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

Date Reviewed
November 30th 2021


Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled our Way to Civilization, by University of British Columbia professor of philosophy, Edward Slingerland is a history demonstrating the positive contribution of alcoholic beverage to the growth of civilization. I could imagine this subject and the treatment in this book having a broader appeal than most non-fiction.

The book reflects a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dichotomy almost throughout with crescendoes on both sides at different points. This schizophrenic split seems a valid reflection of the back and forth feelings societies have had and still do about the good and bad of drinking.

However Slingerland blames the recent, as in the last 500 years, swing to the negative, on distillation and isolation, essentially drinking high concentration alcohol by oneself. The positive interpretation of the value relies more on imbibing low concentration of beer and wine over a longer period of time in a social setting. The evil is primarily in distilled liquor with the rapid progression beyond benefit to detriment.

While a reader could imagine him launching the book by enumerating the negatives then dispelling them and building to a pinnacle with the redemption of boozing. But that is not his approach. In what seems like a twist, the author starts the book on a mainly positive note about the contribution of alcoholic beverage to society, with an explanation of why, and in his last chapter, 'The Dark Side of Dionysus', he details the horror and harm.

The author weaves a lot of humour into the early part of the book, but that wanes with a more serious academic tone as he comes to grips with the central thesis of good or bad.

The primary good he hangs his contention on is the holiday alcohol gives to the prefrontal cortex of the adult brain. This part of the brain asserts itself with development beginning in the early teens and concluding in the mid-20s.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the responsible, concentrating, executive and the directed portion of the brain. And of course it is ultimately essential to survival of the race and of the individual.

However, as the PFC matures it takes over a part of the brain which in children supplies fantasy, fancy, creation, trust and absorption of new material and information. Essentially adult is time to get serious and responsible about the business of surviving and living.

Enter alcoholic beverage to the adult brain and the PFC gets a temporary holiday and some childlike qualities of trust and creation reassert themselves, ideally in a context where they are again useful.

Where the handshake is symbolic of one physically disarming, inebriation is a sign of mentally disarming (the chemical handshake).

The author bolsters his contentions with regular reference to distant past and different cultures where alcohol was used and recognized as a lubricant to community, tribal and international relations.

He relies, not surprisingly, on ancient Greece, but equally, and somewhat unexpectedly, on ancient China. It is not that one couldn't imagine a lot of material on the subject from ancient China, but western scholars have not traditionally had much fluency with it.

As a student of Chinese history I may be more sensitive and surprised by this inclusion. Toward the end he mentions that he had been a Chinese studies student, which put this into context.

Generally history and prehistory has contended, or assumed, that alcohol use and production was a feature of the move into settled agricultural societies, variously from 10,000 to 2,000 BCE, depending on location.

Slingerland suggests that high and drunk may have been features of societies earlier and maybe more causal in civilization than a product of it.

One facet he hangs this on is the building of large early stone monuments that predate historical reference. He cites one that is now in Turkey and although he doesn't mention it, Stonehenge in England could be an example.

The author marvels at how men could have moved such large stones such great distances with limited technology and only human power and further how the people could have been motivated. Enter a good and continual 'buzz'. Maybe the workers would need a few drinks or a continuous night to entertain the idea of working so hard.

Slingerland further speculates on the chain of command for such enterprises. He seems to settle on the idea that the one who supplied the booze was the boss. The efforts and injuries of the workers on the job may have been more easily overlooked when anticipating 'the next round of motivation'.

In his survey, the author dismisses most of the rationalizations that alcohol is healthy physically or of much good for maladies. He acknowledges that there may be a few lingering beliefs to the contrary, but although manageable in small amounts, it is pretty much poison to the human body.

But on balance, that is the starting point, not the finishing presented here.

One weakness I see in his comparison with animals their behaviour and intelligence, is as it relates to chimpanzees. He does not mention bonobos as a 'variant' at least in culture, from chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees function in a patriarchal society and generally react with violence to outsiders. Bonobos have a matriarchal society and are inclined to be more friendly. possibly focussing on sex with strangers.

He relies fairly heavily on the work of Alison Gopnik into the brains of children and the subsequent maturation and changes, which is integral to the case he makes. “Truth is revealed by wine and children.”



