Magazine article The Spectator

'Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? the Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization', by Andrew Lawler - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? the Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization', by Andrew Lawler - Review

Article excerpt

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization Andrew Lawler

Duckworth, pp.336, £16.99, ISBN: 9780715649978

Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig Mark Essig

Basic Books, pp.310, £18.99, ISBN: 9780465052745

Here are two parallel books, both by Americans, both 260 pages (excluding indexes) long, both using 'likely' as an adverb. One looks at the history of the world through the story of the chicken; the other does the same through the story of the pig. Which would you prefer? I found the chicken one harder going -- like ploughing through one of those brilliant but exhausting New Yorker articles that never seem to end, for which the journalist with too generous a budget has spent years interviewing hyper-specialist scientists in labs and 'facilities' across the USA -- but I found the pig one sadder. There's an illustration I had to cover up while reading page 174: of a pig being hauled onto a huge wheel, looking terrified, about to have its throat slit as part of an early pork-production line in 19th-century Chicago.

In the chicken book, you know that every chapter opening -- whether it's about the ancient city of Ur or a Greek vase -- will lead up to the word 'rooster'. Likewise, in the pig book, you know that every opening paragraph -- whether it's about Beowulf or the Greek physician Galen -- will lead you to the word 'pig' or 'hog'.

The chicken book hardly mentions pigs, and the pig book hardly mentions chickens, although both authors portray their chosen animal as central to the history of civilisation. One author counts the chicken bones at a dig in the Middle East; the other counts the pig bones at another dig in the Middle East; and each result seems to emphasise the supremacy of the author's subject. Which just shows that you could put forward the story of the dog, the cat, the rat or the gumboot and your readers would accept your chosen subject as the driving force of civilisation if you wrote persuasively enough.

Never mind the chicken crossing the world: Andrew Lawler crosses it himself, visiting the corner devoted to chicken-bone samples at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA; a cockfight in the Philippines (always to the death, and watched by huge cheering and betting crowds); a priest on a velvet sofa in Iraq who tells him about the chicken's central role in the Yezidi religion; a factory complex in Dresden to which 360,000 eggs a day are delivered for the manufacture of the flu vaccine; the Natural History Museum annexe in Tring to look at Darwin's chicken samples sent back from his voyages; countless US genome-investigating labs, university campuses in Michigan, and poultry farms; and a US rescue sanctuary for chickens, whose owner wears a T-shirt that says, 'I dream of a society where a chicken can cross a road without its motives being questioned. …

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