Civilization History Sociology

Edward Slingerland on How Drinking Is Essential to Civilization

 

This post is a reflection on Edward Slingerland’s new book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization.  John Tierney wrote a lovely review of the book in City Journal, which I’m reproducing below.  Here’s a link to the original.  After the review, I provide some of my favorite passages from the book.

Here’s my favorite paragraph from the book:

If you tasked a cultural engineering team with designing a substance that would satisfy specs aimed at maximizing individual creativity and group cooperation, they would come up with something very much like alcohol. A simple molecule. Easy to make out of almost any carbohydrate. Easy to consume. Storable. Precisely doseable. Complex but predictable and moderate cognitive effects. Quickly eliminated from the body. Easily influenced by social norms. Can be packaged in a tasty delivery system. Pairs nicely with food.

Overserved, Underrated

A witty and erudite homage to alcohol concedes its drawbacks but makes the case for its social — and civilizational — utility

John Tierney

December 31, 2021

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.”

Drunk

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!

Now some of my favorite passages from the book:

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 then getting truly hammered before we’d even figured out agriculture. In fact, archaeologists have begun to suggest that various forms of alcohol were not merely a by-product of the invention of agriculture, but actually a motivation for it—that the first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread.5  It is no accident that the earliest human archaeological finds from around the world always include huge numbers of specialized, elaborate vessels used solely for the production and consumption of beer and wine.

This book argues that, far from being an evolutionary mistake, 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.

This leads to a second point. The fact that drinking facilitates social bonding may not sound like a world-shaking revelation. Without an understanding of the specific cooperation problems that confront humans in civilization, however, we have no way of explaining why, throughout history and across the world, alcohol and similar substances have been the almost universal go-to solution. Why bond over a toxic, organ-destroying, mind-numbing chemical when a rousing game of Parcheesi might suffice?

If you tasked a cultural engineering team with designing a substance that would satisfy specs aimed at maximizing individual creativity and group cooperation, they would come up with something very much like alcohol. A simple molecule. Easy to make out of almost any carbohydrate. Easy to consume. Storable. Precisely doseable. Complex but predictable and moderate cognitive effects. Quickly eliminated from the body. Easily influenced by social norms. Can be packaged in a tasty delivery system. Pairs nicely with food.

One key social function of booze is in building trust, which is a fundamental problem for civilization.

Learning to trust others is crucial for the communal primate. One thing we did not mention there, however, is that commitment relationships, despite their obvious benefits, are vulnerable to a unique form of defection: hypocrisy. If I can fake a commitment to you—making a big show of tying myself to the mast like Odysseus, but leaving the knots undone—I can reap all of the benefits of commitment without paying any of the costs.

Our ability to weed out hypocrites is thus a crucial part of communal human life, and we are pretty good at detecting sketchy prospective partners. So, it seems that humans have solved this central danger at the heart of our communal life—the risk of hypocrites free-riding on commitment—through a clever evolutionary trick: paying attention to non-conscious, emotional signals. Use them to size up potential partners, and simply walk away from those who strike you as shifty.

Although Tacitus patronizingly portrays this truth-serum use of alcohol as a primitive, barbarian practice, the ancient Romans and Greeks themselves relied heavily on precisely these functions. Indeed, the idea that drunkenness reveals the “true” self, though ancient and universal, is perhaps most famously expressed by the Latin in vino veritas, “in wine there is truth.” This perceived link between honesty and drunkenness goes back to the Greeks, for whom the combination of “wine and truth” was a truism. “Inappropriate sobriety was thought highly suspect,” Iain Gately notes. “Some skills, such as oratory, could only be exercised when drunk.

This is why strangers are typically welcomed with copious quantities of booze. Successfully making it through a night of heavy drinking is perhaps the quickest way to become accepted in a novel social environment.

Let me close with a lovely epigraph from William James:

Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the YES function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth.

—William James

 

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