George Will

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps like many sensible citizens, you read Investor's Business Daily for its sturdy common sense in defending free markets and other rational arrangements. If so, you too may have been startled recently by an astonishing statement on that newspaper's front page. It was in a report on the intention of the world's second-largest brewer, Belgium's InBev, to buy control of the third-largest, Anheuser-Busch, for $46.3 billion. The story asserted: "The (alcoholic beverage) industry's continued growth, however slight, has been a surprise to those who figured that when the economy turned south, consumers would cut back on nonessential items like beer. ... "

"Nonwhat"? Do not try to peddle that proposition in the bleachers or at the beaches in July. It is closer to the truth to say: No beer, no civilization.

The development of civilization depended on urbanization, which depended on beer. To understand why, consult Steven Johnson's marvelous 2006 book "The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World." It is a great scientific detective story about how a horrific cholera outbreak was traced to a particular neighborhood pump for drinking water. And Johnson begins a mind-opening excursion into a related topic this way:

"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.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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