The Milk of Human Conquest
Peter Forbes

The Milk of Human Conquest

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel famously asked: “Why did Pizarro come to capture Atahuallpa, instead of Atahuallpa’s coming to Spain to capture King Charles I?”

One could also ask how, in the 19th century, did a small, previously marginal, North West European country manage to install its Queen as Empress of India, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire? Why is English the world’s lingua franca and why does half the globe (around 3 billion people) speak an Indo-European language?

A large part of the answer lies in a genetic mutation that occurred around 7500 years ago, probably in Turkey, that enabled us to drink animal milk throughout our life. Previously, the gene that allows us to digest lactose was switched off after weaning, as it is in all other mammals. The mutation is the fastest spreading so far encountered in the whole 195,000 year history of the evolution of Homo sapiens. Which means it must have conferred a huge advantage. Lactose tolerance increases in a gradient from southeast to northwest, reaching levels of over 90% in Scandinavia and the British Isles.

The ability to digest raw milk led to population growth and this has been a major engine of world history. Growing populations expand, they exhaust resources and are forced to invent. Dairy farming had another huge effect on history. Living so close to animals meant that diseases were passed back and forth. Eventually, a degree of immunity was acquired. When the expanding European peoples reached the New Word, the diseases they brought decimated the indigenous peoples, who had not built up resistance, and allowed the Europeans to out-compete them.

The Milk of Human Conquest traces the path of the lactose tolerance gene in an epic journey from Turkey to Scandinavia in the West, and east to Southern Russia and then to Northern India. It offers new insights into human history and Western civilisation at a time when the West’s assumed primacy is coming into question and shows how human evolution, far from coming to an end when human civilisation developed, actually accelerated, in an interactive process involving genes, the environment, culture and technology

Book Details:

  • Author: Peter Forbes
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Peter Forbes

Peter Forbes initially trained as a chemist and worked in pharmaceutical and popular natural history publishing, whilst writing poems, and articles for magazines such as New Scientist and World Medicine. A stint as Southern Arts Writer-in-Residence (1984-6) led to the editorship of the Poetry Society's Poetry Review, Britain's premier poetry magazine, where he nurtured very many young poets in the early stages of their career, including Glyn Maxwell, Sophie Hannah, Gwyneth Lewis and Don Paterson.He has written numerous articles and reviews, many specializing in the relation between the arts...
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