Beer, Other Beverages, and the Future of Self-Government

Let me share with you an alarming study that came to my attention a couple of years ago.

Americans are now drinking more BOTTLED WATER than BEER.  Ther persons who reported on the study comments that this has got to be bad for our future as relational and political beings.

We drink beer to loosen up, to clamp down on our inhibitions.  Then we anxious autonomy freaks can open up to others, be conversational, tell the truth with uncalculated abandon.  Bars, of course, are among the most conversational places in America.  And beer, we all know, is the mean between the extremes of hard liquor (that will get you too drunk to talk and cause you to lose any control over your moods and so might make you more solitary and melancholic than ever) and not drinking at all (which is a sure sign of a lack of convivality and openness to the joys of life).

Beer, of course, is somewhat unsafe. I'm not going to lecture you on the dangers of drunk or even tipsy driving.  Because having a real beer is sort of like drinking a loaf of bread, it doesn't take much to make you fatter.  I don't know of any diet plan that includes beer.  Not only that, beer can cause you too loosen up too much, and so your convivality might too easily slide into more than mere talk.  It can make you into a sucker in general, easy prey for all the evildoers that surround us all these days.  That's why beer is best consumed at the neighborhood bar, where friends look out for friends and everyone walks or staggers home.

I myself am getting too old and fat to pretend that I'm completely unafraid of beer.  I've tried--with uneven success--to switch to the safer and alleged more tasteful wine.  Wine, in my opinion, does facilitate the social virtues about as well as beer.  It was an excellent replacement for the martini (which tastes ridiculous and gets you drunk fast) among sophisticates such as us BIG THINKERS.  So I endorse wine as long as it's fairly cheap.  The movie's passionate argument against Merlot, to me, is an argument for it:  It's impossible to screw Merlot up, and that can't be said of even Cabernet.

I rarely drink water unless I'm really thirsty.  After all, what's the point?  Where's the pleasure, the fun?  If I do drink water, I make sure it's from a tap.  Bottled water is the biggest scam going;  it's not really less dangerous or better for you.  I have to admit I do lilke carbonated water a little, especially the very cheap Kroger brand (and I guess Walmart has some equivalent).  Drinking water, as the article says, is a shamefully privatized, narcissistic act.

What about coffee?  Well, I really like it and drink a lot of it.  Some say I don't believe in progress.  But who can deny that there's been remarkable progress in the coffee readily available to Americans over the last generation?  STARBUCKS coffee is swill.  But there are many better kinds of designer, grind-your-own bean coffee everywhere now.  And coffee shops that serve all kinds of special roasts even in the  sticks of  our country. 

The new coffee we all enjoy (and lots of us to excess even in this safety-conscous time) is much stronger than the traditional MAXWELL HOUSE. And so we're more wired than ever.  Someone might say that the resulting paranoid edginess is keeping us from being relaxed enough to reproduce.

But I tend to think that multiple large cups of powerfully caffeinated beverages assist us in our efforts to find genuinely relational ties in our lonely, ghostly time. 

In my profession, coffee is indispensable.  Studies show it makes you smarter in the short term (that term being about as long as a typical class), and it induces you to talk fast and straight.  It releases you from some inhibitions and triggers others, making you charmingly quirky and vulnerable.

Coffee is certainly the beverage for philosophers.  Wine might lead some to speak the truth, but often in a stupid, blowhard way.  Coffee, take it from me, is the more EROTIC beverage.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.