How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization
By Edward Slingerland
Frederick the Great of Prussia had a problem: His soldiers were drinking coffee instead of beer. “This must be prevented,” he wrote in a 1777 tirade on the “disgusting” new fad sweeping the kingdom. Why would any commander want a bunch of guys with guns quaffing liquid neurotoxins instead of wholesome brews rarely associated with brawling, karaoke and regrettable tattoos (to say nothing of liver damage and hangovers)? Caffeinated armies might sound more dependable than their tipsy counterparts — but the king recognized that beer was a uniquely powerful bonding agent, and key to morale.
He was not the first to intuit its practical applications. For thousands of years cultures around the world have “implicitly understood that the sober, rational, calculating individual mind is a barrier to social trust,” Edward Slingerland writes in “Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization,” an effervescent new study that’s equal parts anthropology, psychology and evolutionary biology. Drawing on recent experiments, Neolithic burials, eclectic myths and global literature, Slingerland teases out the evolutionary advantages and enduring benefits of getting blitzed. It’s a rowdy banquet of a book in which the ancient Roman historian Tacitus, Lord Byron, Timothy Leary, George Washington, the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming and many others toast the merits of drowning Apollonian reason in Dionysian abandon. We visit wine-soaked temple orgies in ancient Egypt, the chicha-brewing capital of the Inca Empire, Fijian villages, Irish pubs and the official “whiskey room” at a Google campus, knocking back bits of evidence from Burning Man and “Beowulf” along the way.
Although Slingerland, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, extols the pleasures of drinking in moderation — and occasionally in excess — for their own hedonic sake, the functional upsides of intoxication are his primary concern. Drinking not only allows wary, self-interested individuals to drop their guard and collaborate, he writes, it also facilitates the creativity and playfulness our species needs to innovate and survive. A negroni will essentially wipe out the prefrontal cortex, the site of pragmatic, grown-up thinking. Zap the same region with a transcranial magnet and you’ll get the same results: happier, less inhibited, more childlike adults. Given that transcranial magnets are “expensive, not very portable and typically not welcome at parties,” alcohol remains a handy, low-tech tool to get good will and fresh ideas flowing.
For our ancestors, inebriation was especially essential, “a robust and elegant response to the challenges of getting a selfish, suspicious, narrowly goal-oriented primate to loosen up and connect with strangers.” This is why hunter-gatherers likely began producing beer and wine before bread. Brewing vats and drinking vessels at a 12,000-year-old site in what is now eastern Turkey 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.” Then, when humans did begin to settle down, sow crops and domesticate livestock, it was alcohol that allowed them to do so in increasingly large numbers, giving rise to towns and cities. “It is no accident that, in the brutal competition of cultural groups from which civilizations emerged, it is the drinkers, smokers and trippers who emerged triumphant,” Slingerland writes: Human society would not exist without ample lubrication.
Slingerland is adamant that chemically induced communion is just as valuable (and perhaps particularly necessary) in modern times, but he does address alcohol’s more obvious medical and economic costs, the devastating effects of addiction and the subtle, pernicious ways in which drinking can alienate and exclude outsiders. Some readers might find the treatment cursory given the gravity of these issues, but Slingerland simply argues that they have been well documented, whereas serious scholarly work on the value of intoxication is surprisingly scant. As a result, poor alcohol stands “defenseless” against doctors and government policymakers who paint it as pure vice. Slingerland takes up the cause with all the chivalry of a knight-errant, and his infectious passion makes this book a romp as well as a refreshingly erudite rejoinder to the prevailing wisdom.