Alcohol, Civilization and Genetics

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Badfellow
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Alcohol, Civilization and Genetics

Post by Badfellow »

Here's an exerpt from The Ghost Map by Steven Berlin Johnson, a book that details the London cholera epidemic of 1854. Take a moment to digest it. He brings up some interesting points.
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 or the first farmers became increasingly dominated by individuals who could drink beer on a regular basis. Most of the world's 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 the descendants of the herders, thanks to the 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.
Any thoughts?
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Post by Merc »

Brilliant
This is very much in line with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel
a fabulous book about civilizations and how people turned out the way they turned out

But it doesn't explain China. Why can't Chinese people not hold their alcohol since they established towns a long time ago. Shouldn't they have also adapted to being able to handle alcohol instead of taking one shot and becoming a tomato?

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Post by hoverdog »

In certain historical novel's I've read it was soldier's wisdom to only drink beer and wine, never water. Staying perpetually drunk helped cope with the shit and gore, and avoiding water protected against disease.
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Post by Frankennietzsche »

Merc wrote:
But it doesn't explain China. Why can't Chinese people not hold their alcohol since they established towns a long time ago. Shouldn't they have also adapted to being able to handle alcohol instead of taking one shot and becoming a tomato?
The great mass of China's people have been pretty dirt poor for ever. I wonder if those who can tolerate alcohol descend from some ethnicity that were more upper class than those who cannot tolerate it.
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Post by Seb »

Merc wrote: But it doesn't explain China. Why can't Chinese people not hold their alcohol since they established towns a long time ago. Shouldn't they have also adapted to being able to handle alcohol instead of taking one shot and becoming a tomato?
my personal theory was that they descovered tea which meant boiling the water which killer the bad stuff, where as for example people in england at the same time period would be drinking beer. any thoughts on this?

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Post by Badfellow »

Seb wrote:
Merc wrote: But it doesn't explain China. Why can't Chinese people not hold their alcohol since they established towns a long time ago...
my personal theory was that they descovered tea which meant boiling the water which killer the bad stuff, where as for example people in england at the same time period would be drinking beer. any thoughts on this?
You are quite correct. Another factor to consider is the roll that opium played in displacing alcohol from Chinese culture as the preferred mode of inebriation.
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Post by Seb »

Very true and something i hadnt thought about. I think between the tea and the opium we've cracked it. Hell with as much tea and opium as i could ever want i might even consider (for a moment at least) not bothering with booze

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Post by Oggar »

It is an interesting hypothesis if nothing else. Early settlers in America attempted to make drinking water safe by mixing distilled spirits with it. Which sadly is ineffective although red wine will do a fair job. Now clearly there is a genetic element to it but the most recent study done by the University of Wisconsin in Madison found no link between liver disease and drinking. Wisconsin ranks number one across the board in drinking and comes in 43 in liver disease. The states that have the highest incidences of liver disease tended to be in dry areas. They suspect this was due to the consumption of moonshine which has a tendancy to be polluted with lead and mercury. Heavy metals that are known to beat the fuck out of your liver.

In the ancient world there was little to no distillation and the pipes that conveyed water to Rome were lead as were some of the drinking vessels. Now what is facinating to me is the corralation of the booze loving monkeys of St. Kitts and their consumptive habit compared with humans*. They fall directly in line with drinking studies done on humans in percentages and types of drinking. Which I think fairly shoots the Ghost Map theory out of the water.

* http://www.noldus.com/events/mb98/abstracts/palmour.htm
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg1 ... -tail.html
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Post by Jimmy&Guinney »

Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties.
This is a deep and profound statement.
And they say her flower is faded now
Hard weather and hard booze
But maybe that's just the price you pay
For the chains you refuse

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Post by drunkiejohn »

I'm with Oggar on not completely buying the selection pressure for alcohol tolerance. Alcohol just isn't a deadly enough toxin to kill off masses of people who physically can't handle drinking copious amounts. (Accidents, sure; but not poisonings.)

There is quite strong evidence, though, that human settlements and the domestication of barley and other grains occurred at roughly the same time in the Middle East. Check out http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news ... tbeer.html (article's too long to cut and paste)

People apparently wanted to stay in one place long enought to allow for planting, brewing, fermentation, consumption, and repetition of all.

P.S. Definitely check out the Brickeller mentioned in the article the next time you're in the D.C. area. The atmosphere isn't all that great, but the coolers hold around 1,000 brands of beer.
If I had a nickel for every time I drank too much, I'd buy another case.

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Post by Badfellow »

I've heard the arguement stated before that Native Americans are an example of a population that is "genetically deficient" in production of alcohol hydrogenase enzymes. Personally, it sits fishy with me, or perhaps it's that I have a hard time accepting any idea that predisposes the matter of human free will toward any sort of genetic destiny.

In the case of the Native American, there was clearly a cultural basis at play that would seem to negate the genetic arguement. The simple reason they became so overwhelmingly intoxicated is that they viewed strong liquor in the same light that they viewed any of the psychoactives within the medicine man's repertoire. Drunkenness was a gift from the manitou not to be undertaken half heartedly (something I can relate to). The Native American guzzled the brandy, rum and whiskey he encountered to a degree that astounded early American settlers, who were themselves no strangers to guzzling booze. The Native American was no more a of lightweight than any man of European blood who subsequently entered a stupor after downing a jug of strong liquor.

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Post by Oggar »

The shamanistic element is underscored by a number of written accounts where in the American Indians were only able to attain enough booze (lets say a quart or so) to get everybody buzzed or one of them off world. They would usually select one of there number to get completely shitpiled as opposed to splitting it up. Later when it became widely available booze became the default as it was easier to obtain than any of the traditional substances. Many treaties even specify right to grow or use traditional herbal psychoactives but those passages had been roundly ignored or flat out trampled by the fedral government until fairly recently. Even a few years ago the feds quashed an attempt by the Pine Ridge Dakota to grow hemp.

Nature v Nurture is always an interesting topic. I tend to side with the U of M Twin Study that lands 70/30 in favor of Nature.
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Post by Professor Roomie »

Don't forget the South American Indians that did have their own booze before white people showed up. Their drinking culture was vastly different from that of North American Indians.
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