June 20, 2009

Evolutionary impact of alcohol?

It's fairly obvious that when alcohol first hits a human population, whether Middle Easterners in the time of Noah and Lot or aboriginal populations in the New World, Pacific, and Australia in more recent times, it takes a terrible toll until gene frequencies and/or cultural traditions better suited for dealing with liquor emerge.

On the other hand, could the invention of alcohol allow for more far-reaching personality adaptations? By way of analogy, consider the theory proposed by both Jerry Pournelle and Temple Grandin: that the domestication of the dog allowed humans to offload to their canine companions much of the job of sophisticated smell cognition used in tracking game, thus freeing up valuable cubic centimeters of the brain for newer purposes.

Perhaps alcohol enables one individual to display a wider range of personalities than can be achieved through solely genetic means, thus allowing personalities to evolve farther in directions suitable for making a living, while still allowing people to display different traits in the evening.

What if the invention of alcohol allowed a single genome to exhibit different personalities at different times? Germans, say, could thus evolve personalities making them tend to be intense worrywarts, propelling their society into a model of technical competence. But who wants to be around other neurotics all the time? Yet, a couple of beers after work could allow the same Germans to turn into amiable, temporarily carefree companions, making social bonding more feasible.

Or the Japanese could evolve to be so intensely sensitive to the feelings of other Japanese that their culture becomes a byword for courtesy and politely vague conversations that don't hurt anybody's feelings or convey much explicit information. Yet, after a couple of shots of sake at one of their countless boys' nights out, the salaryman might suddenly feel free to tell his boss exactly how he's screwing up next year's sales forecast.

I presume this is just another evolutionary Just So story. But, it might be worth looking into through cross-cultural comparisons.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

42 comments:

Black Sea said...

"Or the Japanese could evolve to be so intensely sensitive to the feelings of other Japanese that their culture becomes a byword for courtesy and politely vague conversations that don't . . . convey much explicit information."

Somewhat OT, one of the more interesting comments I ever heard about the difficulty of learning the Japanese language came from a Japanese student who pointed out that, because Japan is so culturally homogenous, in many situations a Japanese person need say almost nothing, perhaps a single sentence or phrase, because the other person undrestands all that is implied therein, and understands or anticpates it even before a word is spoken, whereas a foreigner would find these cultural implications nearly impossible to pick up.

To put it, perhaps, in more familiar terms, in British English the expression, "well done" would seem to convey something considerably more sober and substantial than "good job" or "bravo," though the differences would have to be elusive for a non-native speaker.

Anonymous said...

Steve,
Japan is interesting. As many as 50% lack a gene that involves digestion of alcohol and their faces turn red shortly after drinking alcohol. OTOH, I know a lot of Japanese who drink heavily virtually every day, and these guys wake up the next day to work a full schedule. I think i read somewhere about another gene that protects japanese from becoming alcoholics. I wouldn't be surprised, but a little googling didn't turn up any leads.

http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/167/4/388

Anonymous said...

"a Japanese student who pointed out that, because Japan is so culturally homogenous, in many situations a Japanese person need say almost nothing,"

Japanese can be thought of as a "telegraphic" language. In English, if we were writing or speaking we would say, "I left the keys on the desk. I'll be back on Friday. I'll try to call you tomorrow." but if sending a telegram, we would write, "Left keys on desk. Back on Friday. Try to call tomorrow." and be perfectly understood. In Japanese, telegraphic sentences are the norm in everyday speech.

Vernunft said...

What happened to us Irish, then?

Henry Canaday said...

It may depend on the type of alcohol consumed. The Stalin-biographer Alex DeJonge thought the pattern of European alcohol consumption was important: grain alcohols in the far north, beer in the middle latitudes and wine in the south, near the Mediterranean.

High-proof grains alcohols may have helped render northerners, who might possess the best average minds, relatively backward by European standards.

Lower-proof wines are light and tasty, so they can be consumed in large volumes over hot days. Southern Europeans tend to be quite competent, but never to get all that much done.

