Rice, alcohol and genes

By Razib Khan | January 25, 2010 5:59 am

Changes in human diet driven by cultural evolution seem to be at the root of many relatively recently emerged patterns of genetic variation. In particular, lactase persistence and varied production of amylase are two well known cases. Both of these new evolutionary genetic developments are responses to the shift toward carbohydrates over the last 10,000 years as mainstays of caloric intake. Rice and wheat serve as the foundations of much of human civilization. It is notable that both China and India are divided into rice and wheat (or millet) belts, so essential are modes of agriculture in our categorizations of societies. Even nomad societies are dependent on carbohydrates in the form of “simple sugars,” as much of the nutritive value of milk is from its lactose sugar.
Carbohydrates are convenient because they can be grown and controlled by humans, but also because they can be stored, and finally, reprocessed. Some of that reprocessing is straightforward, such as with breads, but for this post alcohol is what we are concerned with. Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses documents the importance of beer & wine in ancient human societies (and hard liquor in modern ones), and also argues from both empirics and theory that fermented beverages are almost an inevitability in an agricultural society. Alcohol is rich in energy, portable, keeps, and, has a far lower pathogenic load than water in a pre-modern environment. Not to mention the pleasant “buzz” it provides. But like milk, those “without tolerance” often suffer negative physiological consequences. It turns out that like LCT, the locus critical in controlling the levels of the enzyme lactase, the alcohol metabolization loci exhibit variation across populations.
A new paper is out which argues for the causal connection between the spread of rice agriculture, and a derived variant of ADH1B, The ADH1B Arg47His polymorphism in East Asian populations and expansion of rice domestication in history:

We studied a total of 38 populations (2,275 individuals) including Han Chinese, Tibetan and other ethnic populations across China. The geographic distribution of the ADH1B*47His allele in these populations indicates a clear east-to-west cline, and it is dominant in south-eastern populations but rare in Tibetan populations. The molecular dating suggests that the emergence of the ADH1B*47His allele occurred about 10,000~7,000 years ago.

Here’s a figure which shows the relationship between the spread of rice agriculture and the frequency of the derived ADH1B variant, which metabolizes alcohol much more efficaciously:
rice1.png
The plot here suggests the 50% of the variance of the spread of rice agriculture can be explained by the variance of the high activity associated allele. Fair enough, though one assumes that the causal direction here is inverted. Unless of course the spread of rice agriculture was concomitant with population replacement, as opposed to the spread of the allele itself. Additionally, I can’t but help wonder what would happen to the correlation if you took the three outlier data out of the picture. Not sure if this is really that robust of a finding.
Here’s a map which shows the variation of the allele which confers higher activity:
rice2.png
The map is generated from data you can find in the paper for various Han groups (by province) and ethnic groups in an around China (mostly the south and western fringe). The pattern is roughly that the core of China’s rice-bowl seems to be the epicenter of the modal frequency of this allele. The visualization of the data smooths out the rough edges a bit to be sure, one should look at the original data.
Finally, the authors examined more closely the genetic variation around ADH1B, and adduced whether there was evidence for natural selection around the derived variant, and when that variant may have emerged. The core haplotype around ADH1B tested positively for several methods based on patterns of linkage disequilibrium. They suggest a recent rapid rise in allele frequency for the core haplotype in question. That being said, eyeballing the list of ethnic groups and allele frequencies I’m not totally sure that this is necessarily local adaptation. Might it be some sort of demic diffusion, whereby Han rice-farmers underwent a massive demographic expansion? What I’d like to see are comparisons of genetic distance along with the allele frequencies, and note if deviations from any correspondences match-up with appropriate local ecology. In plain English, a genetically distant non-Han group which practices rice agriculture has a high frequency of derived ADH1B, and a Han group which does not has a low frequency of ADH1B. This would suggest that what we’re seeing here is selection acting upon a locus, and not demographic history.
There was also an attempt to determine approximately when the selection event which led to the rise in frequency of ADH1B occurred. I’m not totally persuaded by the arguments in this section of the paper, but they come to the satisfying (for them) position that it corresponds with the spread of rice agriculture in chronology.
Over the past few years I have become more open to the idea that alcohol metabolism may be a significant force for adaptation in humans over the past 10,000 years. This may correlate rather suspiciously with the fact that I’ve started drinking a bit more regularly…but in any case, it does happen to be the case in many pre-modern societies alcohol consumption was very widespread. In societies where nutritional stress was common it was a major source of calories, and as I note above its advantage in terms of low pathogen load vis-a-vis water was probably a major factor in its healthful effects (many ancient societies mixed water and wine freely). Not only does alcohol provide energy, but its psychological boost is obvious when it comes to the grinding life of a farmer. Rum rations was one of the major factors which allowed Caribbean slavery to be as economically profitable as it was, its existence made the short and brutal lives of human chattel more tolerable. The attraction of people who had little experience with alcohol, in particular its more potent varieties, to the substance seems a clear signal that once discovered it would inevitably exhibit a magnetic appeal. In this case the bias in favor of those who were more metabolically suited toward processing the new source of calories with the least deleterious consequences would have a great fitness consequence.
What I don’t understand in the context of this paper is why rice was so critical in China. Is production of alcohol from the non-rice crops of the Yellow River plain that difficult vis-a-vis rice? (i.e., are there economic reasons which result in relatively ease of production of alcohol from rice?) Millet was cultivated at the same time as rice. I assume that plotting the frequency of derived ADH1B against the introduction of millet produces a less publishable R-squared.
Citation: BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:15doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-15

