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The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society

The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society

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by David Waltner-Toews

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An entertaining and enlightening exploration of why waste matters, this cultural history explores an often ignored subject matter and makes a compelling argument for a deeper understanding of human and animal waste. Approaching the subject from a variety of perspectives—evolutionary, ecological, and cultural—this examination shows how integral excrement


An entertaining and enlightening exploration of why waste matters, this cultural history explores an often ignored subject matter and makes a compelling argument for a deeper understanding of human and animal waste. Approaching the subject from a variety of perspectives—evolutionary, ecological, and cultural—this examination shows how integral excrement is to biodiversity, agriculture, public health, food production and distribution, and global ecosystems. From primordial ooze, dung beetles, bug frass, cat scats, and flush toilets to global trade, pandemics, and energy, this is the awesome, troubled, uncensored story of feces.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As an old joke goes, "A horse, a cow, and a sheep all eat grass, but the sheep excretes pellets, the cow plops out patties, and the horse puts out something that looks like rye buns. Why is that?" Answers to this question and more fill veterinarian and epidemiologist Waltner-Toews's fascinating evolutionary and cultural history of excrement. Aside from cocktail-party tidbits—like how a person in 18th century Japan could be imprisoned for stealing human excrement, or why the poop of sperm whales protects against global warming—this book is also a clear examination of the "wicked problem" excrement poses regarding our health and as a means for "seed dispersal". While overpopulation, "rapid growth in economies of scale in agriculture," and global trade have "created new pathways for the pathogens of excrement," feces are also "essential ingredients that make places what they are." Guiding readers through the "complex challenges" of the effects of human and animal waste, Waltner-Toews (Food, Sex and Salmonella) offers working solutions towards creating a sustainable ecosystem. More than just a "bathroom read", this book offers delightful revelations of the history, evolution, and effects our bowel movements have on our world. (May)
From the Publisher

“David Waltner-Toews picks up the thread with his impassioned treatise on the long, strange, even transcendent afterlife of poop in The Origin of Feces, a book whose cover is guaranteed to make you few friends at the coffee shop.” —Peter Brannan, slate.com

“More than just a “bathroom read”, this book offers delightful revelations of the history, evolution, and effects our bowel movements have on our world.” —Publisher's Weekly

“whether it's a gag gift, a toilet-side alternative to Sudoku or just some light, easily digestible po(o)p-sci fare, The Origin of Feces is sure to be a fun and pungent read.” —Bookish

“an informative book.” —Tom Kenned, Science Spin

“informative and entertaining.” —Alex Good, Quill and Quire

Until you read this, you really won’t know sh*t.”Publisher's Weekly

“This is a rare book in that it offers something for everyone on your Christmas book list: the epidemiologist, the economist, the microbiologist, the anthropologist, sociologist and historian. The classicist will appreciate the numerous knowledgeable references to Roman, Greek and Babylonian culture and mythology, the literary scholar the etymologies and derivations, as well as the quotations from Blake.” —Tim Sly, Literary Review of Canada

“[A]stonishingly readable and interesting.” —Svenska Dagbladet

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The Origin of Feces

What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and A Sustainable Society

By David Waltner-Toews


Copyright © 2013 David Waltner-Toews
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77090-397-5



Fictional character Tante Tina Wiebe, in a dramatic monologue recounting family stories about Christmas, says that, whatever else has changed about Mennonite culture, the men still walk as if they are "bringing in the cows," but then laments that

"... maybe too much sometimes what was once on the boots clinging now from the tongue falls ..."

Before one can tell a story, one must have words. With words come culture, and with culture come taboos and conflicts, things we don't talk about, and don't talk about not talking about, even if we are sitting in a pile of it. If we cannot name "what from the tongue falls," how can we possibly, seriously, address all the other dimensions of excrement? How can we unleash the incredible power of excrement if we don't know shit?

Shit is what sociologists and scientists call a wicked problem.

The social planners who introduced the idea of wicked problems in the 1970s differentiated them from what were considered to be the "tame" problems addressed by conventional science. Wicked problems, they asserted, are poorly bounded and contradictory. They are difficult to solve because information is incomplete, or the requirements of those who want the problem solved keep changing. They can be defined from a variety of apparently incompatible perspectives, so that there is neither a definitive problem formulation nor an optimal solution. Worst of all, the solutions to some aspects of the problem may create or reveal other problems.

