Alcohol In China And Enzyme Evolution
    By Sascha Vongehr | January 25th 2012 12:29 AM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sascha

    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

    View Sascha's Profile
    In China, drinking alcohol is often still a vital part of doing business. Science is very important in China, which has become the scientific leader in several ways, but science is also business of course. So at times, alcohol belongs to the science here more than it should.

    In Asia, people mostly boiled their water to disinfect it. In Europe, we instead brewed beer and wine a lot more. Evolution did the trick real fast apparently, took only a few centuries biologists claim, and now I, a Caucasian, can drink more than most here in China, although some Chinese have quite “exercised” livers. Good for me is: They don’t seem to know about the enzymes much. They should, really, for their own good.


    I know of the importance of drinking correctly at least since I lifted the glass extensively to the dean or whatever the equivalent is of some sort of department – let us not get into details. After it was clear that there is little chance of starting to witness me making a fool of myself, Miss Li, who hadn’t touched her chopsticks for ages, was politely asked whether she is still hungry, which is always followed by a polite “No, it was plenty and I am about to burst!”, which in turn is the desired signal for everybody to toast one last time and stumble out. Result: Somebody semi-important told me the next day that I “did well”!?! I didn’t do anything but drink too much as far as I remember.


    Me participating in a drinking game. We think about what number next to indicate with our hands and which total sum to proclaim. Then we simultaneously go ahead:


    My right hand indicates the Chinese character “八” for 8 but I shout “15”. His left indicates 3 and he calls “10”. He is closer to the sum 3 +8 = 11, so I must drink again. The more one drinks, the harder it is to anticipate the opponent’s next move. The Chinese guys beat me most of the time, but in the end, my liver wins the contest.

    Some of the science related to alcohol should be of interest to the Chinese, especially to the patriotic ones among them: many Asians have a genetically based lack of the liver enzyme alcohol-dehydrogenase, which renders status based on alcohol consumption especially unfair. As said, in Europe in and around the middle ages, drinking fermented fluids like beer was preferred, rather than boiling in order to treat water antiseptically. This led to relatively recent evolutionary changes. Today, people of European descent express a more active allele that codes for the enzyme, which by the way also acts in the stomach already, not only the liver. Asians are well advised to steer away from drinking contests with Westerners.

    Of course, everybody should stay away from unhealthy contests, and also among Asians does the activity of the enzyme vary a lot. It is a good idea to phase out this unhealthy and unfair alcohol culture as fast as possible.

    I see much progress here at least among the intellectuals. While many older professors still slowly smoke themselves to death, most of the research students and postdoctoral workers decline to participate. With alcohol it is somewhat more difficult, as it is still regarded obligatory to keep up with the older guys' drinking. However, even here I see more and more young people simply refusing to participate and filling tea into the glass instead and visibly to all at the banquet.

    The perhaps most important social function is thus still fulfilled; the tea allows the participant to initiate and respond to toasts. However, much opposed to the Western drinking contests that plainly look for who can stomach more, the deeper reason for the drinking in the Chinese culture seems to still be in vino veritas: Can the person you are going to do important business with be trusted; can she behave under stress; or is she unreliable and shows her true colors once sufficiently uninhibited?

    Or maybe I am biased about these cultural differences. At least, I have never witnessed fraternity beer pong/bong binge drinking idiocy here, and if the people get really drunk, they still mostly behave. I mean, so the guy had too much and while the rest of us still sit around the table, he sleeps on the couch. Yes, correct, I am still talking more or less official dinners here, not about pals at home on a weekend. In fact, as long as the person shows that he or she can behave and in that sense handle it, face is not only saved, but she did well. All in all very civilized and the opposite from what one may expect according to Western propaganda.


    More from Sascha Vongehr sorted Topic for Topic


    Regarding competitions:

    «Famously, Abdul Latif, the Bangladeshi proprietor of Newcastle’s Rupali restaurant offered to feed people for free if they could finish all of his hottest curry which is made almost entirely of dried chillies. He turned the curry’s reputation as the lager louts’ favourite to his advantage by running an annual ‘Curry Hell’ competition in which Britain’s bravest and barmiest curry fans lined up to cause considerable pain to their digestive tracts: it was apparently a rare occasion for anyone to get a bill made entirely of zeros.»

    (Adapted from Star of India: The Spicy Adventures of Curry by Jo Monroe)

    Also, I have read that the Ancient Persians used to debate every question twice: once when they were drunk, and once when they were sober.  (I think this comes from Herodotus.)

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Thor Russell
    Most people I know are aware of the Asian alcohol enzyme business, but I havn't seen that drinking game before. Unless I've misunderstood the rules, if randomly half the time you choose the number 1, and say 6 for the sum, the other half you say 10 and choose 16 for the sum, then I don't see how you can be beaten more than half the time. I am assuming you choose a number between 1-10 inclusive.

    Thor Russell
    What a great autistic solution. Also has a fitting outcome I believe, namely being beaten every time, beaten up that is, and rightly so. Also, you forgot the vital part of the game, which is the liver-brain connection. ;-)
    But seriously, a good player picks up on his opponent's "randomness", which humans are just not capable of without a coin or some other help. If he knows you are about to go 1-6, he is going to go 1-2.
    Thor Russell
    What do you expect from a science2.0 geek audience, and why on earth do you say randomness is such a problem, can't you remember the first 100 digits of pi when drunk, and start from number 23 or something?
    Also seriously I have heard that some good poker players apparently can use say the second hand on a clock in the room or some other source of randomness to stop them being predictable. 

    Thor Russell
    It is more than A. Dehydro. I recall a psychiatrist who mentioned that antipsychotics given to Asians must be very carefully monitored because they can easily overdose, leading to T. Dyskinesia. This is related to cytochrome p450 alleles which degrade a wide range of substances, including antidepressants and neuroleptics. See:

    Geographical/interracial differences in polymorphic drug oxidation. Current state of knowledge of cytochromes P450 (CYP) 2D6 and 2C19.
    ...Asian patients appear to need lower doses of most psychotropic medications than Caucasians (Lin and Anathan, 1982; Lin and Finder, 1983; Price et al, 1985; Collazo et al, 1996; Jeste et al, 1996; Ramirez, 1996) whic