Though some academics, particularly those in the medical establishment, have come to see humanity’s taste for alcohol as an evolutionary mistake, philosopher and religious-studies scholar Edward Slingerland sees how drinking played an important role in humanity’s development. It helped an aggressive, untrusting primate to build mainly cooperative, and undeniably successful, large-scale societies. He argues that intoxication has been a defining feature of our existence ever since we were hunter-gatherers roaming the grasslands. Although the behavior is not uniquely human — species as varied as bats, fruit flies, dolphins, and reindeer all use substances to alter their minds — we are far and away the most adept at it.
Born in Maplewood, New Jersey, Slingerland went on to study at Princeton University, Stanford University, and the University of California, Berkeley. His book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization explores humans’ propensity for altering our minds using not only alcohol but also psychedelics and other drugs. For Slingerland, however, alcohol is the “king of intoxicants,” widely produced and consumed in nearly every human society because it promotes social cohesion, trust, and creativity. Though he’s well aware of the physical and societal problems alcohol causes, he says its less-celebrated benefits are the reason we continue to use it.
In keeping with his wide range of interests, Slingerland holds simultaneous appointments in the departments of philosophy, psychology, and Asian studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. A scholar of ancient China, he’s published an acclaimed translation of the Analects — the sayings and ideas credited to the philosopher Confucius — and he’s written extensively on how religious concepts can inform cognitive science and evolutionary theory. His first nonacademic book, Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity, compares our modern scientific understanding of spontaneity to the ancient Chinese concept of wu wei, or “effortless action” — often referred to as “being in the zone.” It’s a state, Slingerland says, more easily reached after a glass or two of wine.
Slingerland splits his time between Vancouver and Northern California. While he and I spoke at length over video chat, the sunny skyline of Vancouver — framed by the snowy North Shore Mountains — loomed large in his apartment windows. It was midday, so we opted for water to drink.
Askey: Some have proposed that the agricultural revolution arose to produce grain for alcohol, not food. What evidence is there for that?
Slingerland: Agriculture probably started in the Fertile Crescent, and we have direct evidence that hunter-gatherers came together there to brew beer thirteen thousand years ago — several thousand years before the agricultural revolution. At Göbekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey, we’ve discovered huge vats used to hold liquid. Hunter-gatherers were building massive ritual sites there and engaging in feasting of some sort. Archaeologists believe they were drinking beer, possibly laced with hallucinogens. So three millennia before agriculture, we have people coming together not to break bread but to brew beer.
We see a similar pattern in other parts of the world. In South America the wild ancestor of maize is called teosinte. It doesn’t produce very good grain for tortillas or bread, but you can ferment the stalks, which have a lot of sugar in them, to create a beer-like beverage. Chicha is a drink in South America that today is made out of maize, but thousands of years ago it was made out of teosinte. The desire to brew beer got people to start breeding teosinte to be more productive and to produce bigger specimens. They wouldn’t have domesticated this plant if it couldn’t have been used to make a mind-altering substance.
In Australia the earliest cultivated plants seem to have been the ingredients for pituri, which is an intoxicating chew, kind of like chewing tobacco. In North America the first cultivated crop seems to have been tobacco, which was much stronger than the tobacco we have today and was smoked together with hallucinogens. So the first domesticated plants all seem to have been mind-altering, not nutritious. Our tastes for intoxication directly gave rise to agriculture, and thus to civilization.
Askey: Why is this important to how we understand ourselves now?
Slingerland: It puts the search for intoxication in its proper place in the economy of human desires. The standard scientific story is that our taste for intoxication is an evolutionary mistake: that alcohol, for instance, just happens to hijack the reward network of the brain. It manages to pick a pleasure lock, and we clever humans are taking advantage of that. But what if, instead, our taste for alcohol has been strengthened and preserved in our gene pool for functional reasons? Then we might look at intoxication not as a side note but as part of the story of what makes us human.
Askey: As a culture do we undervalue intoxication?
Slingerland: Put it this way: It’s not the center of the story. It’s an accident, a bit player — if it’s mentioned at all.
I’m a religious-studies scholar, and if you look at the scholarship on ritual and mysticism, it’s focused on singing, dancing, and prayers. No one ever mentions that times of collective ritual are almost always helped along by chemical substances of various kinds. There’s this sort of puritanism, where we’re uncomfortable acknowledging the role of intoxication in human life. Scholars prefer not to talk about the fact that people like to get high.