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Evolution, Genetics
  • AG

    Actually, northern wheat farmer Hans are hard-liquor drinkers who notoriously drink more than those southern rice farmer hans. Southern hans drink sake like rice wine which has lower alcohol content like wine. There is incredible parallel to Europe with southern wine northern hard liguor. The alcohol genes might show similar pattern.

  • Sandgroper

    In the north east of China they make alcohol from sorghum. And OMG can those people drink – I have never seen anyone who can swallow alcohol like those people can and remain apparently unaffected by it.
    I’m talking sorghum spirit that is maybe 35% alcohol, hurled down by the tumbler full at lunch time, back to work, and then back at the sorghum spirit over dinner. It’s dreadful stuff, you need to throw it straight down your throat, otherwise it makes your mouth go numb.
    I’m not talking about the infamous Maotai, which comes from the south west, but that is also made from sorghum.
    Plenty of rice wine, but that tends to be in the south east.
    I never saw alcohol made from millet in China. Around the Yellow River it’s all made from sorghum, and no, it’s not difficult. I would guess the relative yields per acre of rice in the south east and sorghum in the north east might make it more expensive to produce, though. But I’m guessing.

  • John Emerson

    America: an alcoholic history.
    Increased drunkenness will speed your assimilation into American culture.

  • deadpost

    Its mentioned that this higher metabolizing variant causes the flushing reaction, right?
    The main other group of people who’ve had rice just as long are the South Asians; wouldn’d one expect them to have it too (to see another hotspot on the map near the Himalayan foothills, away from South China). And just from “real-life” experience you see South Asians aren’t part of the Asians who flush.
    That just seems to be more intuitive that it’s demographic history of the Han Chinese and not adaptation, which would crop up wherever rice is grown.
    Plus, what about everywhere else alcohol is fermented. I always found it odd East Asians are the only (main) race with the majority of people having the flush.

  • Tod

    As I read it what is being selected for in rice farmers is something that protects against alcoholism. If alcoholism is a problem in rice farmers it must be because producing alcohol is indeed easier when rice is grown.
    ‘An association study in Han Chinese indicates that the individuals carrying ADH1B*47His have the
    lowest risk for alcoholism ‘

  • Art

    I don’t know if it was mentioned but alcohol production is also a form of food preservation. Stored grains can easily mold and be lost. This can be a problem in areas with high humidity and frequent rain. But converted into an alcohol product it stores well. This might allow a group to hold over the food value of a good year and compensate for a poor one. In effect buffering swings in the weather. The long shelf life of alcohol products, their wide appreciation, and the great variety of different flavors, opens up opportunities to trade over long distances.

  • John Emerson

    The book I reviewed at the link above has a lot to say about several of the points made above, with reference to US history up until about 1870. Before a certain point (1800 or so) drinking all day long at meals on work days was a common pattern, but not between meals. Fairly heavy drinking, but by people who were used to it — alcohol was regarded as medicinal and stimulating. Later on group bingeing and solo bingeing became more common.
    Before the Erie Canal, westerners had no cash crop except whiskey, which was economical to transport to the east. The area was cash-poor and whiskey served as a kind of currency.
    I have a Japanese-American friend who flushes when he drinks but he doesn’t let it bother him and just goes ahead. People use flushing as a reason not to drink but I think that that’s connected with social stigmas and the common human desire not to look funny.

  • frog

    The plot here suggests the 50% of the variance of the spread of rice agriculture can be explained by the variance of the high activity associated allele. Fair enough, though one assumes that the causal direction here is inverted. Unless of course the spread of rice agriculture was concomitant with population replacement, as opposed to the spread of the allele itself.
    Why assume a one way cause? I’d expect that there’d be feedback — that the expansion of rice agriculture would be limited if a major use of rice was alchohol, and the local population had adverse physiological reactions to alcohol, and visa-versa, that rice agriculture would select for resistance to those effects.
    Information systems rarely have “cause” and “effects” but cybernetic loops.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Wine has a higher alcohol content than beer. Of course, really old-timey beer generally had plenty of fruit thrown in the mix as well, and as a result was rather winey.

