Football, beer and crisps

I’m in the pub eating a packet of crisps, drinking a pint of beer and watching the football. Great isn’t it. But why? I’m a social ape in an artificially created environment doing something which has only just started to happen in the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth.

Why do I love the crisps?

Have you done your family tree? I can trace my ancestors back through the generations of my family all the way to the first fish which spent time out of water and lived to reproduce at a very slightly higher rate than its contemporaries. 

To do that, my ancestors eventually had to have a skin which retained water so that they carried their own sea around with them, in their blood and in their cells. 

I’ve never had a ‘drip’ in hospital, but if I had it would contain a perfectly balanced salt solution.

There’s plenty of salt in the sea but precious little in most of our natural foods. Name a naturally salty food. Go on. Thought not. That’s a problem when we lose salt in our sweat because our bodies start to malfunction.  Nerves and muscles behave oddly. Cramp while exercising on a hot day anyone?

Lack of salt is a serious evolutionary disadvantage. Mammals which couldn’t taste salt have not been as successful, had fewer descendants and died out. The ability to taste salty food has been so important in the success of our species we value salt and feel pleasure when tasting it. That taste sensation makes sure we’ll avoid electrolyte imbalance and be more successful in passing on our ability to taste salt in our genes. I still think that cheese and onion should be green and salt and vinegar should be blue, though, don’t you?

The problem is that we have organised our society to exploit salt and we now eat too much of it. Over 2 million people die ever year from excess salt consumption. The average American (although I’ve not met one yet) eats a teaspoon and a half of salt a day. Our evolution to love salt now has it’s reversing beepers on. People who can’t taste salt or get no pleasure from it will inherit the Earth. Crunch. Here’s to walking fish who carry oceans within them.

Why do I love the beer? I’m thirsty but alcohol doesn’t quench, does it? Ethanol is a naturally occurring poison. It’s a relatively small and simple molecule which is soluble in water and small enough to pass across our cell borders unnoticed. It’s a sneak, ethanol. Despite many generations of practice, the human liver is still very slow at snaffling alcohol and converting it to acetaldehyde, the bringer of hangovers. Maybe there’s an evolutionary advantage in helping to pass on your genes of getting wide legged and eyeless?

Alcohol dulls your active brain signals and amplifies the sedative ones. That’s a double whammy which depresses your brain function and increases your sense of euphoria. It makes me stupidly happy to think about it. Alcohol also reduces inhibitions including the social awkwardness of introverts. That’s quite useful until you see me dancing. If, however, you already have the gift of low self-control then you may find yourself shouting, swearing and threatening a referee who can’t hear you because he’s several thousand miles away. I’m just having the one pint.

Why do I love the football? I’m a social ape with a complex cultural inheritance. Just a few thousand years ago my ancestors were destroying forests, hunting large animals to extinction, living in extended family groups and being superstitious about events they didn’t understand. In fact nothing has changed.

Ritualised combat between tribal youngsters for social esteem is a common feature of our primitive Western society. The use of primary or block colours allows a feeling of identity. Come on you reds! A set of rules enables what all combat is about: access to resources, mates and esteem without necessarily ending in death. When animals fight they could easily harm one another but rarely do. Their combat is ritualised. There’s an innate sense of fairness in the avoidance of serious injury. Having said that, I’ve seen Brazil’s Neymar die in apparent agony one moment and then get up and run again the next. The pacing by a referee of the correct distance for a human wall to defend a free-kick is as much a ritual as pacing, turning and firing in a duel of pistols at dawn. Oops, there goes Neymar again. Has he been shot? Men’s football has come a long way since the words ‘brave’ and ‘warrior’ could be applied to our brave warriors. Religious relics of shirts and balls are kept like shrunken heads and looted gold. Stories are told, memes are published and highlights watched as if kicking a ball really matters to the future of society. Which it does, of course it does. I’m an Oldham Athletic supporter. 

It took 3.5 billion years to get to this moment. I’ve got 3.2 billion items of code in my DNA. A handful of them control this bizarre behaviour. Football, beer and crisps. I’ll bet the the first fish to walk on land didn’t imagine this would be in their future.

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