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A second rate Standage
on 26 August 2011
An Edible History of Humanity is a jog through the ways in which the technologies of food production have influenced history. Examples from many periods are covered: the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture; the spice trade; the influence of food on military history (from Napoleon to the Cold War); the green revolution of the sixties and seventies; the great famines of Stalin and Mao.
It was something of a disappointment after Standage's outstanding earlier books The Neptune File (on planetary discovery) and The Victorian Internet (the history of the telegraph). Part of the problem is that, unlike these earlier works, there is no real narrative - just a sequence of examples. So the book lacks a sense of overall organisation or structure.
Also the material just seems on average duller than the earlier books. There are some interesting details (for example the discovery of synthetic nitrogen by Haber) but also a good deal of fairly pedestrian stuff about the various episodes in the spice trade.
There is a tendency towards the statement of the obvious. As the Times review pointed out, the book's conclusion that "food is certain to be a vital ingredient of humanity's future" is banal. Also, when Standage points out that tin cans are "still in use today" I wondered to whom exactly this might come as news.