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Dinner with Darwin

Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink, and Evolution

Jonathan Silvertown
University of Chicago Press
2017
240 pp.
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With today’s well-established foodie culture, what better way to serve up a book on evolution than by appealing to a reader’s stomach? In Dinner with Darwin, biologist Jonathan Silvertown details the relationships between humans, our nutrition, and our environment through the lens of evolution. The story is structured as a 10-course meal of “evolutionary gastronomy,” bookended by chapters on the history of cooking and the future of food.

Using anecdotes about vegetables, herbs, meats, cheeses, and more, Silvertown demonstrates how our relationships with food have defined not only our cultures and histories but also the evolutionary trajectories of our species and that of those we eat. Domestication of cereal grains in the Fertile Crescent of southwest Asia, for example, led to physiological changes in the cereals that make them more suited to human use and consumption (e.g., nonshattering seed heads, larger seeds, and adaptation to harsher climates). It also led to genetic and physiological changes in humans. In early agrarian societies, evolution began selecting for humans with the capacity to regulate blood-sugar spikes associated with increased starch consumption, thus decreasing the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.

Our relationships with food species also affected the evolution of species that interact closely with us. Silvertown notes, for example, that dogs, like humans, evolved to digest starch around the same time that we domesticated cereals.

SHIRONOSOV/ISTOCKPHOTO

The human diet pairs perfectly with a tantalizing tour of evolution, finds Jonathan Silvertown in Dinner with Darwin.

Throughout the book, Silvertown adeptly introduces various evolutionary concepts. The chapter on dairy, for example, explores gradualism (vis-à-vis the origins of milk production in mammals), horizontal gene transfer (as exemplified by the evolutionary advantage conferred by milk’s use of lactose as a sugar source), and the evolution of mutualisms (with respect to the diverse microbiome of cheese).

The book is short, leaving hardly enough space to dig into “courses” as they are served, chapter by chapter. In chapter 3, for example, Silvertown touches on our relationship with shellfish but focuses primarily on how eating them allowed our species to populate the planet. The chapter has little to no discussion about the potential evolutionary interactions between hominids and shellfish. Similarly, the book’s closing chapter on the future of food is far too limited a space to digest the heady topics it broaches, such as the burgeoning global population, land-use trade-offs, and genetically modified organisms.

It helps to think of each section as a series of beautifully plated amuse-bouche, raising tantalizing and rich ideas for future consideration. 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,” although not always satiating, left me contemplating the relationships between genetic changes, speciation, and, at times, even the future of our planet.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Resources Assessment Division, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC 20250, USA.