Beer tends to be the lowest in alcohol content per volume consumed. So beer drinkers generally limit their consumption of both liquid and alcohol. The beer drinkers in England, Germany and the lowlands seem to have generally led Europe in industrialization and science. Of course, their decent but not excessively easy climate may have played a larger role in this advantage.

Admittedly, this is not your alcohol->further evolution argument, but a nature+social environment proposition. But once a society has established a different standard for competitive success, does this not influence the gene frequencies in future generations?

Bill said...

Actually, I think it's pretty important. During the Zhou dynasty, according to reports, the Chinese had a very large problem with drunkenness. Today, about half of Chinese have a gene that makes them intolerant of alcohol.

I think this is a negative adaptation. Northern Europeans, on the other hand, seem to have taken the opposite path.

In my family, we have a high incidence of essential tremor, which appears to be alleviated by alcohol consumption. The tremor also seems to make people live about 10 years longer than usual.

My guess is that it is a possible adaptation to chronic alcohol consumption. Europeans drank heavily for hundreds of years, if not millennia, and it would make sense that they developed some psychological traits that conferred some resistance to its consumption. In fact, alcohol temporarily cures ET, and those with ET have significantly higher native tolerance to ethanol.

Unfortunately, those with ET have more difficulty with verbal fluency and working memory, even though they have higher than average nonverbal conceptualization and reasoning skills. This seems to be related to dopamine pathways in the prefrontal cortex, which may suggest that those with less melanin are more prone to the disease, so it may be an adaptation to less solar radiation as well.

Either way, ET sucks, even if it does confer extra longevity. I really do suspect ethanol has something to do with its prevalence in certain populations.

Anonymous said...

"At the present time the Nordic race is undergoing selection through alcoholism, a peculiarly Nordic vice, and through consumption, and both these dread scourges unfortunately attack those members of the race that are otherwise most desirable, differing in this respect from filth diseases like typhus, typhoid, or smallpox. One has only to look among the more desirable classes for the victims of rum and tubercule to realize that death or mental and physical impairment through these two causes have cost the race many of its most brilliant and attractive members." - http://books.google.com/books?pg=PA50&lpg=PA50&dq=alcoholism+The+Passing+of+the+great+Race&sig=ZpWr4kJcKth4ZTqrFaUCr-KpGwU&ei=1cI8Svf9L5aWMfrJsawO&ct=result&id=6VgZAAAAYAAJ&ots=6A2pggzLjh&output=text

Anonymous said...

As many as 50% lack a gene that involves digestion of alcohol and their faces turn red shortly after drinking alcohol. OTOH, I know a lot of Japanese who drink heavily virtually every day, and these guys wake up the next day to work a full schedule. I think i read somewhere about another gene that protects japanese from becoming alcoholics

I read this too, but that the gene that turns the face red prevents digestion, so you can't drink a lot, e.g., 10-15 drinks at a sitting. To become a full-on alcoholic, you need to be drinking at that type of level, hence, few Japanese alcoholics.

Read that a long time ago, don't know if it's accurate.

Anonymous said...

"What happened to us Irish, then?"

The theory of alcoholism to which Steve alluded in this post (and which is mentioned in Cochran's and Harpending's recent book) says that alcoholism is more prevalent in northern than in southern Europe because the north adopted agriculture later than the south. According to this theory Italians, etc. simply have had more time to adapt to booze than Russians or Swedes. This theory presupposes that hunter-gatherer societies did not know alcohol.

Agriculture was introduced to Europe from the Middle East through Turkey and Greece. Ireland is near the opposite corner of Europe, so it was a late adopter.

I can't say that I'm convinced by this theory. There's definitely a north/south alcoholism gradient, but I don't know what caused it. In antiquity and during the Middle Ages the principle alcoholic drink of northern Europe was mead, which was made from honey. Honey was available to hunter-gatherers. It was one of the things they gathered. I remember once reading about modern hunter-gatherer pygmies being fond of honey.

Agriculture may not have been a prerequisite for alcoholism.

Dutch Boy said...

The Japanese are indeed sensitive to the feelings of their superiors. In Samurai days, insufficient deference to your betters could end up in your demise at their hands (killing and walking on, as the Samurai phrased it).