Mircea Eliade, one of the founders of modern religious studies, mentioned chemical intoxicants only a few times, always in a dismissive tone. It’s viewed as fake mysticism. Real mysticism is when you meditate for twenty days and mortify yourself and deprive yourself of sleep. Drugs give you an ersatz version of that. Real mystics are doing it through prayer; they’re doing it through ritual. But when we believe this, we’re missing the point: that it’s chemicals all the way down. Whether you’re getting those chemicals through a drug or through sleep deprivation, repetition of a mantra, and focusing on your breath, they’re all ultimately physical, chemical routes to a mental state. No one route is better than another.
Askey: You quote science writer Stephen Braun, who describes alcohol as a “pharmacological hand grenade.” What does alcohol do to our brain?
Slingerland: We tend to think of alcohol as a depressant, and in some ways it is, but it’s also a stimulant. It combines, in various ways, the effects of Valium, Prozac, and opium all at once. When blood-alcohol content is ascending, it’s a stimulant encouraging serotonin and endorphin production. We’re feeling energized. We’re feeling happy. We’re feeling expansive. The alcohol is also depressing the function of certain parts of the brain, most importantly the prefrontal cortex [PFC], which is the center of executive function. It’s what allows us to do an interview or write an article, to stay focused on a task, to delay gratification and get things done in a linear manner. But the PFC gets in the way of creativity. It gets in the way of people relaxing and trusting each other. So as alcohol is turning up the feel-good chemicals, it’s turning down the PFC. Only as the alcohol starts to wear off does it become a depressant. When you’re coming down from being drunk, you’re very tired.
Braun likens drugs like LSD, cocaine, and Prozac to scalpels: though their effect may vary among people who take them, they’re doing one very precise and predictable thing to the brain. Each plays a single note, whereas alcohol is more like a kid just hitting all the keys on a piano at once. It affects various parts of the brain and the hormones simultaneously. It’s messy, not “clean” the way that most pharmaceuticals are.
Askey: When did you come to see alcohol as this lens through which to view human history and culture?
Slingerland: There are at least two connections to my previous work. My first popular book was about a paradox related to the concept of wu wei, a Chinese term meaning something like “effortless action.” This is the ideal state for the early Confucians and Daoists — where you lose the sense of yourself as an agent; you lose your self-consciousness. It’s like athletes being “in the zone” in sports. It’s similar to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” where you’re absorbed by what you’re doing. And when you’re in this state, you’re successful. You’re creative. You’re charismatic. People like you. You’re physically skillful in the world.
Getting to this state runs up against what I call the “paradox of wu wei”: How do you try not to try? How do you plan to be spontaneous? It’s a cognitive paradox, because as soon as you try to relax, you activate the part of your brain that you’re trying to shut down. Social psychologist Dan Wegner talked about the “white bear paradox”: If I tell you, “Don’t think of a white bear,” you’ve already thought of a white bear. I’ve just put that concept into your brain. The same thing is happening when I say to you, “Relax,” or, “Stop being so uptight.” It makes you uptight, right?
We face this paradox when we’re trying to fall asleep and need to shut off our brain, or when we’re nervous before a date and want to relax and be confident and have fun. But how do we get there? The early Chinese thinkers came up with various strategies for this: meditation, breathing exercises, rituals. But it occurred to me that maybe alcohol solves the problem by directly reaching in and turning the knob down a few notches. If I tell myself, Relax, I’m not going to relax. But if I drink a glass of wine, maybe I will relax.
So I became interested in how different cultures might use alcohol to solve this cognitive paradox. That was one route to the subject. In a more abstract way, I’ve always been interested in mysteries that hide in plain sight — things we just take for granted and never really question, but when you start to look carefully at them, they seem very puzzling. Look at religion. We take it for granted that, around the world, people believe in and worship invisible beings. They make sacrifices to them, they scarify themselves, they cut off their foreskins, they forgo delicious foods, they sit in uncomfortable pews for hours, they build these massive monuments — pyramids, or cathedrals, or, in ancient China, entire underground cities. You’ve probably heard of the first emperor of Qin and the terra-cotta army. The empire built this enormous terra-cotta army with real weapons and put it in an underground city. And they put jade and all sorts of valuables in there, and they sacrificed people and horses and threw them in there, too, and then buried all of it. A good portion of the GDP of Qin went into building this underground monument. It just seems so incredibly wasteful.
