Summary and book reviews of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? by Andrew Lawler

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization

by Andrew Lawler

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? by Andrew Lawler
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Dec 2014, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2016, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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About this Book

Book Summary

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!"

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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

While this strong piece of narrative non-fiction does explore the “whys” of the chicken takeover — they could eat a wider variety of food, were amenable to living in small spaces, and produced more eggs over a longer period of the year — it is equally an inquiry into the “hows” of the bird’s phenomenal journey.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review (634 words).

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Media Reviews

New York Magazine

The planet's most populous and edible bird really does open a window on civilization, evolution, capitalism, and ethics. (Reading about it is lots of fun, too.)

Nature

Rip-roaring, erudite... His perspective gives fresh insight into the problems created by the ubiquity of chickens -- as well as possible solutions.

Daily Beast

How this humble bird saved humanity -- No bird is a match for the chicken... Lawler chronicles how a wild bird from Southeast Asia ended up being mass-produced by the billions and raised in every country, he writes, except one.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

The chicken has accompanied us on each stage of our journey from primitivism to modernism...Lawler is convincing when he concludes that we are more like the chicken than we might admit,'gentle and violent, calm and agitated, graceful and awkward, aspiring to fly but still bound to earth.'

The Wall Street Journal

Just as the Manhattan Project brought together scientists, engineers, and government administrators to unlock the secret of the atom, the Chicken of Tomorrow project drew on thousands of poultry researchers, farmers, and agriculture extension agents to fashion a new high-tech device—the Cornish Cross breed of chicken we have today—built to live fast, die young.

Publishers Weekly

Readers are sure to come away with a deeper understanding of - and greater appreciation for - an animal that's considered commonplace.

Library Journal

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.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A splendid book full of obsessive travel and research in history, mythology, archaeology, biology, literature and religion.

Booklist

Starred Review. [An] absorbing survey of one of our most important cross-species relationships... witty, conversational.

Author Blurb David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs
Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? is an eye-opening journey that restores the chicken to its proper place in human history. You'll be surprised by how much you didn't know.

Author Blurb Wenonah Hauter, author of Foodopoly
This fast-paced and well-written book reads like a detective story. Who would have guessed that the humble chicken's exotic past would make such a fascinating tale full of high-stakes intrigue?

Author Blurb Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel
Surprising and delightful. This engaging and provocative book tracks the chicken's transformation from gorgeous red jungle fowl to today's highly engineered animal.. A fascinating read that adds to the mounting pile of evidence that animals, even chickens, are capable of much more than we usually think.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Backyard Chicken Movement

Chicken World"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," writes Lawler in Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? "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."

Susan Orleans, a staff writer for The New Yorker, admitted in a 2009 article that she had a "chicken fixation." Calling the backyard ...

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