Anonymous said...

"What happened to us Irish, then?"

Catholicism.

josh said...

Didn't beermaking originate in the middle east? Didn't they have some kind of Palm wine in Sub Saharan Africa?

Don't know whether this holds up at all, but it is a very clever just-so story.

Shawn said...

I suspect that alcohol has affected the Irish temper. How did the "Irish temper" evolve and has alcohol had an effect on this?

I have noticed that "Irish temper" seems to be focused on those Irish with Black hair--the "Black Irish."

Melykin said...

Indeed, what about the Irish and Scots, and Swedes and Russians? It seems as if alcoholism afflicts something like 20% of northern Eurasians (or at least a greater portion than southern Eurasians). Perhaps these populations were exposed to alcohol at a later date, and haven't adapted as much protection from alcoholism yet?

Even in southern Europe and Asia there are a few alcoholics -- maybe something like 5% of the population. Why were they not stamped out entirely? Perhaps genes that create alcoholism also confer some advantage. It seems as if a lot of writers, poets and musicians are alcoholic.

headache said...

For Germans beer has always been an integral cultural component. It was developed by monks which tells you everything you need to know about the brew. You rarely find or found the negative stigma attached to beer which is prevalent amongst American puritans. In Bavaria beer is legally classified as food, and a train driver is legally permitted to consume 6 Maß Beer per day, that is 6 liters per day. One has to add that German beer generally has lower alcohol levels than US or British beer. This law comes from the days when stoking the locomotive was hard work and beer was used both as beverage and a form of liquid food, which it is. Martin Luther also said that tree-fellers and forest workers should be allowed to get drunk after work because their work is harsh, dangerous and the many cuts and bruises need to be anaesthetized. So yes, I think Germans realized long ago already that they need a balancing factor to compensate for the rigors of technical prowess and prior to WWII, war.

LemmusLemmus said...

I like the general idea of the post, but I think your example of the Germans is misguided. After all, we're genetically not much different from the Dutch or the French, neither of whom have a name for worrying or engineering. (I am assuming the stereotypes are correct.) You could tell a similar story about cultural evolution, though.

"In Bavaria (...) a train driver is legally permitted to consume 6 Maß Beer per day, that is 6 liters per day."

I very, very strongly doubt this.

Thursday said...

A lot of Northern Europeans can't seem to do the mating thing without alcohol. I've known a lot of girls who are extremely defensive around guys, to the point of rejecting guys they actually like, unless they have alcohol in their system.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Irish drunkenness may be a later phenomenon, related more to moving to the cities and then to London or the US. My older Irish friends from villages tell me that they, and especially their grandparents, regarded public drunkenness as shameful.

testing99 said...

Steve, that's pushing it. First, Germans were not always the "intense worrywarts" that you see today, that's a relatively recent, Prussian influence. Most of German history prior to unification was of disunited, intensely individualistic (primogeniture was never something Germans went in for, resulting in fractured, tiny states), and often chaotic activities and personalities.

Germany was hardly the power it was during the 20th Century. During the Thirty Years War, a third of German speakers were killed, and everyone from Sweden, to the Poles, to the French, to various non-state militias and mercenaries had the disunited Germans as their mostly defenseless punching bags.

Rather, Alcohol and booze is valuable before modern sanitation because it killed (most) bacteria. Drinking mild beer, or mixing it with water, allowed more people to live longer, kids to grow up and have lesser mortality with things like Dysentery, and so on. It had real value to people packed fairly close together, and thus in need of something to deal with the bacterial threats sustained close living brings.

The Japanese and Chinese had tea (boiled water is generally healthy), the Europeans booze, both did well in generating big population increases and the ability to muster deeper/wider resources. As noted, beer was often thought of as liquid bread, and in the US turning corn into far more transportable whiskey has a long, pre-Revolutionary history. As well as the usefulness of whiskey in killing off bacteria if drunk in diluted quantities.

Truth said...

Now this, Steve-O is an interesting post. This is an all-to-rare example of why I follow your blog.