  • diana

    “and, has a far lower pathogenic load than water in a pre-modern environment.”"Before a certain point (1800 or so) drinking all day long at meals on work days was a common pattern, but not between meals. ”
    I guess you know this but just for spice:
    “In the 1700s and 1800s, most apples were grown not for eating but for making hard cider. Johnny Appleseed didn’t just bring fresh fruit to the frontier, he brought the alcoholic drink of choice.”
    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2141/whats-the-story-with-johnny-appleseed

  • Melykin

    I agree with Tod that anything that protects against alcoholism would be strongly selected for in any population that had access to alcoholism. Fetal alcohol syndrome and alcoholism would killed people off and prevented them from successfully passing on their genes, and would make entire communites disfunctional if a large portion of the population suffered.
    It is notable that the peoples of the arctic in both Canada and Russia have an extreme susceptibility to alcoholism, as do the aborigine in Australia and aboriginal people all across Canada. There has to be something genetic going on with this, although it is not politically correct to talk about it.
    It eems that in the North west fringes of Europe there is a greater prevelence of alcoholism than in south and south eastern Europe. Likely some sort of protection against alcoholism evolved separately in the Middle east and Europe and south Asia, than in East Asia. I don’t know whether it ever evolved in Africa. Not much data to go on, partly because Africa is such a basket case, and also because it is not considered proper or polite to talk about such differences between races.
    In Canada it is only ok to mention the problem of addiction among the First Nations people if in the same sentence you blame the problem on evil colonialism and residential schools.
    By the way, there is also a great problem with alcoholism in Mongolia. Some of the people in Mongolia really look a lot like native North Americans. (google Mongolia alcoholism for references).

  • Adela

    Melykin, I know what you are talking about. Thanks to my distant First Nations ancestor I can’t touch alcohol without getting sick as a dog; even the trace of liqueur in chocolates sets it off. So I get to be lifetime designated driver. But I’m the only one in the family all the rest are normal or heavy boozers and a couple of alcoholics.
    Upside is I got the fabulous natural tan gene while my siblings burn at the drop of a hat.

  • Sandgroper

    @Melykin, your theory doesn’t stand up, because you are cherry picking and ignoring social, cultural and climatic factors that could be completely confounding.
    People at high latitudes drink a lot for a reason, and drink spirits for a reason. Scandinavia and Scotland also have major problems with alcoholism that have nothing to do with genes, and everything to do with climate and culture.
    Russians generally have big problems with alcohol.
    Australian aboriginal people don’t just have a problem with alcohol, they have a problem with substance abuse generally, including hard drugs, and sniffing glue, petroleum products and aerosol sprays. That suggests that there are more than genes in play.
    Australia generally has a big cultural problem with alcohol abuse and binge drinking. When the federal government announces that it is embarking on a major effort to try to change the drinking culture of the whole country, it should tell you something. To single out Aboriginal people as the only ones with a problem is just denial.
    When I was doing volunteer work in a Red Cross mobile soup kitchen in an Australian inner city area, the vast majority of methylated spirits drinkers who crawled out of the bushes were not Aboriginals, they were white men.
    When I worked in a road construction gang in the outback of Western Australia, only two other men in the whole gang were not alcoholics, and they also happened not too surprisingly to be the best workers – one was a German, and the other was Aboriginal.
    Yeah, anecdotes and small samples tell you nothing, except not to make sweeping generalisations and assumptions for which you have no evidence.

  • Sandgroper

    @Melykin, further, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey, 2004-05 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics states that the proportion of the Indigenous adult population engaged in ‘risky’ and ‘high-risk’ alcohol consumption (15%) was comparable with that of the non-Indigenous population (14%).
    That absolutely does not support your contention that Australian Aboriginal people have “an extreme susceptibility to alcoholism” – they are no more susceptible than the rest of the Australian community.

  • miko

    “As I read it what is being selected for in rice farmers is something that protects against alcoholism.”
    I read it as plants domesticating and selecting for humans that will propagate them without succumbing to addiction-related morbidity, which harms the humans’ ability to farm and thus serve their grainy masters.

  • omar

    Melykin, I think there are many good reasons to be skeptical of your hypothesis, but just on the selection issue, I think the notion that alcoholism would be strongly selected against seems unlikely. Human beings can breed starting in the teens while serious morbidity from alcohol tends to be later in life. Fetal alcohol syndrome is not a uniform consequence of alcohol abuse and is not necessarily as severe as the most dramatic cases,and in any case would only weed out the early alcoholic mothers but have little impact on the ability of alcoholism-prone males to spread their seed widely. In addition, a lot of societies have very different norms for men and women when it comes to drunkenness…etc.

