25 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Feel good remix,
This review is from: An Edible History of Humanity (Hardcover)This is not a thematic history of humanity - it is twelve vignettes about food production spanning the period from the emergence of `settled agriculture' until today. The content is fairly standard and superficial - no more than entry level history. No surprises, original facts, or insights. The runner under this pleasantly written text is obvious: if only human societies would embrace democracy and espouse the market economy they'd live in Panglossian bliss.
This kind of approach goes under the heading of `affirmation' - plausible evidence conjured in support of a conjecture in the hope that people will believe it to be `true'. Another term for this kind of exercise could be marshalling of `common sense'. Its effect is to `feel good' about it, not to `prove' the point. As Karl Popper has told us, in an inductive world we can only disprove a conjecture. Such truth is beyond our powers.
Turning freak chance into a stately chain of progress - retrospective rationalising - is a key ingredient. What would have happened if geniuses like Haber and Borlaugh had not appeared in the nick of time, before the world declined into famines? One dare not even speak of Marxist `historical inevitabilities' for even these do not determine the timing of the historical contingencies.
Sharp-eyed selectivity helps - a lot. The author fondly quotes Amartya Sen to the effect that famines and democracy don't mix - the Irish potato famine being the regretful imbroglio that defeated Lord Peel's good (and timely) intentions. So 5% of the book's content is devoted to Communist famines. The eyes are pudibondly averted from all the Imperial famines that accompanied the forced entry of India (and China) into the international markets - individually and collectively just and bad as the Great Leap Forward. Sen is forgotten when he points out that in 1948 India and China had the same levels of life expectancy. Now China is ahead by ten years - which translates into roughly ten million unnecessary Indian deaths each year. Negligence is no crime...
Parochialism is de rigeur. Standage's history is plainly the history of the West. It starts out with ignoring great centres of food domestication (southern India - coconut and banana; Papua New Guinea; taro and other foodstuffs; Sudan, cattle) and then sails serenely across centuries of `world history' where Africa hardly warrants more than a deprecative footnote - there is no history there, said Trevor-Roper - and India and China, well they just had more people; they did not really contribute to the world's technological development, did they? The West did it all by its clever self: numbers, gunpowder, print, and compass.
Modesty behoves the historian - Tacitus opined - particularly when confronted with embarrassing questions, one is tempted to add. The author professes ignorance of the causes of `Great Divergence' that brought backwater Europe to preponderance in the world. Not for him crude issues like plundering of the Americas, industrial-scale slavery, destruction of Western India that so incensed conservative-minded Burke, or the forced descent of China into opium addiction. Like a boat, Standage's imperialism leaves no wake.
Ignorance is no bar. According to the author, the original civilisational transition is from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture. Sorry; and where does this leave nomadic civilisations, which domesticated animals (horses, cattle, sheep and goats) without settlement? Ever heard of Genghis Khan? The Eurasian continent today is still divided roughly in accordance with his geopolitical views. Admittedly, this flaw is widespread among historians and anthropologists: Eric Gellner does the same mistake.
Finally a few omissions: if one speaks of food - well salt is food, right? History, in particular Western history, cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of the link between salt and power. Salary and salt after all share the same root. Power coalesced around salt in the European Middle Ages, and lack of salt helped defeat the Confederacy. Incidentally I'm missing a text on the civilisational role of hay: for Northern Europe was properly settled only after the invention of hay (the Romans did not have this technology).
The book is Whiggish history at its best. In the final chapter agricultural productivity inaugurates the demographic transition, and genetic tinkering plus wise Arctix burying of genetic plant material (no room for livestock in this glacial Arch) will get us any conceivable future difficulty. On page 229 Malthus ghost is `finally put to rest'. Tom Standage has missed Jared Diamond's `consumption factor'. True, we may produce enough calories for everyone today. But the solution of the quantity problem has been purchased at the cost of a delayed quality problem: were we to provide the whole mankind with the food lifesyle of the West, this would be roughly equivalent to increasing population to a trifling 72 billion.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 22 Jul 2009 09:46:31 BDT
Dr. John P. Yardley says:
A rant. When I've read the book, I'll try and give a helpful review.
In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jul 2009 15:16:20 BDT
Aldo Matteucci says:
Blessed be those who judge from ignorance, for their words will carry conviction.
Posted on 18 Sep 2009 23:33:35 BDT
Dr. John P. Yardley says:
I have now read the book and still think this review is a rant. The book is a bit of popular science not a peer-reviewed paper for "Nature" for God's sake. It sounds like the reviewer knew the author personally and had been upset by him at sometime. Why bother writing nearly a 1000 words on something only worthy of 1 star?
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