Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization
Edward Slingerland
Little, Brown Spark
Copyright 2021 by the author

We’re so confused when it comes to alcohol. It’s the cause of, and solution to, all of Life’s problems, according to a noted contemporary philosopher. We can’t seem to decide if its good or bad for you. “Red wine has antioxidants, which are good for you!” “Alcohol damages your liver! All of it is bad!” Some alcohol in moderation is fine!” It’s enough to drive one to drink!

You can find someone to support whatever viewpoint you want. But Slingerland steps back from all of that, and asks another, probably more important question:

Why do we like getting drunk in the first place?

In this well researched and entertaining overview, Slingerland goes through a whole raft of research, both scientific and anthropological, to show how humans have always sought out a mind-numbing buzz, and have worked it into social rituals to the general benefit of humanity.

He cites studies – that you can easily reproduce with your friends, if you want – that show that alcohol depresses the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, slowing down the part of you that says “No, that’s not going to work, don’t do that” – and thereby increases creativity.

It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. Extremely competent! I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat. The Nile and down into the barge of Cleopatra. – Don Birham (Ray Milland), The Lost Weekend (1945), screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

Going back into the deep past, Slingerland tells how intoxicants were used to help people in disparate groups bond through their ritual use. There’s strong evidence that the oldest known human “settlement” (Gobekli Tepe) was little more than a large brewery. And it seems that being just a bit tipsy makes it harder for one to lie, making a shared drink useful in negotiations. Or at least by getting your rival buzzed (works with other drugs, too – that stereotypical “peace pipe” of Native Americans isn’t a joke)…. And yes, studies he cites strongly suggest that having a drink or two can make you more relaxed, more open, more friendly…..

Surely, if the disadvantages of boozing it up on occasion outweighed these advantages, evolutionary pressures would have put an end to it rather quickly, right? Slingerman tells of a genetic “hiccup” in some populations that affects the ability to metabolize alcohol. Instead of getting drunk, people with this factor get sick. Not enough to do major harm, but enough to turn them off the sauce. That this hasn’t spread outside a few small and localized groups indicates to him that being unable to get drunk is NOT a genetic advantage.

So, if getting pleasantly potted on potent potables is perfectly fine, why all the problems with “Demon Rum”? According to Slingerman, it’s because we didn’t have “Demon Rum” until very recently in human history. For most of humanity’s existence, booze was generally restricted to beer, wine, or similar weak stuff. Only in the past few centuries have we developed distillation, which concentrates the alcohol to a potentially dangerous level. He also “blames” the decline in social drinking. The cultural and ceremonial aspects of drinking have fallen by the wayside; we do our boozing in small groups – at most. And instead of having a glass of beer or wine with dinner, or even a small bit of a digestive afterwards, we would rather down a handful of much stronger cocktails, designed to minimize the taste of the alcohol. And there’s no one but a harried bartender to moderate our consumption for us, or cut us off when we’re starting to show signs of serious intoxication.

I would also add that coupled with the rise of distilled spirits is the rise in technology. Someone in the tribe or village who drank too much would be taken home by friends and allowed to sleep it off, with no harm to anyone. Now, someone who gets really drunk has the power to do some serious damage.

While he does mention cannabis several times in passing, he probably should have given it more attention. Its use is becoming more acceptable and widespread, and it doesn’t seem to have the strong disadvantages that come with alcohol. Perhaps it’s that (historic ritual use aside) contemporary cannabis consumption doesn’t have the same social benefits as alcohol. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to indicate that it’s not taken in social situations because it has a “mellowing” effect. Users get too relaxed to partake in social activities.

Slingerman indeed makes a very good case for allowing a bit of booze into our lives. With proper moderation, it does give all the benefits that poets and writers have ascribed to it. And it’s cheap, simple to make, keeps well, effects everyone in pretty much the same predictable manner, and can be consumed in easily measurable doses. There’s no other intoxicant – chemical or otherwise – that can do this. We just have to go back to moderate – and moderated – consumption, while not ostracizing those who for whatever reason that is none of our business choose not to imbibe.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.