Floating University: When Ideas Have Authority, We Learn, Profit, and Grow


Global Population Boom: Are People the Problem, the Solution, or Both?

Professor Joel Cohen first asks and answers the question, "How did humans grow from small populations on the African savannah to almost seven billion people?" After holding steady for thousands of years, the world population exploded after 1800, more than tripling in 200 years. And while the rate of population growth is slowing down, Cohen shows how high birth rates in poor countries are turning societies on their head and leading to explosive problems in the future. Can we prevent an outcome where rich western countries are in permanent population decline while cities in Africa, South America, and Asia swell into massively overcrowded slums with no access to education, healthcare, or hope? Cohen applies demography to this pressing question with fascinating results.

How We Speak Reveals What We Think, with Steven Pinker

How is it that human beings have come to acquire language? Steven Pinker's introduction to the field includes thoughts on the evolution of spoken language and the debate over the existence of an innate universal grammar, as well as an exploration of why language is such a fundamental part of social relationships, human biology, and human evolution. Finally, Pinker touches on the wide variety of applications for linguistics, from improving how we teach reading and writing to how we interpret law, politics, and literature.

How Societies Should Organize: Balancing Freedom and Community

Engagement with the the fundamentals of political philosophy is an essential step toward being able to think critically about the power structures in place and make your voice heard as a citizen. Professor Tamar Gendler begins with the question of why human beings should cooperate, then looks at the different answers that arise from two very different perspectives: Hobbes' theory of self-interest versus the social contract theory of Rousseau and Locke. Next, she shows how, with Marx's communism, political philosophy evolved to the point at which it had the power to overturn established hierarchies and dominate the international politics of the twentieth century.

A universe in a nutshell: The physics of everything, with Michio Kaku

In a profoundly informative and deeply optimistic discussion, Professor Michio Kaku delivers a glimpse of where science will take us in the next hundred years, as warp drives, teleportation, inter-dimensional wormholes, and even time travel converge with our scientific understanding of physical reality. While firing up our imaginations about the future, he also presents a succinct history of physics to the present.

Everyone Has Their Price: An Introduction to Economics

Levmore brings the future of economics into sharp focus by contrasting the approaches of the emerging global economic powers of India and China. From the basics of pricing, demand, and competition, to global politics and the future of government, Dr. Levmore makes it easy to see economics at work all around us. This may well be the only field in which thinking about the cost of a chocolate chip cookie or how airline ticket pricing works is expected to provide insights into the machinations of the entire world.

Psychology is the Study of Innate Human Compassion

Give Paul Bloom one hour, and he'll teach you "the psychology of everything." Through the case studies of compassion, racism, and sex, Dr. Bloom explores the intrinsic fundamentals of human nature, including some of our most intriguing tendencies, such as the kindness of babies, stereotyping (which can be both detrimental and beneficial), and our universal sense of beauty. Additional topics addressed in the lecture include: "What do studies suggest is the number one characteristic that males and females look for in a mate?", "How can I get someone to have compassion for causes I care about?", "Are we all unconscious racists?", and even, "What do the porn preferences of monkeys tells us about our own sexual choices?"

Social capital: If you want to succeed, start making friends

If you think you're in complete control of your destiny or even your own actions, you're wrong. Every choice you make, every behavior you exhibit, and even every desire you have finds its roots in the social universe. In his lecture, Nicholas Christakis explains why individual actions are inextricably linked to sociological pressures. Whether you’re absorbing altruism performed by someone you’ll never meet or deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, collective phenomena affect every aspect of your life.

Inside Every Human Cell May Lie the Fountain of Youth

Professor Douglas Melton begins with a look at the basis for regenerative medicine, the human body’s ability to divide, grow, and specialize cells. With a solid foothold in developmental biology, we see how this knowledge led to the breakthrough cloning experiments we’re all familiar with: Hello, Dolly! Next, we’re introduced to the science of stem cells and their greatest hope: new "man-made" stem cells that could soon be used to reverse incurable degenerative diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Lastly, Professor Melton tells how these same stem cells may be the keys that unlock an end to aging as we know it.

The Great Unexpected Utility of the Arts

Art is often dismissed as being purely subjective, but President Botstein argues that there are some commonalities among the diverse products that different people call art. He points out that art-making is uniquely a human activity, that it has its own semantic vocabulary that transcends the limitations of language, that its very existence is meaningless without viewer engagement and response. He argues that the most important thing about art is every person's capacity to make it, and that the body/mind discipline of cultivating your artistic abilities has collateral utility for every aspect of life. By the end of the lecture you will understand why you should actively make art part of your life-long education.

