Drunk | Edward Slingerland

Summary of: Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization
By: Edward Slingerland


Embark on a thought-provoking journey through the history of human intoxication with Edward Slingerland’s book, ‘Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization’. Explore the surprisingly rich and complex relationship that we have had with alcohol throughout our evolution as a species. Unearth the controversial theories of ‘hijacks’ and ‘hangovers’ that attempt to explain our penchant for alcohol, and uncover the reasons why these theories may not hold water. Immerse yourself in the enlightening discussion about the unique survival challenges faced by humans, which have eventually led us to rely on culture, creativity, and community – and learn how our fondness for intoxication offers us a key to accessing these vital traits.

Hijacks and Hangovers

Our penchant for alcohol is likely an evolutionary accident, falling under two categories – hijacks and hangovers. Hijacks are behaviors that produce rewards intended for other, more beneficial actions. For example, masturbation yields pleasure without the procreation necessary for species survival. Hangovers are behaviors driven by once-useful adaptations that no longer serve their original purpose. Our love for sugary, fatty junk food stems from the pleasure our ancestors gained upon finding sustenance. Although these behaviors may have once benefited us, they have remained due to our ability to manipulate them for personal gain or because they simply no longer fulfill their intended purpose. Understanding whether our fondness for intoxication is a hijack, hangover, or better explained by another theory is essential to determine our relationship with and potential consequences of alcohol consumption.

Debunking Drunken Theories

Edward Slingerland counters two prevalent theories explaining human attraction to alcohol: the hijack and hangover theories. Instead of viewing alcohol consumption as an unintended consequence of evolution, Slingerland suggests it serves a purpose. By examining these theories and their flaws, the author invites readers to explore the complex relationship between humans and alcohol.

Have you ever wondered why we get drunk? Edward Slingerland challenges the popular assumptions of it being a mere accident, a part of human nature that we can’t shake off. Delving into the hijack and hangover theories, Slingerland presents a thought-provoking perspective on alcohol consumption’s role in human history.

The hijack theory argues that alcohol manipulates our brain’s natural reward system. What we’re drawn to alcohol because it triggers the release of brain chemicals meant for rewarding us for beneficial actions, such as consuming a nourishing meal or having sex. At first glance, the hijack theory might seem plausible, but it has a glaring flaw. Masturbation, a similar activity that triggers rewards for bypassing the intended beneficial action (procreation), is relatively harmless. In contrast, drinking can be dangerous for people’s health. Why would evolution allow us to continue drinking, despite its hazards?

While it’s true that evolution moves slower compared to human advancement, we have consumed alcohol for tens of thousands of years. A few generations were sufficient for adult pastoralists to develop a tolerance for milk; so, why not eliminate alcohol as well? This leads us to question the hijack theory’s credibility further.

The hangover theory, on the other hand, centers around the idea that humans developed a taste for alcohol because it indicated ripe fruits’ presence, which were high in calories. This so-called “drunken monkey” theory might seem strong until we look at primatologists and human ecologists’ observations of wild primates actively avoiding overripe fruit. Additionally, humans generally prefer ethanol-free fruits; hence, this theory also has significant drawbacks.

As we debunk both the hijack and hangover theories, it becomes apparent that our penchant for alcohol might not be as simple as a hijack or a mere side effect. With this recognition, we have an opportunity to explore our complex relationship with alcohol and why it continues to captivate and intoxicate us, leading to further scientific and cultural investigation of this seemingly unshakeable habit.

The Power of Tipsy Togetherness

Humans, unlike most animals, seek solutions through the collective insights of our culture rather than as individuals. By embracing our communal nature and unique ecological niche, we can unlock our potential for creativity and collaboration. Alcohol has played a significant role in helping humans access their emotional, community-oriented side, while overcoming distrust and selfish instincts.

As the only species that intentionally consumes alcohol to reach a state of intoxication, we must ask ourselves what potential benefits might justify the costs associated with this unusual behavior. The answer lies in examining the unique ecological niche that humans occupy and the survival challenges we have faced throughout our evolutionary history.

Our ecological niche, essentially our place in the world relative to other species, is centered around culture. This includes everything from food and shelter acquisition to our interactions with animals and fellow humans. Culture has allowed us to develop countless technologies that made us more advanced and efficient. In turn, we have become increasingly dependent on these cultural innovations for our survival.

One such example is the transformative discovery of fire. By learning to cook food, our ancestors redirected physiological resources from large teeth, powerful jaws, and complex digestive systems toward a powerful tool: the brain. Over time, this allowed us to become smarter at the expense of our dependency on fire and, ultimately, countless other cultural technologies like agriculture, refrigeration, and computers.

This progression didn’t occur suddenly. As small groups of hunter-gatherers gradually formed larger agricultural societies, we had to learn how to cooperate and work together. To adapt to these new demands, our species embraced creativity, community, and culture—the “three C’s” that help us navigate our complex human world.

Our reliance on the three C’s is a hallmark of our uniqueness among animal species. Unlike most animals, which tend to solve problems individually, humans rely on the wisdom and experience of our collective culture. In the primate world, our remarkable ability to trust and work together to achieve shared goals, much like ants or bees, is an astonishing feat. We adhere to social norms, collaborate, and even sacrifice our lives for the well-being of our community.

That doesn’t mean we’ve entirely shed our self-interested instincts. As humans, we’re constantly on guard against manipulation and deceit, and we approach others with a healthy dose of suspicion. Despite this, our desire to connect with others is a driving force in our lives—an inherent contradiction we must confront.

So how can we overcome our selfish tendencies and tap into our generous, emotional, and community-minded nature? You probably guessed it: alcohol. In the following sections, we’ll explore how alcohol has played a significant role in helping us build trust, foster collaboration, and cement our position as the resourceful, creative, and communal species we are today.

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