Embracing the Gift of Drunkenness
Edward Slingerland, writing in the Wall Street Journal and exploring the question of why human beings have developed a taste for alcohol, composed one of my favorite sentences of the year so far:
“Evolution isn’t stupid”.
Besides being an obvious title for a Ricky Gervais comedy, the phrase is an apt description of Slingerland’s conclusions to the question of why humans drink alcohol, despite it being a dangerous neurotoxin. This question is addressed in his recent Wall Street Journal essay and is fully fleshed out in his recent book, “Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization.” The question at hand is well-posed in his WSJ essay:
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.
Slingerland answers the question in the same essay:
Consumed in moderation, alcohol also alleviates stress, enhances mood, makes us more sociable and provides a much-needed vacation from the burdens of consciousness. It is no accident that in the midst of the pandemic liquor stores have been classified as essential services almost everywhere.
The personal and social benefits of getting high via alcohol are obvious to lonely as well as social drinkers, and even to those of us who aren’t very good at proper dosing.
As I’ve argued previously the notion of non-alcoholic wine is absolutely silly. The primary component of wine is not grapes. It is alcohol. Without its noticeable presence, we have something else. Part of the experience of drinking wine, alone or among other apes, is the understanding that it may change our disposition in small or significant ways. Slingerland’s book explores the various positive ways in which that change manifests itself and has embedded itself in our human bonds and our cultures.
The WSJ essay wants to be a quick, easy full-throated defense of drinking. It succeeds just up until the end when Slingerland drops in what seems to be the obligatory caveat that ALCOHOL KILLS!
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. It’s all the more reason to understand the evolutionary rationale behind our drive to get drunk.
Maybe I don’t appreciate the seeming obligatory warnings that come with any attempt to set alcohol and its consumption on even a modest pedestal since I’ve never been drawn to inebriation like many folks seem to be. This is not to say that I am immune to the burdens of consciousness. I’ve merely found that other tools are, for me, a better fit at addressing those burdens.
What seems most important about Slingerland’s new book and his defense of drinking (that’s what it is despite his subject being couched in anthropological and evolutionary contexts) in a Wall Street Journal essay is the encouragement it should provide to those of us working in the alcohol industry to celebrate alcohol’s effects rather than studiously warn against them.