Strange Beauty: How Reading the Classics Will Change You

From "What's the best kind of life for a human?" to "How should governments be arranged?", the great classics tackle some of the most enduring questions that have resisted the attempts of science and the ages to solve. Brenzel will try to convince you that having intimate conversations with these great works will not only build your intellectual muscle but will also help you to grapple with the big questions in your own life and improve your judgment.

Learn to Invest and Start a Business in Under an Hour

We all want to be financially stable and enjoy a well-funded retirement, but we don't want to squander our hard-earned money on poor investments. In this powerful lecture, Ackman navigates the complex landscape of how businesses work and how to make smart investments following a simple business model we can all relate to: a lemonade stand. From balance sheets and growth assumptions to the difference between debt and equity, by the end of the hour you will have a working vocabulary of financial terms.

Ideas Rule the World, not Kings or Corporations

How many people remember who ruled England when Chaucer wrote or when Milton wrote or when Shakespeare wrote or even when Dickens wrote? Lawrence Summers makes the compelling case that history is shaped by ideas and the spread of knowledge rather than empire and conquest. Every innovative policy, maverick action, and upset of the status quo is rooted in an idea, a small pebble that starts a wave that eventually reaches all shores.

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  • A team of researchers in Queensland says 33% of the Australian population has sizable bone spurs growing at the base of their skulls.
  • This postural deformity, enthesophytes, results in chronic headaches and upper back and neck pain.
  • The likelihood humans will alter their addiction to this technology is low, so this might be a major consequence of technology.

We knew it was coming. We just weren't sure how it would manifest. Thanks to a series of academic papers by researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, the future is becoming clear.

Humans are growing horns.

For all the talk about the utopia technology is preparing us for, we consistently overlook the physical consequences. Futurists wax poetic about transcending our meat puppets, but as any credible evolutionary biologist or neuroscientist will remind you, consciousness is body-dependent. The tools we use to push forward into a brave new age are weighing us down—literally.

The researchers—David Shahar and Mark G.L. Sayers, both at the School of Health and Sport Sciences in Queensland—noticed that this trend of "horns," rather large bone spurs growing at the back of people's skulls, is more prevalent in young people than older adults.

In a paper published earlier this year in Scientific Reports, they observed hornlike spikes growing in the back of people's skulls that are 10-31mm in length. Shahar notes that bone spurs are considered large if they measure 3-5mm in length. The problem, he continues, is not necessarily the spurs, but the havoc they wreak in the person's skeletal system.

Could Tech Neck be the Cause of your Headaches or Neck Pain?

Every technology comes with consequences. Electric light bulbs were an important step forward, but we're paying for it with chronic sleep deprivation. We're well aware of how cars and industrial farming affect climate change; even the technology of plastic is waging war on innumerable marine species. And us, as we all eat thousands of plastic particles each year.

Three years ago, Shahar and Sayers noticed a troublesome sight in neck X-rays. Enthesophytes, bone spurs protruding from the base of the skull—you can feel them if you check—were appearing in younger patients. Previously seniors that had suffered a lifetime of strain comprised the population for this problem. The team's first paper, published in 2016, noted that 41 percent of young adults studied (out of 218 X-rays) had noticeable bone growth.

Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

They followed this up with a paper last year, arguing that genetics are not the cause. The skeletal load from staring down at a screen is now an evolutionary trait this technology is causing. Of course, evolution is not necessarily for our benefit. We usually reserve the term for things we like, yet it has no regard for our benefit. (Due to rapidly increasing climate problems, for example, jellyfish will inherit the Earth.)

In their latest paper, Shahar and Sayers note that 33 percent of the population (out of 1,200 X-rays) now exhibits enthesophytes. This postural deformity results in chronic headaches and upper back and neck pain.

The idea that people will stop using their phones is unlikely. Instead, we'll turn into a new species: Horned humans. Shahar says the solution will require a public health effort akin to dental hygiene in the 1970s. He suggests nightly postural training to counter the effects of our head tilts. The difference, of course, is that flossing and brushing is an adaptation to eating, a biologically necessary practice. Staring at a phone for six hours a day is not.

As a fitness instructor, I've spent decades inside of gyms. Long ago I predicted a severe uptick in kyphosis in the younger generation due to the constant hunching forward of their upper bodies. More than three million Americans are treated for this signature rounded back every year, which is usually caused by a lifetime of bad postural habits and lack of mobility training.

