cry: "cock-a-doodle-doo!"

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* The chicken, like all domesticated animals, was bred from a wild ancestor: the red jungle fowl, a shy pheasant so distrustful of humans that it seems a very unlikely candidate for domestication. Science-writer Lawler begins this absorbing survey of one of our most important cross-species relationships with a look at the endangered jungle fowl, and from here, he tracks the chicken's journey as it slowly spreads throughout the world. Lawler speaks with numerous archaeologists, scientists, and farmers to tease out what we've learned about when the chicken was domesticated, how it was traded among ancient civilizations, and how it came to symbolize so many attributes in both religion and daily life. The chicken's place in medicine, both ancient and modern; the major role cockfighting had in the spread of the bird; and the development of the Fancy (or hen fever) in England and its implications for Charles Darwin's ideas about natural selection are all embraced in Lawler's witty, conversational book. Finally, the emergence of the mass production of chickens and eggs in modern factory farms is examined for both its role in the rise of more universal consumption of cheap protein and as fodder for the animal-rights movement. Readers will get to know the bird behind the McNugget.--Bent, Nancy Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In his first book, journalist Lawler offers an encyclopedic examination of the chicken's ever-growing and complex role in societies and civilization, tracing the bird's migration across countries and cultures, from its role as a "rare and royal bird" in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to its current status as the product of industrial farming, which can be traced back to the Chicken of Tomorrow project launched in the U.S. at the end of WWII. The chicken plays many roles, ranging from mere foodstuff to a symbol of light and resurrection in some religions, as well as its key role in creating the flu vaccine that has helped millions. The bleaker sides to this narrative are handled bluntly-specifically, Lawler covers the intricacies and significance of cockfighting in certain cultures and provides an unflinching portrayal of the conditions in which commercial chickens are raised. Throughout, he maintains an objective stance. Readers are sure to come away with a deeper understanding of-and greater appreciation for-an animal that's considered commonplace. Agent: Ethan Bassoff, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Lawler (contributing editor, Archeology) sets out to explore the historical, cultural, sociological, and anthropological origins and development of the chicken, both in Eastern and Western societies. He explores everything from frontiers in poultry science to the enduring popularity of cockfighting in several places around the world, and most important how the bird evolved from a symbol of prosperity to one of the cheapest and most ubiquitous sources of nutrition. Lawler's journey takes him all over the globe and many facets of the bird's history are covered; the narrative flows seamlessly among unique aspects, such as Darwinian history and contemporary coverage of the underside of Filipino society. This title is the strongest when the focus is on the scientific angle of poultry science but stays relevant and compelling when exploring other areas. A multifaceted study of the development of poultry may not, at first glance, present itself as a gripping read for the general reader; however, this work succeeds by utilizing cultural context in addition to strong and relevant prose. VERDICT Recommended for readers of popular nonfiction as well as those with a specific interest in accessible scientific and anthropological studies. Ben Neal, Richland Lib., Columbia, SC (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This book is a history of humankind's association with chickens--how we have domesticated, symbolized, transported, and used them. Lawler (science journalist) first tries to find the chicken's ancestor, the red jungle fowl, in Burma. He traces its domestication over the ages and notes that it was revered by Islam and the ancient Chinese, as roosters' crowing heralded dawn. Readers learn about chickens' spread across the globe, with an aside about DNA identification. The author explains how cockfighting is an obsession in the Philippines, how Queen Victoria adopted chickens, and how people use slang sexual terms for the birds. In the southern US, chickens were raised profitably by black slaves, but the trade was eventually taken over by huge corporations. This spelled the decline of the chicken from its ancestral form and the rise of the poor conditions of the "factory farm" (in the US, animal care regulations do not apply to chickens), resulting in less tasty meat. It is hard to find the actual chicken in this book; it is more about humans, what we did to it, what we made it out to be, and how we use and abuse it. Summing Up: Recommended. All library collections. --Jennifer A. Mather, University of Lethbridge



Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? INTRODUCTION Follow the chicken and find the world. --Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet Add up the world's cats, dogs, pigs, and cows and there would still be more chickens. Toss in every rat on earth and the bird still dominates. The domestic fowl is the world's most ubiquitous bird and most common barnyard animal. More than 20 billion chickens live on our planet at any given moment, three for every human. The nearest avian competitor is the red-billed quelea, a little African finch numbering a mere 2 billion or so. Only one country and one continent are fowl-free. Pope Francis I regularly dines on skinless breast bought in the markets of Rome since there is no room for a coop in the tiny state of Vatican City. In Antarctica, chickens are taboo. Grilled wings are a staple at the annual New Year's celebration at the South Pole's Amundsen-Scott Station, but the international treaty governing the southern continent forbids import of live or raw poultry to protect penguins from disease. Even so, most emperor penguin chicks have been exposed to common chicken viruses. These exceptions prove the rule. From Siberia to the South Atlantic's South Sandwich Islands, the chicken is universal, and NASA has studied whether it could survive the trip to Mars. The bird that began in the thickets of South Asian jungles is now our single most important source of protein, and we are unlikely to leave the planet without it. As our cities and appetites grow, so does the population of, and our dependence on, the common fowl. "Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens," wrote the American economist Henry George in 1879, "but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens." Until recently I never thought to ask why this creature, out of fifteen thousand species of mammals and birds, emerged as our most important animal companion. My reporting took me to archaeology digs in the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia as I pursued the question of why and how our species abandoned the quiet hunter--gatherer life in favor of bustling cities, global empires, world wars, and social media. This mysterious and radical shift to urban life that began in the Middle East six millennia ago continues to transform the earth. Only in the past decade, for the first time in history, have more people lived in cities than the country. When I heard that excavators working on an Arabian beach had evidence that Indian traders had mastered the monsoon to sail across the open ocean more than four thousand years ago, I pitched the story to a magazine. These adventurous Bronze Age sailors inaugurated international trade and helped spark the first global economy, carrying Himalayan timber and Afghan lapis lazuli to the great Mesopotamian cities as Egyptian masons put the finishing touches on the Giza pyramids. In my pitch, I mentioned to the editor that along with remains of ancient Indian trade goods, archaeologists had uncovered a chicken bone that might mark the bird's arrival in the West. "That's interesting," the editor said. "Follow the bird. Where did it come from? Why do we eat so much of it? What is a chicken, anyway?" I agreed, reluctantly, and a few weeks later I arrived in a seaside Omani village as the Italian archaeology team working at the beach site was returning from an afternoon swim in the Arabian Sea. The chicken bone? "Oh," said the dig director, toweling his damp locks. "We think it was misidentified. It probably came from one of our workmen's lunches." Since chickens didn't pull Babylonian war chariots or carry silks from China, archaeologists and historians have not given the bird much thought, and anthropologists prefer watching people hunt boar than feed fowl. Poultry scientists are fixated on converting grain to meat as efficiently as possible, not in tracing the bird's spread around the world. Even scientists who appreciate the importance of animals in the making of human societies tend to overlook the fowl. Jared Diamond, author of the bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, relegates the chicken to a category of "small domestic mammals and domestic birds and insects" that are useful but not worthy of the attention due, say, the ox. Underdogs and unsung heroes are journalistic red meat. The chicken is so underestimated that it is legally invisible. Although its meat and eggs power our urban and industrial lives, it is not considered livestock--or even an animal--under American law if raised for food. "Chickens do not always enjoy an honorable position among city-bred people," E. B. White noted. If they thought of chickens at all, it was "as a comic prop straight out of vaudeville." Though Susan Orlean declared the chicken the "it" bird in a 2009 New Yorker article devoted to the popular backyard chicken movement, the dog and cat retain their joint title as most beloved pet. If all canines and felines vanished tomorrow, along with the odd parakeet and gerbil, there would be much mourning but minimal impact on the global economy or international politics. A suddenly chickenless world, however, would spell immediate disaster. In 2012, as the cost of eggs shot up in Mexico City after millions of birds were culled due to disease, demonstrators took to the streets, rattling the new government. It was dubbed "The Great Egg Crisis," and no wonder, since Mexicans eat more eggs per capita than any other people. The same year in Cairo, high-priced poultry helped inspire Egypt's revolution as protestors rallied to the cry: "They are eating pigeon and chicken, but we eat beans every day!" When poultry prices tripled in Iran recently, the nation's police chief warned television producers not to broadcast images of people eating the popular meat to avoid inciting violence among those who could not afford grilled kebabs. The chicken has, quietly but inexorably, become essential. Though it can barely fly, the fowl has become the world's most migratory bird through international imports and exports. The various parts of a single bird may end up at opposite ends of the globe. Chinese get the feet, Russians the legs, Spaniards the wings, Turks the intestines, Dutch soup makers the bones, and the breasts go to the United States and Britain. This globalized business extends to Kansan corn that plumps Brazilian birds, European antibiotics to stave off illness in American flocks, and Indian-made cages housing South African