How Our Love for Alcohol Led to the Rise of Civilization

People love to drink. More specifically, people love to drink or otherwise become intoxicated from all corners of the globe and in virtually every civilization throughout history. This underappreciated human universal—one that has surprisingly been ignored by most scholars—is practically begging for an evolutionary explanation. In philosopher Edward Slingerland’s latest book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, we finally get one. 

In this humorous and wide-ranging book, Slingerland explores the history, biology, psychology, and sociology of intoxication, and, in particular, the intoxicating effects of alcohol. He notes how, contrary to the popular view that drinking serves no useful evolutionary purpose—the equivalent of our brain hijacking our love for sugar to produce life-span-shortening twinkies—drinking actually facilitates social cooperation, and may even be responsible for the emergence of civilization itself. 

The argument is quite extensive, but essentially goes like this: humans are a species of primate—which are in general selfishly individualistic—yet require massive levels of cooperation (found most prominently in insects) to survive, due to our unimpressively weak physical makeup. Thrown into the wild, a single human could never outcompete other animals, but in groups, we dominate the world. Humans have therefore come to occupy a very specific ecological niche that requires three things above all others: creativity, cultural learning, and cooperation. 

Slingerland’s contention is that alcohol, along with other intoxicants (but primarily alcohol), works to enhance all three of these human necessities. Combining historical examples with modern research, Slingerland—formally trained in the history of religion and early Chinese thought—demonstrates how alcohol enhances creativity and openness to experience, reduces stress, improves mood, and facilitates cooperation, all by downregulating the prefrontal cortex and temporarily shutting down our overly-analytical minds. 

Rather than an evolutionary mistake, then, alcohol is essential to the formation of the types of human bonds and large-scale cooperation necessary for survival. There’s even some evidence, as Slingerland describes, that the human discovery of brewing beer came before the invention of agriculture, for example in Göbekli Tepe. While the reader might sense some exaggeration here—in the absence of beer, agriculture and civilization probably still would have arisen—alcohol is nevertheless a critical social factor that has long been neglected. 

This is all great news for wine and beer-lovers everywhere. In the debate over whether or how much we should drink, we can skip the disputes over the existence or not of minor health benefits if the act of becoming intoxicated is the key to the emergence of civilization and to the amplification of all the qualities that most make us human. This has the dual benefit of legitimizing our love for alcohol and also explaining its ubiquitous use. 

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. While alcohol has its place in the modern world, we would be unwise to ignore its costs. As Slingerland wrote, “The American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that, from 2006 to 2010, excessive drinking led to 8,000 deaths annually, 2.5 million years of potential life lost, and $249 billion in economic damage.” When we drink alcohol, we are essentially ingesting a poisonous liquid neurotoxin that impairs our cognition, slows our reaction times, diminishes our judgments, and damages our livers, placing us at substantial risk. Weighed against the benefits, there’s some debate as to whether or not it’s all worth it in the end. 

But the enormity of these costs only strengthens Slingerland’s main argument; if there were truly no benefits to drinking, biological or cultural evolution would have eliminated the practice long ago. It’s not just that we enjoy drinking for the sake of drinking (although this should count for something), but that the building of social solidarity and the enhancement of creativity are real and extensive benefits of intoxication that we would be equally unwise to ignore. 

So, on the side of continued alcohol use is the fact that it is pleasurable, that it reduces stress, and that it is an evolutionarily beneficial way for us to enhance our skills in lateral thinking and social cooperation. On the side of abstinence is all of the associated health problems, risk of dependency, and economic costs of intoxication and excessive drinking. Both sides seem to have a strong case.

But by understanding alcohol’s deeper evolutionary function—and better delineating its benefits—we can not only understand its popularity but also recognize that alcohol is not simply an evil that we’re forced to tolerate, and that responsible, moderate, and social drinking may in fact lead to desirable benefits that far outweigh the costs.