Saturday, June 7, 2014

An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage

An Edible History of HumanityWhat embodies the bounty of nature better than an ear of corn? With a twist of the wrist it is easily plucked from the stalk with no waste or fuss.

"More than simply sustenance, food historically has been a kind of technology, changing the course of human progress by helping to build empires, promote industrialization, and decide the outcomes of wars. Tom Standage draws on archaeology, anthropology, and economics to reveal how food has helped shape and transform societies around the world, from the emergence of farming in China by 7500 b.c. to the use of sugar cane and corn to make ethanol today."

An Edible History of Humanity started off slowly and densely, but as it progressed it got better and more interesting. Each chapter was better than the last. I certainly learned a lot from the book; it also discussed concepts I was somewhat familiar with already. 

An Edible History of Humanity is less than 300 pages, so obviously Standage skips a lot, but overall I felt that the history was fairly comprehensive, beginning with prehistory and then recounting how we gradually shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian lifestyle, and outlining some theories as to why this happened. Standage writes about societies from all over the world to back up his arguments and his facts.

I was actually quite impressed by this book in general, although in some of the later sections I didn't necessarily agree with his arguments about the fate of the modern world. However, throughout the book he cleverly builds a case for his final point: that our world is not as doomed as one might think. He points out that many predicted the downfall of society in the 19th century when population exploded, forecasting that agricultural output would not be able to sustain humanity. However, with the development of new techniques and fertilizers we far surpassed the output of centuries past. It's always true that it's in part because of these very developments that our planet is now in jeopardy and our populations are expanding more than ever. So I wasn't entirely convinced; also Standage's point of view doesn't exactly square with what I see around me. Nevertheless, this facet of the book was quite provocative.

I also enjoyed the historical aspect of the book; Standage very convincingly reveals the way that food has affected many parts of human development and civilization. After all, food is what literally powers us, and the development of various food technologies (farming, cooking, etc.) has had huge ramifications for us in the present. If the ancestor of corn hadn't developed a mutation making it more palatable, who knows how the world would be different? The industrial world as we know it wouldn't even exist. Similarly, the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to domestication was very important. And a little further on, food has helped us develop lots of new technologies, and food has driven the creation of new technologies. Food has also been the symbol of various issues; after all, all human beings need to eat.

There are many instances of human cruelty and folly in this book, but you've got expect that. We've done a lot of terrible things, but some good ones too. An Edible History of Humanity was an excellent and concise history of these follies and successes.

242 pages.

Rating: ****

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