“How Cockfighting Changed History: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? suggests that the vicious sport ‘may be responsible for creating the bird that today is the world’s single most important source of protein.’” (Andrew Sullivan The Dish)
– Gameness til the End
The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization
Hardcover – December 2, 2014
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!”
“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)
“Comprehensive…an epic journey. A splendid book full of obsessive travel and research in history, mythology, archaeology, biology, literature and religion.” (Kirkus, starred review)
“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.)” (New York Magazine)
“Lawler is an entertaining guide with an easy touch, whimsical but never random.” (vulture.com)
“Rip-roaring, erudite… His perspective gives fresh insight into the problems created by the ubiquity of chickens — as well as possible solutions.” (Nature)
“An encyclopedic examination of the chicken’s ever-grorwing and complex role in societies and civilization… Readers are sure to come away with a deeper understanding of–and greater appreciation for–an animal that’s considered commonplace.” (Publishers Weekly)
“[An] absorbing survey of one of our most important cross-species relationships… witty, conversational.” (Booklist, Starred Review)
“Wide-ranging and fascinating.” (Columbus Dispatch)
“A whole flock of fun. Lawler mixes science and history…. That makes for a well-rounded, informative, and highly enjoyable book… A book you’ll crow about.” (Terri Schlichenmeyer Tyler Telegraph)
“How Cockfighting Changed History: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? suggests that the vicious sport ‘may be responsible for creating the bird that today is the world’s single most important source of protein.’” (Andrew Sullivan The Dish)
“Fascinating and delightful… Mr. Lawler’s globe-trotting tour shows that the bird has played a remarkable role in human history—and will almost certainly continue to do so. Right out of the chute, Mr. Lawler impresses us with the bird’s ubiquity… Readers will laugh—and want to buy Mr. Lawler a drink… What unfolds from this exhaustive reporting is a story not just large in scope but surprising in its details.” (Christopher Leonard, author of The Meat Racket Wall Street Journal)
“An examination of the lowly chicken reveals a bird with a grand past – and a grim present. It’s time to give the 20 billion chickens on our beleaguered planet a little more respect and a lot more love… 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.’” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
“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.” (Daily Beast)
“Before the middle of the 20th century, America’s chickens were a varied and hearty lot. The midcentury Chicken of Tomorrow project changed all that…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.” (Wall Street Journal)
“Is this the golden age of food history? …Make room for Andrew Lawler’s paean to that most munched-on fowl of them all, the chicken. Lawler brings an omnivorous curiosity to a creature that gets too little respect given its long service to mankind.” (The Dallas Morning News)
“In exacting historical and scientific detail, Lawler reveals how the reliable crow of the cock, along with his mate’s prodigious egg-laying abilities, allowed chickens to become ‘the world’s most ubiquitous bird.’” (MacLean’s)
“Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World…[details] one surprising fact after another that ultimately reveal a grand truth: that chickens are everywhere and are inextricably linked to the emergence and maintenance of human civilization.… Lawler’s book goes a long way toward restoring chickens to their respected position within human history and our modern world. Both chickens and people will benefit as a result.” (Science Magazine)
“Lawler chronicles the impossible journey of the chicken through history. From its roots as a secretive jungle fowl in the wilderness of Southeast Asia millennia ago, the bird has spread across all nations and cultures. But now agricultural science has turned the chicken into a mass-produced factory animal, bred and housed in horrendous assembly-line conditions to provide protein to millions of people. Endlessly fascinating, endlessly heartbreaking.” (Tim Gallagher, Editor-in-Chief, Living Bird and author of Imperial Dreams)
About the Author
Andrew Lawler is the 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, Slate, Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times, and several European newspapers, among others. See more at AndrewLawler.com.
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?
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 to protect penguins from disease. Even so, most emperor penguin chicks have been exposed to common chicken viruses.
These exceptions prove the rule. From Siberia to the South Atlantic’s South Sandwich Islands, the chicken is universal, and NASA has studied whether it could survive the trip to Mars. The bird that began in the thickets of South Asian jungles is now our single most important source of protein, and we are unlikely to leave the planet without it. As our cities and appetites grow, so does the population of, and our dependence on, the common fowl. “Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens,” wrote the American economist Henry George in 1879, “but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.”
Until recently I never thought to ask why this creature, out of fifteen thousand species of mammals and birds, emerged as our most important animal companion. My reporting took me to archaeology digs in the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia as I pursued the question of why and how our species abandoned the quiet hunter-gatherer life in favor of bustling cities, global empires, world wars, and social media. This mysterious and radical shift to urban life that began in the Middle East six millennia ago continues to transform the earth. Only in the past decade, for the first time in history, have more people lived in cities than the country.