The author takes an evolutionary viewpoint suggesting that junk food, masturbation and alcohol were ignored by evolution and allowed to continue.

Alcohol didn't become a problem until humans found ways to make a lot and concentrate it. Junk food didn't become a problem until recently when humans discovered a large and easy source of sugar. Neither was a problem until recently, when more than nature, readily provided became available.

Alcohol produces an abnormal mental state characterized by reduced self control, euphoria and or depression through “temporary impairment of a big chunk of brain”.

But throughout the world people are willing to incur costs, expend resources and effort to get a “high”.

And again his thesis, from an evolutionary point of view is that getting drunk and high “must have helped individuals to survive and flourish and cultures to endure and expand”. If it were as clean cut as the feelings and symptoms, evolution would have “put a firm end to the nonsense” with such a physiological and social cost. An important consideration is “evolution is a sluggard in the face of rapid human innovation”.

And for a humorous turn of phrase.”Marx never called pornography the opium of the people, but might have if he'd ever gotten a glimpse of the internet.”

On the upside Slingerland says “chemical intoxication helps solve a number of distinctly human challenges:enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers.”

And alcohol has several practical advantages over other drugs in meeting these needs.

He goes on to combine history and science as a rationale “how it might actually be good for us to tie one on now and then.”

The earliest direct evidence of humans producing alcoholic beverages comes from the Yellow River Valley around 7000 BCE and somewhat ironically, China was the first to try to impose prohibition. It probably started with over ripe fruit, a sought after delicacy and one in which humans and apes had an enzyme which proved useful in digesting and utilizing alcohol. Fermenting grains, leading to beer, actually provided a nutrient boost in Mesopotamia. The calorie boost may have been more welcomed then than now.

It seems, says Slingerland, that humans developed enzymes and and defences against some toxic plants, such as caffeine, nicotine and cocaine allowing them to consume them, while other animals avoided them. “We are built to get high.”

Cannabis use is at least 8,000 years old. One can imagine that might have been discovered when some 'weeds' were thrown on the fire.

Native population of North America never developed an alcohol culture, but were quite imaginative with tobacco.

Some people may not be pleased with Slingerland's comparison of religious belief with alcoholic beverage drinking, as both, from a strictly practical point of view, being wasteful yet quite ubiquitous, even central, in human society. Maybe this reflects a group identity and social cohesion need. Both are also close to political power and used by it.

“Pairing of civilization and fermentation has therefore been a constant theme in human history”, he says.

However, when the distilled costs in death, hospitalization and lost work time from over consumption are tallied it comes to near $15 billion annually in Canada.

Slingerland gives a small explanation of the chemistry and biology, that combined with human genes and evolution to make alcohol and other hallucinogenic substances palatable.

It seems Vikings were the first to make alcohol integral in their society on many fronts. And they were spectacularly effective in imposing their will on others. He speaks of unravelling the “evolutionary mystery of our taste for intoxication”.

And an interesting observation....”Homo Sapiens have achieved their impressive success by adapting to an extreme and unusual ecological niche, one very different from that inhabited by our primate ancestors and closest primate relatives today.” We cannot live without our culture. And it includes learning how to get along with and cooperate with strangers in close quarters. We are more dependent on our group for survival than almost any other species. Certainly no other species has offspring that are so helpless at birth. But from this initial vulnerability we go to immense power.

And a summarizing rationale for drinking “we get drunk because we are a weird species, awkward losers of the animal world, and need all the help we can get.”

Creativity is one of the primary needs to overcome disadvantages. We transform the world with our technologies and cannot survive without them.

Slingerland ventures into the development of the brain and what is gained and lost with maturity and how alcohol helps to temporarily revisit that stage.

“Kids are crappy at logistics and planning, but their little chaotic minds explore the nooks and crannies of possibility space with a speed and unpredictability that leave adults completely in the dust.” It manifests as a form of cognitive flexibility.

Some of these aspects of the brain are pruned away (neural pruning) in maturation when the brain is readied for the more efficient, organized, directed action needed in adulthood. The author has a particularly compelling account of this maturation and the tradeoffs involved. A main one is less flexible cognition in adults with a decline in creativity and new knowledge in favour of focus on task. It explains the confusing danger of the teen years.