poultry. "A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing," Karl Marx wrote. But analyze it and the commodity turns into "a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties." As I pursued the chicken's trail around the world, I found it full of surprising metaphysical and theological implications. Emerging from the Asian jungle as a magical creature, it spread around the globe, performing as a celebrity in royal menageries, playing an important role as a guide to the future, and transforming into a holy messenger of light and resurrection. It entertained us as it fought to the death in the cockpit, served as an all-purpose medicine chest, and inspired warriors, lovers, and mothers. In traditions from Bali to Brooklyn, it still takes on our sins as it has done for millennia. No other animal has attracted so many legends, superstitions, and beliefs across so many societies and eras. The chicken crossed the world because we took it with us, a journey that began thousands of years ago in Southeast Asia and required human help every step of the way. It slept in bamboo cages on dugout canoes moving down the wide Mekong River, squawked in carts pulled by oxen plodding to market towns in China, and jostled over Himalayan mountains in wicker baskets slung across the backs of traders. Sailors carried it across the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, and by the seventeenth century, chickens lived in nearly every corner of every settled continent. Along the way they sustained Polynesian colonists, urbanized African society, and staved off famine at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Charles Darwin drew on it to cement his theory of evolution, and Louis Pasteur used it to create the first modern vaccine. Its egg, after more than twenty-five hundred years of study, remains the premier model organism of science, and is the vessel we use to manufacture our annual flu serum. The common fowl was the first domesticated animal to have its genome sequenced. Its bones ease our arthritis, the rooster's comb smooths the wrinkles on our faces, and transgenic chickens may soon synthesize a host of our medicines. Raising the bird also offers poor, rural women and their children vital calories and vitamins to keep malnutrition at bay, as well as an income that can help lift struggling families out of poverty. The animal remains a feathered Swiss Army Knife, a multipurpose beast that provides us with what we want in a given time and place. This plasticity that makes it the most valuable of all domesticated animals has become useful in tracing our own history. The chicken is a kind of avian Zelig, and since it is an uncanny mirror of our changing human desires, goals, and intentions--a prestige object, a truth teller, a miraculous elixir, a tool of the devil, an exorcist, or the source of fabulous wealth--it is a marker for human exploration, expansion, entertainment, and beliefs. Archaeologists now use simple mesh screens to gather bird bones that can tell the story of how, when, and where humans lived, while complex algorithms and high--throughput computing make it possible for biologists to trace the chicken's -genetic past, which is so closely tied to our own. And neuroscientists studying the long-abused chicken brain are uncovering unsettling signs of a deep intelligence as well as intriguing insight into our own behavior. Today's living bird has largely disappeared from our urban lives, and the vast majority inhabits a shadowy archipelago of enormous poultry warehouses and slaughterhouses surrounded by fences and sealed off from the public. The modern chicken is both a technological triumph and a poster child for all that is sad and nightmarish about our industrial agriculture. The most engineered creature in history is also the world's most commonly mistreated animal. For better and worse, we have singled out the chicken as our meal ticket to the world's urban future while placing it mostly out of sight and mind. The backyard chicken movement sweeping the United States and Europe is a response to city lives far removed from the daily realities of life and death on a farm, and the bird provides a cheap and handy way for us to reconnect with our vanishing rural heritage. This trend may not improve the life or death of the billions of industrial chickens, but it may revive our memories of an ancient, rich, and complex relationship that makes the chicken our most important companion. We might begin to look at chickens and, seeing them, treat them differently. Even as we grow more distant from yet increasingly dependent on the fowl, our ways of describing courage and cowardice, tenacity and selflessness, and other human traits and emotions remain firmly bound up with the bird. "Everything forgets," said the literary critic George Steiner. "But not a language." We are cocky or we chicken out, henpecked or walking on eggshells. We hatch an idea, get our hackles up, rule the roost, brood, and crow. We are, in more ways than we might like to admit, a lot more like the chicken than the hawk or the dove or the eagle. We are, like the barnyard fowl, gentle and violent, calm and agitated, graceful and awkward, aspiring to fly but still bound to the earth. Excerpted from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization by Andrew Lawler All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
1 Nature's Mr. Potato Headp. 7
2 The Carnelian Beardp. 28
3 The Healing Clutchp. 50
4 Essential Gearp. 65
5 Thrilla in Manilap. 86
6 Giants upon the Scenep. 109
7 The Harlequin's Swordp. 129
8 The Little Kingp. 149
9 Feeding Babalup. 169
10 Sweater Girls of the Barnyardp. 192
11 Gallus Archipelagop. 215
12 The Intuitive Physicistp. 239
13 A Last Causep. 251
Acknowledgmentsp. 265
Notesp. 267
Bibliographyp. 311
Indexp. 313