No Beer, No Civilization (Updated)

George Will has been at the top of the pundit game for so long that you’d think he’d have joined a sizable number of his peers in seemingly dusting off one of their stock columns every week. Not so. Will’s latest installment is on the virtues of beer.

“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 is, “hold their liquor.” So, many died early and childless, either of alcohol’s toxicity or from waterborne diseases.

Will goes so far as to assert that beer is a health food. Reminding you that he is, after all, a conservative who wears spectacles and was once famous for his bow ties, he adds the appropriate dig: “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.”

Tina Danze also has a down and dirty guide to “What beer geeks know,” including the proper glasses, serving temperatures, and pouring techniques required for various types.

UPDATESteve Bainbridge points out that beer stocks are a good investment, too!  That, incidentally, is in decided contrast to beer itself which, as the old saying goes, you can only rent.

UPDATE (Dave Schuler)

The connection between civilization and beer is even stronger than George Will alleges. Nomads can do a lot of things but it’s darned hard to brew mead or beer unless you adopt a sedentary habit. There are anthropologists who believe that human beings founded the first permanent settlements in order to brew mead or beer. Beer-drinking anthropologists, naturally.

While we’re talking about beer, Anheuser-Busch continues to fend off the advances of Brazilian-managed Belgian-based InBev. A few days ago AB filed suit against the foreign giant to oppose the replacement of the AB board of directors. Now the company is playing “four corners”:

For those whose knowledge of college basketball goes back only as far as the shot clock, the strategy was to tie up the ball for long periods by passing it back and forth between four players. Back in the day, with the right players, the stalling tactic was quite effective in confounding the opponent (and putting the crowd to sleep). Wooden’s teams won 10 National College Athletic Assn. championships.

The delay, in this case, is clear: St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch has held off meeting with InBev to discuss the European company’s $46 billion offer. Meanwhile, the two brewing giants have furiously traded press releases, advertisements, and lawsuits as if they were political candidates battling a disputed election.

Beer poster image via James McGovern. Hat tip to Jonathan Adler for the Will story.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    Unfortunately, Will repeats the urban legend that Ben Franklin said:

    “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

    Ben liked wine, and other things.

  2. Dantheman says:

    Considering that I had first heard the theory that our civilization was founded in order to drink beer more than 2 decades ago, it seems appropriate for George Will to be discovering it now.

    Note also that non-Western civilizations tended to respond to the water quality issue by boiling it, then adding herbs to make the boiled water palatable (i.e., tea).

  3. ck says:

    Will’s claim seems dubious. Alcohol dehydrates the body – it’s not a substitute for drinking water. I suspect that if you replaced all water in your diet with alcohol, you would die of dehydration within days. (but, I’m not a doctor, perhaps this is wrong)

  4. Actually, the odds are the the earliest civilizations were wine drinkers. At the very least, however, the early humans (or maybe even humanoids) who first started drinking alcoholic beverages likely drank fruit wine rather than beer. See my No Beer, No Civilization? No Way!

  5. James Joyner says:

    Alcohol dehydrates the body – it’s not a substitute for drinking water. I suspect that if you replaced all water in your diet with alcohol, you would die of dehydration within days.

    Sure, if you’re talking about corn liquor, or even whiskey. But beer is about 90 percent water.

    Indeed, you can remain perfectly hydrated never drinking water per se:

    Although it’s a great idea to keep water within reach at all times, you don’t need to rely only on what you drink to satisfy your fluid needs. What you eat also provides a significant portion of your fluid needs. On average, food provides about 20 percent of total water intake, while the remaining 80 percent comes from water and beverages of all kinds.

    For example, many fruits and vegetables, such as watermelon and tomatoes, are 90 percent to 100 percent water by weight. Beverages such as milk and juice also are composed mostly of water. Even beer, wine and caffeinated beverages — such as coffee, tea or soda — can contribute, but these should not be a major portion of your daily total fluid intake. Water is one of your best bets because it’s calorie-free, inexpensive and readily available.

  6. ck says:

    Sure, if you’re talking about corn liquor, or even whiskey. But beer is about 90 percent water.

    I don’t think that matters. A quick search turns up this (which must be true, because it’s on the internet):

    Indeed, you can remain perfectly hydrated never drinking water per se:

    Of course, but if your diet provides sufficient water already, you have no need for drinking water, and thus no need for beer as a substitute either.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    I’ll see ck’s googling and raise it with another unverified source:

    Q It has always been my understanding that coffee or beer were diuretics. It was a shock to see this may not be so.

    A “Yes, it is surprising! When they actually studied this, they found that for caffeinated beverages, it depends on how often you drink them. If you only drink one cup a week, then yes it is diuretic. But if you drink coffee or tea every day, then it has only a small, transient diuretic effect. It has no overall impact on your 24hr fluid balance. With regard to beer, much the same. Obviously, the concentration of alcohol in beer is low. You are drinking a lot of fluid. If you just drank that much water, you would also pee a lot afterwards. With beer, there is a transient diuretic effect, but that is followed by a prolonged antidiuretic effect, so that again over 24 hours, it does not put you into negative fluid balance.”


  8. PD Shaw says:

    BTW/ I do recall reading similar claims in running magazines 10 years ago to the effect that drinking a beer or two after a run would ultimately increase your hydration levels over similar quantities of plain water. It had to do with effects and counter-effects and (er) MAGIC!

  9. Steven Donegal says:


    Hopefully Dave Kiley knows more about business than basketball. John Wooden didn’t run the four corners; Dean Smith did. In fact, Wooden was an advocate of the full court zone press, which seems to be what InBev is running at the moment.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    Professor Bainbridge:

    I think it’s even more likely that the first human producers of alcoholic beverages were making mead.

    Direct evidence of beer production and consumption goes back about 10,000 years. There’s direct evidence of mead production going back about 8,000 years. The oldest known evidence for wine production that I’m aware of goes back about 7,000 years.