A question for today — Is alcohol a happy byproduct of civilization? Or is it one of the reasons for our civilization?
The February, 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine explores this in an article entitled “A 9000-Year Love Affair”. It explains how alcohol is one of the most universally produced substances in history. In fact, examine the great transitions in our background, like the origin of farming, and there is a possible link to alcohol.
All of this may predate humans as a species, making a taste for alcohol a hardwired evolutionary trait. The active ingredient in all alcoholic beverages is made by yeasts. These single-celled organisms turn sugar into carbon dioxide and ethanol through fermentation. Ethanol makes us feel good by releasing brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. It also is easier to digest, and it has antiseptic qualities. An important food source for early mammals that ferments (thus containing ethanol) is fruit. Put these all together and you have some good reasons for leaving the safety of the trees to look for fruit past its expiration date on the jungle floor.
But why us (and our evolutionary cousins) and not other animals? Scientists have identified a genetic mutation that goes back at least 10 million years. This mutation allows us to digest ethanol up to 40 times faster, thus enjoying the benefits without suffering the ill effects. Without that mutation, our story could’ve ended right there; a drunken Homo would’ve been easy prey.
The problem now is we no longer have to forage for rotten fruit in the jungle. We can make alcohol in quantity, which means it’s easy to overindulge. The ancient Greeks certainly recognized this. As the article explains —
Mixing wine with water in a decorated vessel called a krater, Greek hosts served their (exclusively male) guests a first bowl for health, another for pleasure, and a third for sleep. “When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home,” the comic poet Eubulus warned in the fourth century B.C., according to one translation. “The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes. The eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the 10th to madness and the hurling of furniture.
Sounds like nothing has changed.