Psychiatrist Jeffrey P. Kahn believes that beer, far from being an agent of chaos, is what gave our ancestors modern civilization. Beer, he writes, triggered our leap from rule-bound hunter-gathers into the creative, complex societies we’ve been for the last 10,000 years. There’s certainly evidence to back up his claims. Grain may have been domesticated to satisfy our craving for alcohol rather than for bread. In fact, brewing does appear to predate baking by 3,000 years. There’s no doubt that dense towns and cities flourished on fermented beverages when plain water was too dangerous to drink. And, as Guinness likes to point out, beer has certain nutritional benefits, not to mention that it’s high in calories.
Kahn’s argument, however, extends far deeper than beer ‘s early role as a safe drink and easy source of calories. What Kahn identifies as humanity’s five core social tendencies – codependence on our tribe members, hierarchy, responsibility, fear of offending others, and conveniently dying when we get too old to be of use – were vital but rigid. According to Kahn, humans needed booze to shake off these instinctual strictures in order to become more expressive, creative, and experimental. No beer, no art. No wine, no democracy. But is tipple really that vital, or is something deeper at play?