In the genetic lottery, one advantage that I am personally convinced by, is that whites (possibly not the Irish) have an advantage in metabolising drugs and alcohol. I'm not sure why, but there just seem to be a much higher percentage of white addicts who are "functional" than any other group.

A friend of mine (black) who owns a construction company in St. Louis was talking to me about the problems of black employees one day and he summed it up like this:

"All races drink, do drugs and have under-the-table sex on weekends, but the white guys just seem to come to work on Monday more often."

Richard Hoste said...

It's interesting that the major world religion that bans alcohol has arranged marriages. I don't know which came first, but maybe your extended family being your social circle and not having to worry about finding a wife or making friends makes the social lubricant unnecessary.

Anonymous said...

"High-proof grains alcohols may have helped render northerners, who might possess the best average minds, relatively backward by European standards."

Distilling was invented in the Middle East only about a thousand years ago. It quickly spread across the world, hitting northern Europe especially hard. Before 1000 AD there were no distilled spirits anywhere, northern Europeans drank mead (which didn't much differ in alcohol content from wine), and the Mediterranean led Europe culturally. The north outpaced the Mediterranean after roughly 1500, already AFTER the spread of distillation.

John Seiler said...

It's not online, but earlier in 2009 (I forget the exact month) the AKC's Family Dog magazine had a theory similar to Pournelle's. The article was on how humans beat the Neanderthals because humans and dogs evolved together as hunters of small animals. The human-dog combination was especially effective in hunting small animals that were the only thing available when large animals weren't around, or were hunted to extinction. The resulting protein advantage helped the humans survive. The Neanderthals had no such relationship with dogs.

The article also said that dogs became especially sensitive to human commands and emotions, even able to read emotion on human faces.

Going beyond the article, I once read how European explorers to Eskimo country first thought the indigenous dogs wild and useless. Then a polar bear attacked the camp and the Eskimos' dogs immediately and ferociously attacked the polar bears, which impressed the Europeans.

It's also a good question when humans began actively breeding dogs for different purposes than hunting wild game, such as killing rats.

These are all just theories, but interesting.

Anonymous said...

Dutch Boy said...
The Japanese are indeed sensitive to the feelings of their superiors. In Samurai days, insufficient deference to your betters could end up in your demise at their hands (killing and walking on, as the Samurai phrased it).


I noticed, when living in Japan, that those Japanese who claimed descent from Samurai families didn't exhibit the cringing conformity and annoying evasiveness I found in the vast majority of Japanese. You could actually hold interesting and informative conversations with these Samurai descendants. Trying to hold a conversation with most other Japanese was a dull, exasperating experience. (I often wonder what the results would be if you forced Japanese high-school and college students to hold well-reasoned debates on controversial topics. I imagine their heads would explode.)

bgc said...

It is vital to distinguish between binge drinking - which is commoner in Northern latitudes - and the average amount of alcohol consumed per year - which is mostly price-sensitive.

http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/drugsub.html

Traditionally Scandinavia was characterized by low annual consumption of alcohol, but a bingeing when they did drink (large number of drinks per session). This produces mainly social harm, from violence and accidents.

By contrast the viniculture countries - such as Italy and France - had cheap alcohol and large annual consumption - but not bingeing. This produces mainly medical harm - from dependence, cirrhosis etc.

Since the inflation-adjusted price of alcohol per unit has dropped to less than half what it was 30 years ago, the UK and Ireland have developed a drinking culture characterized by both high annual intake _and_ bingeing; producing very high rates of violence and accidents and also medical problems.

So, the main influences might well be genetic for the propensity to binge; but environmental for the amount of alcohol consumed per year.

Anonymous said...

LemmusLemmus,
"I very, very strongly doubt this."


I guess you're just another German hater. The law is still on the books but is superseded by other regulations which prohibit intoxication at the (train-) wheel. The reason for this is that locomotive stoking has changed from being a very arduous task to being more like playing computer games. So obviously you will not nowadays find a train driver who consumes 6 Maß per day anymore, since the regulations of the company which supersedes the old law will prohibit it.

none of the above said...

Richard:

What about all the non-Muslim Indians who have arranged marriages?

meep said...