You would think that a culture that went in for waste on this level would quickly get outcompeted by cultures that spent that time building up a real army, rather than a fake one, but that’s not the case. Instead cultures that go in for this kind of monumental wastefulness actually do well and tend to spread. This suggests there’s something else going on. It seems wasteful in an immediate sense, but if you think about the possible social functions that it’s serving, maybe it pays for itself. Consider that people who spend time in church when they could be farming often outcompete people who farm all the time. Maybe that time in church bonds people in a way that makes them more successful.
For a long time I ran a project that tried to explain the cultural evolution of religion in terms of the social functions it might have. That’s when I started to feel that chemical intoxication, especially alcohol, was like religion in a sense.
Askey: Because it’s so ubiquitous?
Slingerland: Yes, you find it almost everywhere. And it has such an ancient pedigree.
But there are costs: It causes liver damage. It raises our cancer risk. It can lead to all sorts of social chaos. And it’s expensive. It’s estimated that in ancient Sumer half the grain produced went to making beer. So half of their nutritious crop was being turned into a low-level neurotoxin. It seems a puzzling thing for people to do. Alcohol has all these costs, yet we still use it. The next question is: Could there be benefits that outweigh those costs?
There’s a good reason why, when potentially hostile sides have to sit down and reach an agreement, the alcohol usually comes out. . . . Alcohol makes it harder for you to lie.
Askey: In U.S. elections many voters give a lot of weight to whether or not they might sit down and have a beer with a candidate. What are we asking with that question?
Slingerland: This gets to one of the functions of alcohol: enhancing trust. We rely on trust when we’re faced by cooperation dilemmas. A classic example is the prisoner’s dilemma. [In this thought experiment two people are arrested and placed in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with each other. Prosecutors offer each the chance to testify that the other committed a crime. If they each testify against the other, both will serve two years in prison. If one testifies but the other remains silent, the first will be set free, and the other will serve three years in prison. If both remain silent, both will serve only one year in prison. — Ed.] You’ve got a payoff matrix where the best overall payoff happens when the two prisoners cooperate and remain silent. The worst outcome is if they both “defect” and act out of pure self-interest. Since they can’t communicate, the rational strategy is to defect. The cost of cooperating when the other prisoner defects on you is too high. So rational action for both results in a suboptimal outcome.
This may seem like an artificial situation, but prisoner’s dilemmas pop up all the time in everyday life. One example is called the “tragedy of the commons.” Tuna fishers, for example, would all be better off if everyone stuck to fishing quotas. But in the open ocean you have no way of knowing what the other tuna fishers are doing. Some might be cheating and scooping up as many fish as they can get, leaving less for the others. But if everyone cheats, we might drive the species to extinction. We need to trust each other in order to get around these dilemmas.
In person we try to read expressions and body language to tell who we can trust. We’re actually quite good at telling when someone’s not being spontaneous, which could mean they are plotting something. This is another connection to my earlier work. The ancient Chinese believed that when you’re in this state of wu wei, or spontaneity, this supernatural being called Tian or “Heaven” is happy with you and gives you a power called de. It’s something like charisma.
When people are spontaneous, we feel like what they’re saying is true, and that they’re not trying to cheat us or convince us they’re someone they’re not. Alcohol makes this process easier. There’s a good reason why, when potentially hostile sides have to sit down and reach an agreement, the alcohol usually comes out. You don’t start talking business until you’ve had a couple of rounds. Alcohol makes it harder for you to lie by impairing the PFC. Lying is cognitively difficult, because I have to keep track of both what I’m telling you and what is true. And I have to not let the truth affect my facial expressions or my emotional reactions. It’s really complicated and very PFC dependent. So if you knock out the PFC, you make it harder for people to lie.
Interestingly alcohol also makes it easier to detect lying. When we take in a lot of data about someone in a relaxed way, we do better at detecting liars. So that sense of I like a politician I feel like I can get a beer with translates to: If this person and I got together and let our defenses down, I would still like and trust them. They’re relatable, because they’re authentic. There’s no light between what they’re saying and what they’re really like.
Askey: You cite studies that show how millennials and Gen Zers are more accepting of people who don’t drink, yet per capita consumption of alcohol is up overall. Which way is the pendulum swinging? Are we entering an era of “neo-puritanism”?
Slingerland: It’s hard to predict. Maybe it’s age dependent. I get the sense that alcohol is an uncool drug among many young people, whereas microdosing psilocybin or doing cannabis edibles is cool. Alcohol is what your uncool uncle consumes at Christmas. I don’t know if that’s going to change as these people get older. And maybe they are right, and microdosing psilocybin is better. But there’s a good reason I call alcohol the “king of intoxicants.” If you told a group of cultural engineers, “We need a substance that has these properties: It’s super easy to discover by accident. You can make it anywhere out of anything. It will have consistent effects across individuals. It will be easy to dose. And it will have a short half-life,” meaning it’ll have its effect and then go away pretty quickly — that’s alcohol.
