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What is the evolutionary advantage of booze?

A fun question to ask of any apparently irrational human behaviour is “What’s the evolutionary advantage?” Consider drunkenness, for example.

Ray recently read William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors. It’s about a band of Neanderthals struggling for survival in the forests of prehistoric Europe as a new threat emerges – Homo sapiens, AKA modern man, AKA us.

It’s an extremely thought-provoking book in many ways as Golding attempts to demonstrate that the seeds of modern human behaviour, from war to capitalism, have long roots. But of course the thing that stood out for Ray, and that got us talking, is its treatment of drinking.

The Neanderthals (who think of themselves as “the people”) don’t drink alcohol because they don’t have the technology to make it, sophisticated as they are in many ways.

When “the new people” turn up, however, two Neanderthals, Lok and Fa, observe them as they gather round their campfire at night after a day’s trekking. We see what’s going on through Lok’s eyes:

His nose caught the scent of what they drank. It was sweeter and fiercer than the other water, it was like the fire and the fall. It was a bee-water, smelling of honey and wax and decay, it drew toward and repelled, it frightened and excited like the people themselves… The girl Tanakil was lying in front of one of the caves, flat on her back as if she were dead. A man and a woman were fighting and kissing and screeching and another man was crawling round and round the fire like a moth with a burnt wing. Round and round he went, crawling, and the other people took no notice of him but went on with their noise.

They’re drinking some form of mead from beakers – which the Neandarthals, who don’t even have the simple technology of cups, conceive of as round stones. This orgy of drunkenness continues for several pages until the humans drift off to their caves, or sneak off to shag in the woods.

It’s easy to imagine Golding making observations, and taking notes, in the pubs of Salisbury on Saturday night. He was also an alcoholic and had plenty of personal experience of how it felt to binge yourself silly.

Later in the book, Lok and Fa find a jar of mead abandoned in a human camp and get drunk themselves. Golding reiterates the point that the liquid is repellent and attractive at the same time. It burns, but in a way that is strangely addictive.

Having previously been peaceful, rather gentle creatures, the mead also immediately makes them aggressive, competitive, bold, and – this seems important – visionary. Lok finds himself having big ideas, and envisioning great success, the limits of his mind having expanded.

Unfortunately, he also finds that he cannot walk in a straight line and that the trees themselves have become unstable. And the next morning, he has his first hangover: “Lok opened his eyes and yelped with pain for he seemed to be looking straight into the sun.”

Why did we evolve to get drunk?

Golding’s book is fiction, and it’s old. To answer this question we sought some more recent, more academic texts.

Unsurprisingly, it’s been much discussed, often with a focus on understanding why people today (like Golding) might be driven to drink so much, and so often, that it becomes harmful.

This paper from 2023 describes it as an ‘evolutionary’ mismatch: something that was useful in the early days of the species, when resources were scarce, is less helpful in an age of abundance.

This is also the argument for why we crave sugar and fat, both of which are bad for us. In the deep past, we evolved to consume as much as sugar and fat as possible, when it was available, to see us through winter, or periods of famine.

In the case of booze, the suggestion is that perhaps we evolved to be attracted to the smell of ethanol because it might help us find rotting fruit, and so find the trees from which it had fallen. Or, related to the point above, eating rotten, alcoholic fruit might have given us the munchies, stimulating our appetites, so we would consume even more fat and sugar.

Another suggestion is that the ability to process ethanol was itself an evolutionary advantage, meaning that some of our ancestors could eat the ‘bad’ fruit that had fallen on the ground. 

Individuals who could “metabolise ethanol” could eat more, and continue to function while pissed. So, at a very fundamental level, we learned to associate drunkenness with pleasure and satisfaction.

But what about getting drunk together, as a social activity?

But why did we evolve to go to the pub together?

One paper from 2017 suggests that there are multiple benefits attached to getting drunk deliberately, together:

[There] is an implicit assumption that its hedonic (physiological reward) and anxiolytic (reduction of anxiety or stress) properties are the main reasons for its universal use. However, alcohol also plays an important role in social contexts by reducing our social inhibitions, as well as being a potent trigger of the endorphin system… In other words, it functions much like the many other behavioural mechanisms (including laughter, singing, dancing and storytelling…) that are used to trigger the endorphin system so as to facilitate large-scale (i.e. communal as opposed to dyadic) social bonding. The other possibility is that alcohol in some way affects our social or cognitive skills in ways that allow us to function more effectively in social situations.

We think this can be interpreted to mean that societies which drink together become stronger overall, as a unit, and so gain a competitive advantage over other ‘tribes’.

From our own perspective, as generally well-behaved, rather uptight 20th century specimens, there’s something in this.

When we’re tipsy with friends and relatives, we express our feelings more freely. It helps us resolve conflicts and strengthen connections.

And, of course, we know many couples who got together after, in effect, drinking mead together around the campfire before sneaking off into the woods.

Main image adapted from the profile of the restoration of the head of a Neanderthal man via the Wellcome Collection.

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