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Beer and Civilization

Political pundit George Will, in his most recent column — Survival of the Sudsiest — took issue with Investor’s Business Daily considering beer to be a non-essential during hard economic times. And he was quite right to do so, as statistical data tends to suggest that beer is all but recession-proof. One would have thought somebody at IBD would have known that — or looked it up? — instead of just winging it with statements like the beer “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.” I don’t know who “those” people are, but I don’t think I want to take my financial advice from people who would ignore decades of historical data and go with their gut. Obviously, those guts are not filled with beer.

But perhaps the most interesting part of Will’s column was something he read in a 2006 book by Steven Johnson entitled The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. In Johnson’s book, he discusses how at the dawn of civilization, survival often depended on how a person’s body reacted to and could tolerate the beer that was generally safer to drink than water. Over time, only people who were genetically predisposed with the ability to drink large quantities of beer survived, passing that trait down to their children so that perhaps today most of us have such an ancestor as evidenced simply by the fact that we’re here. As Will (and Johnson) explains.

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.”

There’s a curious side consequence to this idea. I wonder how neo-prohibitionists will feel knowing that it may have been beer that made it possible for them to be alive today, complaining that beer is inherently evil and destructive of society. If indeed, as Johnson argues, beer may have saved civilization by offering those who could tolerate it a safer alternative to the disease-laden water of ancient times, then it becomes harder to defend the position that beer destroys society.

Last year, I got a particularly venomous, hate-filled comment, by a person calling himself the “savagist,” to one of my posts about hunter-gathers and early beer-making. It was one of those screaming screeds claiming I had no archeological evidence (but offering none of their own) and calling me and the ideas I was writing about all sorts of names. His attack was quite personal and very verbally savage (pun intended) which was all the more surprising since one of his points appeared to be that a society with alcohol created “imperialistic, druken (sic) goofs who create warrior classes.” I would have thought the opposite of such people might reasonably be expected to communicate their disagreements a bit more gently than the drunken warrior class that I — apparently — belong to.

No matter, Johnson is saying essentially what I was last year, but with even more authority, research, evidence and science. Between his book, and the wealth of historical record and scientific research, it seems to me pretty well settled that beer and wine had a very positive impact on early civilization’s growth. That most of us are here today as a direct result of alcohol, is just the icing on the cake, or perhaps more appropriately, the head on our beer. Survival of sudsiest, indeed.


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