Who would refuse a dinner proposition like this? In Dinner with Darwin, researcher Jonathan Silvertown details the relationships between humans, our nutrition, and our environment through the lens of evolution. Dinner with Darwin, though, is not the average science book you would expect. Indeed, Silvertown expected foodies like us to read it, and structured the reading as a 10-course meal of evolutionary gastronomy, bookended by chapters on the history of cooking and the future of food. Certainly, there is no better way to serve up food science than by appealing to a reader’s stomach.
Why is “Dinner with Darwin” a must-read book?
There is a touch of practically every scientific subject related to food. Molecular biology, genetics, cultural and physical anthropology, biochemistry, anatomy, ecology, climate science, geology, botany, taxonomy, and a wealth of other disciplines. It might undoubtedly sound a bit mind-blowing if you are not specialised in the subject, but you will not find a question that the author had not anticipated and answered first.
It is the type of publication that will make you incorporate that “Did you know?” sentence in your very next conversations, trust me, it already happened to me.
For instance, in chapter 3, Silvertown discusses our relationship with shellfish and how eating them allowed our species to populate the planet from East Africa into the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Science has enabled us to discover this thanks to the route left behind the large piles of fossilized shells along the seacoast.
Some curious highlights from Dinner with Darwin
Did you know that Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist and currently recognised as a national hero, travelled the entire world to find the centres of origin of cultivated plants that sustain the current global population? And that despite his magnificent contributions he died of starvation in a Soviet prison?
Another exciting highlight is the arms race between vegetables and their antagonists (invertebrate, vertebrate, and human) that attack them to attempt to eat them. The secret weaponry of plants in this war? All kinds of poison. In fact, even the original raw forms of potato and tomato plants were poisonous.
You will probably be ending this book as if you had attended a dinner party along with foodies, historians, and scientists, discussing various food-related topics. And despite each bite will not always be tempting, you will surely understand how our food evolved and influenced evolution.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Professor Jonathan Silvertown (@JWSilvertown) is a Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh and holds the Chair of Technology-Enhanced Science Education in the School of Biological Sciences in Edinburgh. He is the author of several popular science books.