“Having a fully developed prefrontal cortex makes you relatively impervious to new knowledge and skills.” To learn we need to remain as flexible and receptive as long as possible. Hence the long maturation period in humans.

And in children “taking twenty minutes to put on your shoes is the price you pay for thinking out of the box.”

Cultural knowledge or the knowledge gained through living in a group and passed on is one of the species advantages. Living in close proximity increases the amount of cultural interaction and innovation and more accumulated culture, including technology.

Other species rely on asocial learning where the individual assesses the problem and comes up with a solution.

He shows how this human pattern of dependence on cultural knowledge as opposed to asocial knowledge depreciates the idea of a lone genius among humans.

“There is a common image of human innovators as pioneers, as isolated bold individuals, wresting solutions to the puzzles presented by nature through sheer willpower and insight. The ideal of a lone genius may well describe an innovative chimpanzee or crow, but is nonsense when it comes to humans. Chimpanzees are strong and independent and smart; humans are weak, dependent on others, and, as individuals, no rocket scientists.”

He moves on to the communalism and interdependency of humans. And while we are interdependent with complex divisions of labour, we have an evolutionary problem, at a deep level we remain “selfish backstabbing apes”.

Slingerland refers to the individual versus group interests as “cooperation challenges”. And one of those challenges is developing trust. Children are better at this. He is presenting this framework to illustrate the need/use of alcohol.

The openness to new information from all sources, trustworthiness and trust are characteristic of children and wane as the brain matures into adulthood and productive routine. Slingerland maintains that it is essential for adults to temporarily revert to childhood intelligence and alcohol fills that need. Lateral thinking where the idea just pops into one's head can correlate with alcohol consumption. In any event such sudden insights seem to occur when the brain is less focussed and not trying so hard.

It can, to a degree, be filled with physical and mental exercise, but they involve time and effort compared to the quick and pleasant of alcohol. Compared to other drugs, alcohol is easy to dose, effects are stable across individuals, they wax and wane predictably and are relatively short-lived. However, as humans relax their livers are working furiously to deal with the alcohol. Google's 'whiskey room' tries to capture that.

“Intoxication is an antidote to cognitive control, a way to temporarily hamstring that opponent to creativity, cultural openness, and communal bonding.” It also allows enjoyment of the wonderful qualities of childhood. It is these benefits, maintains Slingerland, that despite the negatives, has not led to the genetic elimination or cultural fiat against drinking alcohol (“controlled doses of chaos”).

On the other hand, caffeine and nicotine sharpen the prefrontal cortex for its tasks of concentration and focus.

Slingerhand does not believe discovery of alcohol was an accidental consequence from agriculture. Rather he believes large gatherings of people focussed on feasting, ritual and boozing long, maybe thousands of years, before. “Swilling booze” is depicted in early Sumerian myths. It is possible that the idea of agriculture was spawned during a drunken gathering.

He suggests that much of civilization may have started with the prefrontal cortex on a booze addled holiday. He adds that an inordinate number of writers, poets, artists and musicians have been “heavy users of liquid inspiration”.

Most are aware of the role of alcohol in temporarily alleviating stress. Stress continues to increase with increasing complexity in life.

Alcohol also facilitates a communal nature. “There are many ways humans can achieve a hive mind, but liquor is certainly the quickest.”

A degree of drunkenness can bare true emotions that may otherwise be concealed and lead to distrust. In ancient China, ancient Greece, medieval Europe and prehistoric Pacific Islands “no gathering of potentially hostile individuals occurred without the inclusion of staggering quantities of intoxicants.”

One of his subheads 'Puking and Bonding” describes a coalescing factor for groups within companies and within the military. However, drinking and not actually getting drunk has been respected in some circles, notably ancient Greece. But still non-drinkers may be seen as suspect. The Greeks created word 'symposium' refering to a wine party. As it has evolved, wine has not been seen as essential.

At some point, drinking was ritualized with the best reserved according to status of participants. The 'cheap' stuff may have been used to motivate workers to build monuments. Power, political and otherwise, may be rooted in production and distribution. The key was molding the throngs into “social-insect like levels of cooperation”.

He says that in the competition of cultural groups “it is the drinkers, smokers and trippers who emerged triumphant.”

Now modern drugs have taken over some of the roles filled by alcohol. He says despite health and psychological costs, alcohol still has a “venerable role”.