The problem with cannabis is that its cognitive effects vary across individuals. It makes some people extroverted and energized. Other people, like myself, it makes paranoid and sleepy. It’s also hard to dose. If you’re smoking it, it’s totally different if you actually know to hold it in your lungs. If you’re doing edibles, the onset is slow, but the effect lasts for a really long time.
Psilocybin and other types of psychedelics are just too powerful to be used socially. They dissociate you from reality. People don’t, at the end of the day, come home and drop acid to relax. Business partners don’t take LSD together and figure out a contract.
Alcohol hits the sweet spot: it gets us just intoxicated enough, consistently and predictably. But alcohol has two big negatives: One, alcohol is up there with heroin and cocaine in terms of how physically addictive it is. (Cannabis can be psychologically addictive, but not physically.) And, two, alcohol does a lot of damage to our bodies. As far as we know, psychedelics are not addictive physically and also not physiologically harmful. Maybe we’ll figure out how to synthesize psilocybin and deliver it in small, controlled doses to get that same level of intoxication that alcohol gives us. If it could last for an hour or two and then go away, that could be better than alcohol. Maybe thirty years from now people will go out to bars and microdose instead of drinking beers.
People in Alcoholics Anonymous go to meetings all the time . . . to get the same kind of bonding and loss of self and increased trust that you and I might achieve by having a beer.
Askey: I could be misinterpreting what people hope to gain when they microdose psychedelics, but it seems more tied to productivity. They do it when they’re working so they can come up with some creative idea. That scares me a little: that our latest choices for intoxicants are tied to our productivity.
Slingerland: Psilocybin, like alcohol, is disrupting the prefrontal cortex, depatterning your brain, and allowing you to think laterally. It increases your creativity, but you’re not narrowly focused. So it’s actually not great for productivity if your job is to do something linear, like bookkeeping. For that you want PFC-strengthening drugs like Adderall, caffeine, nicotine. They’re giving you energy and helping you focus so you can stay on task and get the job done. Where caffeine and nicotine can’t help you is when you run into a wall and need a creative insight. That’s where alcohol is better.
Our creativity declines as we age. Four-year-olds are really good at outside-the-box, lateral thinking. Over time we get worse and worse at that and more and more linear. That worsening coincides directly with the maturation of the prefrontal cortex. As our PFC matures — which happens until our midtwenties or so — our ability to think creatively decreases. If we need an outside-the-box insight, we have to reverse that process somehow. That’s one of the benefits of alcohol: it’s temporarily shutting down the PFC and allowing us to be like four-year-olds again.
I gave a talk at Google, and afterward some engineers took me to their “whiskey room.” When they are hitting their heads against the wall, and all of their coffee-fueled efforts are getting them nowhere, they shift gears, drink a little Scotch, sit in beanbag chairs, and just talk. That’s often when the creative insights arise, and they get past the problem. So alcohol can be a productivity enhancer in the right situation.
Askey: Did they give you some Scotch?
Slingerland: No! [Laughs.] I was sad, because they had some really good single malts. But the fact that a successful corporation like Google created a place in its organization for alcohol is revealing.
A lot of the insights that I’ve had in academia have happened in pubs. My colleagues and I got a grant to study the evolution of religion, and that happened arguably because a pub was built on campus at the University of British Columbia. A group of us started meeting there on Friday afternoons and having a couple of beers. And we would say things that maybe we’d be embarrassed to say normally, because it meant stepping into each other’s areas of expertise. I had ideas about cultural evolution, but I was talking to a world expert in cultural evolution, and without a few drinks maybe I would have felt too shy to say something. He had ideas about religion, too, but, you know, I was the religious-studies scholar. After a beer or two, you’re a little less worried about those academic distinctions. The combination of ramping up creativity and turning down inhibitions allows innovation to happen. I think if you talk to anyone in a creative field, they’ll have a story like this.
Askey: What about people who don’t drink? How do you include them in these breakthroughs if alcohol is the reason that you have them?