When I heard that excavators working on an Arabian beach had evidence that Indian traders had mastered the monsoon to sail across the open ocean more than four thousand years ago, I pitched the story to a magazine. These adventurous Bronze Age sailors inaugurated international trade and helped spark the first global economy, carrying Himalayan timber and Afghan lapis lazuli to the great Mesopotamian cities as Egyptian masons put the finishing touches on the Giza pyramids. In my pitch, I mentioned to the editor that along with remains of ancient Indian trade goods, archaeologists had uncovered a chicken bone that might mark the bird’s arrival in the West.
“That’s interesting,” the editor said. “Follow the bird. Where did it come from? Why do we eat so much of it? What is a chicken, anyway?” I agreed, reluctantly, and a few weeks later I arrived in a seaside Omani village as the Italian archaeology team working at the beach site was returning from an afternoon swim in the Arabian Sea. The chicken bone? “Oh,” said the dig director, toweling his damp locks. “We think it was misidentified. It probably came from one of our workmen’s lunches.”
Since chickens didn’t pull Babylonian war chariots or carry silks from China, archaeologists and historians have not given the bird much thought, and anthropologists prefer watching people hunt boar than feed fowl. Poultry scientists are fixated on converting grain to meat as efficiently as possible, not in tracing the bird’s spread around the world. Even scientists who appreciate the importance of animals in the making of human societies tend to overlook the fowl. Jared Diamond, author of the bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, relegates the chicken to a category of “small domestic mammals and domestic birds and insects” that are useful but not worthy of the attention due, say, the ox.
Underdogs and unsung heroes are journalistic red meat. The chicken is so underestimated that it is legally invisible. Although its meat and eggs power our urban and industrial lives, it is not considered livestock—or even an animal—under American law if raised for food. “Chickens do not always enjoy an honorable position among city-bred people,” E. B. White noted. If they thought of chickens at all, it was “as a comic prop straight out of vaudeville.” Though Susan Orlean declared the chicken the “it” bird in a 2009 New Yorker article devoted to the popular backyard chicken movement, the dog and cat retain their joint title as most beloved pet.
If all canines and felines vanished tomorrow, along with the odd parakeet and gerbil, there would be much mourning but minimal impact on the global economy or international politics. A suddenly chickenless world, however, would spell immediate disaster. In 2012, as the cost of eggs shot up in Mexico City after millions of birds were culled due to disease, demonstrators took to the streets, rattling the new government. It was dubbed “The Great Egg Crisis,” and no wonder, since Mexicans eat more eggs per capita than any other people. The same year in Cairo, high-priced poultry helped inspire Egypt’s revolution as protestors rallied to the cry: “They are eating pigeon and chicken, but we eat beans every day!” When poultry prices tripled in Iran recently, the nation’s police chief warned television producers not to broadcast images of people eating the popular meat to avoid inciting violence among those who could not afford grilled kebabs.
The chicken has, quietly but inexorably, become essential. Though it can barely fly, the fowl has become the world’s most migratory bird through international imports and exports. The various parts of a single bird may end up at opposite ends of the globe. Chinese get the feet, Russians the legs, Spaniards the wings, Turks the intestines, Dutch soup makers the bones, and the breasts go to the United States and Britain. This globalized business extends to Kansan corn that plumps Brazilian birds, European antibiotics to stave off illness in American flocks, and Indian-made cages housing South African poultry.
“A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing,” Karl Marx wrote. But analyze it and the commodity turns into “a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” As I pursued the chicken’s trail around the world, I found it full of surprising metaphysical and theological implications. Emerging from the Asian jungle as a magical creature, it spread around the globe, performing as a celebrity in royal menageries, playing an important role as a guide to the future, and transforming into a holy messenger of light and resurrection. It entertained us as it fought to the death in the cockpit, served as an all-purpose medicine chest, and inspired warriors, lovers, and mothers. In traditions from Bali to Brooklyn, it still takes on our sins as it has done for millennia. No other animal has attracted so many legends, superstitions, and beliefs across so many societies and eras.