The Japanese business rise (60s through 80s) seems related to a common practice of male workers drink bonding after work.

Slingerland says that business travel wouldn't seem to make sense in the age of Zoom, if it weren't for the drinking and getting to know the business partner, that is the crucial reason for the trip. Drunken people have more trouble lying.

This concept (including networking, brainstorming and idea honing over meals) can be extrapolated to other conventions that on the surface don't seem to warrant the cost of travel. He further calls this the most “effective cultural technology”.

In colonial America, sometimes the tavern got built before the church. However, Britain with its local pubs and France with its cafes may be more positive environments now than the North American equivalents. Frequency of visit rather than duration of stay seemed more important.

Slingerland's thesis applies to the use of alcohol moderately in a social context, not solitary for hedonic pleasure or quasi-religious. He may bemoan the decline in political drinking.

Young people, with a still partly formed prefrontal cortex, do not need the down regulating that alcohol serves for adults.

He speaks of the need of alcohol to fuel ecstasy and alleviate depression, which is needed release from issues in life.

He says that humans may now need alcohol more than at any time in the past. At an official level, alcohol is objected to by bureaucrats, physicians and government policy makers, yet, points out Slingerland, watching TV fluff or going for a jog to change mood is accepted. But downing a couple of beers doesn't attract admiration.

“It is our deeply seated, and so typically invisible, mind-body dualism that causes us to systematically, and unfairly, denigrate the role of chemical intoxication in any vision of the good life.” This reflects the worldwide ambiguous attitudes.

Alcohol is 'ambiguous' in its effects. First it is stimulant leading to buoyant feelings and farther along it can become a depressant.

The negative of drinking is reflected in its stats showing it to be the third preventable cause of death behind smoking and lack of exercise. He describes two “kinds” of drinking in Europe. The “southern drinking culture” is common in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Drinking, primarily of wine, may start with a watered down version for children and it always accompanies eating, mostly in groups. Even distilled liquor is consumed in small amounts, also usually with meals. Alcohol per capita is consumed in large quantities, but alcoholism and attendant disorder is low.

The “northern drinking culture” applies to northern and eastern Europe with Russia the most emphatic example. Compared to the south, less drinking is at home and with food and usually an activity separate from mealtimes. Children are not allowed to drink.

Drinking alone and away from food is not as stigmatized as in the south and public drunkenness is not uncommon.

Slingerland elaborates on the two primary factors that have altered how alcohol is produced and consumed. Distillation concentrating the alcohol content was refined in the 16th century in Europe and maybe 300 years earlier in China. It enabled people to get drunk a lot quicker. And accompanying that development was more solitary drinking.

He concedes that these two factors have tended to push cost-benefit against alcohol use. For relatively little money one can buy enough distilled liquor to paralyze an elephant and carry it out of a corner store in a brown bag. This liquor and situation radically increases the danger to both individuals and societies.

Slingerland suggests that distilled liquor should be in a different regulatory category than wine and beer. People under 25 should avoid it since their PFC does not need much relaxing. He suggests taxing it at a higher rate than beer and wine and putting a higher age limit on prohibition.

It seems that abstinence is becoming more common among young people in most societies

In the modern world and suburbanite living, drinking progressively occurs away from the social context.

Some people in Asia develop a flushing of the skin and negative reaction to alcohol which limits drinking for those people. Slingerhand suggests such a genetic phenomenon may arise over time in connection with distilled liquor.

Alcohol is the only drug, outside of pure stimulants, that increase the propensity to violence. This can manifest in fights and, combined with patriarchalism and misogyny, also sexual assaults.

The social advantages enhanced by moderate alcohol consumption can disadvantage women.

He points out that vigorous dancing and hypnotic music, even without alcohol, can provide many of the social and psychological benefits as the drug-fuelled event. Some of the advantages can be provided during certain religious rituals.

While the runner's high may do it, it requires a lot of time and hard work.

Humans are not well equipped to control drinking without social help.

Although the U.S. has a high rate of consumption and alcoholism, maybe surprisingly it has an abstinence rate of 33 per cent, the highest in the non-Muslim world.

Despite the official caution in supporting drinking, liquor stores are not readily closed, something apparent during covid, an implication that they are “essential”.