It’s my superpower that I do not get hangovers. It’s not because I don’t drink. I’ve had multiple drunken moments. But, to my dismay and the delight of my companions who groan for Alka Seltzer, I always feel fine the next morning. This is a strange phenomenon that I have no idea why. I’ve always attributed it to some sort of Northern European genetic gift—like I’ve been built to survive in frigid atmospheres, hiking through snow with a baby on each hip, swigging from a flask of aquavit.
Many people don’t find alcohol drinking easy. Many people find it very difficult to drink alcohol. Edward Slingerland advises in Drunk, you might expect that to be adaptively useful, from an evolutionary standpoint. People who aren’t drinking may be more productive. For example, they tend to turn up on time and less likely get in fights. It is possible to expect that a tribe of non-drinkers will have outperformed its alcohol-smoking neighbors by its civility and industriousness. This logic makes it a biological imperative. avoid The drink would have been popularized and become the dominant.
However, this is not what has happened. Evolution has spoken and teetotalling is not taking over the world. The group of alcohol-tolerant people aren’t shrinking, despite its drawbacks. So, Drunk sets out to answer the question of why we drink. It’s not just about the social and cultural reasons, but also why it is so harmful.
Many cultures have a drinking culture. Those who didn’t drink alcohol in the past used opium and marijuana. Human beings are better able than most other mammals to tolerate booze, allowing us to eat overripe fruit that has started fermenting—just as we are better able to benefit from other intoxicants. Plant toxins are often used as recreational drugs to prevent herbivores eating the plant. They hit our pleasure receptors, even if they have unpleasant side effects, like ayahuasca. These substances seem to be easy to locate: Slingerland wrote that “If there’s something in the biome with psychoactive properties you can rest assured that it has been used for thousands of years.” We are driven to feel comfortable numb and overlook tedious manufacturing processes, as well as other costs such as vomiting episodes.
We have a long history of craving alcohol and other intoxicants. This shows how we were seeking ways to escape reality from as early as human consciousness. There have been many different meanings to these escapes. They could be spiritual or everyday.
One of the most popular sources of intoxication is brewing. Brewing has been long considered a byproduct from settled agriculture. We used excess grain to make beer. Slingerland suggests that this is backwards: Brewing was originally intended and bread was a byproduct. The archaeological evidence that supports the thesis suggests that large groups of people got together to feast, drink, and ritualize long before planting or harvesting crops was invented. Slingerland speculates that the intoxication of alcohol can help solve many of the problems of complex societies such as getting people to work together.
It is an alcohol lubricant. It is easy to let your guard down when you are drunk. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many have witnessed the ease of friendship and shared drinks. The same goes for non-drinkers. It is a part of many social interactions and can be seen as aloof or unfriendly. Drinking from the same cup, or “loving cup”, was a ritualized part of European culture. It was more than just drinking together, it was also a symbol of unity to drink from the same cup. Of all these, the most prominent example is the communion glass. The act of sharing a drink brings us closer together.
However, building community around a glass of wine comes at a cost.
The development of distilling has boosted our ability to consume alcohol. This was the natural way that humans have been able to enjoy some alcohol for thousands of years. Slingerland claims that the ancestral body was not prepared for hard liquor, and that the harmful drinking culture centered on hard liquor is different from the Mediterranean style wine that comes with a meal. This is described as the “Southern” difference (wine, beer and food, with or without alcohol) versus “Northern”, (vodka whenever). It is the shot glasses that are the problem, not the wineglass.
William Hogarth shared this view. His 1751 drawings of Gin Lane and Beer Street, which were famous for their depictions of Gin Lane and Beer Street, showed how gin can cause social chaos, in contrast to the peace and harmony of the beer-drinking districts. Hogarth responded to Londoners’ new drinking habits during the 18th-century “gin craze”. William of Orange became the new king and lifted all prohibitions on distilling. Gin was made more easily available and cheaper. Intoxicant panic was triggered by this. The government then reversed its decision and began imposing new regulations.
Alcohol can pose more immediate dangers than the long-term effects it has on the liver. A young man who says “Ha!, look at this!” after drinking is frequently blamed on alcohol. A pub crawl can be a great way to make friends, but it can also cause problems in relationships. Under the influence, insults and punches can cause lasting regret.
Our social interactions have been shaped by booze in many other ways. Many drinking cultures are masculine. Pubs and taverns used to be men’s places. The language of men is drink. It’s the language used by men to communicate in public, in battle and at the negotiation table. Drinking brings bravado as well as bonding. This is due to physiological reasons. Men are more likely to drink alcohol faster than women. They are able to drink more, and still survive. However, there are still lingering issues. Slingerland points to the fact that life expectancy was affected by the fall in vodka prices in Russia following the collapse of Soviet Union. Men fell a full six years—a difference scientists have attributed largely to the suddenly cheaper booze.
Take into account the advice of various national health agencies on the safe amount for each sexual partner to consume. There have been many countries where the recommended alcohol level for me has differed from one country to another. This is due to different societies having different attitudes towards drinking and especially women. The U.S. requires me to consume less than 98g per week. In Spain, however, I can drink as much as 170 grams per week. I, along with my drink cabinet, reside metaphorically in Madrid.
Slingerland has conducted extensive research on the subject of drinking to answer the question why. He studied everything from animal studies and game theory. My preference for chilled Viognier is not due to corvids’ ability to solve problems. He does however make a compelling case for the centrality of alcohol in cultural development.
Drunk: What We Did to Get Civilization StartedEdward Slingerland, Little, Brown Spark, 384pp, $29