Many public health and environmental researchers and managers are faced with such wicked problems. For instance, we can get rid of malaria by spraying insecticides and filling in wetlands, and stop the spread of some serious viruses by destroying farm animals and wildlife. The unintended, long-term consequences of these solutions for ecological sustainability, human health, and the livelihood of farmers, however, are worrisome and huge. Another example: let us say — as did Henry IV of seventeenth-century France and the American Republicans of the 1920s — that we aspire to get a "chicken in every pot" at least once a week, with the good intention of improving people's nutrition. By the 1960s, we discovered that we could do this by creating intensive farms housing millions of animals and by promoting free global trade. But this same strategy also enables the global spread of disease-causing bacteria like Salmonella, and puts millions of small farmers out of business. More data, better tests, more refined laboratory techniques, or more sophisticated modeling will do little to resolve such wicked problems.

What places shit among the wickedest of wicked problems is that, with all the ecological and public health impacts it carries, we don't even have a good, common language to talk about it. We can use precise technical terms when we want the engineers to devise a solution to a specific organic agricultural and urban waste problem (processing this agglomeration of shit and other waste into what they call biosolids, for instance). In so doing, however, we alienate the public, who are suspicious of words like biosolids. This public will need to pay for the filtration and treatment plants. They suspect that the solution to chicken shit in the water might not be a better filtration plant, but they don't have the language to imagine and discuss what the alternatives might be. Through the language we use, we separate the two things that absolutely need to be integrated: the popular political imagination and the scientific and technical understanding of the substantive issues.

To return to the "chicken-in-every-pot" challenge: we solve the problem of providing animal protein to large numbers of people through intensive livestock farming. Now we have a few very big farms where there used to be many smaller ones. As a consequence, where once the chicken shit was scattered widely across, and absorbed into, the rural landscape, we now have gigantic, localized piles of excrement. This localized overproduction of shit results in water contamination and public health problems, which are solved through "sustainable manure management" such as feeding the chicken shit to cows, or building giant bio-gas plants to generate electricity. So now, in this theoretical example, we have our cows dependent on chickens for nitrogen intake, and our electricity supply dependent on having large farms to produce lots of shit.

How, then, can we get a handle on this slippery, amoeba-like problem? In this book, I shall poke at it from several perspectives: excrement as a problem of language, as a public health problem, and as an ecological problem. These three perspectives are used by society to characterize excrement and have resulted in three different, and often conflicting, solutions to its perceived problems. Public health — oriented solutions can make ecologically based solutions difficult, if not impossible, and without a common language, we are left with a lot of statistics and hand-waving, but little real progress.

Our language reflects our thinking, and our thoughts determine the kinds of options we can imagine to the challenges we face in life. If talking about what comes out of human and other animal bums is linguistically problematic, then, Houston, we have a much bigger challenge to deal with than simply one of better engineering technology.

So let us step back for a few minutes. What is this stuff we are trying (not) to talk about? The simplest way to think about it is this: excrement is whatever your body doesn't use of the food it takes in, plus millions of bacteria that grow in your gut, plus quite a few of the cells from your gut lining. More specifically, excrement is defined in terms of an anal sphincter; it is defined by the animal it is leaving behind. Hence we speak of cow dung and baby poop, otter spraints and dog turds.

But how do we talk about it more generally? Are there any good words to use in semi-polite conversation? According to founder of the World Toilet Organization and global toilet guru Jack Sim, excrement — derived from the Latin word excernere, "to sift" — is the proper word. Certainly excrement is more acceptable in polite company than some of the alternatives. I am not so sure, however, that this is always the correct word to use for what comes out the anus, given all the other options available. In fact, I am not so certain that we should be agreeing on one term. Maybe we should agree on a family of understandable words.

What better way, for instance, to describe vapid, loudly proclaimed truth-indifferent verbiage than by referring to it as bullshit? Or, in more polite society, one might use the anglicized Dutch term for soft feces, poppycock (pappekak) — although the latter could, in the United States, be confused with Poppycock, the trademark for a type of candied popcorn much beloved by children.

