As anyone who has ever been to a bar or a raucous party knows, different people react to alcohol in various ways.
Some folks start looking and acting noticeably different after a few sips of beer. Others can seemingly chase a fifth of Jack Daniels with a dozen keg stands and appear none the worse for the experience, as long as there’s not a police officer waiting outside with a breathalyzer.
Inebriation, or the lack thereof, may be a reaction to how different regions have evolved over time. Alcohol has been around since the dawn of civilization. Fermentation is natural, and mankind learned how to manipulate this process for its own purposes thousands of years ago.
But even though we now associate alcohol with leisure time activities and a departure from normal habits, the history of alcohol and humanity is a lot more complex.
Without human involvement, fermentation occurs in small concentrations and at lower levels than the spirits we can buy today.
It may have been particular helpful in human evolution, as the pungency of wild overripe fruit and the taste the cavemen developed for it could have helped early man find their way to badly-needed nutrients.
In addition, for centuries, the fermentation of fruits and grains has served to preserve crops in a useful manner before they can rot.
However, different populations seem to metabolize alcohol in different ways. Our ability to metabolize alcohol gives us the ability to remove its toxicity before it causes damage to the body, and one factor in how well we do that seems to be based on evolution.
Those coming from backgrounds that have consumed alcohol for a longer period, like in Europe, seem to have a higher tolerance than those who have been introduced more recently.
A prime example of this principle in action occurs in people from Southern China. Sometime around 10,000 years ago, people from there began to ferment cereal grains into liquor.
Soon after, local residents developed a variant gene that protects against the harm that alcohol can do. While it often causes those who have it to turn red in the face when they drink, it also prevents them from becoming truly intoxicated.
Such information is interesting not only to beer companies looking for something that might encourage people to drink more. It’s a rare example of evolution that appears to have occurred very rapidly, at least in the context of the history of the world.
Exposure to alcohol at an early stage caused the body to create an effective shield to guard against its adverse effects. This could be a sign that we have the ability to adjust to changing situations much faster than many previously thought.
Alfablue, August 2011