Tapestry

Alcohol helped shape civilization and ferment innovation, says author

Given the enormous costs of intoxication, why has the consumption of alcohol remained at the heart of social life? Author Edward Slingerland says it was essential to human evolution.

Edward Slingerland argues intoxication sparked innovation and civilization throughout human history

Author Edward Slingerland says we devote so much attention to the dark side of the bottle — that we ignore all the good that drinking can do. (Getty Images)

Edward Slingerland will be the first person in the room to acknowledge that drinking alcohol can cause all kinds of damage. But his latest work makes an audacious claim: that we could not have had civilization without intoxication.

Slingerland is a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, where he also holds appointments in the Departments of Psychology and Asian Studies. He's the author of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization.

He says we devote so much attention to the dark side of the bottle — that we ignore all the good that drinking can do. And the good, he says, is profound.

Here is part of his conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes about how the drive to get intoxicated may have predated, and even propelled, the rise of civilization — and how alcohol continues to support innovation and collaboration in modern society. 

How has getting drunk actually paved the way for civilization? I mean, that's an astonishing claim. 

In the same way that we're told that it's just an evolutionary mistake that we like to drink, we've also been told that our ability to drink, our ability to have access to alcohol is also a mistake.

So the standard story is that we, for whatever reason, settled down and started doing agriculture and living in larger communities. And then at some point after that, someone left their sourdough starter out for a little too long and it started to ferment. They figured out, "Oh, this makes something that's interesting to drink and makes us feel happy." So we discovered beer.

Hunter-gatherers were making alcohol in a serious way, way before agriculture. - Edward Slingerland

So in the standard account, alcohol's this kind of byproduct of agriculture, and it happened after agriculture. But once I started doing the research for the book, if you dig into the archaeological record, what it looks like is hunter-gatherers were making alcohol in a serious way, way before agriculture. 

Probably this goes back 20,000 years or so, but we certainly have direct evidence 13,000 years ago that people were making beer in what's now Israel.

And then we have sites like the site in Turkey called Göbekli Tepe, where hunter-gatherers — this site's probably 12,000 years old — were coming together, building these massive ritual complexes.

So with these big pillars that were carved with animals, shapes, and then doing some sort of ritual, we don't know exactly what they did, but also feasting and drinking something out of these massive vats that were there.

We don't have direct chemical evidence from this particular site, but we know people were making beer, and probably hallucinogen-laced beer, in the region around this time. So they were almost certainly gathering to drink beer. 

So our motivation to create agriculture was because we wanted to make better beer, not because we wanted to make bread.

You see this pattern around the world. In South America, where they cultivated maize, the ancient ancestor of maize is called teosinte, and it actually makes really bad tortillas. So if your goal was to make grain, you would have overlooked this plant because it doesn't make very good foodstuff, but it makes great beer. It makes this drink called chicha that's still made out of maize today.

So this is a sense in which the drive to get intoxicated actually gave rise to agriculture and therefore gave rise to civilization. 

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (Little Brown and Company)

In 2018, the medical journal The Lancet came out with a big study and the immortal line, "our results show that the safest level of drinking is none." 

Where do you stand on The Lancet's landmark piece of work? 

I think that the medical literature and the public policy regarding alcohol is deeply misguided. And I think it's misguided because they're not taking into account any of the social functions of alcohol. So The Lancet's article is basically treating alcohol consumption as a purely medical issue. 

No doubt they have a lot of evidence. This is a well-researched piece. Overall, it's negative physiologically, but you've got to weigh against the fact that it's doing all these positive functions: it's ramping up creativity, it's helping people cooperate, it's helping people relax at the end of the day, it's helping people overcome intimacy problems.

It's got all these functions in society, and I think our public discussions about alcohol have been really impoverished. It may be the case that once you take into account all those functions, you still say no — you know, the costs are too high. And as I say at the end of the book, that's a perfectly reasonable position to take, but you need to actually have all of the data. 

It increases your ability to think laterally to make connections you wouldn't otherwise make.- Edward Slingerland

If you were to sit down with the medical minds at The Lancet, what would you most want them to know about the blessings of booze through the ages? 

I think I would focus on its role in innovation and creativity. I would tell them stories. So when I talked about the possible connection between alcohol and spontaneity years ago at a talk at a Google campus, the first thing my host did after the talk was take me to their whisky room.

So this is a place they go when they run into a coding problem and they can't get their way around it instead of sitting in front of their computers and just pounding their head against this wall. They go to the whisky room, pour themselves a scotch, they sit in bean bag chairs, and they start talking. There's something special about what happens when humans sit together and gently downregulate their cognitive control by turning down this prefrontal cortex. 

I look in the book evidence that it directly increases creativity, so it increases your ability to think laterally to make connections you wouldn't otherwise make. But it's also reducing inhibitions. You might have an idea that you think is dumb that you normally wouldn't share, but you've had a drink or two and you share it, and actually it's not so dumb. Your colleague, who works in another field, says, "Yeah, that actually makes sense based on my research."

So I would say to them, you tell me what the physiological costs are in this particular drinking session, and let's then measure the innovation and productivity gains that came out of it.

It would be great to do a controlled experiment and say, okay, there's another Google campus and they don't have a whisky room, they have a coffee and wheat germ juice room. I'm sure they have both. But I would really like to do an experiment where they only had one or the other. And you know, at the end of two years, we measure innovation and productivity at these two campuses. I think you're going to see that coffee and wheat germ juice do not work the same way. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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