Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Taste Of . . . Civilization

The sign above is one that, in a slightly differnt form, was on the wall of my favorite pizza parlor where I grew up. Later, when I began to study history, I was amazed to find out just how significant a role beer, wine and mead played in the development of modern civilization. Its mind altering tendincies were no doubt appreciated, but more important by far was the fact that the process of making alcohol kills off all the other nasty bacteria and the like. In other words, beer provided a safe alternative to polluted water. George Will ponders this relationship in an interesting column today, "Survival of the Suddsiest."

This from Mr. Will:

Perhaps, like many sensible citizens, you read Investor's Business Daily for its sturdy common sense in defending free markets and other rational arrangements. If so, you too may have been startled recently by an astonishing statement on that newspaper's front page. . . . The story asserted: "The [alcoholic beverage] industry's continued growth, however slight, has been a surprise to those who figured that when the economy turned south, consumers would cut back on nonessential items like beer."

"Non wh at"? Do not try to peddle that proposition in the bleachers or at the beaches in July. It is closer to the truth to say: No beer, no civilization.

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."

. . . Suffice it to say that the good news is really good: Beer is a health food. And you do not need to buy it from those wan, unhealthy-looking people who, peering disapprovingly at you through rimless Trotsky-style spectacles, seem to run all the health food stores.

So let there be no more loose talk -- especially not now, with summer arriving -- about beer not being essential. Benjamin Franklin was, as usual, on to something when he said, "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Or, less judgmentally, and for secular people who favor a wall of separation between church and tavern, beer is evidence that nature wants us to be.

Read the entire article.

Update: A wine snob differs, based on the drinking habits, apparently, of our mammal cousins in the bush. Certainly by the time of the great civilization of Egypt, there is no question that beer was king. My own study led me to believe that mead was the first alcoholic beverage in popular use, at least amongst northern Europeans. Whatever the case may be, this pedantic pondering is building a thirst, and an ice cold glass of mead is sounding mighty good at the moment.


Peter Horne said...

Quite right. The British were able to live in much larger cities than other European countries, even without proper sanitation because they never drank water, partly because they drank beer. The main reason, however was that they drank large amounts of tea. Not only did the water have to be boiled but tea has a mildly antibiotic effect. The only other country which managed the same was Japan and for the same reason. They also drank large amounts of tea.
Hang on while I put the kettle on...

Soccer Dad said...

I think you're having way too much fun with those motivational posters!


You might appreciate this and this.

suek said...


Then we have to consider the muslims...

GW said...

Peter: I lived in S. Korea for several years in a locale and during a time when the water really was still polluted. We lived on tea and rice wine - with the occaisional rice beer thrown in (the taste really grows on you). I have not researched when tea first made its way to England, but I recall reading the typical diet of a British noble family in the Middle Ages - the quantities of ale and mead consumed were downright prodigious.

GW said...

Suek: I know many a Muslim (and many a Southern Baptist) who can drink me under the table - whilst chewing on pork rinds and a bacon wrapped pig burger. There is a long tradition of home brewing amongst Middle Eastern Muslims, also. So they had to be doing something to allow major cities to flourish - and particularly Baghdad which, a millenia ago, was the most developed city in the world with the most educated and enlightened population. Tea, probably. Home Brew, I am pretty sure of that too.

GW said...

SD: That joke is hilarious. And tapping a keg does make for fast friends pretty much across any cultural divide.