The chicken crossed the world because we took it with us, a journey that began thousands of years ago in Southeast Asia and required human help every step of the way. It slept in bamboo cages on dugout canoes moving down the wide Mekong River, squawked in carts pulled by oxen plodding to market towns in China, and jostled over Himalayan mountains in wicker baskets slung across the backs of traders. Sailors carried it across the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, and by the seventeenth century, chickens lived in nearly every corner of every settled continent. Along the way they sustained Polynesian colonists, urbanized African society, and staved off famine at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Charles Darwin drew on it to cement his theory of evolution, and Louis Pasteur used it to create the first modern vaccine. Its egg, after more than twenty-five hundred years of study, remains the premier model organism of science, and is the vessel we use to manufacture our annual flu serum. The common fowl was the first domesticated animal to have its genome sequenced. Its bones ease our arthritis, the rooster’s comb smooths the wrinkles on our faces, and transgenic chickens may soon synthesize a host of our medicines. Raising the bird also offers poor, rural women and their children vital calories and vitamins to keep malnutrition at bay, as well as an income that can help lift struggling families out of poverty.
The animal remains a feathered Swiss Army Knife, a multipurpose beast that provides us with what we want in a given time and place. This plasticity that makes it the most valuable of all domesticated animals has become useful in tracing our own history. The chicken is a kind of avian Zelig, and since it is an uncanny mirror of our changing human desires, goals, and intentions—a prestige object, a truth teller, a miraculous elixir, a tool of the devil, an exorcist, or the source of fabulous wealth—it is a marker for human exploration, expansion, entertainment, and beliefs. Archaeologists now use simple mesh screens to gather bird bones that can tell the story of how, when, and where humans lived, while complex algorithms and high-throughput computing make it possible for biologists to trace the chicken’s genetic past, which is so closely tied to our own. And neuroscientists studying the long-abused chicken brain are uncovering unsettling signs of a deep intelligence as well as intriguing insight into our own behavior.
Today’s living bird has largely disappeared from our urban lives, and the vast majority inhabits a shadowy archipelago of enormous poultry warehouses and slaughterhouses surrounded by fences and sealed off from the public. The modern chicken is both a technological triumph and a poster child for all that is sad and nightmarish about our industrial agriculture. The most engineered creature in history is also the world’s most commonly mistreated animal. For better and worse, we have singled out the chicken as our meal ticket to the world’s urban future while placing it mostly out of sight and mind.
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. 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.
Even as we grow more distant from yet increasingly dependent on the fowl, our ways of describing courage and cowardice, tenacity and selflessness, and other human traits and emotions remain firmly bound up with the bird. “Everything forgets,” said the literary critic George Steiner. “But not a language.” We are cocky or we chicken out, henpecked or walking on eggshells. We hatch an idea, get our hackles up, rule the roost, brood, and crow. We are, in more ways than we might like to admit, a lot more like the chicken than the hawk or the dove or the eagle. We are, like the barnyard fowl, gentle and violent, calm and agitated, graceful and awkward, aspiring to fly but still bound to the earth.
The birds produce 100 million tons of meat and lay more than a trillion eggs a year.
By CHRISTOPHER LEONARD
Dec. 12, 2014 12:46 p.m. ET
A Blue Andalusian chicken. CORBIS IMAGES
I first gained a grudging respect for chickens back in 2001, when I was working on a small farm in Hawaii. One of my tasks was to kill the feral birds that came down out of the woods and marauded the vegetable beds. I was given a pellet gun for the task, and I became obsessed: I lay in wait for the wild chickens like a sniper. I hunted them in the trees where they roosted. I chased them down dirt paths and fired wildly.
WHY DID THE CHICKEN CROSS THE WORLD?
By Andrew Lawler, Atria, 324 pages
But in all my weeks on the job, I never killed a single chicken. As far as I know, I never even grazed one. I discovered that jungle fowl are quick and lithe and can jump in a 15-foot-wide flapping arc. The birds appear suddenly, then melt into the underbrush. I had always thought of chickens as stupid birds, but they bested me.
My grudging respect blossomed into full-blown awe as I read Andrew Lawler’s fascinating and delightful “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization.” These days, chicken is on every table, so it seems boring. Mr. Lawler’s globe-trotting tour shows that the bird has played a remarkable role in human history—and will almost certainly continue to do so.
Right out of the chute, Mr. Lawler impresses us with the bird’s ubiquity. There are more chickens alive today that there are cats, dogs, pigs, cows and rats—combined. Only one continent is poultry-free, and that’s because an international treaty bans live chickens from being shipped to Antarctica in order to protect the local penguins from disease. Chickens accompanied explorers on their sea vessels (around 1200, Polynesians carried poultry on their double-hulled canoes as they sailed to Easter Island and Hawaii), and scientists at NASA have studied how we can take the birds to Mars, presumably so we’ll have something to eat once we get there. Perhaps most important, chickens play a pivotal role in feeding our growing populations: Chickens produce 100 million tons of meat and lay more than a trillion eggs a year.