Slingerland: One answer is to have these events earlier in the evening or at different times of day, and in a family-friendly setting. Kara Sowles, who’s studied workplace practices around alcohol consumption, has some really basic, commonsense suggestions that are not followed often enough: Have prominently displayed nonalcoholic options that look like a cocktail so people who don’t drink won’t feel stigmatized. They may actually get some placebo effect from drinking nonalcoholic cocktails. Also have nonalcoholic beers available. And just have water out! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at receptions where there’s no place to get water.
But, at the end of the day, the chemical is important. The pharmaceutical qualities of alcohol are one of the things you’re shooting for. It’s going to be hard to fully incorporate people who are not actually consuming it.
Askey: Do you agree with the medical consensus that alcoholism is a disease?
Slingerland: Yes — if you have a broad definition of disease.
Talking about disease is philosophically tricky, because it involves questions of free will. From a cognitive-scientific perspective, it isn’t clear where free will would live in the human brain-body system, but it’s a useful folk concept: you can choose to do x or y.
When it comes to things like alcoholism or depression, these folk concepts have trouble dealing with the reality of our brain-body systems. If an alcoholic relapses, was that a free choice? Maybe it’s genetic. In cases like these, where we feel like there’s a diminishment of free will, we tend to invoke “disease.”
Clearly there’s a huge genetic component to alcoholism. Alcohol is super addictive for anyone, but if you have the set of genes that make you prone to alcoholism, it becomes very difficult to control your impulses when you have access to it.
Askey: What about spirituality as it relates to alcoholism? Twelve-step programs focus on a “Higher Power.” And you’re probably familiar with the concept of the “hungry ghost”: that there’s this sort of bottomless spiritual hunger we’re trying to fill through other means. It could be a metaphor for addiction.
Slingerland: A lot of religions ban chemical intoxicants like alcohol and then come up with techniques for getting into a similar state without them. Pentecostals get themselves worked up until they’re speaking in tongues and handling snakes, and they may seem drunk. In the New Testament account of people speaking in tongues, the bystanders think they are drunk. I forget whether it’s Peter or Paul who asks, “How could they be drunk? It’s only morning.” And then he says they’re not drunk on wine; they’re drunk on the Holy Spirit.
It resembles chemical intoxication because very similar things are happening in the brain: You’re downregulating the PFC. You’re allowing cross-talk to happen. You’re ramping up endorphins. There are ways to get these effects through rituals. There’s a reason people in Alcoholics Anonymous go to meetings all the time. They’re sitting in a social circle, opening up, and getting social support. That’s boosting endorphins and serotonin to get the same kind of bonding and loss of self and increased trust that you and I might achieve by having a beer. Often people who overcome an addiction succeed because they find another practice to take its place. You can’t just remove alcohol. You’ve got to replace it with something else, and one replacement can be social support combined with spiritual practices. That’s why addiction-treatment groups often involve connecting with and giving up control to something bigger than yourself. You can get very similar results through meditation as well.
Askey: Am I correct in remembering that there are a number of ancient Chinese poems about getting drunk but in a spiritual way? [Laughs.]
Slingerland: Zhuangzi, an early Daoist thinker, tells a story about a drunken person riding in a cart and falling out, but they’re not harmed because they didn’t know they were riding in the cart; so they didn’t know they’d fallen out. The idea is that they didn’t tighten up when they hit the ground, because they were oblivious and kind of at one with the universe. Zhuangzi concludes the story by saying that if you can make your spirit whole this way by means of wine, how much more so if you’re drunk on Heaven instead? He wants you to be drunk on spiritual power, not on alcohol. The end states look kind of similar, but arguably the spiritual route is healthier. It’s certainly better for your liver. But it’s also more challenging. And I think that’s why most traditions combine a little bit of both: they incorporate the chemicals into the spiritual practice.
Askey: Men have a higher propensity for alcoholism. Is that more a result of biology, or is culture playing a role?
Slingerland: There seem to be biological differences in the way men and women process alcohol and in their propensity toward alcoholism, but culture can push biology in different ways. It certainly exacerbates any preexisting gender difference.
In Northern European cultures, for instance, men typically get together in groups and drink distilled liquors, and it’s considered manly to get drunk and display your drunkenness to others. Alcohol is strictly taboo for children there. In that sort of drinking culture, any gender-based propensities to alcoholism are going to get exaggerated.
Southern European cultures tend to focus more on wine and beer. They drink in the context of meals and in family groups, with the grandparents and kids and parents — all different ages, men and women. It’s frowned upon there to become visibly drunk. Kids get introduced to alcohol as a normal part of mealtimes at an early age. I think that Southern European culture probably doesn’t exaggerate any preexisting gender differences, and it’s going to provide some protection against alcoholism.
