Chicago University Press, September 2017

Chicago University Press, September 2017

Dinner with Darwin

From the opening course of oysters to the final swill of wine, Silvertown’s account of the evolution of our diet is a sumptuous experience. Dinner with Darwin combines natural history, biography, archaeology, and biology into food stories that will enlighten any meal
— Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human


The Darwinian dining served up by evolutionary ecologist Jonathan Silvertown in this delectably erudite study is all about tracing the impact of natural selection on foods. We learn that mussels helped to fuel the hominin exodus from Africa; rye is a weed domesticated by accident; carnivory and tapeworms are intimately linked; and Penicillium camemberti mould evolved in soft cheeses. We even examine engastration — stuffing one animal into another before cooking — as a status-led manifestation of the need to share food. This intricate scientific banquet is a marvellous read: bon appétit. — Barbara Kiser, Nature

Dinner with Darwin is a wide-ranging natural history of our diet, crafted at a pitch-perfect level for the science buff and the general reader alike. Silvertown is also a wonderful writer: erudite, informative, and thoroughly entertaining. Dinner with Darwin examines the human diet through the multiple lenses of physiology, evolution, and our hominid prehistory. Each of these disciplines has much to teach us about what we eat and how we eat it. Silvertown takes us on a deep dive into molecular biology, genetics, cultural and physical anthropology, biochemistry, anatomy, ecology, climate science, geology, botany, taxonomy, and a wealth of other subjects. His guiding focus throughout: the evolutionary engine that drives genomic alterations in plant, animal, and human realms, the process responsible for species’ adaptation. This may sound overwhelming to the non-specialist, but trust me: This book will uplift rather than smother you with detail. This reader couldn’t come up with a single question that Silvertown hadn’t anticipated and answered in his encyclopedic survey. — Bob Duffy, Washington Independent Review of Books

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.   — Mari-Vaughn V. Johnson Science

Evolutionary ecologist Silvertown knows how old your food is. He knows who in history ate it first and why humans pursued each particular form of sustenance. People have spent millennia altering food's attributes to complement our digestive tracts and lifestyles. Silvertown breaks down the sociology, selective breeding and nutritional evolution behind each contemporary dietary staple. Bread, for example, was perfected after centuries spent plucking only the best wild grasses. Humans have adapted to foods as well: we came to love spice plants such as thyme and rosemary in spite of their chemical defenses, which other animals do not tolerate. This tour—from animal to vegetable to beer—will give even the most ambitious foodie something to chew on. —Leslie Nemo Scientific American

Why does food taste different to different people? Did Australopithecus cook? Why can’t some people handle booze—or milk? The taphonomic, paleontological, and archaeological records are full of pointers to the answers to questions like these, but it’s only with modern genetic and genomic analysis that full replies emerge. Silvertown ... delves in with gusto, opening by noting that “everything we eat has an evolutionary history,” a history that opens onto other questions of evolutionary biology. ...The author’s accessible discussion ranges from shellfish gathering to bread-making to gardening, from issues of food security (which “depends on being able to continually match the challenge posed by constantly evolving diseases”) to the genetic basis for taste and genetic variability among populations of food plants, with local adaptations governed by sets of genes charged with protecting plants from predators. Along the way, he ponders matters such as why we drink milk, which raises further issues of distinguishing cause and consequence—which, in turn, teaches novice readers how scientists approach problems. Kirkus Reviews