Sounds like other people have hit on the points I wanted to hit [it's currently at 24 comments, so maybe somewhere between 24 and mine they will hit other points].

1. Alcohol has some sanitation/health results in fighting infection in water. Read back - any written history - and in "urban" settings, no one drank water. It's too dangerous.

I think testing99 made this point.

2. Wine and beer used not to be as potent as modern drinks. I don't have the books at hand, but it used to be that wine would be watered down and the beer was pretty weak. Enough for the sanitation purposes mentioned above, but safe enough for children to drink.

In any case, reading the records, you'll find that wine was often watered down for women and children.

Distilled spirits on the other hand... much more modern in origin, and really not around long enough to have an evolutionary effect as of yet.


3. To reply to an earlier commenter, if "Catholicism" happened to the Irish, then how do you explain the Italians and French? And Bavarians? All very traditionally Catholic societies.

Catholicism is not enough to explain the "national character" of the Irish, given the other long-time Catholic groups.

4. The most likely explanation wrt evolution is that you get a lot more mating with alcohol. Other traditional drugs are a lot less effective in this area.

headache said...


Steve, that's pushing it. First, Germans were not always the "intense worrywarts" that you see today, that's a relatively recent, Prussian influence. Most of German history prior to unification was of disunited, intensely individualistic



Sigh...t99 knows everything, doesn't he. Why not start rewriting the history books so we can all take advantage of his wisdom?

Anonymous said...

Europeans drank mead (which didn't much differ in alcohol content from wine)

I heard mead had less alcohol than American beer, is that wrong?

~ Svigor

Katto said...

Perhaps some well-travelled individuals can comment on this: The world's highest per capita rate of alcohol consumption is in Luxembourg (actually, some African countries may drink more, but the statistics are unreliable); both Luxembourg and France are significantly wetter than the United Kingdom -- yet it is the UK that seems to lead the world in undignified public displays of out-of-control drunken debauchery.

I have lived in France; in that country it is the usual practice to eat while drinking. But is it not very common in the UK to drink on a mostly empty stomach, and eat towards the end of the evening? If this is indeed the usual practice, it would explain a great deal -- as any experienced drinker could tell you. Any comments?

Mike Courtman said...

The recent increase in drunkeness in Britian and Ireland is partly due to the arrival of strong, Continental lagers from countries like Belguim and Holland.

The sort of beer the British and Irish drank in the 1950s was like mildly alchoholic, lukewarm soup (it even had a pretty high nutritional content).This stuff can be drunk in fairly large volumes before you can get seriously drunk on it.

Tellingly, the popular Belguim beer Stella Artois is nicknamed "wifebasher" among working class Brits.

There's also super cheap 8-9 percent lager which is sold in off licences specifically for the homeless wino brigade. There's also a dizzying range of sugary alco-pops for the girls, who now seem to be under the delusion they've suddenly acquired the livers and kidneys of North Sea fisherman and Scandinavian lumberjacks.

Anonymous said...

attached to beer which is prevalent amongst American puritans

myth. The average puritan drank about 3 quarts of beer a day, cromwell called it a gift from God. They frowned on intemporance, not alcohol

Anonymous said...

Before the Catholic church banned the making of beer by anyone but monks (which was done to maintain social control by the church), Europeans also drank Gruit, which is like beer but spiked with psychotropic herbs.

Martin Regnen said...

I don't think the prohibition-arranged marriage link makes much sense; plenty of alcoholic cultures had arranged marriage until recently or still have it. Non-arranged marriage is a relative novelty in Slavic countries, having gradually become popular perhaps over the past 100 years. I know in the late XIX century my ancestors hired matchmakers.

The idea that alcohol increased the reproductive fitness of shy and boring personality types, though... that is interesting.

Pseudothyrum said...

headache: "This law comes from the days when stoking the locomotive was hard work and beer was used both as beverage and a form of liquid food, which it is."

Very true...beer is indeed "liquid food," especially ale (as opposed to lager, which is more watered-down).

Ales, especially dark/stout ales, are very good and filling, and my friends and I call dark/stout ales "liquid bread."

