Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization

Reviewed on , book by Edward Slingerland

Since the beginning of agriculture small societies have set aside grains for alcohol, even when on the brink of starvation… Desperation’s been found in the archaeological evidence with attempts to ferment shoe leather.

But… Why? If evolution’s able to work fast enough to increase the size of spleens in Polynesian populations to facilitate longer dive times, wouldn’t you think evolution would’ve come up with a way to wipe out alcohol use by now? The third-leading cause of preventable death after lack of exercise and smoking?

It sorta has, alcoholic flush syndrome is found in ~30-50% of East Asians. Why isn’t this a dominant trait? You’d think through increased productivity, stupidity avoidance, and less preventable deaths, it’d pay itself back handsomely. Well, it’s hard to say… One thing to note is that East Asia has a ~300-400 year head-start on distillation compared to the rest of the world.

The central thesis of the book is that humans have always sought something to knock their pre-frontal cortex (PFC) offline. If it wasn’t alcohol, the majority of societies have found some mechanism to calm the PFC down: mushrooms, marijuana, ritualistic dancing to the point of some combination of euphoria and exhaustion, meditation, …

Slingerland takes a pretty pro-alcohol alcohol, the crux of the argument being: A PFC-offline elixir, alcohol, is something we find in almost every society. Alcohol increases social bonding (those we drink with, we feel closer to) and creativity (we seem to think more laterally when lightly intoxicated, 15% reduction in patents after prohibition). The two likely strongly related. Since the beginning of time, we’ve vacillated between pro-alcohol and no-alcohol, the latter being closer to where we are now.

This book’s about the pros of alcohol, and doesn’t cover a ton about the negative effects rather than as opening the thesis: how can something that seems so destructive not have been weeded out by evolution yet? Why isn’t alcoholic flush syndrome a dominant gene? I think for this book to have its desired effect of challenging the intelligentsia’s status quo anti-alcohol stance, it likely needed to be written that way.