Thursday, August 12, 2004

Did Evolution Favor a Fondness for Alcohol?

From Wine Spectator:

Humans may be hardwired with an instinctual attraction to alcohol, theorizes Robert Dudley, a biomechanics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He and a small group of other scientists are exploring the possible evolutionary origins of drinking, hoping to shed light on the relationships between humans, alcohol and health. This Darwinian approach to medical science has fermented debate in the research community.

Ethanol is found widely in ripe wild fruit, Dudley explained. When wild yeast lands on the fruit and feeds on the sugars, fermentation occurs. The riper the fruit, the more alcohol it produces.

Many birds and mammals, including our primate ancestors, depend heavily on fruit, Dudley said, and they may have learned to find this food source quickly by following the scent of ethanol. Basically, the smell may act as a chow bell, signaling animals from afar that dinner's ready. (In turn, the plants benefit, as their seeds get to hitch a ride, spreading to new areas through the animals' waste.)

Primates appear to have a highly developed sensitivity to the smell of ethanol, Dudley said, which may give them an edge over other fruit-eating animals. And this sensitivity may have been passed on to humans. Today, we continue to be attracted to foods that benefited our ancestors.

Personally, I despise alcohol. What does that say about my ancestors?