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The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems

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Kate Julian has a very interesting essay in the Atlantic about America’s history of drinking, and how it connects to larger issues of just what role alcohol has played in the creation, expansion, maintenance, and decadence, of various societies. She draws a lot on a new book by Edward Slingerland, Drunk, that apparently makes a strong case for the net positive effects of drinking on the development of civilization:

This is the core of Slingerland’s argument: Bonding is necessary to human society, and alcohol has been an essential means of our bonding. Compare us with our competitive, fractious chimpanzee cousins. Placing hundreds of unrelated chimps in close quarters for several hours would result in “blood and dismembered body parts,” Slingerland notes—not a party with dancing, and definitely not collaborative stone-lugging. Human civilization requires “individual and collective creativity, intensive cooperation, a tolerance for strangers and crowds, and a degree of openness and trust that is entirely unmatched among our closest primate relatives.” It requires us not only to put up with one another, but to become allies and friends.

As to how alcohol assists with that process, Slingerland focuses mostly on its suppression of prefrontal-cortex activity, and how resulting disinhibition may allow us to reach a more playful, trusting, childlike state. Other important social benefits may derive from endorphins, which have a key role in social bonding. Like many things that bring humans together—laughter, dancing, singing, storytelling, sex, religious rituals—drinking triggers their release. Slingerland observes a virtuous circle here: Alcohol doesn’t merely unleash a flood of endorphins that promote bonding; by reducing our inhibitions, it nudges us to do other things that trigger endorphins and bonding.

Over time, groups that drank together would have cohered and flourished, dominating smaller groups—much like the ones that prayed together. Moments of slightly buzzed creativity and subsequent innovation might have given them further advantage still. In the end, the theory goes, the drunk tribes beat the sober ones.

This argument comes with a couple of huge caveats however, both of recent historical vintage.

First, while beer and wine are as old as post-hunter-gatherer human societies, distilled spirits are much, much younger: they were apparently invented in China in the 13th century, and didn’t become common in Europe until the 16th through 18th centuries. Distilled alcohol generally packs four to ten times the intoxicating power of beer and wine per fluid dose, which makes it far more dangerous and problematic.

Second, per Julian’s review of the literature, drinking alone is also a very recent innovation, anthropologically speaking:

Just as people were learning to love their gin and whiskey, more of them (especially in parts of Europe and North America) started drinking outside of family meals and social gatherings. As the Industrial Revolution raged, alcohol use became less leisurely. Drinking establishments suddenly started to feature the long counters that we associate with the word bar today, enabling people to drink on the go, rather than around a table with other drinkers. This short move across the barroom reflects a fairly dramatic break from tradition: According to anthropologists, in nearly every era and society, solitary drinking had been almost unheard‑of among humans.

The social context of drinking turns out to matter quite a lot to how alcohol affects us psychologically. Although we tend to think of alcohol as reducing anxiety, it doesn’t do so uniformly. As Michael Sayette, a leading alcohol researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, recently told me, if you packaged alcohol as an anti-anxiety serum and submitted it to the FDA, it would never be approved. He and his onetime graduate student Kasey Creswell, a Carnegie Mellon professor who studies solitary drinking, have come to believe that one key to understanding drinking’s uneven effects may be the presence of other people. Having combed through decades’ worth of literature, Creswell reports that in the rare experiments that have compared social and solitary alcohol use, drinking with others tends to spark joy and even euphoria, while drinking alone elicits neither—if anything, solo drinkers get more depressed as they drink.

This is all related to a more general social science literature that emphasizes that social isolation is terrible for peoples’ health, while strong social bonds are enormously beneficial. (My personal pet theory is that in America Hispanics/Latinos have markedly better life expectancy than non-Hispanic whites, despite lower SES levels, higher levels of “obesity,” etc., primarily because of stronger community structures.)

Anyway, levels of drinking in America had been rising for the 20 years before the pandemic, and have gone up even more since, but what’s more problematic is the increasing amount of drinking alone, especially in social spaces: apparently the thing with the Kids These Days is to park yourself at the bar but not ever talk to anybody as you get buzzed while surfing your phone. Julian also has some interesting things to say about women and drinking, especially upper and upper middle class women who “day drink” discreetly:

In the 2013 book Her Best-Kept Secret, an exploration of the surge in female drinking, the journalist Gabrielle Glaser recalls noticing, early this century, that women around her were drinking more. Alcohol hadn’t been a big part of mom culture in the ’90s, when her first daughter was young—but by the time her younger children entered school, it was everywhere: “Mothers joked about bringing their flasks to Pasta Night. Flasks? I wondered, at the time. Wasn’t that like Gunsmoke?” (Her quip seems quaint today. A growing class of merchandise now helps women carry concealed alcohol: There are purses with secret pockets, and chunky bracelets that double as flasks, and—perhaps least likely of all to invite close investigation—flasks designed to look like tampons.)

As she points out, Americans like to have regular moral panics about drinking, and we’ll probably have another one soon if it hasn’t started already. Which isn’t to deny that alcohol has a very problematic role in contemporary society — obviously it does. But as with other drugs, in large part the problem isn’t the drug itself, but the shifting social contexts in which the drug is consumed, and why. TL;DR: Drinking together good; drinking alone bad.

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