In Vino, Civitas

In Vino, Civitas

This is the rough, written version of my talk for Interesting 2008, which I gave on Saturday June 21st (under my actual name, James Bridle). The final version was probably somewhat different, and there will be actual video soon, but in the mean time here’s some words and slides, with some proper sources at the end… Ta to everyone who was there on the day, and especially to Russell, who made it all happen.

Hello. Some of you probably read that Clay Shirky piece that went round the internet a few weeks ago, where he talked about gin being the ‘enabling technology’ of the 18th century. He argued, in part, that gin enabled the industrial revolution by allowing us all to go and get hammered at the end of the working day, and thereby bear the hideous working conditions of the time – cramped in city slums and unpleasant factories. It’s a good theory, but I believe there’s a much larger story about how our whole civilisation is based to some extent on our desire for booze – one that goes back even further than human civilisation itself.

First, a personal story. A few years ago I was living in Camden, and I had a lovely garden, and at the end of the garden was a Hackberry tree.
I know nothing about hackberry trees except they produce a small fruit somewhere between a berry and a plum. All summer I watched these things growing on the branch, and by the end of the summer they were ripe, and falling onto my concrete patio, and rotting. I was moving out of the flat, so I decided to clear up the garden a bit, and as I was sweeping up all the decomposing hackberries I noticed a very distinctive smell – sort of heavy, and sour. I recognised it as the smell you get the morning after a particularly good party, when people have spilled a lot of beer into the carpet, or more particularly the smell of a brewery when the beer is fermenting in the vats. The hackberries on my patio were fermenting, and turning to booze, all by themselves. ‘Lucky birds’, I thought.

After that, I went off to the South of France and helped out with a wine harvest, working in a big cellar in the Languedoc. There I learned a lot more about fermentation, and why the grape is nature’s most perfect creation.

The grape – every single one – is basically a machine for making wine. Very little is required for fermentation to occur, just sugars and yeast, and grapes have an almost perfect balance of chemicals. When the moment is right, the yeasts on their skins and floating about in the air, start to feed on the sugars in the grapes juice, and turn them into ethanol and carbon dioxide.

All man really does is select the right grapes, and the right yeast, and ensure the right environmental conditions to produce the kind of alcoholic grape juice we’re partial to: the grapes and the yeasts do pretty much everything else.

And it turns out that this simple reaction has some really interesting evolutionary background to it. There hasn’t been a lot of research in this area – surprisingly little, I think, because if I was a biologist this is pretty much where I’d be at – but it does appear that fruits developed the ability to turn into booze – evolutionary scientists would say they self-selected for this – as one of a number of cues for ripeness.

In the wild, there’s pretty intense competition to spread your seed around, so when a fruit is ripe it wants to get eaten as quickly as possible and be deposited as far away as possible by a nice neighbourhood frugivore like a bird or a primate, so it shows off its ripeness with various cues such as changing skin colour, and fleshiness, and some pretty obvious smells. But it turns out that while primates have a pretty rubbish sense of smell compared to most animals, we’re pretty good at sensing ethanol, and when we get a nose for it, bits of our brain start hammering away. One of my favourite expressions – “one sniff of the barmaid’s apron” – turns out to have some basis in fact.

So when a fruit is ripe for dispersal, it starts to ferment – very slightly in some cases, more so in others, but to some degree in pretty much all fruit species. And all the primates downwind smell that booze and come running, which is good for the fruit and the seed, because if it falls, uneaten, close to the tree, it hasn’t done much for its evolutionary future.

Now, a side effect of this is that birds, who don’t smell the ethanol but do see that pretty, ripe fruit hanging on the branch, also get stuck in. I noticed this in Camden, and it’s been documented elsewhere.

This is the world’s drunkest known bird. It’s a Cedar Waxwing, native to North America. A few years ago, someone saw a couple of these fall out of the sky, and took them to the nearest bio lab, where they were dissected, and in their crops were found the half-digested remains of a good meal of Hawthorn berries. The berries were found to contain a noticeable alcohol content – they’d overwintered on the trees, and when the frosts melted in the spring, they started to ferment – and the livers of the birds were found to be pretty sodden too. Not human-levels of drunkenness, but enough to make these two pass out in mid-air.

What some scientists believe is that, because of this association of booze and fresh fruit – and our primate ancestors had diets that consisted primarily of ripe fruit – primates developed an evolutionary preference for booze. It became associated with a nutritional reward: find booze, and you’re finding something good to eat.

So it’s no surprise that improving our ability to make booze is one of the very first things humans did when we learned to do pretty much anything at all.

If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, which I highly recommend, you’ll know that civilisation started when we started to domesticate crops. We realised it was easier to cultivate grains – wheat and barley, mostly – than spend our whole time trying to gather them in the wild. But there’s a significant argument about what drove this realisation – what were we doing with these crops?

Well, the obvious answer is that we were grinding these grains to make bread. But there’s a good argument that our cultivation of grains was driven not by hunger but by thirst. Early forms of beer, which were most likely a sort of fermented gruel, were incredibly nutritious, and some scientists have suggested that we first settled down and started raising crops in order to facilitate brewing. So my argument for In Vino Civitas – In Booze, Civilisation – starts with this idea that humans drank ourselves into civilisation.

Early beer was pretty rough. This is a decoration from a lapis lazuli cylinder from the Royal Cemetary at Ur, in modern-day Iraq, around 2500BC, and it shows a couple drinking beer through straws, because the beer was unfiltered, and had loads of organic stuff floating in it.

But ever since then, we’ve been working to improve the technology of brewing and wine-making.

The really big deal came around the 8th century AD, when Muslim chemists discovered distilling, a highly technical process which allowed us to pass over the natural limit of 14% or so alcohol, when the yeasts die off, and produce ever stronger drink. And this discovery was one of the major revelations of the alchemical experiments of the time. It’s where we get the word ‘alcohol’ and it’s the basis of pretty much all scientific discovery up to the present day.

Robert Boyle, one of the founders of the Royal Society, had his first scientific success in the refinement of the hydrometer, which measures the alcohol content of beer and wine. Johannes Kepler published ‘The New Stereography of Wine Barrels’ in 1613, developing a new calculus which he later used to describe the elliptical orbit of the planets.

As Clay Shirky said, cheap gin was a pretty good way of getting through the day when you worked in a pre-Health & Safety cotton mill, but there’s a corollary to this.

Beer, as well as spirits, allowed us to crowd together into cities where the water was foul and undrinkable, and it allowed us set off on long sea voyages of exploration and conquest. That’s what Hogarth is getting at in the print above: Beer Street is the companion piece to Gin Lane, and depicts a happy British populace fuelled by Beer, whereas Gin Street is basically a xenophobic attack on Europe, and the Dutch in particular. These two opportunities – urbanisation and exploration, have fuelled all major human activity since the renaissance.

There’s a lot more to this story, of course, and I didn’t get a chance to talk about my recent experiments with homebrew, but that’s probably for the best. So I’ll stop.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *