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The Origin of Feces

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

David Waltner-Toews

Once we are safely out of the intestines, back into the light of day at the other end, 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.

First a note about nomenclature. Shit goes by many names, including the four-letter variety. Being corporeal creatures with regular bodily functions we have to talk about this taboo more than we'd like and, necessity being the mother of invention, there exists an almost unmatched taxonomic diversity of euphemisms that exist for poop. Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought, rattled off at least 40, but Waltner-Toews adds a few more obscure entries, like exuviae, to go along with ordure, spraint, doo-doo, biosolids, night soil, roadapples, and of course humanure.

A veterinarian and epidemiologist by training, Waltner-Toews asks us to stop snickering and grapple seriously with the implications of the 400 million metric tons of the stuff we homo sapiens produce every year. If you're squeamish about scat, just remember: Jesus was responsible for two metric tons in his lifetime. Mohammed, who likely lived twice as long, was responsible for four. "Have a look in the toilet," Waltner-Toews invites us, reminding us that our body sheds some of its billions of dead cells daily through defecation. "That's not just a stool sample: that's the old you. That's life."

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For eons feces has served as a benign, even life-giving, agent in the world, fertilizing the earth, dispersing seeds, cycling carbon and generally making the planet work. In the animal world, it retains this benevolent reputation. African bushbucks send sexual signals with their droppings. Many animals, rabbits most notably, eat theirs, suffering nutritional deficiencies otherwise. "A deer doe," Waltner-Toews writes, "will eat her fawn's feces for the first month of life in order to avoid attracting predators. Funny, I don't remember that from Bambi."

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We learn that by fertilizing the deep with iron-rich poop, sperm whales in the Antarctic Ocean are responsible for removing 200,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Similar feats of carbon cycling are performed by schools of defecating fish. In fact, life on Earth owes its very existence to the metabolic waste products of ancient bacteria, and Waltner-Toews has fun with this inversion: "While anaerobic bacteria may be offended at the scent of oxygen farts passing from a bush, most of us relish the fresh scent of clean air in the woods at night."

For humans, however, especially since they began aggregating in cities and carrying out petroleum-powered industrial agriculture on a massive scale (which is responsible for unimaginable quantities of waste), unprecedented amounts of poop are being concentrated in fewer places, Waltner-Toews warns, with threats to public health, the food supply and the diversity of life on earth. In the place of biodiverse ecosystems we raise monocultures of plants and livestock that we then ship to cities, where they are transformed to feces by humans, sent to sewage systems, and returned to the environment in a harmful concentrated form. The cycle that has replenished the planet for millennia has become a one-way degradation of one of our most valuable resources. Or, as the author puts it: "We are transforming a wonderful, complex planet into piles of shit."

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