Just this morning I observed at least half of the gym members occupied by their phones while exercising: on bicycles and treadmills, between sets while weight training, staring down into some distractive video while on the stretch mats. If phones are in such demand during a time when focus is demanded, we can be certain these bad habits continue throughout the day: walking out of the gym, driving, lying in bed at night. Smartphones constitute the greatest addiction we've decided to pretend doesn't exist as a society.

Like sucking carbon out of the air or burying it into the ground, we'd rather create workarounds to bad habits than actually address the problem. We've come nowhere close to admitting this addiction, so the notion of addressing it is moot. We can imagine a better future, yet in the end, our anatomy is slave to the demands of our brains.

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  • Facebook has just announced its new cryptocurrency, Libra.
  • Early investors include many of the world's leading companies, implying they will accept Libra as payment
  • The announcement was met with a mixed response, but only time will tell how Libra will be received

In a much-anticipated announcement on Tuesday, Facebook introduced the world to its new cryptocurrency Libra which is slated for launch in 2020 and will allow the popular social media giant's 2.4 billion members (and anyone with a smartphone) to quickly and inexpensively send money to each other and transact with businesses that have a presence on the Libra blockchain.

Facebook's goal for the new stablecoin—which will be pegged to a basket of fiat currencies like the US Dollar and Euro—is to provide an accessible financial system to the world's 1.7 billion unbanked inhabitants. As both a "cryptocurrency and a global financial infrastructure," Facebook was careful to say that Libra is not maintained internally and is instead serviced by a non-profit collective of companies participating in the ecosystem.

Facebook opts for a centralized yet shared model

Image: Facebook/Calibra

The UI of the Calibra Wallet.

Members of this collective, based in Switzerland and known as the Libra Association, must pay at least $10 million to join. They will then be responsible for validating Libra transactions, administering the fund which backs its value, and voting on how to allocate the association's capital towards socially conscious initiatives. Founding members so far include ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft, as well as eBay, Spotify, PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard.

Their early investment implies that these businesses will accept Libra as payment once the cryptocurrency launches alongside its Calibra wallet, which was also part of Facebook's announcement. Participation by these companies suggests how users might obtain and eventually use Libra. While Facebook is capable of hosting air drops to spread the word and vision, Visa and Mastercard's collaboration with Libra indicates that the stable coin may be directly purchasable via credit card.

Will Libra be welcomed by the crypto community?

Facebook's announcement has already whipped up a storm in the space with many leaders in the crypto community voicing their opinions.

Justin Sun, the founder of Tron who recently paid $4.75 million to have lunch with Warren Buffet, thinks this will be a great thing for the space saying, "Facebook and Libra. I feel a huge FOMO and bull run for crypto is on its way."

However Jeremy Cohen, CEO of diamDEXX, a stablecoin backed by diamonds, is giving a more balanced view, stating:

"We're still waiting for more information, but this roll out will be met with mixed feelings from the crypto community at large. On the one hand, Facebook has billions of users who can, in a single day trigger a wider acceptance of cryptocurrencies. On the other, a project such as this by such a massive, centralized company is a far cry from the ideals upon which the crypto community is based. Privacy concerns come to the forefront for a stablecoin being offered by a company such as Facebook, who have had many issues in this area in the past."

Will Libra liberate or limit world finance?

Using Libra for payments will be easy, as it will be integrated directly with the Facebook Messenger application as well as WhatsApp, and probably with other Facebook properties as well (such as Instagram). However, it's not yet clear which countries will gain access to Libra first, especially with a regulatory backdrop for cryptocurrency that varies drastically between sovereign borders. Just hours after its announcement, US lawmakers were already asking Facebook to halt the rollout of Libra until they could hold hearings on the subject.

It's yet unclear whether Facebook will have the lobbying power to launch Libra according to its optimistic timeline, especially when many lawmakers are already seeking to limit the social media leader's reach. What is clear, however, is that Facebook is waving the checkered flag for blockchain and cryptocurrency's race to the mainstream consciousness.

  • The study explored humans' developmental window, during which the visual cortex forms regions that recognize specific objects, like faces, words and, surprisingly, Pokémon.
  • The results showed that these Pokémon-selective regions exist in the same brain areas among people who played Pokémon as children.
  • The findings could help improve treatments for conditions such as autism.


If you spent many hours playing Pokémon as a kid, there's a good chance your brain developed a dedicated region responsible for recognizing the "pocket monsters," according to a new study published in Nature Human Behaviour.