  • Tod

    “methylated spirits drinkers” – No human being can drink methylated spirits.
    Scotland is one of the unheathiest counties in the western world and has a high rate of alcoholism especially in people with highland names. That’s not surprising if they have had less time to adapt to agriculture. If it’s due to living at high latitude then the Finns should be far worse off, are they?
    Considering the extent to which white Australians are the descendents of transported convicts (24% were from Ireland moreover many ‘British’ criminals were of Irish ancestry) it is hardly surprising they are often alcoholic. The largely Irish Redlegs of Barbados are also prone to alcoholism.
    While it’s perfectly true that a higher proportion of Aboriginals than whites do not drink at all, Aboriginals still have a higher rate of alcoholism per head of the population than Australian whites – which is really saying something.
    Papua New Guineans had agriculture several thousand earlier than Aboriginals, now who’s more likely to be alcoholic – Papua New Guineans or Aboriginals?

  • Sandgroper

    @Tod – You think no one drinks methylated spirits? Try looking up ‘surrogate alcohol’.
    Finland? Try looking up ‘vodka belt’.
    Ireland? Try looking up ‘beer belt’. The Irish drink less than the French and Spanish.
    “While it’s perfectly true that a higher proportion of Aboriginals than whites do not drink at all, Aboriginals still have a higher rate of alcoholism per head of the population than Australian whites” – that is true only of Aboriginal people living in remote communities, not for the whole Aboriginal population. For whole population, the ABS data clearly show that alcohol abuse is not significantly worse among Aborigines than among the non-Aboriginal population.
    Aboriginal people never had agriculture. But they did make alcohol. The idea that Aboriginal people had no experience of alcohol until it was introduced by European settlers is not correct.

  • Melykin

    Alcoholism would most certainly be selected against in both mothers and fathers but most especially mothers (which might explain why men are more likely to be alcoholic than women, in every race.) Apart from the considerable dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome, the alcoholics don’t have to die before reproducing, they just have to fail to provide good care for their offspring, who would therefore have much less chance of surviving. Anyone who doesn’t believe this surely has little knowledge about alcoholism.
    There are Native communities in Canada that are completely dysfunctional due to alcoholism. I have lived in small towns in Canada where it is common to see natives passed out on the side of the road. The natives in Canada suffer disproportionately from alcoholism and other addictions in every part of Canada, including the cities. (Winnipeg, and the Downtown east side of Vancouver, for example, are characterized by problems of addicted aboriginals).
    Certainly people of the Arctic and aboriginals in every part of Canada are not descended from farmers, and did not have a significant supply of alcohol or other intoxicants before the arrival of Europeans (maybe there were a few accidentally fermented berries now and then, but that’s it).
    According to Nick Martin (Senior Principal Research Fellow at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) and Adjunct Professor, University of Queensland) about 70% of the variation in drinking problems appears to be genetic in both men and women (he studied Australian twins of European decent).
    http://abc.gov.au/quantum/poison/alcohol/nick.htm

  • http://the-apple-eaters.blogspot.com/ ren

    It doesn’t explain why this gene variant or like variants wouldn’t have been selected in other early Neolithic populations which also would’ve been wrecked with alcohol abuse.
    The difference between rice and other cereals is that it is grown (was grown) originally in a very humid, hot environment in summer time, worse than the tropics -the Yangtze flood areas. In these regions if you leave a peach out overnight you’ll find it moldy the next morning. It’s possible that rice was preserved by fermenting it. Fermented rice and rice-derived alcohol is still a regular part of the diet of the Yangtze Delta region, and but the biggest consumers of such foods are the ethnic minorities of the SW, such as the Hmong-Mien and Tai-Kadai. Actually the line between was is fermented rice and what is alcohol becomes very blurred there.

  • Sandgroper

    Actually, I’m wrong – Ireland has higher annual per capita alcohol consumption than France and Spain, but there’s not really a lot in it. Australia has lower per capita consumption than all of them.
    @Melykin – Sure, there are small remote Aboriginal communities that are completely dysfunctional due to alcohol abuse too.
    The popular wisdom is that Aboriginal people can’t handle alcohol. It comes as a shock to people to find out the facts demonstrate that they don’t handle it any worse than anyone else, they are just more visible. For social and cultural reasons they are more likely to get drunk outdoors, which means they are more likely to pass out in public places, exhibit violent behaviour in public or get into other sorts of trouble. That is, more likely on an individual basis – there is no shortage of young white males who also get drunk in public places and exhibit violent or disruptive behaviour. That is becoming a major cause for concern in Australia – given the relative populations, a lot more whites than Aboriginals do it. But when it’s an Aboriginal, it’s “because they can’t handle alcohol.” Not true.
    I’m not saying there may not be a genetic component to alcohol abuse, but it’s certainly not disproportionately highly represented in Aboriginals, it’s present pretty much equally in all parts of the population.
    I can’t speak about native Canadians, in my life I have only ever met one and she was sober at the time, but I suggest you just make sure it isn’t a similar thing. I used to work with a white Canadian who passed out dead drunk on the office floor one morning, but I won’t say any more about that.

