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Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Story of the Bird that Powers Civilization

Popular ScienceNew

By: Andrew Lawler (Author)

324 pages, no illustrations

Gerald Duckworth

Paperback | Sep 2016 | #228678 | ISBN-13: 9780715650691
Availability: Usually dispatched within 48 hours
NHBS Price: £9.99 $12/€11 approx
Hardback | May 2015 | #220240 | ISBN-13: 9780715649978
Availability: Usually dispatched within 48 hours
NHBS Price: £16.99 $21/€19 approx

About this book

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, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? 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!"

"Andrew Lawler takes us on a fascinating journey through the history of a fundamental source of human protein. This is an appealing, beautifully written exploration of an important, but hitherto neglected, major player in our history. I'll never think about chickens the same way again."
– Brian Fagan, author of The Attacking Ocean

"Prize-winning journalist Andrew Lawler takes on the world in this elegant and engaging paean to poultry. Part travelog, part scientific history, all rollicking good fun, this marvelous journalistic exploration scours six continents to bring us a deep appreciation and understanding of our uneasy relationship with one of nature's most fascinating creatures – from sex symbol to religious icon to '24-hour two-legged drugstore.' This book challenges not only everything we thought we knew about this most beleaguered bird, but of nature itself. Astonishing."
– Ellen Ruppel Shell, Author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, and Co-Director, Graduate Program in Science Journalism, Boston University

"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."
– David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs

"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? If you want to be educated and entertained – move this book to the top of your reading list."
– Wenonah Hauter, author of Foodopoly

"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."
– Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel


"The title tells all in this comprehensive account of how an anti-social south Asian fowl became the world's favorite food.Today, there are more than 20 billion chickens, an astonishing number, admits Lawler, a contributing writer for Science magazine and freelance journalist. "Add up the world's cats, dogs, pigs, and cows and there would still be more chickens," writes the author. Wondering how it is that such a bird has become so ubiquitous in so many manifestations (from McNuggets to occupying Col. Sanders' buckets), the author embarked on an epic journey of his own to libraries and universities (where he interviewed various authorities on the bird), cockfights in the Philippines, the jungles of Vietnam, the factory farms now processing the birds for mass consumption, and the animal rights activist who keeps but does not eat her chickens. Lawler also takes readers on a trip into deep history, showing us the natural history of the bird, the difficulties archaeologists have with them (their bones do not often survive long sojourns in the ground), and the religious significance of, especially, the rooster. Lawler examined the chicken carcasses that Darwin studied, and he quotes a Hamlet sentry who mentions a rooster. He tells about some long-ago uses of bird parts-e.g., the dung of a rooster could cure an ulcerated lung. We learn about weathervanes and how the bird has been roosting in our language: "chicken" (coward), "cock" (well, you know) and others. The author instructs us about chicken sexual unions and about the intricacies of the egg, and he eventually arrives at the moral question: Why do we treat these birds with such profound cruelty? He also acknowledges that chickens' waste and demands on our resources are nothing like those of pigs and cows. A splendid book full of obsessive travel and research in history, mythology, archaeology, biology, literature and religion."
- Kirkus Reviews (10/15/2014)


"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."
- Publishers Weekly (09/22/2014)


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."
- Library Journal (11/15/2014)


"*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."
- Booklist (11/15/2014)

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Andrew Lawler is author of more than a thousand newspaper and magazine articles on subjects ranging from asteroids to zebrafish. He is a contributing writer for Science magazine and a contributing editor for Archaeology magazine. He has written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times, and several European newspapers, among others.

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