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Drinking Beer In Our DNA

First a little good news to ring in the new year. According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, a thirst for alcohol may indeed be hardwired in our DNA. And perhaps more importantly, unlike some other mammals, we appear to be predisposed to drink it in moderation, in direct contradiction with claims of neo-prohibitionist propaganda. According to an article by Natalie Angier in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune (via the New York Times News Service), “[t]he holidays are a time of multicreedal spirituality and festivities, and alcohol has been a fixture of celebration and religious ritual since humans first learned to play and pray.”

From the Tribune article:

“As far back as we can look, humans have had a love affair with fermented beverages,” said Patrick McGovern, an archeological chemist at the University of Pennsylvania. “And it’s not just humans. From fruit flies to elephants, if you give them a source of alcohol and sugar, they love it.”

McGovern and other archeologists have unearthed extensive evidence of the antiquity and ubiquity of alcoholic beverages. One of the oldest known recipes, inscribed on a Sumerian clay tablet that dates to nearly 4,000 years, is for beer. Chemical traces inside 9,000-year-old pottery from northern China indicate that the citizens of Jiahu made a wine from rice, grapes, hawthorn and honey.

Humans may have an added reason to be drawn to alcohol. Throughout antiquity, available water was likely to be polluted with cholera and other dangerous microbes, and the tavern may well have been the safest watering hole in town. Not only is alcohol a mild antiseptic, but the process of brewing alcoholic beverages often requires that the liquid be boiled or subjected to similarly sterilizing treatments. “It’s possible that people who drank fermented beverages tended to live longer and reproduce more” than did their teetotaling peers, McGovern said, “which may partly explain why people have a proclivity to drink alcohol.”

What I find most interesting about this is that for much of mankind’s history, because of poor sanitation, drinking alcoholic beverages was safer than water, which led to such labels as “liquid bread” for beer. Without understanding why, people discovered that they were better off with booze than bacteria. But even after drinking water became safe as our understanding of the world increased, people still enjoyed a pint from time to time. Of course, there’s the social lubricant aspect that remains prevalent today, which still may be an aid to reproduction. But as for promoting health, hardly a month goes by without another new claim that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol has a previously undiscovered health benefit. I find it reasonable and altogether ironic that these two reasons for or benefits from drinking, which have literally been around since the dawn of civilization, are not only still with us but are largely unchanged since we crawled out of the muck and first stood erect. As if the lessons of prohibition weren’t obvious enough, we are a species who drinks. And no amount of proselytizing or preaching can change that. To which I can only reply, cheers to that!


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