What do eggs, flour, and milk have in common? They form the basis of waffles, of course, but these staples of breakfast bounty also share an evolutionary function: eggs, seeds (from which we derive flour by grinding), and milk have each evolved to nourish offspring. Indeed, ponder the genesis of your breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and you'll soon realize that everything we eat and drink has an evolutionary history. In Dinner with Darwin, join Jonathan Silvertown for a multicourse meal of evolutionary gastronomy, a tantalizing tour of human taste that helps us to understand the origins of our diets and the foods that have been central to them for millennia – from spices to spirits.
A delectable concoction of coevolution and cookery, gut microbiomes and microherbs, and both the chicken and its egg, Dinner with Darwin reveals that our shopping lists, recipe cards, and restaurant menus don't just contain the ingredients for culinary delight. They also tell a fascinating story about natural selection and its influence on our plates – and palates. Digging deeper, Silvertown's repast includes entrées into GMOs and hybrids and looks at the science of our sensory interactions with foods and cooking – the sights, aromas, and tastes we experience in our kitchens and dining rooms. As is the wont of any true chef, Silvertown packs his menu with eclectic components, dishing on everything from Charles Darwin's intestinal maladies to taste bud anatomy and turducken.
Our evolutionary relationship with food and drink stretches from the days of cooking cave dwellers to contemporary crêperies and beyond, and Dinner with Darwin serves up scintillating insight into the entire, awesome span. This feast of soup, science, and human society is one to savor. With a wit as dry as a fine pinot noir and a cache of evolutionary knowledge as vast as the most discerning connoisseur's wine cellar, Silvertown whets our appetites – and leaves us hungry for more.
"A science-informed tour of the table, showing how our fare comes to us courtesy of natural selection – and, of course, survival of the fittest [...] Silvertown delves in with gusto [...] His accessible discussion ranges from shellfish gathering to bread-making to gardening, from issues of food security [...] to the genetic basis for taste and genetic variability among populations of food plants [...] A tasty nibble for the bookish, science-inclined foodie."
– Kirkus Reviews
"Silvertown breaks down the sociology, selective breeding, and nutritional evolution behind each contemporary dietary staple [...] This tour – from animal to vegetable to beer – will give even the most ambitious foodie something to chew on."
– Scientific American
"A series of beautifully plated amuse-bouche, raising tantalizing and rich ideas [...] The book left me feeling as if I had attended a dinner party, where foodies, historians, and scientists mingled, sharing vignettes on various food-related topics. Each 'bite' [...] left me contemplating the relationships between genetic changes, speciation, and, at times, even the future of our planet."
– Mari-Vaughn V. Johnson, US Department of Agriculture, Science
"The Darwinian dining served up by evolutionary ecologist Silvertown in this delectably erudite study is all about tracing the impact of natural selection on foods. We learn that mussels helped to fuel the hominin exodus from Africa; rye is a weed domesticated by accident; carnivory and tapeworms are intimately linked; and Penicillium camemberti mold evolved in soft cheeses. We even examine engastration – stuffing one animal into another before cooking – as a status-led manifestation of the need to share food. This intricate scientific banquet is a marvelous read: bon appétit."
– Barbara Kiser, Nature
"Dinner with Darwin ranges far more widely – and offers vastly more substance – than the common horde of food books. This is not a candlelit foodie memoir or a 'breakthrough' weight-loss manual. Dinner with Darwin is a wide-ranging natural history of our diet, crafted at a pitch-perfect level for the science buff and the general reader alike. Silvertown is also a wonderful writer: erudite, informative, and thoroughly entertaining."
– Bob Duffy, Washington Independent Review of Books
"From the opening course of oysters to the final swill of wine, Silvertown's account of the evolution of our diet is a sumptuous experience. Dinner with Darwin combines natural history, biography, archaeology, and biology into food stories that will enlighten any meal."
– Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
1. An Invitation to Dinner
2. A Cooking Animal
9. Herbs and Spices—Piquancy
12. Wine and Beer—Intoxication
14. Future Food
Who could refuse such an invitation to dinner? In fourteen short chapters, Silvertown provides a smörgåsbord of topics on the role of food in human evolution and vice versa, many of which have been covered here in recent reviews. This is his fourth book with the University of Chicago Press, and based on this, I would love to read his other books as well. Care to join me at the table?
Silvertown starts off recapping Wrangham's thesis put forth in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, shortly mentioning the role of fossil teeth that Ungar elaborated upon in Evolution's Bite. He then traces our migration around the globe following the heaps of empty shells we left around the world's coastlines. Domestication secured our food supply, and the reader is given a summary of the beginning of agriculture in what is now the Middle East, something that was covered more in-depth in Against the Grain. We are also introduced to the seed collection efforts of Russian scientist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (more on him in Where Our Food Comes From and Never Out Of Season). Silvertown delves into the biochemistry of taste and the budding discipline of neurogastronomy, while a side-dish of fish allows him to discuss the importance of smell on our experience of flavours. Meat and livestock are an entry point to discuss the genetic changes involved in domestication (in passing touching on Dmitry Belyaev's work that was reviewed in How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)). A chapter on vegetables sees Silvertown delving into the biochemistry of plant chemical defences, which we circumvent through cooking and food processing. Spices and herbs, on the other hand, are valued for their chemical compounds, as discussed in a second chapter.
The chapter on desserts finally made me understand that not all sugars are created equal, revealing how fructose hoodwinks our metabolism, hormones, and digestion, and has become a prime suspect in obesity and diabetes. Microbes and fermentation (see also The Rise of Yeast) play a role the production of cheese, beer, and wine. We even get a crash course on the evolution of altruism when discussing the sharing of food. Finally, Silvertown discusses the future of food. He summarises the first green revolution and role of Norman Borlaug (more on him in The Wizard and the Prophet) and stresses the importance of genetic engineering of crops in launching the second green revolution, which we will need to meet the challenges of a changing climate and expanding population. He makes short work of the non-sensical arguments put forth by the anti-GMO movement (see also Seeds of Science). If anything, genetic engineering is as natural as it gets – nature has been doing it for a very long time, as shown by the discovery of horizontal gene transfer (the transfer of genetic material between species done by bacteria and viruses – see Quammen's book The Tangled Tree). Even the tools that we use, including the most recent discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 (see A Crack in Creation for more details on that), have been taken straight from nature's (cook)book.
It's amazing that Silvertown manages to cram all this, and much more, in in under 200 pages. This book is a veritable feast for the popular science buff and food lover. The finger-licking selection of chapters provides a good entry point to various topics, summarising a lot of recent primary literature. Silvertown is a gifted writer who engages as much as he amuses. His observation (p. 154) that "A heroin addict is a bystander casualty of the war between poppies and caterpillars" is the kind of wit you would expect from a biologist. Before I opened this book, I wasn't sure whether I would enjoy it much (I'm really not sure why anymore),, but it turns out this book sits right in the middle of subjects I have been reading about a lot lately. This entertaining read would also make the perfect gift for your foodie friend.
Jonathan Silvertown is professor of evolutionary ecology in the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of numerous books on ecology and evolution, including, most recently, The Long and the Short of It: The Science of Life Span and Aging, also published by the University of Chicago Press.