Mark Twain, Gluten, and the Staffs of Life

This article originally appeared on Five Thôt.

Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, wrote

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

I’ve always loved that passage. Whenever I hear someone take a simple statement about rates – the economy is growing at 2% a year, there has been increase in joblessness, whatever – and extrapolate it straight out in to the future and conclude, usually, that we are doomed, I smile and imagine Twain’s Mississippi, jutting out into space.

But that last line, about getting so much conjecture from such meager facts, struck me as encouraging, that maybe we ought to be thinking that way.

For example, let me take two fairly well-known and unimportant facts:

  1. Many people of Asian descent flush red when they drink alcohol.

  2. Most people in Asian cultures eat with chopsticks and spoons: no forks and especially no knives at the table.

And let me make an apparently unrelated conjecture from those facts: more Asians than Europeans are gluten-sensitive.

The two facts and the conjecture all come from the same observation: by and large, Europeans grow wheat and make bread, while Asians grow and eat rice. They’ve been doing it like that for thousands of years.

Bread has a lot of advantages. Once prepared, it can be stored for long periods, without any container. You can make biscuits that will last for months, very useful for sea-voyages. Rice can be stored uncooked for long periods, but it takes lots of fresh water to cook and has to be eaten within a few hours or it becomes unpalatable.

But rice has one huge advantage, one that wasn’t understood until a few hundred years ago: rice is cooked in boiling water. The boiling of water is a terrific safety measure in any time and place that otherwise lacks clean water.

Europeans, prior to the development of the germ theory of disease, developed another solution, one using wheat. They would steep the wheat in water and allow naturally occuring microorganisms to consume some of the carbohydrates in the wheat, yielding ethyl alcohol, which would largely sterilize the resulting mixture.

The Europeans didn’t know that this what they were doing; they just thought they were making beer.

Beer was a staple of the European diet for millennia. Children were given a watered-down version called “small beer”. People who didn’t drink beer had to drink untreated water, and untreated water was a quick trip to typhoid, cholera, parasites, and an early demise.

In other words, any European whose genetics caused him to avoid beer would be, in Darwinian terms, “selected against”.

Over in Asia, though, if you didn’t like beer, you could just drink boiled water and remain healthy, if regrettably sober.

As a result, genes that make drinking alcohol problematic are likely to be passed on in Asian families, but not in European ones. To this day, many if not most Asians will turn a bright red under the influence of just a few ounces of alcohol.

The chopsticks are a somewhat separate matter but still tied to the bread/rice thing.

Bread is prepared by being baked; you have to have an oven. Once you have an oven, it’s convenient to use it to prepare big chunks of meat: legs, roasts, steaks.

All you need to prepare rice is a pot over a fire or a stove. If you now want to cook meat, unless you want to build a big oven that serves no other purpose, you have to chop the meat into little bits and stir-fry it.

Come to the table and the European is faced with a leg of lamb or a standing rib roast, with a loaf of bread on the side. The only way to share the meat out across all the diners and to reduce it to bite-sized portions is with a knife and, ideally, a fork.

The Asian family has it easier. Everything is pre-cut, rice and itty-bitty pieces of meat. The cutting was done by the cook, for her own convenience, but it’s equally convenient for the diner. Chopsticks and spoons are plenty.

(As a side-effect, knives are disdained somewhat in certain Asian cultures. Next time you’re at a Korean restaurant, tell the waitress you’d like the noodles or meat on your plate cut more finely; instead of a knife, she’ll whip out a pair of shears and snip-snip-snip.)

Which brings us to my conjecture. The reason that bread is all one piece and the reason that it forms a hard crust when baked is because wheat, like rye, barley, and some other cereals, contains the protein gluten, named for the Latin word for “glue”. Rice lacks gluten (so does corn, but that entered the European and Asian diets much too recently to be evolutionarily significant).

Allergies to gluten are a common problem, but (I’m conjecturing) among Asians, gluten allergies are more common but less of a problem. Like alcohol-sensitivity, gluten-sensitivity would have been a huge disadvantage among pre-modern Europeans. A child in medieval Europe whose genetic make-up kept him from eating bread would be unlikely to survive long enough to have children of his own and to pass on those genes. An Asian, then and now, who could not eat bread could stick to rice and thrive.

That process should have made for fewer European gluten-phobes and more Asian ones.

Is this conjecture like Twain’s million-mile Mississippi, just a nonsense extrapolation? It certainly could be, and you know I have no desire to check. Still, what a generous return from such a small investment of fact.

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