And how else can one potty train a child than by speaking of poo-poo, which when used as a verb, is an onomatopoeia (a word that sounds like what it describes, and may have originated from a word that meant the sound of a horn blast), or doo-doo, or even number two? The numbering system, I hasten to add, is culturally relative. Writer Bill Bryson, when asked by a grade-school teacher whether he had to go number one or number two, exclaimed that he needed to have a big BM (bowel movement), which could be as large as a three or four. Little boys can joke about cow pies, cow pats, road apples, or turds, but what happens when they grow up? Perhaps there should be a globally standardized metric scale that runs from one to ten; this would enable global comparisons and further the science of excremental studies. In the mid-1980s, I recall that the attendants at outhouses in Borobudur, Indonesia, required patrons to declare before they entered whether they were going to do something big (take a dump) or small (urinate). This was based on an honor system, and the entrance fee was scaled accordingly.

The word "guano," used to describe feces from bats and birds, comes to us from South America via the Spanish. It is derived from the Quechua word wanu meaning fertilizer, and has a turbulent history related to both fertilizer and bombs, to which I shall return later. "Ordure," from Middle English, and before that Old French (ord, meaning filthy), derived from the Latin horridus, carries unhelpful (at least for agriculture) moral baggage, although, taking a leaf from William Blake's TheMarriage of Heaven and Hell, one might re-frame the origins not as ord, but as or, which means gold. Where public order and religious ordination fit into this picture I shall leave for the anthropologists to pronounce.

More recently, the terms "biosolids" and "sewage sludge" have made their appearance in the technical and government literature to describe solid organic waste. They do neutralize the moral sting but are too technically scientific to be of much use in more general conversations. On the other hand, the term "nutrient," used by some agricultural bureaucracies, as in the phrases "nutrient cycling" and "nutrient management," is too general, and could just as well refer to the fat content in an avocado as the fat in a spraint. These phrases highlight the fact that excrement is comprised of useful nourishment for some species. However, the bacterial diversity in feces, the myriad roles it plays in ecological functioning and human survival, and the complex diversity of plant and animal life — which is the glorious visible manifestation of this nutrient cycling — are rendered invisible.

"Night soil" and "humanure" are attempts similarly to neutralize the language of human shit, or perhaps even put a positive spin on it, but have yet to enter (or re-enter, in the case of night soil) general usage.

"Frass," which comes from the Old High German frezzan, to devour, is used to refer to both the excrement and the uneaten debris left behind by insects. Some have argued that the term "fecula," coming from the Latin faecula (crust of wine) and faex (dregs, sediment), should be used for true insect excrement, saving "frass" for the debris and refuse left behind by boring (albeit interesting) insects. Lest the reader think that entomologists have too much time on their hands, that they are arguing over how to name insect poop, I should remind them that science has conventionally progressed by making fine, precise distinctions (see discussion of shit, below), and puns such as are indulged in by this writer are generally frowned upon.

The vulgar term "crap" is sometimes attributed to the ingenious (or perhaps disingenuous) Thomas Crapper, who popularized the flush toilet in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The idea of flushing away excrement, however, can be traced back at least to the fifth labor of Hercules (or Heracles, as he is often referred to), a story to which I shall return later. The word "crap," while capitalized on by Mr. Crapper, can be traced back to Middle English (crap meaning residues from rendered fat), Old French (crappe, or residue), and medieval Latin.

An archeologist might speak of coproliths (hardened fecal balls in the bowels) or coprolites (which, despite the low-calorie name, are actually petrified shit-balls). Zoologists learn about animals by looking at scats and studying scatology; physicians examine stools (the word being derived from the place where the poop is delivered from the body) and fecal samples, a repertoire expanded by veterinarians to also include the examination of droppings.

Like many of the words in this linguistic landscape, "shit" encompasses all the schismatic contradictions of our cultural-scientific divides, and is thus problematic as a term to enable us to work toward resolutions. Still, its very protean nature suggests a cultural resonance not found in the other words.

