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Point of brew: How beer gave us civilization

By From page A9 | March 28, 2013

A nicely colored illustration in the New York Times of March 17 shows two dozen or so Neanderthal-looking folk enjoying a party; they have ample supplies of beer in kegs, bottles and cans, many of which, empty, litter the landscape. It looks like any ordinary stand-up cocktail party or fraternity kegger with people gathered in conversational knots.

Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that these conversations have some structure and purpose because each group has gathered around one symbol of the seminal discoveries and inventions of humankind, such as the wheel, control of fire, plant and animal agriculture and weapons. The Neanderthals are clearly engaging each other in thoughtful exchange about these inventions; each person holds a can or bottle of beer or is hunting in the refrigerator for a refill or filling a tankard from a keg.

I would love to have a print of this illustration by Anders Nilsen for my office wall because so much is going on in this picture. Moreover the message of the picture supports the NYT column that follows, titled “How Beer Gave Us Civilization.” My kind of picture.

In my own columns over the years I have often commented that through the centuries beer has provided people with 1) a gathering place for social exchange, for example, the British pub or the American tavern where 2) they can loosen up and let go their opinions over a pint or three of beer. Previously I suggested that the American Revolution never could have happened except for taverns for patriots to meet in and beer to stimulate their conversation, outrage and bravado.

Now, I don’t often read the NYT but I have friends who do and I can guarantee that anything beer-related finds its way to me quite soon. The illustration I have so carefully described above supports an article written by Jeffrey P. Kahn, who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Kahn identifies five core social instincts that preserved the primitive human herd and helped it prosper and multiply: 1) co-dependence on herd members, 2) a place in the social pecking order, 3) assigned chores, 4) courtesy to others and 5) to be abandoned if unproductive.

He argues that, while this is all well and good, it is not a set of social skills that lead to exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation; these are the drivers to which he ascribes the making of a vibrant civilization. I suppose he might have added religion, revolution and warfare as drivers of human development if not exactly civilization.

Kahn concludes that for a vibrant civilization, humankind needed beer. I couldn’t agree more.

He argues that beer helped suppress the rigid social codes that conserved the integrity of the primeval herd and allowed free conversation and rapid exchange of ideas among perhaps social un-equals; beer also suppressed the angst of lower caste (or shy) members of the tribe when they beer-fully exceeded their status in society. I’ve seen such behavior in Japan where, for example, gatherings of corporate un-equals at a pub leads to surprising exchanges when these un-equals are equally full of beer.

This leads back to the illustration where I started this column: It suggests that much human progress, and many discoveries and inventions were driven by the opportunity to talk frankly to each other and that this could happen best, perhaps happen only, over a few beers.

I do not doubt that this was and still is absolutely correct.

Kahn goes on to explore the origins of beer, which he pegs as early as 10,000 years ago when humankind first began to harvest and store grain. I was surprised to learn that there is a body of circumstantial archeological evidence that supports the counter-intuitive idea that beer was invented before bread (Google: Brian Hayden beer brewing tools); I have long promulgated this same theory, unfortunately based on no evidence whatsoever except a brewer’s pride in primacy. From the same unsupported base I also argue that beer was a prime driver of settled agriculture as needed for growing the grain for brewing. That is a mile too far for Kahn, though Hayden specifically makes that point.

I’m not sure that we need a psychiatrist to tell us that beer is a welcome and helpful (most of the time) social lubricant that can lead to conversation, exploration and change (among other things). I was recently in Las Vegas to attend two conference that I would not normally attend that were in town at the same time; these were (believe it or not) the International Pizza Expo and, across the way, the Nightclub and Bar Convention and Trade Show. You might well imagine that there was a great deal of beer flowing at these events; it was obvious that the euphoria that beer induced was fueling most of the business conversations and had opened the Buyers’ (blue tags) ears to the sales pitch of Exhibitors (yellow tags).

Kahn reports that some ancient cultures tackled collective problems of state while under the influence of beer and then checked their brilliant ideas later when sober.

What a good idea!

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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