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QotD: Alcohol and Human Evolution

"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. In a community lacking pure-water supplies, the closest thing to "pure" fluid was alcohol. Whatever health risks were posed by beer (and later wine) in the early days of agrarian settlements were more than offset by alcohol's antibacterial properties. Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties. Many genetically minded historians believe that the confluence of urban living and the discovery of alcohol created a massive selection pressure on the genes of all humans who abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Alcohol, after all, is a deadly poison and notoriously addictive. To digest large quantities of it, you need to be able to boost production of enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases, a trait regulated by a set of genes on chromosome four in human DNA. Many early agrarians lacked that trait, and thus were genetically incapable of "holding their liquor." Consequently, many of them died childless at an early age, either from alcohol abuse or from waterborne diseases. Over generations, the gene pool of the first farmers became increasingly dominated by individuals who could drink beer on a regular basis. Most of the world population today is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol. (The same is true of lactose tolerance, which went from a rare genetic trait to the mainstream among descendants of the herders, thanks to domestication of livestock.) The descendants of hunter gatherers--like many Native Americans or Australian Aborigines--were never forced through this genetic bottleneck, and so today they show disproportionate rates of alcoholism. The chronic drinking problem in Native American populations has been blamed on everything from the weak "Indian constitution" to the humiliating abuses of the U.S. reservation system. But their alcohol intolerance most likely has another explanation: their ancestors didn't live in towns."
--Steven Johnson, in The Ghost Map, pages 103-4.

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
bobby1933
Mar. 18th, 2013 12:11 am (UTC)
Beer and evolution
Fascinating!

Regarding American Indians: This may account for the inability of First People to tolerate alcohol, it certainly does not account. except in an indirect and small way, for the the miserable conditions under which they live or for the age and rate at which they die.
liveonearth
Mar. 18th, 2013 12:45 am (UTC)
Re: Beer and evolution
No doubt the North American tribes got a bad deal, not the least of which is the wretched lands they got in exchange for giving up their customary hunting and fishing ranges.... and the imposition of a corrupt foreign culture happening simultaneously with the disruption of their native ways.

Just a few nights ago I went to hear Sherman Alexie speak here in Portland, and it was one of the most entertaining talks I've heard in a long time. He asserted that you do the most for your quality of life by willing to leave behind your traditional ways and learn other things, then by going back and choosing the traditions that you wish to keep. His personal philosophy sounded very....young....to me, but the audience was young too, with a large proportion of high school students. As a First Nation person who'd made the break from his tribe enough to become a successful novelist in America, he was in a unique position to tell young people that they can do what they need to do, still, if they have the guts. At least he did, and he had no special advantage. And though his tribe may not be proud of everything he is and does, he is proud of them and builds the stature of natives in the larger world.

Not sure what relevance that has but it wanted to come out. =-] He had a serious pottymouth too, but I think that was part of his attempt to build rapport with the youth.
bobby1933
Mar. 18th, 2013 02:02 am (UTC)
Re: Beer and evolution
There is cultural evolution, but there is also culture shock.

Europe hit North America like a sudden unseasonable ice age and about 90 percent of the population could not survive it. There is the material life which can and must change; then there is the soul that either remains constant or dies. American Indians are trying to hold on to their souls in an increasingly soul sucking environment. I wish them good luck.
madman101
Mar. 18th, 2013 02:45 am (UTC)
Re: Beer and evolution
soul food, yum
madman101
Mar. 18th, 2013 02:44 am (UTC)
Re: Beer and evolution
considering where to live, i have seriously entertained moving to Vancouver Island, or etc., to be near or amongst a first nation. knowing they independently have opposed Keystone, and maintain their own identity, makes me think of them as possibly harbouring progress towards the future, as far as philosophy, activism, spirituality, survaival, etc.

i am presently looking at Sylvia, NC, which is very near Cherokee - which may be nice in the same way, but I have absolutely no info on Cherokee yet.

I have, as you might guess, have had a long interest in alcohol and evolution, holding-ones-alcohol, the effect on Native Americans, etc. (I am extremely good at metabolising my alc, btw. I was once arrested for DUI, but then unarrested at the station, since I did not have the illegal amount on my breath). But, seriously, not to consider bragging, the thing that hits me about this wonderful post is the fact that it's stuff I've known for a long time - and I wonder how that could be. I wonder if my knowledge came from reading science stories, or if it came from my own hypothesising, of which I did a lot. However, it is a surprise and delight to actually read something I already know, since most of the time I have paper mache for a neocortex. still, i love that you posted this, as I think it is a wonderful topic. i wish i could pick up the loose ends and begin mulling about it again.
anais_pf
Mar. 18th, 2013 01:14 am (UTC)
I read that book last summer and LOVED it. Really fascinating in several different ways.
liveonearth
Mar. 18th, 2013 03:31 am (UTC)
Yeah, I found it a fruitful read from a bunch of angles. Glad you liked it too~!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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