The musings of Mr Monkeysized

Beer, evolution and 19th Century racialism by monkeysized
August 18, 2010, 15:27
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

The Economist tells us with the help of a splendid map that Asia has become the world’s biggest consumer of beer, as continents go.

As with much, the Asians seem to be cheating here – it’s easy to be the ‘World’s Biggest XXX’ when you have more than half of the world’s population to play with. A quick look at boozing per head figures suggests that Europe still has much to be proud of once the population question is taken into account (bloody hell – the Czechs!).

But on a related note, I wanted to mention a dinner-table subject from my recent honeymoon in Romania. We were in a village where only three properties had access to piped water – the rest all drew their water from wells, either in the street or back yard (and this is very firmly part of the European Union…).

Holding up a delicious pint of frothy beer, one of my fellow diners said that beer was the prefered European method of water-purification: hence beer being the integral liquid element in European diets stretching back centuries and more. The Asians, this chap said, opted for turning dodgy water into tea, boiling water and flavouring with bits of plant. Hence, the argument went, Europeans had evolved a greater tolerance of alcohol over the generations, compared to the namby-pamby tea-drinking Asians. And that explains why our Oriental friends get drunk so quickly.

This all seems sensible and logical to me, especially as I increasingly try to take solace in presumed/hoped for genetic fortitude in combatting the worst effects of the unwise lifestyle choices that I occasionally indulge in. It also fits in, for instance, with the lack of tolerance for drinking milk in many African populations (wasn’t it something to do with the size of holes in one’s stomach lining?) and other peculiarities.

However, there is one question that burns a hole in my brain when pondering these genetic mutations. Yes, I know that however much humans differ in size and shape and detail on the outside, we’re all (barring oddities like the above) the same under the skin. So far so understandable. But when, might I ask, might a particular human population, cut off from the rest of humanity and subject to environmental factors that might force evolutionary adaption, become a separate species? It’s a fascinating question, and a logical one for anybody reading about evolution to pose.

My guess is that it isn’t posed, simply because of the problems of eugenics and 19th century racialism lurking in the background, what with the attendant legacy of genocide and prejudice. That’s a shame, as this seems to be most unmonkeysized – it underlines the human belief that we’ve somehow beaten nature, and ended up in a state of perfection that sits above and separate from the animals. And that, as if I need to remind you, is not good.


4 Comments so far
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Dear Mr Monkey,

I suggest reading some science books, many of which tackle these questions. Steve Jones’ recent Darwin’s Island talks about beer (it’s specifically beer not any old booze) tolerances and also milk (90% of humans can’t digest the stuff after weaning – we Westerners are the odd ones out).
As to when a human population becomes a new species – as soon as it can’t breed with the rest of us (the normal definition).

All the best mate.

Comment by Andy

Dear Mr Andy,

You misunderstand my point about humans and new species – and in fact you are slightly wrong with your definition: ‘as soon as it can’t breed with us and have viable offspring that are also able to breed’ is more accurate. I was wondering more about the length of time it would take, for instance if a population was stuck on a desert island, facing an environment that forced certain evolutionary changes – like the alcohol tolerance writ large – in a human version of Darwin’s finches.

But thanks for your recommendation that I read some science books. That’s very useful.

Mr Monkeysized.

Comment by monkeysized

Dear Mr Monkeysized,

You are a first class pedant! But I think you’re wrong, the definition of ‘breed’ includes having offspring (see I can, if I so wanted, have sex with a horse, I can’t breed with one.

As to the time issue, no one really knows. What you’re talking about is allopatric speciation, widely agreed to be the most common cause of speciation, but there is little agreement about time frames (it would differ for each species for a start). My best guess is a very long time. Note that there have been human populations that have been genetically isolated for almost as long as human history (Amazonian tribes etc), and while they show marked surface differences to other humans, these are very literally skin deep, and they are far from being a new species. We have to go back 4 million years to find the last speciation event on the human line (for one that has survived, at least).


Comment by Andy

I’m sorry for the delay in my pedantry, Andy, but the key part of ‘as soon as it can’t breed with us and have viable offspring that are also able to breed’ is the ‘viable offspring that are also able to breed’ bit – similar species are able to have offspring that are unable to breed themselves. Think of a mule – offspring of a male donkey and female horse, and unable to breed itself.

Comment by monkeysized

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