  • Melykin

    Sandgroper wrote:
    ” I used to work with a white Canadian who passed out dead drunk on the office floor one morning, but I won’t say any more about that. ”
    —————————————-
    A lot of white Canadians are descended from Scots. Probably the same goes for Australians. Maybe at least 15 – 20% of Scots are alcoholic. However, society seems to be able to function with that level of alcoholism. The Scots have done pretty well for themselves. It maybe that alcoholism is somehow connected to creativity. A lot of writers and musicians are alcoholic. Which is not to say it isn’t a tragic and destructive disease.
    When the level of alcoholism goes up to 40 or 50% in a community, the community can’t function. It is at least that high on some Native Reserves in Canada. The only reason the people don’t all die is because they are supported by the non-native population.
    My son spent some time in a town in the Arctic (95% populated by Inuit), and he learned the amount of alcohol available is limited to a certain number of 36 oz bottles per week per person (can’t recall the number). Every week a load of weed is flown in (illegally). Apparently 70% of the community smokes it every day. If they can’t get booze or weed they sniff gasoline. It takes a terrible toll. A lot die young. A lot of suicide, violence and child abuse.
    You don’t have to look far to find evidence. I googled “Inuit alcoholism” and this is the first link that came up:
    http://www.thestar.com/specialsections/article/144906–inuit-women-raise-battle-cry
    In this article it blames the addiction problems among the Inuit on the usual suspects (colonialism, etc). I think this is nonsense, but it is the only acceptable, politically correct view in Canada. It is a belief that has no scientific basis but is held like a religion. Everyone is too frightened to mention genetics for fear of being called a racist. How can we ever hope to fix the problem if we don’t use science to study it?
    The Yupik people in Siberia , and people in Mongolia have exactly the same problems with addiction. Genetics is what they all have in common.
    The Yupik people in Siberia blame the Russians for their addiction. The Mongolians blame the Russians and Chinese. I don’t think it is a question of blame. I think it is a genetic disease, and it is not any one’s fault. It just is.
    The left-wing sociologists and psychologists who insist that colonialism causes addiction probably laugh to scorn right wing creationists. But their own views are just a different form of creationism.
    Oddly, it seems to be acceptable to talk about the fact that the aboriginals have a high rate of diabetes because their natural diet did not include a lot of carbohydrates. Presumably people of Eurasia who are descended from farmers have evolved a somewhat greater tolerance for carbohydrates. I don’t understand why it is considered useful to study and talk about diabetes in this regard, but is taboo to mention that farmers likely also evolved a degree of protection from alcoholism.

  • Tod

    Handling alcohol clearly does not means never getting a hangove – that would lead to drinking more, wouldn’t it.
    As sold in the UK Meths is poisonous and talk of meths drinkers is a figure of speech.
    A higher proportion of Aboriginals than whites do not drink at all yet Aboriginals still have the same rates of alcoholism as whites; hence those Aboriginals who do drink are significantly more likely to become alcoholic than whites who drink. The difference is not huge I grant you but it is there. Urban ‘Aboriginals’ probably have a lot of non Aboriginal ancestry compared to those in isolated communities.
    What I’m saying is that the Irish and Scots find it much easier to become alcoholic than south and east Europeans because most of their ancestors were under selection to make it unpleasant to get drunk for a relatively short time The difference between northern Europeans is not so great.
    Papua New Guineans had agriculture – which means far larger quantities of alchohol – several thousand earlier than Aboriginals, now who’s more likely to become alcoholic – Papua New Guineans or Aboriginals?

  • Sandgroper

    Melykin – you started out by saying “It is notable that the peoples of the arctic in both Canada and Russia have an extreme susceptibility to alcoholism, as do the aborigine in Australia…”
    I pointed out to you that data established by the Australian Bureau of Statistics demonstrate that the percentage of Australian Aboriginal people who engage in high risk drinking is not significantly higher than for the rest of the population. There is no demonstration whatever of the “extreme susceptibility” that you have alleged exists in Australian Aboriginal people. It is mythical. I know nothing about people in the Arctic, but what you have said about Australian Aborigines has been demonstrated by fact to be manifestly untrue.
    Now you say “How can we ever hope to fix the problem if we don’t use science to study it?” Well, OK.
    The higher rate of diabetes in the Aboriginal population is discussed openly because it clearly exists. To what extent this can be attributed to introduction of a high carb diet, and to what extent because Aboriginal people typically no longer walk 35 miles a day, is an open question. The higher rate of alcoholism among Aboriginal people is no longer being discussed except by white Abo-bashers because, whole population, it doesn’t exist. What is greatly exercising peoples’ minds are the problems of substance abuse, violence and child abuse in small isolated communities.

