alcohol genes evolution christmas

How lucky we are to have this excuse

Our love for alcohol is in our genes

It’s that time again: social and family gatherings, smiles and happy faces all around, deliciously enticing food and drinks galore, – until one has to face the question whether one hasn’t overdone it. But there is always an excuse at hand and it sounds so wonderfully scientific: it’s my genes that made me eat and drink too much!

It has actually become quite popular in recent years to hold the genes responsible for everything: a person’s mood, looks, intelligence, artistic ability, sportive prowess, criminal inclination, sexual orientation, obesity, alcoholism…. you name it. There is, of course, no doubt that in the genetic code of an individual, whether human, plant, or animal, details are encrypted that are simply amazing, but don’t believe for one minute that you as a human being do not possess some control over your decisions. Just like the genes won’t decide for you whether you have goose or carp for Christmas, they won’t make you an innocent criminal with no will of his/her own or a drug addict or a cheat.

What genes are doing is to provide construction plans. For some details, like the colour of your eyes, the instructions are precise and there is little or no degree of freedom, but in many other cases genes set much wider limits within which an individual can operate and that includes the amount of food your stomach can accommodate. It also involves, for instance, alcohol consumption.

Nobody needs alcohol to survive, but many like a sip of it (or more) every now and then. This liking of alcohol in humans may have its origins in the fruit-eating habits of our ape-like ancestors. Humans, apes and monkeys are the only mammals, which possess an excellent ability to discriminate colours. Coloration helps these animals (and humans) to identify ripe from unripe and sweet from sour fruits. And these preferred fruit are also liked by yeast, which ferment some of the sugar and turn it into the fermentation product alcohol. In search of sweet, ripe fruit primeval man may have been guided not only by vision, but also by the alcohol odour volatilized by the fruit. Individuals with the best nose for alcohol would have had a chance to find and eat such fruit before others did. The keenest of the ripe-fruit-collectors would have become more frequently intoxicated than the poor fellow without an alcohol sensor. And what would the alcohol (ingested with the fruit) have done? Our intoxicated archaic ancestor would have acted bolder and more recklessly and probably spawned more offspring than the non-intoxicated sober, but more timid and inhibited fellow. And so, ultimately, the genetics of human alcoholism could have made it into our generation. This, at least, is the view of Robert Dudley of the University of Texas.

Although I find this scenario quite probable, I just wonder whether we would find a similar gene in the elephants. They, too, have frequently been observed to get drunk from consuming fermented fruit. And garden wasps? Well, wait until summer and see for yourself: they love fermented fruit. Meanwhile, let’s lift our glasses, say “Cheers” and enjoy the festive season!

alcohol genes evolution christmas

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2015.
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