More nutrients are also found in ales as opposed to lagers.

I'm currently a big fan of so called 'cream ales,' and I recommend trying Boddingtons (imported from the UK) sometime if you've never had it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boddingtons

Anonymous said...

"The recent increase in drunkeness in Britian and Ireland is partly due to the arrival of strong, Continental lagers from countries like Belguim and Holland.

The sort of beer the British and Irish drank in the 1950s was like mildly alchoholic, lukewarm soup (it even had a pretty high nutritional content).This stuff can be drunk in fairly large volumes before you can get seriously drunk on it."

There were and are stronger ales, but you are sort of correct. But people have been getting drunk for years. You still need to drink a lot of continental lager or strong native ale to be truly smashed.

"Tellingly, the popular Belguim beer Stella Artois is nicknamed "wifebasher" among working class Brits."

Well actually it's 'wifebeater' it's not just working class Brits that call it wifebeater although almost everyone asks for a pint of 'stella'.

Stella Artois is quite nice, but I prefer ales of a similar strength to it.

"There's also super cheap 8-9 percent lager which is sold in off licences specifically for the homeless wino brigade."

Normally supermaket own brand lagers at about seven per cent, that have displaced Carlsburg Special Brew as the tramp piss of choice.

"There's also a dizzying range of sugary alco-pops for the girls, who now seem to be under the delusion they've suddenly acquired the livers and kidneys of North Sea fisherman and Scandinavian lumberjacks."

In fairness alcopops are only about five per cent. wThe worst thing about alcopops is WKD, the 'lads' alcopop. It's marketed as if it's not gay as a hat for a man to drink it. Why not just become a hairdresser or a 'beauty therapist'.

Anonymous said...

But is it not very common in the UK to drink on a mostly empty stomach, and eat towards the end of the evening? If this is indeed the usual practice, it would explain a great deal -- as any experienced drinker could tell you. Any comments?

Yes thats quite common among some sectors of society.

The sort of beer the British and Irish drank in the 1950s was like mildly alchoholic, lukewarm soup (it even had a pretty high nutritional content).This stuff can be drunk in fairly large volumes before you can get seriously drunk on it.

and

beer is indeed "liquid food," especially ale (as opposed to lager, which is more watered-down).

All true, I heard a doorman on TV not long pointing out that the worst trouble came from lager and spirit drinkers. Apparently they also get more dehydrated and irritable as they drink (generally on empty stomachs) as well as the higher alcohol intake - whereas ale drinkers are are being sustained as they go along.

Lagers to us Brits represent a form of instant gratification, drinking purely to get drunk (and alcopops even more so). Ive heard it said that some of this is a reaction to the ecstasy boom of the late '80s/early '90s. The drink manufacturers had to hit back with stronger stuff that worked quicker.

As one might guess I tend to favour the traditional ales. In reality I hardly drink at all anymore, I like being in the pub with my mates but I'm quite happy nursing an orange juice or lemonade.

Peter A said...

I noticed, when living in Japan, that those Japanese who claimed descent from Samurai families didn't exhibit the cringing conformity and annoying evasiveness I found in the vast majority of Japanese.

I had the exact same experience with elite Japanese - they are often very interesting cosmopolitan people.
But I also noticed that the lower class Japanese (for example, the guy who ran a cheap noodle shop near my house) were often interesting as well, and far less indoctrinated than middle class Japanese. The typical sarariman seems to have had all capability of independent thought beaten out of him.

Jerry said...

"As noted, beer was often thought of as liquid bread..."

You can still get this off a wheeled barrel in the Ukraine:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kvass

Greenwood said...

Perhaps genes that create alcoholism also confer some advantage. It seems as if a lot of writers, poets and musicians are alcoholic.

I think its more likely that congenital creativity is associated with congenital depression, melancholy, and mental instability. Alcoholism being a well-known response to the latter.

Felix said...

Richard Hoste commented “the major world religion that bans alcohol has arranged marriages”.

Well, lots of traditional societies have arranged marriages.

But how come Mohammed was able to get people to give up alcohol? Does this mean it was not widely consumed in 7th century Arabia?