  • Sandgroper

    Tod – Australia does not exist as an urban/isolated remote community dichotomy. Almost half of all Aboriginal people live in rural regional areas. If you have never been to outback Australia, you can’t begin to understand the meaning of remote and isolated.
    Papua New Guinea has among the lowest per capita alcohol consumption in the world. If that indicates evolved genetic resistance to alcohol and nothing else, it suggests they have done it more successfully than almost everyone else who developed agriculture.

  • deadpost

    Come to think going back to archives, I remember Razib you mentioned once that the derived ADH1B was found in relative high frequencies in a West Asia too.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2227934/
    Clearly, something interesting must be going, that isn’t just rice, right — Middle Eastern crops and those of East Asia’s are different.

  • Melykin

    Sandgroper wrote:
    “The higher rate of alcoholism among Aboriginal people is no longer being discussed except by white Abo-bashers because, whole population, it doesn’t exist. What is greatly exercising peoples’ minds are the problems of substance abuse, violence and child abuse in small isolated communities.”
    ————————————-
    Can you produce an example of a small isolated community (anywhere in the world) that is populated by non-aboriginals and is dysfunctional because of substance abuse? By non-aboriginals, I mean people descended from long-term agriculturists. By dysfunctional, I mean dysfunctional the way most of the aboriginal communities in Canada are dysfunctional.
    I have never been to Australia, however, I know from my own observations over many years that Canadian aboriginals have a much higher rate of addiction than non-aboriginal Canadians. (And non-Aboriginal Canadians are not teetotalers by any means). It is hard to find statistics about this, because it is not politically correct to talk about, and likely no one really knows the figures, or if they know, they won’t say. Government documents tend to tiptoe around the issue. For example, a web site on First Nations health says:
    “Some First Nations people and Inuit face challenges with alcohol, tobacco and drugs that harm their daily lives.”
    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fniah-spnia/substan/index-eng.php
    There seem to be a lot of statistics available on suicide rates:
    “•Suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth than for non-Aboriginal youth.
    •Suicide rates among Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average”
    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fniah-spnia/promotion/suicide/index-eng.php
    Apparently “The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse” has also had trouble finding hard data on the issue. On their website they write:
    “There is currently little clear information describing substance use problems among Canadian Aboriginal peoples. Statistics on violent death (including suicide, homicide, poisoning/overdose, accidents and drownings) provide some indication, and as a population, Aboriginal peoples have rates of violent death much greater than the Canadian population as a whole. Aboriginal adolescent suicide rates are much higher than the national adolescent rate. It appears that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are more prevalent among Aboriginal people. Use of solvents for intoxication among children in some Aboriginal communities is a serious concern. In some remote Indigenous communities, gasoline sniffing, primarily by young people, is said to have contributed to a systematic breakdown of community and family relationships.”
    http://www.ccsa.ca/eng/topics/populations/firstnations_inuit_m%C3%A9tispeople/pages/aboriginalpeoplesoverview.aspx

  • Sandgroper

    Mely – No, not substance abuse, but I can give you an example of a small isolated community which has suffered long term sexual abuse of children – the Pitcairn Islands.
    Look, don’t get me wrong, I sympathise completely with your frustration at the evident unwillingness in Canada to discuss the science.
    In Australia, it has been Aboriginal people themselves who have blown the whistle and asked for help. They are beginning to see the ‘genetic susceptibility’ argument as an excuse not to try to change.
    Canadian natives could obviously be very different, but if the genetic susceptibity is more apparent than real, it could really affect the way that the problems need to be addressed.

  • miko

    “Can you produce an example of a small isolated community (anywhere in the world) that is populated by non-aboriginals and is dysfunctional because of substance abuse? By non-aboriginals, I mean people descended from long-term agriculturists. By dysfunctional, I mean dysfunctional the way most of the aboriginal communities in Canada are dysfunctional.”
    How ’bout white Canadian oil sands workers. They are completely meth’d the fuck out. Small white communities in many places are coping with massive meth problems.

  • Tod

    Papua New Guinea has among the lowest per capita alcohol consumption in the world. If that indicates evolved genetic resistance to alcohol and nothing else, it suggests they have done it more successfully than almost everyone else who developed agriculture

    .
    Quite so, and the reason for that is they independently developed agriculture in Papua New Guinea at a very early stage:- Bird-shaped pestle. Alcohol production may have been the most powerful motive for agriculture:- Did a thirst for beer spark civilization?.

  • diana

    “Aboriginal people never had agriculture. But they did make alcohol. The idea that Aboriginal people had no experience of alcohol until it was introduced by European settlers is not correct.”
    Wow. First I heard of that. What plants did they ferment?
    “It eems that in the North west fringes of Europe there is a greater prevelence of alcoholism than in south and south eastern Europe.”
    If that’s true, maybe it’s because in S. and SE Europe people tend to drink wine and not hard liquor? Because in S and SE Europe people grew grapes, and in N Europe it’s the hard liquor belt where people grew barley and rye and grain and beets and so on. Yeah, there are “winos” but impression is people don’t get quite as damaged by wine, even in copious amounts, as they get by hard likker.*
    Also the culture frowns on getting pissed in public. It doesn’t take long before you see a staggering drunk in Russia, many of them female.
    Remember what “vodka” means: “little water.” That shows you what Russians think of drinking.
    Anyway I think there is a spider web of crops, culture, genes and behavior going on here. Damage that with, say, an invasion (such as the Aborigines had to endure) and you end up with a real problem.
    *I gave up all hard liquor 20 years ago. It simply makes me sick. Wine, on the other hand, I love to death. Is that my genes? Who knows. I just know I can’t tolerate hard liquor but I love wine.

