May 30, 2010
I want to be clear about a few things:
1) I am a female.
2) I give the idea of this book 5 stars, but its execution 1.
3) I have been a radical vegan, a rabid meat-eater and everything in between (currently in the in-between)
4) I am working on an archaeological PhD on hunter-gatherer diets, subsistence, hunting and transition to agriculture.
I picked this book up after reading Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals". I thought it would be interesting to read a different perspective on the vegetarian debate. I found Safran Foer's book to be much more geared towards the inhumane practices of meat while Keith's book is geared more towards diet/health.
I admit that it took a very long time for me to get through this book, for several reasons. I purchased this book hoping to get something out of it. I am not an upset vegan who wants to hate it and I am not someone who bought it knowing Id love it. I was just neutral. There were two main reasons for my disappointment with the book. One minor, one major. First, I found the second agendas (specifically the radical feminism) distracting and unnecessary. I have nothing against the feminist agenda, but this wasnt the place to put it. Second, I found the book absolutely riddled with bad information, faulty facts and just plain lazy research (if you can call it 'research'). As someone who intensively researches these issues on a daily basis, I found myself underlining items on nearly every page that I knew were just plain untrue or were 'cherry-picked' facts slanted to give a certain perception. This is such a disappointment as a really great case could be made for the author's view if she had only put the real work into researching the book properly. Once you lose the reader's trust that you are providing factual information what do you have? Ill provide examples:
1) pg. 140: The author states that "Carbon-13 is a stable isotope present in two places: grasses and the bodies of animals that eat grasses". She goes on to suggest that since there is no evidence of grass "scratch marks" on the human teeth found, that they must have been eating animals. There are many flaws in this thought process. First, I cant even begin to explain the preservation and degradation issues present in examining three million year old teeth for 'scratch marks'. Second, carbon-13 is an isotope found in ALL terrestrial and marine plants, not just grass. Finding high levels of C3 or C4 (which are what carbon-13 breaks down into) in human teeth only means that that human was eating large amounts of SOME plant, seed, nut, etc. (not JUST grass) or the animal that ate those. It is not as simple as GRASS OR COW.
2) pg. 142: The author states that there are no bacteria in the human stomach. This is simply untrue. In 2005 Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering a stomach bacteria that causes gastritis and ulcer disease. There are currently over 130 known stomach bacteria.
3) pg. 146: The author states a "rumor" authored by RB Lee about hunter-gatherers getting 65% of their calories from plants and 35% from meat. She states that this "simply isnt true". First, this rumor-spreader is one of the most well-respected anthropological/archaeological researchers in hunter-gatherer studies who edited what is considered THE tome on hunter-gatherer theory, 'Man the Hunter'. He isnt some random hack. Second, saying those numbers 'simply arent true' is simply not true. Hunter-gatherers did and do inhabit a huge range of environments and likewise their diets cover a wide range. Some do follow the 65/35% number. Some eat much more meat. Some eat much less.
These are only three examples from a span of six pages. This pattern continues throughout the entire book. Fact is the authors 'facts' just arent believable (which, again, is a shame because a factual book on this topic could be powerful). She writes as if the anthropological and archaeological evidence she quotes is written in stone, when in fact many of these topics are constantly under revision or not well understood yet. Most importantly, I just believe that writing a book and promoting it as a factual, scientific account of a subject when it is not is doing a great disservice to your (mostly) unknowing readers. If you are not willing to put in the real research effort, write a book that is touted as a personal account and nothing more. Selling flubbed facts to people who are truly searching for answers, inspiration or (insert what you are looking for here) is just bad journalism.
Ill end this review with some facts and encourage any readers (whether you liked the book, hated the book or havent read the book) to always question whether what you are reading is true and to do some research of your own.
The author cites 207 references in this book.
62 of those references are websites (~30%)
18 are newspapers and magazines (~7%)
32 are journals (~15%)
95 are other books (~46%)
First of all, think about that. 30% of the references in this book come from website information. Five of those 62 website references were Wikipedia. Wikipedia! One was Google Answers. I wont let my freshmen students use Wikipedia as a reference in their papers, why would it be acceptable for a book? Like websites, newspaper and magazine information needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Of the 32 journals less than half come from well known, peer-reviewed sources. The remaining 46% are books, which can truly say anything the author cares to print (as this one does) and only show that the author is getting her information from another source (and another opinion) aside from the primary one. The point of this is to make clear that this is a book that is sold as (and which many positive reviews hype as) providing scientific, factual, intellectual knowledge on the vegetarian/diet/health debate. In reality less than 8% of the book is coming from peer-reviewed, fact-checked sources which can provide unbiased, neutral information.
If anything I hope this review encourages people to get away from the bias on either side, find factual scientific sources instead of second-third-fourth hand knowledge, check information for yourself instead of blindly believing an author, and to question published material and push for it to actually be factual if it presented as such.