Book review: Dinner with Darwin – Food, Drink, and Evolution


Dinner with Darwin – Food, Drink, and Evolution, Jonathan Silvertown, University of Chicago Press, 232 pages.

“Too many books about food,” Silvertown says in the introduction. I think he’s probably right, but this book isn’t his one of too many. In fact, anyone interested in biology, food, and evolution will find this book fascinating. Please give these pages a lot of interest.

As befits a fine chef and Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Edinburgh, Silvertown offers a tempting menu that includes four entrees: natural sciences, anthropology, physiology and history. The menu is also full of appetizer options in the form of interesting bits of information, such as the fact that there are over 4,000 edible plants and that rats can smell carbon dioxide. Who would have thunked?

After a brief introduction, the reader will be introduced to imaginary hominins such as Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and of course Homo neanderthalensis, whose eating habits are unknown to modern humans. are invited to dinner.

Food can only be enjoyed if it can be smelled and tasted. Silvertown describes these two senses in moderate detail, as well as a number of related pseudogenes that are a truly fascinating part of our evolutionary heritage.

This was followed by how humans discovered cooking, how crustaceans contributed to the escape from Africa, how some animals were domesticated and adapted to their eating habits, or vice versa. Followed by a review of.

A very interesting section deals in a very specific way with the biochemistry of plant defense mechanisms against herbivores and how humans render those toxins harmless or make use of them. In the process, he makes a very profound remark: “Heroin addicts are bystander victims of the war between poppies and caterpillars.”

Herbs and Spices each have their own chapter. After all, what meat or fish is there without pepper, curry, or any of the other fine spice mixtures available? You explain it beautifully.

The future of food security is also in the spotlight, and his dispassionate analysis of genetically engineered crops should (hopefully) ease at least some fears.

This is a book about food, but those looking for recipes will be disappointed. Put down, you get a thorough and very interesting survey of the natural history of the human diet through the ages. For genetic changes in humans, plants and animals. As such, it describes much or most of the current state of our diet.

Apart from the above topics, there are clear discussions on the physiology of digestion, changes in grains, especially wheat, muscle evolution in fish, the importance of orthonasal and postnasal olfaction, evolution and breeding, among others. Chickens, an arms race between plants and their predators, poisonous honey and alcohol tolerance, just to name a few.

Mention must be made of the Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who was deliberately starved to death in Siberia in 1943. Because he disagreed with the communist political views of the time on genetics. Genetics! This is a business that has continued long after his death. His name should be mentioned whenever a topic like that is discussed.

The book has 232 pages but only 195 pages of text due to a very interesting note at the end. Amazingly, Silvertown has compiled an amazing amount of fascinating information in less than 200 pages.

I highly recommend this book. It would make a great gift for anyone interested in these subjects.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.

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