Although 15 percent of the human population seems to have a genetic propensity to alcoholism, actual alcoholism rates vary among cultures. Not surprisingly, they’re high in those Northern European cultures, and also in Eastern Europe and Russia, and in places like the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, which are inheritors of that northern drinking culture. Meanwhile in Italy, per capita alcohol consumption is quite high, but alcoholism rates are low. And it’s not because Italians are genetically different. It’s because they have a drinking culture that helps mitigate the risk.
Askey: I know you have a daughter. Have you been able to establish a Southern European drinking culture for her amid the northern drinking culture of Canada?
Slingerland: [Laughs.] I think so. My ex-wife is half Italian, and we’ve spent a lot of time in Italy, so my daughter has experience with that culture. Now that she’s fifteen, if I’m having a wine with dinner that’s particularly good, I’ll let her taste. She’s actually developed a pretty good palate! I think that experience will serve her well when she goes off to university and is confronted with the northern drinking culture there, because alcohol won’t be this forbidden thing that she suddenly has access to. That’s my hope anyway. We’ll see if that actually happens.
Askey: You make a strong case for moderation, but aren’t there instances when overconsumption serves a social function?
Slingerland: Yes, it’s similar to hazing: voluntarily harming yourself to show that you value membership in a group and are willing to take that hit for them.
I’ve read an account of a Navy SEAL commander who, at the end of training, would take everyone out and get them really messed up on shots of tequila. Part of it is that hazing effect: I’m signaling to you that I care about you, because I’m going to be hurting tomorrow, but I’m willing to do this anyway. Another part of it is that, at those blood-alcohol levels, your inhibitions are so low that you become extremely vulnerable to other people. Obviously this can go really poorly, as it often does on college campuses. But if it’s done in a safe environment where you’re trying to forge a bond or get past something . . .
This is something that was edited out of the book, because I didn’t want to muddy the case for moderate alcohol consumption by talking about occasional benders, but I think it’s actually important. I once had a fight with an old friend of mine, and getting past it involved an evening of drinking distilled liquors. There was something about getting to a certain level of inebriation, way past the legal point of drunkenness, that enabled us to let down our defenses. He could tell me how he really felt about what had happened and why he was upset, and I could feel that and apologize in a way that felt convincing because it was genuine. In vino veritas, right? When you let down your inhibitions, the things you’re saying are more true.
Drinking at that level can sometimes be helpful for individuals who need to work past tensions or problems in relationships, but it’s also really dangerous. It should be used rarely and only by consenting adults. It’s a problem when we see this kind of drinking on college campuses among kids who don’t even have fully developed PFCs yet. That’s not good. And they’re doing it at frat parties, a situation where there are no cultural guardrails in place. If you had to invent the unhealthiest way human beings could drink, it would be frat parties: You’re drinking to get drunk. There’s no food. There are no grown-ups to moderate behavior. It’s just a really dangerous situation. So it’s hard to talk about heavy drinking in a positive way, because it’s such an overall negative force in our society.
Askey: It seems like those heavy-drinking sessions happen only among peers. It’s rarely cross-generational. I wonder if that’s just a symptom of our culture — that young people don’t have many relationships with older people where that might be possible.
Slingerland: We don’t see that kind of cross-generational mentorship as much, but it does exist in pockets. As a graduate student I occasionally had heavy-drinking evenings with my adviser. It was helpful to me to get advice from someone older in an unguarded way. But, again, it’s very fraught on college campuses: mixing professors and students and alcohol.
I’ve also had evenings with my father, late at night, where we’ve been drinking and had discussions about my childhood or family dynamics that probably wouldn’t have been possible without turning down the prefrontal cortex. So it does happen. But you’re right that there are no normative institutions where that’s going on.
Askey: With very few exceptions, including a short-lived closure of state-run liquor stores in my home state of Pennsylvania, the U.S. did not significantly curtail access to alcohol during the early part of the COVID pandemic. It seems the public consensus is that alcohol is “essential.” What makes it so?
Slingerland: I think most of us don’t necessarily have the language to talk about the benefits of alcohol. We know intuitively what it’s for, but we’re not good at articulating it. The official public discourse is completely medicalized. It’s all about harm reduction and how to reduce or even eliminate alcohol consumption entirely. Most people I know don’t connect with that idea at all. Alcohol is a part of their lives. Maybe they worried about drinking too much during the pandemic, or they want to cut down because they’re gaining weight as they get older. But the idea that someone who isn’t an alcoholic would eliminate it entirely from their life seems strange. So there’s a disconnect between our official discourse about alcohol and people’s everyday understanding of it. And I think it’s because we have a kind of gut sense that it has these functions. When I point this out, people often tell me they’ve used alcohol precisely to build camaraderie or to come up with new ideas.