  • Sandgroper

    D – Lots of stuff. It shouldn’t be surprising, Aboriginal people went to great lengths with preparation of plant foods, often to render them non-toxic. You mash stuff in water, leave it lying around for a while, and it ferments.
    Example: “The Aborigines also used fruits like tamarinds and native lime to make refreshing beverages. An acid drink was made from the fruit of lawyer cane by squashing the fruit in water, and from breadfruit by soaking it in water. Certain flowers rich in nectar were gathered in the early morning and steeped in water. This was drunk fresh and also set aside to ferment. Some tribes pounded flowers in a wooden dish, then drained the liquid into another dish and mixed this with the sugary parts of honey ants. This mixture was allowed to ferment for eight to ten days and a brew was made to drink.”

  • Melykin

    Hunter-gather communities might have had alcohol occasionally (except in the Arctic) but they wouldn’t have had a sustained and plentiful supply of it, hence they couldn’t have become practicing addicts, and thus a tendency to alcoholism would not have been selected against among them.
    Miko wrote:
    “How ’bout white Canadian oil sands workers. They are completely meth’d the fuck out. Small white communities in many places are coping with massive meth problems.”
    Fort McMurray, where most of the oil sands workers live, is not dysfunctional. It is a bustling, modern community. To be sure, some of the people who live there are dysfunctional, but not enough to make the whole town dysfunctional.
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Fort_mcmurray_aerial_downtown.jpg
    First Nations communities are overwhelmingly made up of jobless people crowded into small shabby houses often with no clean water supply or no running water at all.
    Look at thi photo-essay of the Cross Lake First Nation in northern Ontario:
    http://fnpublichealth.ca/tb/photo-essay-cross-lake-fn/

  • Sandgroper

    More examples? Australian Aboriginal people also fermented alcohol from flowers and wild honey, the sap of gum trees (several different species), the cones of banksia trees (several different species), and pandanus.
    That’s very unlikely to be a full list, but it is enough to demonstrate that people in a lot of different areas of Australia did it as a sustained and regular traditional practice. They may not have been able to produce it in the quantities possible in an agricultural society, but then they had much lower population densities.
    So I think as a generalisation about all hunter gatherers everywhere, it’s an unsafe argument.

  • Melykin

    The Bushmen, or San people, who were traditionally hunter-gatherers in Africa, now suffer greatly from alcoholism.
    http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/1513
    Google
    Bushmen alcoholism or
    “San People” alcoholism
    for many more references.
    If you google “alcohol plagued town” most of the hits that come up are about native communities in Canada, Alaska, or Australia. But there was one hit about the Bushmen. I thought I’d discovered an alcohol plagued town in Greece, but the link turned out to be about college fraternities.

  • bruce

    I wonder if increased alcohol tolerance, from long-term alcohol exposure, might be buried under long-term malnutrition effects.
    If you’re from a long line of boozers, who ate only a half-bowl of rice a day, for fifty generations? You grow up 4′ tall and skinny? You might be plowed easier than someone whose genes have no experience of alcohol, but 6′ tall and a broad ax-handle across at the shoulders. (Or where a broad should be broad).
    Chinese wheat-eaters have folk sayings about wimpy rice-eaters.
    Central Americans bred on an all-maize diet, or Africans with protein deficiency, might show similar results. Or Americans whose momma trusted Atkins.

  • diana

    Sandgroper: I’d forgotten about bush fruits. Eurocentric that I am my thoughts tend to drift more in the direction of grains, etc.
    Melkyn,
    I have a hard time believing that evolution has ordained N. Europeans being the beneficiaries of negative selection the way you describe it because of the ubiquity of alcohol-disablement amongst them. There may be a mild effect, but it’s completely overriden by social factors. Drunks everywhere.
    I grant there may be more of this in effect amongst mid-Easterners, but only when they confine their alcohol consumption to wine and beer.
    That’s my whole problem with HBD in fact. One study and suddenly the code is cracked. I don’t think so. More like a tiny sliver of a huge jigsaw puzzle. Necessary but hardly sufficient.