The author, a veteran science journalist, is bent on tracking down the particulars of this creature’s history, no matter where they might take him, including Venezuela, Indonesia, France, Kenya, Italy and Vietnam. What unfolds from this exhaustive reporting is a story not just large in scope but surprising in its details. Each chapter focuses on a different facet of the chicken’s impact on the world. An early chapter, for example, discusses the medical aspects of the bird from the earliest medicine men, who believed that chicken parts could cure everything from migraines to bed wetting, to the modern-day pharmaceutical industry, which uses chicken eggs to make flu vaccines. (It takes three eggs to make each dose.)
One of the most shocking facts is that humans most likely did not domesticate chickens in order to eat their meat or eggs. Several thousand years ago, people in Asia started catching and keeping wild jungle fowl for two key reasons: religious ceremonies and cockfighting.
Yes: Cockfighting is one of the primary reasons people have kept chickens around. Even today, cockfighting remains a religious rite in Bali and big business in the Philippines. (In 2008, Louisiana became the last state to ban it in the U.S.)
The cockfighting scenes in the book are alone worth the price of admission. In Bali, Mr. Lawler is peer-pressured into betting a pile of local currency on a supposedly sacred cockfight: “Within one minute, my money—worth about five dollars—is in another man’s pocket and a skinny man at the curb is plucking the dead bird for the winner to take home to cook. There is no priest or blessing or prayer.” Readers will laugh—and want to buy Mr. Lawler a drink.
But there is a spiritual dimension to our relationship with the birds. Mr. Lawler lays out a long catalog of cultural markers that chickens have left on civilization, from broken pieces of ancient Egyptian pottery decorated with domesticated fowl to the tombs of early Christians in Rome, some of which were emblazoned with depictions of chickens engaged in “sacred combat.” Chinese texts discussing chickens date back to 1400 B.C., while the creation myths of Yoruban tribes in West Africa involve a giant chicken that scratched at the Earth to form valleys. After reading this book, one expects to find a chicken lurking in the background of every religious painting and artifact.
Perhaps inevitably, the chicken’s primary role slowly shifted from one of ceremony to one of commerce. It seems that people couldn’t help noticing that the birds they had kept around for cockfighting produced delicious meals far more cheaply than other animals. They also procreate heroically.
Mr. Lawler doesn’t say so explicitly, but the chicken seems to have been an early driver of both democracy and free-market capitalism. In West Africa, for example, the chicken business might well have helped upend a hierarchical, cattle-based society around 650. The key source of wealth and social status among the Kirikongo people at the time was cattle—until the chicken came along. The bird was easy to raise, and it allowed the masses to engage in commerce and conduct important animal sacrifices. Instead of killing cattle for ceremonies, people substituted the birds, making chicken blood one of the world’s first disruptive technologies.
From the earliest days, in other words, the chicken was a decidedly middle-class animal. Mr. Lawler shows how this story repeated itself across the world over the ensuing centuries. In the colonial United States, for example, raising poultry was one of the few ways that entrepreneurial slaves could earn money. In the Philippines, breeding the birds is a way for middle-class entrepreneurs to chase riches in the national pastime of cockfighting.
As his story moves closer to the present day, the author uncovers a surprising story about the role that Southern women and minorities played in spearheading the U.S. chicken industry. White men dominate today’s poultry corporations, but the industry was born thanks to the enterprising efforts of women like Mollie Tugman andH.P. McPherson, who started raising large flocks of birds around 1909 in North Carolina. The men were focused on other crops, but McPherson was soon spreading the word that profit margins on chickens were fatter than butter, milk or vegetables. As she put it: “There is little excuse for a woman to be without money if she has room to raise poultry.” By the 1940s, these women had built a business healthy enough to draw the attention—and envy—of the old boys’ club. In 1951, the “Chicken of Tomorrow” convention in Fayetteville, Ark., drew together the nation’s best poultry breeders to derive the best line of genetics for a fast-growing bird. No women or minorities served on the Chicken of Tomorrow committee, even though they basically invented the business. Today the same dynamic is at play. More than half of the nation’s 250,000 poultry workers are women; half are Latino, and an estimated 20% are undocumented workers. Today, the American chicken industry employs about 300,000 people and churns out 37 billion pounds of meat a year.
