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

  • Andrew Lawler
Atria: 2014. 9781476729893 | ISBN: 978-1-4767-2989-3

The chicken is the Swiss army knife of livestock. Since its domestication in Southeast Asia as early as 18,000 years ago, the bird has been religious sacrifice, pet, research subject, fighting machine and, of course, dinner. The Victorians paid enormous sums for exotic breeds, and in the 1960s, NASA imagined the birds feeding Martian colonies. Around 20 billion are alive at any one time, bred to meet global demand. Science journalist Andrew Lawler explores the chicken's multipronged place in human civilization in his rip-roaring, erudite Why did the Chicken Cross the World?

Genome data and resemblance have pinpointed the red jungle fowl Gallus gallus — a furtive bird that roams the subtropical forests of southern Asia — as the wild ancestor of Gallus gallus domesticus. The birds are considered one species, because unions between them still produce fertile offspring. A few thousand years of separation is an evolutionary blink of the eye, too brief to create reproductive barriers.

Credit: Dzhamiliya Ermakova/Getty

Scientific efforts to unpick the origins of the domestic chicken are muddied by the fact that few, if any, living red jungle fowl are free of the genetic vestiges of their ancestors' romps with domestic chickens. The last purebred jungle fowl on Earth may reside, as Lawler shows, on a farm in the northeast of the US state of Georgia, rather than in a forest in Malaysia.

That is down to ornithologist Gardiner Bump. In the 1950s and 1960s, faced with a shortage of game birds in the US southeast, Bump set out to populate forests with imported wild red jungle fowl. He paid trappers to collect eggs — the more remote the better, because he wanted purebred birds — and deliver them to US hatcheries. The birds never thrived, and the US government pulled the plug on the programme in 1970. Descendants of Bump's birds survive in a handful of flocks. An evolutionary geneticist has sampled their blood, in the hope of discovering what truly sets chickens apart from their wild forebears.

From their initial domestication, Lawler traces the chickens' journey to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, where the earliest known depiction of the bird was made, and then on to Polynesia and South America, where DNA from ancient chicken bones offers contentious evidence for a pre-Columbian trans-Pacific chicken trade. The author does not dwell on such controversy for long. For much of the book, science has a supporting role to history, ethnography and even advocacy.

Lawler's discussion of cockfighting is among the book's most compelling material. In ancient Greece, Babylon and China, pitting roosters against each other was embedded in religious practice. Now mostly illegal, it still thrives in parts of South America and Asia, especially the Philippines, as Lawler demonstrates with a harrowing dispatch from the World Slasher Cup in Manila. He shows cockfighting as the brutal pastime it is, while recognizing it as an important chapter in human–chicken relations.

Chicken's mealtime ubiquity dates from the twentieth century. African Americans and Jewish immigrants brought the bird into US cities, and farmers who had once viewed chicken-keeping as women's work survived the Great Depression thanks to income from the birds. But wartime rationing of other meat put chicken on every plate. First held in 1948, the US Chicken of Tomorrow contest was conceived by supermarket chain A&P (and later sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture) to improve the efficiency of poultry production and expand the fledgling market. Before the contest, chickens bred for meat took 70 days to reach an average of 1.4 kilograms. Modern birds take 47 days to reach 2.6 kilograms, and they convert feed to meat 50% more efficiently (although many spend their lives in chronic pain because of the extra body mass). US chicken consumption is now four times what it was before the contest.

Readers of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin, 2006) or Christopher Leonard's The Meat Racket (Simon & Schuster, 2014) will know the rest of the story. Leonard used the term “chickenization” to describe the 'vertical integration' of meat production developed and perfected by conglomerates such as Tyson Foods, whereby farmers have no ownership or control over the flocks they breed, which often number tens of thousands of birds. Americans eat more chicken meat per capita than any other nation, but the rest of the world is catching up. China surpassed the United States in overall chicken consumption in 2012. Meanwhile, the mass culling of chickens across Asia to stop an avian-influenza pandemic shows that chicken health is a global concern.

Lawler is not the first to denounce the inhumane treatment of the animals or to raise the red flag about bird flu. But his perspective as a science reporter gives fresh insight into the problems created by the ubiquity of chickens — as well as possible solutions. Especially compelling is the profile of Janice Siegford at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who is studying how to improve the welfare of chickens bred for food ('cage free' labelling is no guarantee that a chicken does not suffer throughout its life). Lawler recognizes that modern chickens — perhaps unlike genuine red jungle fowl — are here to stay. Who knows, maybe they will one day make it to Mars.