Entry from March 25, 2013

Oh, goody! I knew that if I waited long enough it would come and now it has: scientific evidence — scientific evidence, mind you — that not only is fat good for you but so is beer. A bona fide doctor, Dr Kathryn O’Sullivan — says that the “beer belly” is a myth. In fact, drinking beer is actually good for you, as it “contains vitamins, fibre, and antioxidants and minerals such as silicon which may help to lower your risk of osteoporosis.” My patience with good old science has already been rewarded in the case of red wine, chocolate and, most recently, salt, three things that I dearly love and that “science” in its sterner days used to tell me were very bad for me and should be ruthlessly cut out of my diet. I resisted doing so, as I did so many other forms of nutritional prudence, and now each of these things has been rehabilitated, which is what persuaded me — rightly, as it turns out — that, if I only waited long enough, beer must be sooner or later added to the no-longer-proscribed list. Cheers, science!

But wait! There’s more. According to The Atlantic online, researchers studying the “Mediterranean diet” — which is heavy with wine and olive oil — have concluded that “after five years of watching trends in heart disease and strokes among people at high risk, the researchers could not in good conscience continue to recommend a ‘low- fat diet’ to anyone.” It’s about time those researchers developed a conscience about the long, boring years when they told people their lives depended on the sort of gastronomic asceticism which regards anything that tastes good as no good for you and finds anything good for you not good-tasting. Just as religion has been loosening up over sin for the last couple of generations, so now science is beginning to loosen up over those pleasures of the table that the recently-liberated sinners, in the old-fashioned sense, took to calling sinful, no doubt as a form of displacement. Are we beginning to notice a pattern here?

If so, it may have something to do with yet another scientific study, and one which goes even further in its celebration of beer. Not only, it seems, is beer good for us biologically, it is good for us socially as well. In fact, according to a report in The New York Times on the work of Dr Brian Hayden et al. of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, beer is responsible for civilization itself, as it must have mitigated the strict but merely tribal instincts which had evolved to ensure the survival of the human herd in the harshest of natural environments.

With the help of the new psychopharmacological brew, humans could quell the angst of defying those herd instincts. Conversations around the campfire, no doubt, took on a new dimension: the painfully shy, their angst suddenly quelled, could now speak their minds. But the alcohol would have had more far-ranging effects, too, reducing the strong herd instincts to maintain a rigid social structure. In time, humans became more expansive in their thinking, as well as more collaborative and creative. A night of modest tippling may have ushered in these feelings of freedom — though, the morning after, instincts to conform and submit would have kicked back in to restore the social order.

These are the words of Dr. Jeffrey P. Kahn, author of Angst: Origins of Anxiety and Depression, and they suggest that what he is heralding here is not so much the origins of civilization as the origins of liberalism. There is, of course, much to be said for treating tribalism as antithetical to civilization, as there is for treating liberalism, in its original sense at least, as vital to civilization. But “rigid social structure” strikes me as a political rather than a scientific description of the necessarily hypothetical social order out of which a more recognizable and historical — and therefore “scientifically” describable — culture emerged. I wonder if what we are seeing here is the progressive and liberationist view that the relaxation of restraint is always in itself a good thing being taken so much for granted that it is now regarded as a “scientific” principle.

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