It is challenging to tell a story so sweeping, and Mr. Lawler’s narrative grows confusing at times. During the first half of the book, I sometimes felt as if I was chasing the author around a crowded outdoor market while he darted from stall to stall, examining interesting curios. But the book picks up momentum in the second half as Mr. Lawler traces the evolution of chickens into a truly industrial animal.
Much has been written about the cruelty of modern chicken farming, but Mr. Lawler provides convincing, specific evidence. Nine out of 10 egg-laying hens, for example, spend their lives in wire “battery cages,” where several birds are crammed in so closely that they cannot spread their wings. “Vicious pecking, avian hysteria, mysterious deaths, and even cannibalism are often the result,” Mr. Lawler writes. Thanks to intensive breeding that emphasizes the production of high-profit breast meat, today’s chickens grow so fast that their heavy breasts strain their skeletons—the bird’s bones evolved to carry a far slenderer torso. There is also strong evidence that they live much of their lives in pain: One study found that chickens prefer feed that is laced with painkillers, likely as a way to self-medicate their aching joints.
The birds are also far more intelligent than we give them credit for. They can recognize human faces and avoid the people who treat them poorly. Mother hens are expert at roosting, protecting their young and hunting for food, yet the “battery cages” where we keep them are too narrow to allow them to move side to side. I didn’t realize until reading this book that the natural life span of a chicken is 10-20 years, since birds raised for food mature in about six weeks, at which point they are slaughtered. Laying hens live somewhat longer, but considering life in the battery cage that might not be a gift.
One of the Filipino cock fighters that Mr. Lawler interviews early on in the book argues that his business is more humane than the U.S. poultry industry because the fighting birds are well cared for, live long lives and die quickly. Before reading “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” I would have thought of this as rank self-justification. But the argument becomes uncomfortably hard to refute after considering the life of a factory bird.
— Mr. Leonard is the author of “The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business.”
NONFICTION: An examination of the lowly chicken reveals a bird with a grand past – and a grim present.
By STEPHEN J. LYONS Special to the Star Tribune DECEMBER 19, 2014 — 2:18PM
Maybe it’s time to give the 20 billion chickens on our beleaguered planet a little more respect and a lot more love. The meat du jour for Americans was once the royal bird of Egypt and a key influence on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Its egg supplies the key ingredient in our flu vaccines, and its protein and vitamins are the nutritional margins against malnutrition among the world’s rural poor. Chickens also have mental abilities similar to humans (well, some humans, anyway) that include understanding geometry, adding and subtracting and a “primitive self-consciousness” that proves that they “know they exist and, therefore, suffer.”
And suffer they do. As science writer Andrew Lawler investigates so ably in “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” we treat our feathered friends so poorly that the chicken is not even worthy of official animal status by our government and is therefore exempt from the merest of animal welfare laws.
Overseas conditions are not much better. In the Philippines, some 15 million roosters die annually from cockfights in venues such as the World Slasher Cup.
In the United States, overcrowded conditions in claustrophobic battery cages without roosting perches or natural light include practices in which the tips of chickens’ beaks — the bird’s “primary sense organ” — are sheared off to prevent injury. Colorado animal scientist Temple Grandin said chickens are bred to “grow at the far limits of what is biologically possible.”
Thus, those ginormous chicken breasts for sale at the grocery store.
More than half of the 250,000 workers in poultry slaughterhouses are women, and 50 percent are Latino. Lawler reports that the work is “ugly, low-paid, and dangerous.”
WHY DID THE CHICKEN CROSS THE WORLD?
By: Andrew Lawler.
Publisher: Atria Books, 324 pages.
Review: Lawler’s book traces the history of the chicken, from its beginnings in South Asia thousands of years ago to the barnyard bird of today. But what will stick with the reader most are the difficult facts about modern farming.
The treatment of — and our disconnect from — chickens are not the main narrative engines of Lawler’s book, but they might linger longer in memory than the author’s meticulous research of the chicken’s ancestral roots that began as a wild red jungle fowl in South Asia and then, over thousands of years, evolved to today’s domesticated barnyard chicken. Along the way the chicken has accompanied us on each stage of our journey from primitivism to modernism, carried in baskets across mountains, ferried in dugout canoes down rivers and across oceans and hauled in oxcarts across major trade routes.
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.”
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of three books. His next book, “Going Driftless,” will be published in May 2015. He lives in Illinois.