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Survival of the Sudsiest

By George F. Will
Thursday, July 10, 2008

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. It was in a report on the intention of the world's second-largest brewer, Belgium's InBev, to buy control of the third-largest, Anheuser-Busch, for $46.3 billion. 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."

Johnson suggests, not unreasonably, that this explains why certain of the world's population groups, such as Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, have had disproportionately high levels of alcoholism: These groups never endured the cruel culling of the genetically unfortunate that town dwellers endured. If so, the high alcoholism rates among Native Americans are not, or at least not entirely, ascribable to the humiliations and deprivations of the reservation system. Rather, the explanation is that not enough of their ancestors lived in towns.

But that is a potential stew of racial or ethnic sensitivities that we need not stir in this correction of Investor's Business Daily. 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.

georgewill@washpost.com

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