  • Melykin

    Diana,
    Northern Europeans certainly seem to have a greater prevalence of alcoholism than people from southern Europe. Perhaps the Northern Europeans are more recently descended from hunter-gathers. You suggest it might be because the southern Europeans drink mostly wine and beer that they are less alcoholic. More likely it is the fact that they have few alcoholics is the reason they don’t drink much hard liquor.
    Whether or not the theory about alcoholism being selected against after agriculture was developed is true, there is no doubt that a tendency to alcoholism is mostly genetic, and simple observations suggest that some races are more prone to it than others, just as some races are more prone to diabetes, or lactose intolerance.
    Diana writes:
    “That’s my whole problem with HBD in fact. One study and suddenly the code is cracked. I don’t think so. More like a tiny sliver of a huge jigsaw puzzle. Necessary but hardly sufficient.”
    Diana, my whole problem with the theory that alcoholism is caused by residential school, or, more generally, by racism and colonialism, is that there is absolutely no evidence for it at all. Yet it is a belief that is held like a religion.
    Why didn’t European colonialism and racism cause alcoholism in Hong Kong, or India, or amongst the Japanese Canadians who not only experienced a lot or racism, but were placed in internment camps during WWII, and had all their homes and fishing boats stolen by the government?
    The way people metabolize alcohol varies from person to person. It is a biological process. Why would racism effect a biological process? When people are lactose intolerant, or get type 2 diabetes, we don’t shrug and attribute it to vague psychological problems caused by racism. If the causes of alcoholism were studied in a more scientific manner, it is possible an effective treatment could be found. It just really annoys me that so little research is being done.
    Suppose that, say, multiple sclerosis were 4 times more prevalent among First Nations Canadians than among Europeans. Surely this would provide an important clue about the causes of the disease, and it would be studied extensively. We wouldn’t just try not to notice the higher rate of disease among the aboriginals, and wave it off as being caused by colonialism.
    Really, to ignore the terrible toll that alcoholism takes among the aboriginal people is the worse type or racism.
    Here is an excerpt from an interview with Nick Martin, Senior Principal Research Fellow at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) and Adjunct Professor, University of Queensland:
    —————————————–
    Q.What kind of information can you get from a long-term twin study in regard to these variations between individuals?
    A. Firstly the benefit of it being long term is that we can actually look at how much the subjects were impaired by the alcohol when we did the study 16 years ago and then see whether any of them have alcohol problems now. The intriguing thing is that we’ve actually found that those subjects who were least impaired by alcohol 16 years ago are the ones who now appear to be at the greatest risk of having alcohol problems. This suggests that if you are very badly affected by alcohol, then you’ll probably moderate your drinking behaviour and be at less risk of becoming an alcoholic. It’s the people who are as steady as a rock and can drink everybody else under the table who are in fact most at risk.
    That’s actually very intriguing because it ties in with other data coming from the Japanese and other Orientals, which shows that quite a high proportion of the population, about half of them, have an enzyme that actually prevents alcohol being converted from acetaldehyde to acetate. Those people get nauseous, they get highly flushed and most interestingly, they are at very, very low risk of alcoholism. In a study that was done of 120 Japanese alcoholics, whereas you would expect 50% of them to have this enzyme deficiency, in fact only two out of 120 had it. Quite clearly, having the enzyme deficiency is very strongly protective against becoming alcoholic.
    Q. That’s funny, because you’d think it would be the opposite.
    A. Exactly, and that’s one of the messages that I hope comes out of this program. It’s not the person who falls on the floor after a couple of drinks who’s going to become an alcoholic. In fact, the exact opposite is the truth.
    Q. So for some people in the community, getting drunk is not a pleasant experience, and that response is perhaps partly genetic?
    A. Yes indeed. In fact, we’re trying to look at that a bit more closely now, because there’s a significant number of people out there who don’t drink – not because of religious prohibition, or any moral issue, they just don’t like it. They just don’t find it a pleasant experience. It’s quite clear that something biological is going on and we’ve got some preliminary evidence amongst Caucasians (as I’ve said, amongst Asians it’s quite clear what’s going on), that there’s variation and it’s probably genetic, but the basis of it in Europeans is not yet well understood.
    Q. From the twin study, how clear is it that there is a genetic predisposition to alcohol dependency?
    A. In another study which overlaps with the ‘alcohol challenge’ study, we’ve been following a large group of twins, 4,000 pairs, since 1980. We’ve asked them about their drinking habits and their drinking problems, and we’ve just interviewed over 6,000 of them on the phone. What we’ve found, quite conclusively, is that if you look at alcohol dependence, the operationalisation of alcoholism, which is the popular word, it is very strongly genetic, in both men and women. I think for a long time it’s been reasonably well accepted that there’s a strong genetic component in men. But the rumour out there, or the folklore, was that alcoholism in women was environmental. It was not genetic. Our study strongly rejects that. We find that about 70% of the variation in drinking problems appears to be genetic in both men and women. So genetic influences are very strong on alcohol problems.
    http://abc.gov.au/quantum/poison/alcohol/nick.htm

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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