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

Image of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization
Release Date: 
June 1, 2021
Little, Brown Spark
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“Slingerland amuses and educates, not just about ethanol excess, but also the relevance for understanding guilty pleasures as a whole, in the present and in its ancient roots.”

Edward Slingerhand, a philosopher, takes an entertaining view of the excess of alcohol/ethanol in Drunk. From the first lines, the author argues that “we are plagued by behaviors and drives that were once adaptive, are no longer,” “variegated pleasures” that over time became “evolutionary mistakes.”

Evolution gave “all sorts of species” various rewards for participating in the reproductive process. They, but especially humans, “have been gaming it since it was invented” to obtain pleasure, even to excess and self-destruction, “in any number of wildly entirely, non-productive ways.”

Alcohol “is far and away the most widespread, popular, user-friendly, flexible, and multi-purpose intoxicant known to mankind.” It exists in nature, was discovered by early primates, and has been made by people from just about everything, somewhere, at some time.

Humans found “that fermenting plays a useful role in converting their calories into a more durable, portable form.” Scientist Robert Dudley argues that “alcohol makes us feel good because . . it led to a large caloric and nutritional payoff.”

Slingerhand does not defend alcohol, but he does point out that it has positive benefits from the past to the present. Alcohol serves as a disinfectant (including for water) and as an ant-parasite medicines, including anti-fungal protection.

“Drunken words are spoken straight from the heart” and Slingerhand devotes much space to the many different dimensions of social drinking. “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes.” “The political function of alcohol is practical as well as symbolic.”

Drinking always brought people together (and still does), “enhancing group creativity.” “Large communal projects that rely upon unpaid labor, like constructing buildings or maintaining canals or irrigation channels, typically compensate the workers with massive, alcohol-heavy banquets.”

“In pre-industrial societies, facilitating drinking on the job is the only way to get the job done.” Even now in the covid epidemic, work suffers “where the office is open but the pub is not” and without the office party, no matter how much alcohol is consumed as a consequence of working at home.

The negative effects of excessive consumption became “evolutionary hangovers.” The damage in Canada alone comes to $14.6 billion annually “from 14,800 deaths, 87,900 hospital admissions, and 139,000 years of productive life lost.” “Booze-soaked networking” encourages “old boys’ clubs” and excludes outsiders.

Growth of civilization gave us greater means to easier and faster ways to pleasure that become vice “not doing us—or anyone else—any good.” Such “evolutionary mistakes persist because natural selection has not bothered to deal with them yet.” It cannot keep up.

The arguments here center on alcohol but also comment that it represents the greatest variety of vices. “One of the greatest foci of human ingenuity and concentrated effort,” for example, has been over “the problem of how to get drunk.” The author devotes much space on how prohibition has failed throughout history.

Even “the rare cultures that do not produce alcohol inevitably produces some other intoxicating substance, such as kava, hallucinogen-laced tobacco, or cannabis.”  Among ancient people, alcohol was one choice but also intoxication “from vines, mushrooms, or cacti, are a favorite, and sometimes given special status above alcohol.”

“Over a hundred species of hallucinogens are found [just] in the New World and all have intensively been used.” Nonetheless, “alcohol’s undisputed position as the king of intoxicants is its broad and complex range of effects on the human body and mind” remain unchallenged.

Slingerland presents ideas with modern examples but also finds the “ancient roots, ones that can be traced back to the very beginnings of civilization.” “A 20,000-year-old carving . . . shows a woman, possibly a fertility goddess, holding a horn to her mouth.”

Alcohol use has a long history. Evidence exists of beer and bread making 14,400 years ago in northern Jordan. “At sites in eastern Turkey, perhaps 12,000 years ago,” were left “what appear to be brewing vats” “combined with images of festivals.” That culture had alcohol but not yet agriculture or even bread.

Alcohol became a world-wide phenomenon. It was produced in China 9,000 years ago, grapes became wine in Georgia, at almost the same time, and Neolithic people in the Orkney Islands in northern Europe had alcohol made from barley and oats. Some societies like the Vikings were all about alcohol,l and men, traditionally, drink more than women. Tombs of females, however, could have greater amounts of alcohol.

Slingerhand argues that we need to “understand the functional role of our drive to get drunk” instead of misconceptions guided only by folk notions, dimly understood policies, or Puritanical prejudices.” Much the same could also be said of all addictions and also with such issues as cancel culture, sexism, and women’s reproductive rights.

Drunk is written in a straight-forward and lively, entertaining personal style. Slingerland amuses and educates, not just about ethanol excess, but also the relevance for understanding guilty pleasures as a whole, in the present and in its ancient roots.

“It is only when we couple history with science,” the author concludes, we might even see “how it might actually be good for us to tie one on now and then.” The book is annotated and has a bibliography.