liveonearth (liveonearth) wrote,
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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.
Tags: addiction, alcohol, beer, enzymes, evolution, farming, genetics, liver, natives, pollution, public health, tribes, urban, water
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