Putting the life back in science fiction

What to do with a drunken sailor? Send him round the world?
February 19, 2012, 1:59 am
Filed under: Real Science Content, science fiction, Speculation

This is too good not to share. I’ve been reading Robb Dunn’s six-part blog series on Civilization, fungi, and alcohol, and they are certainly inspiration.

Before I go further, here are links to
One (A Sip for the Ancestors: The True Story of Civilization’s Stumbling Debt to Beer and Fungus)
Two (Fruit Flies Use Alcohol to Self-Medicate, but Feel Bad about it Afterwards)
Three (Strong Medicine: Drinking Wine and Beer Can Help Save You from Cholera, Montezuma’s Revenge, E. Coli and Ulcers)
Four (By looking carefully, Japanese scientist discovers the secrets of termite balls)
Five (Five Kinds of Fungus Discovered to Be Capable of Farming Animals!)
Six (Exhausted Writer Discovers First Cave Painting of Yeast)

As a jack mycologist, I have a fondness for heartwarming stories about how fungi have domesticated humans to make life easier for them. Oh, wait a minute, how humans use fungi. Right…

Anyway, Dunn’s writing includes an essay about how humans may have domesticated grains not to make bread or gruel, but to make beer. He also writes about how fruit flies self-medicate with alcohol (apparently, the parasitoid wasps growing inside them die from alcohol intoxication faster at alcohol concentrations that only leave the flies moderately impaired, and infected flies preferentially head for the hooch at the first chance they get), and then writes about how humans may do the same thing, at least inadvertently.

We’re venturing into GI illness and cholera here. Hope you weren’t drinking anything non-alcoholic while you’re reading this. If you need a drink, I’ll wait. Ready? Apparently, drinks like tequila, beer, and gin, and less often wine and ethanol, can kill bacteria like the ones that give us cholera, listeriosis, and so forth. With cholera, adding gin to contaminated river water will eventually kill the cholera (note the eventually–it’s not instantaneous), and beer seems to have similar properties. Neat stuff, if you’re trying to understand why some people died in pre-modern cholera epidemics, while others survived. Maybe, like fruit flies, humans feel better when they drink not just because of the alcohol buzz, but because the alcohol has taken out a bunch of pathogens. This is a nice concept, especially considering what some of us ate during college.

At the end of the third section, Dunn postulates that the European Age of Exploration might not have happened without beer, wine, and so forth, because they carried huge supplies of these drinks on board to keep the sailors thirsts quenched. Columbus’ ship may have been half beer by weight, for example.

That’s a fascinating hypothesis. At first glance, it seems plausible. After all, we didn’t have Indians sailing east to colonize Europe, even though the Altantic currents favored them. Maybe it was because they didn’t get drunk enough. Maybe the key to conquering the world is to get on a booze cruise with a bunch of your germy buddies, and load up more beer than weapons or trade goods.

I thought about it some more, and realized that we have the beginnings of a replicated historical experiment here. After all, the Europeans may have been the booziest, but they were scarcely the only long-distance sailors out there. We’ve got the Chinese, the Arabs, and the Polynesians (and to a lesser extent, the Micronesians) all cruising the deep ocean. Muslims allegedly don’t drink (although I do like Shiraz wine, first created in Iran, and alcohol is an Arabic word…), Chinese do drink, but they typically have less alcohol dehydrogenase in their bodies to break down alcohol than do Europeans (not that this stops them), and the Polynesians didn’t brew alcohol at all, although the Micronesians did regularly brew coconut toddy. Then again, the Polynesians weren’t sailing into pestilence ridden cities, they were exploring untouched islands. Hmmm. Who got the furthest in world domination? Back before 2000, I mean. That’s why there may be an experiment here.

Is there a link between the willingness to sail with a lot of alcohol and the ability to colonize the world? I’m not sure, primarily because I don’t know how much alcohol Arabs and Chinese carried on their ships. If those data are available, we’ve got an alternative hypothesis to Guns, Germs, and Steel here. Did Europeans sweep the globe because we were willing to drink more beer than anyone else? I don’t know, but it might just be testable.

Now that we’re becoming a group of effete caffeine addicts, it appears that the rest of the world is catching up with us. I do hope that’s a coincidence.

For the science fiction writers, does that mean that our hypothetical generation ships will only fly with alcohol aboard? Will Buzz Lightyear be more than a cartoon character someday? The possibilities are endless.


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Yes, early civilizations used alcoholic beverages as a potable source of water, and perhaps as a source of bread starter. But the alcohol content was much lower back then, maybe a few percent, not like today’s commercial brews which keep pushing the edge. After all, how could they have sailed the ships?

Comment by Joan S.

That’s a good point, Joan. I’m not sure, but British navy had a rum ration for a long time, watered down or not. The interesting point of the articles I linked to above was that alcoholic drinks will inhibit pathogens when they are mixed with water and allowed to sit, so watered alcohol might make the water safer, if done correctly.

Similarly, I know researchers get puzzled about how drinking wine leads to a longer life. If it’s not the resveratrol, perhaps it’s simply that many pathogens are more susceptible to alcohol (or other wine chemicals or metabolites) in our bloodstreams than we are? That’s testable. Certainly many cold remedies have a lot of alcohol in them.

Comment by heteromeles

That’s an interesting point about the alcohol in cough syrup. I had never before thought about its presence in modern formulations. Is it somehow grandfathered in from the old days of patent medicines, where the standard ingredients may not have treated any problems but sure helped you ignore them? Does it actually have some double-blind-reviewed activity to treat coughs or other relevant symptoms?

Comment by Matt

Great question, Matt. I don’t know much more than what I posted above, and the general notion that many centenarians seem to drink moderately. To be fair, I think it’s legitimate to question whether their alcohol use had anything to do with their longevity. Still, it’s something worth considering.

Checking pathogen activity in vivo after alcohol consumption is one of those experiments that’s fairly easy to do on a college campus. You get a wide range of pathogens (especially at the beginning of every semester), and a large group of experimental subjects who might be interested in helping you. Controlling the amount of drinking around the test might be the hardest part. (Does that say something about where I went to school?)

Even if it turns out that in vivo alcohol has some health effects, the question is whether it’s worthwhile turning it into a prescription. Even figuring out an optimal drinking pattern is tricky. Each of us process alcohol differently, there are a wide range of secondary chemicals in various drinks, and there are a wide range of pathogens.

Still, the extremes are somewhat amusing. At one extreme, if everyone started drinking precisely the medically most effective dosage every day, that would simply select for pathogens that are insensitive to alcohol, anyway. At another, genomic research gets so good that there’s a pathogen forecast, just like the weather forecast, along with recommendations for what to drink if you get sick. Some colds might respond better to Merlot, some to tequila, some to Maker’s Mark, some to Guinness. There’s a good SF story in there, I think.

Unfortunately, it will most likely turn out that alcohol is less effective than good public health and hygiene. Yes, I’m a killjoy, but this is another idea where I’d like to be proven wrong.

Comment by heteromeles

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