Shit is used as an expression of dismay and disgust (a piece of shit) or frustration (oh shit), surprise or incredulity (no shit?!), or to describe trouble (in deep shit, up shit creek without a paddle), casual conversation (shoot the shit), cowardice (chickenshit), fear (shit one's pants), hysteria (apeshit), insincerity (horseshit, bullshit), care (to give a shit), anything that one doesn't like (looks like shit, tastes like shit), or substances, particularly illegal drugs, one likes (best shit I ever had). It is also one of the few words in the English language where the noun ("a pile of shit"), all tenses of the verb ("he shit, he shits, he will shit"), and the adjective (shitfaced), are all the same, a characteristic it has in common with the F-word. Andreas Schroeder, in his remarkable prison memoir Shaking It Rough, heard a fellow prisoner curse a broken machine by exclaiming, "The fuckin' fucker's fucked, fer fuck sakes!" Using the S-word in the same situation, however, would not have the same je ne sais quoi.

Like its sibling scat, shit has the same ancient proto-Indo-European root (skei-) as the word science, with a meaning having to do with separating one thing from another. This gives us the expletive "Scat!" used to shoo away wayward animals or children, or the staccato improvisations of jazz scat-singing, the scattering of seeds, the separation of dung from the anus, and the notion that someone is scatterbrained. These Indo-European roots are reflected in the Greek skhizein and Latin scire, which refer to cutting and splitting (hence telling one thing from another, as in "science," "conscience," and "conscious"). These words are all similar to excrement in their emphasis on "ex," something that separates from its origin.

This ability to separate reality into manageable pieces is at the root of the astounding success of industrial societies and modern science, and represents its greatest weakness. The strengths of disassembling the world and specialization are obvious: by understanding the bits (chemicals, bacteria, car axles, neural connections) we have accomplished amazing feats of chemistry, microbiology, industry, and neuroscience. The weakness has only become apparent after several centuries of success; indeed, the weakness may only be a weakness because of our success. We have saved so many babies, fed so many people, built so many cool cars that we are putting the whole globe at risk.

This weakness, a fundamental challenge for anyone talking about "sustainability," and reflected in the inability of cultural innovators (poets, novelists, musicians) and scientific investigators (biologists, physicists, coprologists) to speak comfortably with each other, to easily cross-reference each other's work, and to account for each other's evidence, is one of the central problems of the twenty-first century. We can assemble cars from parts created from metals mined in China and carbon-based liquids wrung from tar sands in Canada, and we can deconstruct and reconfigure genetic material to create tomatoes that live (albeit tastelessly) almost forever, but we cannot imagine our home in the universe. We can make heart-rending music, tell engrossing stories, and celebrate inspiring rituals, but, at anything other than an intellectual game level, are unable to relate this to our biological selves, our chemistry, and the physical structure of the universe. Ultimately, excrement is about all of these things.

Retired marine biologist Ralph Lewin has compiled a comprehensive summary of all things excremental, which he cleverly titled Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural, and Socio-historical Coprology. This evades the problem in English but simply (as is the case with many solutions to environmental and cultural problems) displaces the problem elsewhere, a kind of linguistic NIMBY.

Failing a good English word that encompasses dung, conscience, consciousness, excrement, and wholeness, and to underscore the fact that words are not the ineffable reality they seek to describe, I am partial to a wide array of descriptors for what passes from the bodies of animals, rather than one definitive representation. After all, like the idea of a Great Being (male, female, spirit), the substance we are talking about has many faces and plays many roles in nature and culture. In keeping with this, I have tried in this book to use the terms most appropriate to particular fields of inquiry (manure, dung, ordure, frass). I have also tried to vary the words I use, so as not bore you (or myself).

In the end, however, I often return to using the word shit, impolite and problematic as it is. It is one of the few words that storms successfully through all the artificial barricades we have erected to block the streets and alleys between the deodorized proletariat and the sanitized ruling class, between popular and academic culture, between science and everyday life.


Excerpted from The Origin of Feces by David Waltner-Toews. Copyright © 2013 David Waltner-Toews. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Waltner-Toews is a veterinarian and epidemiologist. He is the author of The Chickens Fight Back: Pandemic Panics and Deadly Diseases That Jump from Animals to People (Greystone Books, 2007) and Food, Sex and Salmonella: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick (Greystone Books, 2008).

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The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us about Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Surprisingly a dull and repetative read