I want to bring the scientific evidence to bear on this subject, to counterbalance all this medicalized discourse. If you’re a public policy-maker or university dean, and you’re trying to decide what the proper role is for alcohol in your organization, you’ve always known the costs: physiological costs, lawsuits, sexual harassment, drunk driving — all these bad things that could happen. But you also know you’ve had fun drinking. People like to do it. When it’s a vague sense of fun versus concrete costs, fun is always going to lose. What I’m hoping to do is add to the fun side all these other effects: group bonding, reducing inhibitions, enhancing creativity. Once you have all those out there, the calculus is different. As a dean I might still say, “No alcohol on campus,” or, “No alcohol at seminars and after-class meetings.” That’s a defensible decision. But at least it’s one that takes everything into account.
The problem is, up until now, we’ve been kind of flying blind. When we had to decide what was an essential service during the pandemic, we completely ignored medical opinion, but we didn’t voice any good reason for doing so. I’m trying to give some evidence to support this gut feeling that intoxicants serve an important role in our lives. They have to be used safely and in the right context, but society overall would be worse off without them.
Askey: I see a parallel here to a church preaching sexual abstinence before marriage: it’s this edict from on high that contradicts a deeply human experience we’ve been having since before civilization even existed.
Slingerland: And when you have that kind of disconnect, you just ignore the edict. It’s not like anyone ever changed their drinking practices in response to a Lancet article, right? People might try to come up with excuses to drink, like that it helps with cholesterol, but even if you take that into account, alcohol is still a net negative for your health. As long as we stay in that medicalized view, we’re making mistakes. We need to see the broader context in which we use alcohol.
Askey: You’re also interested in hedonism in general, right?
Slingerland: Yes, there are a couple of books I’d like to write on that subject. One would be a defense of hedonism as a kind of antidote to what psychologist David Pizarro calls “shitty flow.” I want to come up with a better term for it — or, at least, one I can use in a book title. [Laughs.] But he’s hit on something important, which is that you can be in a kind of flow that sucks: getting caught up in a Twitter feed, or watching endless cat videos on YouTube. These activities have some of the hallmarks of flow — you lose a sense of yourself as an agent; you lose track of the passage of time — but you emerge feeling kind of dirty, like you spent your time poorly. You feel enervated rather than energized.
He thinks — and I agree — that the situation has gotten worse in the modern age because of social media. All these apps are basically designed to suck us into shitty flow. One book I want to write is about the importance of physical, concrete pleasures — food, wine, nature, art — and how pleasurable contact with the world is more important now than ever, because of how much time we spend in this virtual world, which is often psychologically harmful to us. In a sense the book would be a defense of hedonism as embodied contact with the world, rather than engagement with virtual worlds online.
Maybe young adults are using alcohol less because they’re not socializing in person. Instead of meeting their friends at the pub and having beers, they’re home on TikTok or Snapchat. Their social life is happening through texts and sending pictures and video clips to each other, rather than sitting in the same room together, interacting. And maybe they’re getting some kind of intoxication from those endless videos of dogs doing funny tricks or whatever. It probably gives them the same relaxation that you and I might get from a couple of beers.
I’m also aware that every older generation has felt this way about the younger generation. Plato thought literacy was a horrible development and that it was better to memorize things. Confucius was complaining in 500 BCE about how disengaged young people were from the classics. Older people are always grumpy about what young people are doing. But I do think there’s something different about social media. It’s been consciously engineered to take advantage of us in certain ways. I don’t think we’ve encountered anything like it before.
If you had to invent the unhealthiest way human beings could drink, it would be frat parties: You’re drinking to get drunk. There’s no food. There are no grown-ups to moderate behavior. It’s just a really dangerous situation.
Askey: With COVID it seems people have been drinking alone at home more.
Slingerland: Alcohol becomes more dangerous in isolation. Historically we have been social drinkers. It was rare to have private access to alcohol. It was kept in a communal place, and you drank it only in groups. This was a clever way to moderate drinking.