What inspired such a study? Research shows that the visual cortex in humans has a specific region that responds strongly when people look at faces. (Evolutionarily, this is advantageous because being able to quickly distinguish faces can help you tell friend from foe.) Similarly, certain parts of our visual cortex respond when we look at natural scenes or words. It's thought that these parts of the visual cortex form as children, during a critical developmental window when our brains have an especially high level of neuroplasticity.

That's the theory, at least. The team behind the recent study wanted to identify that critical developmental window in humans, and to see "which dimensions of visual information constrain the development and topography of this shared brain organization," they wrote. To do that, they needed a specific visual stimuli that many adults would've spent hours looking at as children. Enter Pokémon Red and Blue, a game in which players familiarize themselves with dozens and dozens of distinct, monster-like creatures.

In the study, the researchers recruited two groups of participants: adults who played Pokémon as kids and adults who hadn't. Using fMRI, the researchers scanned the brains of each group as they were shown images of various things: cartoons, faces, corridors, and Pokémon.

Photo credit: TORU YAMANAKA / Getty Staff

The results showed that only the group who played the game had a specific part of the brain that responded to the sight of Pokémon. What's more, this group also responded to locations in the game, specifically through "place-selective activations," meaning their brains effectively categorized areas in the game as real-world locations. The team suggested that the eccentricity of Pokémon — the animation style, size of the creatures and objects — is what drives young brains to develop a Pokémon-selective region.

"The current finding of a Pokémon-preferring brain region really drives home just how amazing the plasticity of our developing visual system is," wrote Daniel Janini and Talia Konkle of Harvard University in a news comment on the paper.

The findings could help improve treatments for conditions such as autism. For example, people with autism often avoid making eye contact and have trouble recognizing faces. This might be because children with autism don't look at faces in the same way as other children do during a critical time when their young brains are developing. If further studies confirm the recent findings, specialists might be able to create interventions that encourage the development of face-selecting regions in the brain.

  • Many countries made incredible gains in IQ scores during the 20th century, averaging three IQ points per decade.
  • Studies out of Europe have shown a reversal of this trend.
  • Such declines are not universal, and researchers remain unsure of what is causing them.


Are people getting smarter or dumber? It seems an easy enough question to answer. Researchers look at IQ tests; see if scores go up, down, or sideways; and report their findings. You, in turn, google the question and read an article detailing said findings.

Perform such a search, however, and you will net a surprising amount of contradictory claims. Many, many, many headlines maintain that people today are more acute than ever. Yet many, many, many others assert that recent decades have blunted humanity's mental tools. And each claim is based on studies, surveys, and all-around science.

Which is correct? Before we answer that, we need to figure out what exactly the so-called Flynn effect tells us about the intellectual gains of the 20th century.

The Flynn effect: how people got smarter

In the 1980s philosopher James Flynn noticed that IQ tests were occasionally renormed. The average IQ must stand at 100, but every few years, scores would creep up, and test makers had to add tougher questions to bring the average back down. Flynn crunched the numbers and found that IQ scores had increased, on average, three points per decade. The phenomenon was named the Flynn effect in his honor.

"The implications are stunning," developmental psychologist Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature. "An average teenager today, if he or she could time-travel back to 1950, would have had an IQ of 118. If the teenager went back to 1910, he or she would have had an IQ of 130, besting 98 percent of his or her contemporaries. Yes, you read that right: if we take the Flynn effect at face value, a typical person today is smarter than 98 percent of the people in the good old days of 1910."

Of course, Pinker quickly points out, we can't take the Flynn effect at face value. People living in 1910 weren't blithering fools who couldn't wrap their heads around calculus or believed the Earth to be flat. Nor did evolution genetically reengineer our mental software in a mere century.

Rather, the industrialized environments of the 20th century required people to use and think in abstract terms more frequently than previous generations. Not coincidentally, IQ tests such as Raven's Progressive Matrices measure one's ability to think abstractly and apply that ability toward new problems (i.e., one's fluid knowledge).

Pinker provides a telling example. Consider a similarities problem that asks, "What do dogs and rabbits have in common?" The answer is obvious; they are mammals. But in 1900, an average person was likely to answer, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits." This isn't wrong. The answer elucidates a concrete relationship between the two. It's just not the abstract classification that IQ tests look for.

"So, modernity has essentially changed the way we think, to make us better at using broad abstract concepts and applying them to situations that are unfamiliar to us," journalist David Epstein told Big Think. "And it's not to say that one type of thinking is better than the other. That's certainly not the case. [We're] just adapted to different conditions."

