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Why do humans like to get drunk? Scientists have written off our affinity for intoxication as an evolutionary mistake, a trick that humans have developed for gaming our biological reward system into releasing little shots of pleasure for no good reason. This, however, is not a satisfying explanation. It should puzzle us more than it does that we have devoted so much ingenuity and concentrated effort to getting drunk.
At sites in eastern Turkey, dating to perhaps 12,000 years ago, the remains of what appear to be brewing vats, combined with images of festivals and dancing, suggest that people were gathering in groups, fermenting grain or grapes, playing music, and getting truly hammered before humanity had even figured out agriculture.
In fact, archaeologists have begun to suggest that alcohol wasn’t merely a by-product of the invention of agriculture, but actually a motivation for it. The first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread. We could not have civilization without intoxication.
Once we begin to think systematically about the antiquity, ubiquity, and power of our taste for intoxicants, the idea that it’s some sort of evolutionary accident becomes difficult to take seriously. Evolution isn’t stupid, and it works much faster than most people realize. Tibetans have adapted genetically to living at high altitudes, and boat-dwelling Southeast Asian peoples to diving and holding their breath underwater. If alcohol were merely hijacking pleasure centers in the brain, evolution should have figured it out by now and put a firm end to this nonsense.
Other vices can plausibly be seen as necessary appetites gone wrong, such as our taste for pornography or junk food. But alcohol is mind-bogglingly dangerous, both physiologically and socially. The fact that our supposedly accidental taste for it has not been eradicated by genetic or cultural evolution means that the cost of indulging in alcohol must be offset by benefits.
Evidence from archaeology, history, cognitive neuroscience, psychopharmacology, social psychology, literature, and genetics suggests what some of these benefits might be. For instance, the ancient and cross-cultural view of alcohol as a muse is supported by modern psychology: Our ability to think outside the box is enhanced by one or two drinks. There is also wisdom in the Latin saying in vino veritas, “in wine there is truth”. Alcohol impairs our ability to think strategically and puts us firmly in the moment, which makes us less capable of lying.
In the same way that we shake hands to show that we are not carrying a weapon, downing a few shots is a form of cognitive disarmament that makes you more trusting and more worthy of trust. This is why, throughout history and across the world, treaties and trade deals are seldom negotiated without copious quantities of liquid neurotoxin.
Consumed in moderation, alcohol also alleviates stress, enhances mood, makes us more sociable and provides a much-needed vacation from the burdens of consciousness. This is not to deny that chemical intoxication is clearly dangerous. Alcohol has ruined many lives and continues to ravage individuals and communities across the globe.
What’s more, the relatively recent innovation of distillation allows us to bypass natural limits on alcohol content to produce incredibly potent spirits. Combined with increasing social isolation, this may make drinking more dangerous today than in the past, in ways that we only dimly appreciate.
This, though, is all the more reason to understand the evolutionary dynamics behind our drive to get drunk. Understanding the functional role of alcohol will give us a better sense of its proper role in our lives today. Given the potential costs of getting it wrong, the stakes are too high for us to stumble along as we have, guided only by folk notions, dimly understood policies, or Puritanical prejudices.
History can tell us when and with what we have gotten drunk. But it is only when we couple history with science that we can finally begin to understand not only why we desire to get drunk in the first place, but also how it might actually be good for us to tie one on now and then.
This essay is adapted from Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, published in June 2021 by Little, Brown Spark.
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The text of this article was republished with the kind permission of the author, Edward Slingerland.