When you’re drinking communally, for example, there can be a toastmaster. In ancient Greece the symposiarch would decide when to pass the bowl around and how much water to mix with the wine. He would gauge people’s drunkenness and dial it up or down. Even today, in traditional Chinese banquets, you don’t drink at will; you drink only when a toast is made. The alcohol sits at your place, but you don’t sip it. You leave it there until someone makes a toast, and then you say, “Ganbei!” and shoot it. And not just anyone can make a toast — only the host or toastmaster, who controls the rate of drinking.
This has come up even in informal situations. An anthropologist studied the drinking habits of Norwegian young adults and teenagers, and at a party they have a strong taboo against recycling or throwing away your bottles. When you finish a beer, you put the bottle in front of you so everyone can see how much you’re drinking. If you have too many bottles in front of you, people will say something. Or if you’re out at a pub with friends and you finish your beer, you don’t just order another; you’ve got to wait until the group orders another round. And, ideally, you’ve got a bartender or server who will cut you off if you’ve had too much.
There’s also just an inherent speed bump to having to order a drink in public. Psychologically there’s a difference between stopping a server and asking them to bring you another glass of wine versus just grabbing some more wine from the refrigerator. Having private access to alcohol, where no one’s metering it or controlling your access to it, is a relatively new and dangerous development. It takes away the built-in social controls societies have created. And it’s worse, I think, in the suburbs than in cities, where you have a pub or a local bar you can walk to.
And of course COVID made it exponentially worse: we were stuck in our houses. Here in Vancouver I could get cases of liquor delivered to me. [Laughs.] I could have enough alcohol delivered to my home to kill a small village. That’s unprecedented and a little scary.
Another problem is distillation. With natural fermentation, alcohol has this built-in safety feature: it can only get so strong. The yeast converts sugar and carbohydrates into alcohol, but at a certain point they poison themselves and shut down. Humans have been trying to breed yeast to be stronger so we can make stronger and stronger beer and wine, but the strongest you can get with natural fermentation is about 16 percent ABV [alcohol by volume]. An Australian shiraz will come in around there.
Once you distill it, however, all safety limits are gone. You can get 90+ percent ABV vodkas. I argue that distilled liquor should be considered a different drug. It’s still ethanol, but it’s delivered in such a concentrated form that we are not evolutionarily designed to handle it. And it’s a relatively recent invention. We didn’t master distillation on a large scale until in maybe the fifteenth century in China, fourteenth century at the earliest. In Europe it wasn’t until the sixteenth or seventeenth century. That sounds like a long time ago, but in an evolutionary timescale it’s like yesterday.
I like cocktails, but I’m more cautious with them now than I was before writing this book. And I’m more open to beer. I was never that into beer — it fills me up, and I don’t like the taste as much as wine — but it’s a much safer way to get alcohol into your body, because most beers are coming in at maybe 5 or 6 percent — strong craft beers maybe 9 or 10 percent. Throughout most of human history we were drinking 3, maybe 4 percent ABV beers. That seems to be the sweet spot in terms of a beverage you can keep drinking and stay at a low level of inebriation for hours without becoming dangerously drunk. I recently organized a work event because some new people were coming onto a project, and I wanted everyone to meet and relax but also stay safe and not get out of hand. I deliberately chose beer. I certainly didn’t want everyone doing shots of tequila.
Askey: Has COVID changed our relationship to alcohol?
Slingerland: I hope not. My own drinking became more unhealthy during COVID. What I hope will happen is that, as we get back to drinking in public, we’ll return to more-moderate social drinking and not drink alone at home as much. But alcohol is physically addictive. Once you ramp up your consumption, it’s hard to bring it back down again. I think a lot of people developed unhealthy drinking practices during lockdowns and are now struggling to bring it back into line.
Askey: Have you changed your opinion about alcohol at all in response to negative reactions to the book?
Slingerland: The primary negative response I get is from people who have had really bad experiences with alcohol, either themselves or as the child of an alcoholic. And those criticisms are hard to respond to, because it’s a real, horrible pain. I sometimes feel bad about celebrating alcohol in the face of people who have genuinely suffered because of it. It’s made me realize why in Greek mythology Dionysus [the god of wine] is a two-faced god: he can give you gifts, but then they can turn out to be dangerous. Dionysus gave Midas the golden touch: seemed like a good idea; turned out it wasn’t.
The Greeks were very ambivalent about Dionysus, and I think we should be, too. I’ve talked to a lot of people who thought my editor made me write the last chapter of the book, in which I outline the drawbacks of alcohol, just to cover my ass. But it was part of the book from the very beginning. After all, my original question was: Why do we do this, given how incredibly dangerous and destructive it can be?