George Will explains the Survival of the Sudsiest
The development of civilization depended on urbanization, which depended on beer. To understand why, consult Steven Johnson’s marvelous 2006 book, “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.” It is a great scientific detective story about how a horrific cholera outbreak was traced to a particular neighborhood pump for drinking water. And Johnson begins a mind-opening excursion into a related topic this way:
“The search for unpolluted drinking water is as old as civilization itself. As soon as there were mass human settlements, waterborne diseases like dysentery became a crucial population bottleneck. For much of human history, the solution to this chronic public-health issue was not purifying the water supply. The solution was to drink alcohol.”
Often the most pure fluid available was alcohol — in beer and, later, wine — which has antibacterial properties. Sure, alcohol has its hazards, but as Johnson breezily observes, “Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties.” Besides, alcohol, although it is a poison, and an addictive one, became, especially in beer, a driver of a species-strengthening selection process.
Johnson notes that historians interested in genetics believe that the roughly simultaneous emergence of urban living and the manufacturing of alcohol set the stage for a survival-of-the-fittest sorting-out among the people who abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and, literally and figuratively speaking, went to town.
To avoid dangerous water, people had to drink large quantities of, say, beer. But to digest that beer, individuals needed a genetic advantage that not everyone had — what Johnson describes as the body’s ability to respond to the intake of alcohol by increasing the production of particular enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases. This ability is controlled by certain genes on chromosome four in human DNA, genes not evenly distributed to everyone. Those who lacked this trait could not, as the saying goes, “hold their liquor.” So, many died early and childless, either of alcohol’s toxicity or from waterborne diseases.
The gene pools of human settlements became progressively dominated by the survivors — by those genetically disposed to, well, drink beer. “Most of the world’s population today,” Johnson writes, “is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol.”
Dave Schuler adds to James Joyner‘s post by saying,
The connection between civilization and beer is even stronger than George Will alleges. Nomads can do a lot of things but it’s darned hard to brew mead or beer unless you adopt a sedentary habit. There are anthropologists who believe that human beings founded the first permanent settlements in order to brew mead or beer. Beer-drinking anthropologists, naturally.
I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a beer in Joyner’s company and have seen George Will drink a beer too, so we can all drink to that.
Beer continues to refect man’s history: Last year The Incontiguous Brick posted on how Biofuels cause higher beer prices when German farmers switch to those crops instead of growing barley. And of course, in the presidential campaign this year, Cindy McCain is an executive at an Anheuser-Busch distributor in Phoenix. Stephen Bainbridge explains why beer stocks are a good place to park your money during a downturn.
The perfect topics for a hot Summer afternoon: beer and books.