Like Keyser Söze, the enigmatic crimi- nal mastermind from The Usual Sus- pects, the temporal and geographic origins of the domesticated chicken are mysterious and unresolved. In ad- dition, although we think we understand it, we perpetually underestimate the
chicken’s role in human culture and history.
Luckily for us, Andrew Lawler’s Why Did
the Chicken Cross the World? wakes us from
our ignorant dream, detailing one surprising fact after another that ultimately reveal
a grand truth: that chickens are everywhere
and are inextricably linked to the emergence
and maintenance of human civilization.
Although there are four closely related
wild jungle fowl species, domestic chickens descend primarily from just one: the
red jungle fowl. The bird’s propensity to
hybridize is a theme that pervades every
stage of the chicken’s journey across the
globe. Wild populations of red jungle fowl
have been subjected to such pervasive admixture with domestic fowl that some have
speculated that truly wild populations may
no longer exist (1).
There are now more than 20 billion chick-
ens on Earth—more than the combined to-
tal of cats, dogs, pigs, cows, and rats. There
are at least three chickens for every indi-
vidual human, but as their numbers grow,
“they have paradoxically become less vis-
ible.” Lawler points to the recent escalation
in demand for chicken meat as one possible
explanation for this phenomenon.
According to Lawler, Americans now consume four times as much chicken as they
did 60 years ago. To meet our growing appetite, breeders have selected for faster growth
and more rapid rates of feed conversion.
Birds are now harvested only 47 days after
birth—23 days earlier than chickens reared
in 1950 and 2.6 pounds heavier.
The commercial poultry industry has
evolved such that the average consumer
interacts only with the constituent parts
of the bird, either as shrink-wrapped car-casses in supermarkets or as anatomically
ambiguous meat at restaurants. This disconnect between chicken as animal and
chicken as food has allowed commercial
producers to meet our demand for cheap
protein, through questionable husbandry
practices that remain exempt from animal
This “cowardly reckoning,” as Proust
called it (2), on the part of the consumer
has also led to a shift in the way the bird is
generally perceived. Idolized and venerated
since their domestication (if not before), the
derogatory terms “birdbrain” and “chicken
shit” only entered our lexicon in the mid-
20th century, when commercial poultry
production began to scale up.
Although it’s clear that we hold little regard for their intellect, chickens have influenced numerous defining events in global
human history. Perhaps, then, chickens are
not best equated with Keyser Söze, but with
For instance, although many people
know that On the Origin of Species opens
with a chapter about domestication, few realize that Darwin spent considerable time
studying the morphology and impressive
color variation in chicken breeds. Chickens
also played a major role in initiating and
sustaining the economic independence of
both slaves and women in 19th-century
America. (Because the bird held so little
prestige among white male farmers, blacks
and women were allowed to raise flocks and
sell eggs and meat.) There was even a cock-
fighting pit in Shakespeare’s original Globe
Theatre, and proceeds from cockfighting
licenses and bird sales in the 19th-century
Philippines generated more revenue than
tobacco, the country’s biggest export. In
more recent history, chicken eggs have
played a crucial role in the development
and production of vaccines that prevent flu
viruses from erupting into pandemics.
Perhaps the clearest evidence that chick-
ens have thoroughly infiltrated our daily
lives rests in their influence on our lan-
guage and humor. People are cocky and hen-
pecked, and we brood and crow. We walk on
eggshells, hatch ideas, rule the roost, fly the
coop, get our hackles up, consider our place
in the pecking order, appear cockeyed, and
run around like chickens with our heads
cut off. We receive French hens on the third
day of Christmas, ponder the motivation
of chickens to cross the road, and wonder
whether the chicken or the egg arrived first.
If we are assigning fictional characters,
modern humans are Jon Snow and we know
nothing (3). Despite our ignorance, the
chicken has experienced a recent measure
of success. The prestige of an animal can
be correlated with the year its genome was
sequenced, and the chicken has bragging
rights over the dog, pig, cow, cat, and chimp.
Lawler’s book goes a long way toward
restoring chickens to their respected position within human history and our modern
world. Both chickens and people will benefit as a result.
1. A. T. Peterson, I. L. Brisbin, Bird Conserv. Int. 8, 387 (1998).
2. M. Proust, Swann’s Way (1913).
3. G. R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (Bantam Books,
New York, 1996–2011).
By Greger Larson
How an unassuming bird changed the world as we know it
Why Did the Chicken
Cross the World?
The Epic Saga of
the Bird That
Atria Books, 2014. 335 pp.
The reviewer is in the School of Archaeology, University of
Oxford, Oxford OX1 2JD, UK. E-mail: greger.larson@arch.
Rulers of the roost
BOOKS et al.
From Darwin to the dinner table,
the domesticated chicken has
influenced human history in a
number of surprising ways.