The gains haven't been equal in all types of knowledge. As Pinker notes, matrices and similarities have increased by leaps and bounds since 1950; however, arithmetic, vocabulary, and information (i.e., crystallized knowledge) have seen the fewest gains overall. In other words, today we are much better at recognizing patterns in geometric shapes, but only slightly better at remembering the capital of Switzerland. (Or that the latter is a trick question.)

Are we losing intelligence gains?

(Photo: Pixabay)

But the Flynn effect may now be regressing. According to recent studies, the populaces of several countries are essentially bleeding IQ points. One eye-catching example came out of Norway last year.

Norway practices mandatory military service. Conscripted men are required to take an IQ test, providing researchers with a wealth of data. Brent Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg, at the Ragnar Frische Centre for Economic Research in Oslo, analyzed more than 730,000 of these IQ tests, and their results showed 1975 to be the tipping point for Norway's Flynn effect. The country's IQ scores have tumbled downhill since.

It's worth noting that this decline is not necessarily endemic among Norway's entire population. Though the study had a large sample size, it only looked at native-born men, 18–19 years old, and whose parents were also native born. Men of other ages or parental makeup were not accounted for, nor did the study look at women's IQs at any age. (While Norway practices universal conscription today, the law wasn't extended until 2013, so such data were not available.)

Even so, Norway's dip is part of a larger trend. An analysis out of the University of Otago, written by James Flynn and Michael Shayer, looked at intelligence research in various countries. While the declines were not uniform, they were certainly present in the data, particularly among European countries.

Flynn and Shayer found that Nordic nations — namely Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — will lose an overall average of 6.85 IQ points (projected over 30 years). The Netherlands showed losses at high school but gains in adults and no change in preschoolers. Germany maintained verbal gains but lost spatial points. Interestingly, Britain showed slight gains on Raven's Progressive Matrices but losses on Piagetian tests, another test measuring a test taker's analytic ability.

"Massive IQ gains over time were never written in the sky as something eternal like the law of gravity," the authors write. "They are subject to every twist and turn of social evolution. If there is a decline, should we be too upset?"

In other countries, the Flynn effect remains in effect. The Unites States continues to gain at the historic rate, while South Korea is gaining at twice that. Flynn and Shayer also believe that developing countries will continue to show gains for some time.

Did smart people dumb down their environment?

What has caused the current slump in IQ scores among some European nations? Researchers aren't sure, but they have some hypotheses.

One hypothesis blames dysgenic fertility. Dysgenics postulates that negative traits can accumulate in a population if not weeded out by selection pressures. In the case of intelligence, the idea goes that above-average intelligence couples have fewer children than those who aren't; therefore, there are fewer intelligent children to pass on their genes. The Flynn effect masked this reality until the inevitable ceiling was hit. It is exactly the setup for Idiocracy.

Bratsberg and Rogeberg push against the dysgenic hypothesis. Their results show Norway's negative trends occurring within families as well as across them. For this same reason, the researchers don't believe immigration is a major factor either. They argue in-family environmental effects are the most likely culprit, though they cannot weed out particular causes and effects. Possibilities include changes in educational exposure, worsening nutrition, and changes in media exposure.

Flynn and Shayer also provide some possibilities. They point out that Scandinavian countries support more advanced educational systems. These education systems may have reached a theoretical limit in their ability "to produce graduates that can generalize and use logic on the hypothetical (mental abilities that pay dividends on IQ tests)."

Scandinavian welfare states may have also leveled the educational attainment between citizens of different classes. Quality education reaches everybody. This could explain the U.S.'s continued gains, as students in poorer areas continue to play catch up with their upper-class peers.

Societies escalated skill requirements in the 20th century. That environment caused IQs to rise. Conversely, Flynn and Shayer note, if 21st-century societies lessen skill requirements, IQ scores will backpedal.

But the question of whether our IQ scores are higher than another society's, whether historical or contemporary, isn't what truly matters. It's whether we've developed societies that support and foster our many different intelligences wisely and purposefully. As Flynn and Shayer point out: "Capitalizing on a people's intelligence, rather than worrying about their intelligence, is the most important thing."

  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.


* This article uses "beer" to describe any grain-based alcoholic drink. Today, we tend to think of beer as fermented malt flavored with hops, but hops didn't become part of the brewing process until around 1200 CE. As Phillips notes, historians use the term much more broadly.

** In the spirit of bringing some social capital stateside, the Field Museum also teamed up with Off Color Brewing, a Chicago craft brewery, to create a modern variant of the chicha. The brewers used purple corn from Peru and spiced the libation with molle berries. Their recreation is available to try, though its availability is dependent on the brewery's supply of purple corn.