The problem of getting drunk has been a major focus of humanity’s ingenuity over the last millennia. Even tiny-scale communities on the verge of starvation may set aside some of their valuable grain and fruit to produce alcohol. Modern society is home to a shocking amount of alcohol consumption. It is possible to trace the roots of this desire to alter your mind back to before civilization was even born. In fact, archaeologists have suggested 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
Why does alcohol play such a central role in most people’s lives? While it is commonly believed that our love of alcohol was an evolutionary accident, we can actually see how history and science support this claim. By reducing our stress, improving our moods, enhancing our creativity, and facilitating our ability to bond with others—in short, through relaxing our muscles and our minds—alcohol allowed otherwise fiercely individualistic and selfish primates like us to live together and cooperate in a manner more reminiscent of bees than chimpanzees.
However, for most of history, alcohol was protected by two features: the natural limit to how strong certain fermented beverages can be, and the social restriction on its consumption.
When yeast eat starch or fruits, alcohol (or the compound ethanol), is naturally produced. While yeast can resist alcohol naturally, even the most hardy yeast will not tolerate more than 16% ABV. This is why natural fermented alcoholic beverages do not exceed this limit. The beers and wine we’ve had have been weaker over time. Most beers hover around 2-3% ABV. The yeast alcohol tolerance has traditionally set a limit on how strong a brew can be.
Tradition has shown that cultural tricks can be added to this biological limit. In ancient art and texts, the concept of drinking was socially-regulated and shared. For example, the host at the Greek symposium not only managed the order and timing of toasts but also adjusted the water-to-wine ratio, as needed. Similarly, if you’ve ever complained about how long it takes to get a pint at a crowded pub on a Friday evening, you would’ve hated ancient China. This is how an ancient Chinese ritual document describes the origins of traditional wine drinking:
Each guest and host salute one another three times. The host and guest agree to each other when they reach the top of the stairs. After that, the host takes his place on the steps. The guest then ascends. The guest stands beneath the lintel and faces north. He salutes two times. The guest rises from the west, crosses the steps and then stands underneath the lintel. The host sits down to take the salutation. [wine]The guest takes the cup off the tray and goes to wash. The guest then follows his host. After a few more words of politeness, the host gets up and sits again. The guest responds.
The ancient Chinese tippler can still drink after the tedious ballet of greetings and courtesies is over. However, one cannot consume alcohol unless there is a formal toast made. Ritual also dictates who may make the toast. These archaic, stuffy rituals might seem far removed from Happy Hour, but they serve the same moderating purpose.
However, the safety features were disabled very recently.
Let’s start with alcohol content. A clever group of primates was frustrated by the 16% ABV yeast. They devised a way to get around it: distillation. The concept of distillation is simple and elegant. Take a beer or wine—essentially, a mixture of water and ethanol—and heat it. Because ethanol is more volatile than water it will boil first. It is possible to cool the alcohol vapor down and capture it. voilà, you’ve got yourself some more or less pure booze. Get out your shot glasses.
In practice, distillation is both fiendishly difficult to pull off and rather dangerous—exploding home stills and scalding liquids were Prohibition-era America’s equivalent of contemporary meth lab disasters. Although the fundamental principles of alcohol distillation have been known since Aristotle’s time, human beings did not get widespread access to distilled liquors until about the thirteenth century in China, and around the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries Europe.
The ability of a species to drink and process alcohol is traceable back more than 10 million years. This represents a novel evolutionary danger. It is possible to go into any corner shop and find a large amount of alcohol hidden in a brown paper bag. Two bottles vodka can contain the equivalent amount of alcohol as a cartload of modern beer. These concentrated intoxicants are something that our forefathers never experienced.
You also have the risk of being isolated. Contemporary drinking was a common occurrence even before the COVD-19 crises. Particularly in suburbs where many commute far from their homes to work, and often lack easy access to a place for social drinking, this is a problem. In the modern world, drinking has become something that we can do at home without being watched or under any social supervision. Knocking back a string of high-alcohol beers or vodka and tonics in front of the TV, even with one’s immediate family around, is a radical departure from traditional drinking practices centered on communal meals and ritually-paced toasting. Instead, it reminds me of the endless alcohol feeding tubes that were provided for overcrowded rats during stress and alcohol experiments.
Widely available distilled liquors and frequent solitary drinking are relatively recent developments that have fundamentally changed alcohol’s balance on the razor’s edge between usefulness and harm. You can now live in a world where you can shop at drive-thru stores to get cigarettes, weapons, Slim Jims and alcohol without ever leaving your car. We may not be culturally or genetically prepared for such a lifestyle.
Therefore, it is not surprising that widespread alcohol abuse has been driven in large part by these two evils: isolation and distillation. When hard liquor is available at a time when there are no ritual or social regulations, it can be particularly dangerous. These forces played a significant role in the Russian vodka crisis (1992-1994), which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Women’s life expectancy dropped by 3.3 years, and men saw their life expectancy drop to 3.8 years. 6.1Years for men due to a huge increase in vodka drinking. We may face a similar crisis in public health due to the restrictions placed on socializing by COVID-19. Although there is some debate over whether overall alcohol consumption has increased or if it has simply shifted from bars to homes, the fact remains that our drinking habits have become more isolated and unhealthier.
Ancient Greeks looked at Dionysus (the god of wine) with reverence but also trepidation. His inspiration and joy brought humanity happiness, while he could turn humans into animals. Modern innovations in distillation and isolation increase the risks lurking inside the bottles.
Most people don’t think that abstention is the best way to handle these risks. Moderate and thoughtful responses are better. communalThe enjoyment of beer or wine. This is the key word: communal. Though we no longer have strict rituals governing our indulgence, ethnographic and experimental studies have shown that people—mostly unconsciously—adapt their consumption to conform with the group. In pathological cultures like universities fraternities this can lead to serious side effects. However, in most societies the result is one of moderation. For most of human history, alcohol consumption has been fundamentally social.
Social drinking is a great way to feel good about yourself as the pandemic lockdowns recede and life returns to normal. The shared experience of music, happy chatter, effortlessly synchronized conversation, rising endorphin levels, and reduced inhibitions catalyzed by a few glasses of ethanol has been impossible to replace with Zoom chats, and it is something we’ve been desperately missing. It is a human tradition to share a pint amongst friends. Let’s look forward once again to this ancient and distinctly human experience.
Just maybe hold off on the Jägermeister shots.