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Overserved, Underrated

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books and culture

Overserved, Underrated

A witty and erudite homage to alcohol concedes its drawbacks but makes the case for its social—and civilizational—utility. December 31, 2021
Arts and Culture

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, by Edward Slingerland (Little, Brown Spark, 384 pp., $29)

If you ring in the New Year with a raised drink, Edward Slingerland would like you to show proper reverence to the liquid in your glass. Alcohol is not just a tool for celebrating the end of a year, whether pleasant or miserable. It doesn’t merely give you and your friends a pleasant communal buzz. No, what you hold in your glass is the elixir that started civilization and has been essential ever since in enabling human societies to flourish (while, admittedly, enjoying a pleasant buzz).

In Drunk, a witty and erudite homage to alcohol, Slingerland offers a novel explanation to an old evolutionary puzzle: Why do we keep drinking? “Humans are the only species that deliberately, systematically, and regularly gets drunk,” he writes. “The rarity of this behavior is not surprising, given its costs.” The downsides of alcohol have always been obvious: impaired motor skills, wretched decision-making, excruciating headaches, and assorted long-term damage to body and soul. Logically, a society of teetotalers ought to be so much more productive that it would long ago have conquered its drunken neighbors and eventually the rest of the planet. Yet from the ancient world until today, from the wine sipped at Greek philosophers’ symposia to the champagne toasts on New Year’s Eve, the richest and most dynamic societies have given alcohol a central role in their cultures.

Previous scholars tried explaining our fondness for alcohol as an evolutionary hangover—a trait that helped our ancestors survive but is no longer useful. Just as a craving for high-calorie sweets and fats was adaptive in ancient food-scarce environments (but harmful in the supermarket aisle), a taste for beer could have helped our ancestors survive by giving them a dense source of calories and nutrients that could be preserved more easily than bread and was safer to drink than bacteria-contaminated water. But Slingerland rejects this theory. Our ancestors could have turned grain into dense non-alcoholic porridge, he points out, and they could have gotten clean drinking water simply by boiling it. Chinese have been drinking tea for thousands of years and have long had cultural norms against drinking untreated water. “And yet they still have booze,” Slingerland writes. “Oceans of it. From ancient Shang times (1600 to 1046 BCE) to the present, alcohol has dominated ritual and social gatherings in the Chinese cultural sphere as much as, if not more than, anywhere else in the world.”

Slingerland says that drinking poses the same kind of evolutionary puzzle as the persistence of religion, another cultural tradition without an obvious material payoff. The labor and resources devoted to building a temple or cathedral for elaborate ceremonies would produce more tangible benefits if spent growing food or erecting forts. But drinking, like religion, has survived around the world because of the intangible social benefits. (In fact, religious ceremonies often include alcohol to heighten the communal bonding achieved through group chanting, singing and dancing.) “Far from being an evolutionary mistake,” Slingerland concludes, “chemical intoxication helps solve a number of distinctively human challenges: enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust, and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers. The desire to get drunk, along with the individual and social benefits provided by drunkenness, played a crucial role in sparking the rise of the first large-scale societies. We could not have civilization without intoxication.”

A professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, Slingerland backs up his argument with an impressive range of evidence from archeology, anthropology, history, literature, and modern experiments by behavioral scientists. Even before the age of agriculture, hunter-gatherers 12,000 years ago were apparently fermenting grains to be drunk at large ritual gatherings, and the farmers in ancient Sumer devoted almost half of overall grain production to making beer. The most striking artifacts in Iron Age tombs were enormous drinking vessels, and when Europeans settled the New World, their most valuable possessions were copper stills, worth more than their weight in gold.

As today’s scientists have shown, alcohol facilitates social bonding by stimulation of endorphins and serotonin in the brain and by numbing activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), that locus of rational thinking and self-control. “The PFC, while key for remaining on task and delaying gratification, is the deadly enemy of creativity,” Slingerland writes. “It allows us to remain laser-focused on task but blinds us to remote possibilities. Both creativity and learning new associations require a relaxation of cognitive control that allows the mind to wander.”

That’s why children with undeveloped PFCs are better than adults at learning foreign languages, and why children and drunks with numbed PFCs outperform sober adults on tasks that require “lateral thinking,” like finding a fourth word that links fox, man, and peep. (See the end of the paragraph for the answer.) And that’s why alcohol has been credited for so long with spurring out-of-the-box thinking. Ancient Chinese published entire series of poems under the rubric, “Written While Drunk”; the Greeks celebrated the creative inspiration of Dionysius; Silicon Valley computer programmers claim that difficult coding problems are best solved by maintaining a blood-alcohol content known as the Ballmer Peak, in honor of Steve Ballmer, the former head of Microsoft. (The answer: hole.)

When your prefrontal cortex has been subdued by alcohol, it’s much harder to hide emotions and deceive others, which makes alcohol a quick and convenient way to build trust with strangers and enemies. Ancient Chinese emperors, medieval Vikings, and modern business executives have all insisted on conducting crucial negotiations under the influence of alcohol because it’s a form of mutual PFC disarmament. The Romans had it right: In vino veritas.

Of course, too much alcohol can negate these benefits, and Slingerland acknowledges some worrisome modern trends. For most of history, people confined their drinking to relatively low-strength beer and wine, consumed only at social occasions where they could keep an eye on one another. But today they often drink alone, unsupervised, and have ready access to high-proof distilled liquors. “A couple bottles of vodka contain a dose of ethanol equivalent to an entire cartload of pre-modern beer,” Slingerland writes. “The availability of such concentrated intoxicants is entirely unprecedented in our evolutionary history, and not a good development for potential alcoholics.” He suggests increasing taxes on distilled liquor and banning it for young adults. He urges Americans to emulate the drinking customs in southern Europe, where parents teach their children that alcohol is to be consumed in moderation at meals, not guzzled from liquor bottles in late-night drinking sessions in dorm rooms.

Most of all, though, Slingerland worries about the neo-prohibitionists determined to limit or ban alcohol. Public-health authorities have proclaimed that there is “no safe level” of alcohol use, providing an excuse to ban it from college campuses, business expense accounts, office parties, and professional meetings. “Drinking can make us fat, harm our livers, give us cancer, cost us money, and turn us into useless idiots in the mornings,” Slingerland concedes. “It has, nonetheless, always been deeply intertwined with human sociality, and for very good evolutionary reasons. Moreover, its important functions are very difficult, if not impossible, to replace with other substances or practices.”

When we do our cost-benefit analysis of that champagne glass tonight, we shouldn’t merely focus on its contribution to civilization. “In our current age of neo-prohibition and general queasiness about risk, we desperately need to be clear about the simple joy of feeling good,” Slingerland writes. “In defending the functions of intoxicant use, let us never lose sight of one of the greatest contributions of intoxicants to human life: sheer hedonic pleasure.”

Happy New Year!

Photo: TheresaTibbetts/iStock

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