Drinking too much is an American problem
Media coverage, meanwhile, went from cheerfully overselling wine’s (now disputed) health benefits to a cry: no the amount of alcohol is safe, never; it could give you cancer and it will sure make you die before your time. But even those who are listening seem to react in an erratic and contradictory way. Some of my own friends – mostly women in their 30s or 40s, a group with a particularly strong increase in alcohol consumption – regularly report that they take an extended break from drinking, only to immediately fall off the wagon. One of them went from touting the benefits of dry January in a whisper to telling me a fun story about IV bags curing hangovers in the next one. A number of us share the same (wonderful) doctor, and after our annual physical exams, we compare notes on the increasingly hot questions she asks about alcohol. “Maybe save some wine for the weekend?” she suggests with such a forced cheer that she might as well say, “Maybe you don’t need to hammer nails in your head.” all day?”
What most of us want to know, coming out of the pandemic, is: am I drinking too much? And: How much do others drink? And: is alcohol that bad?
The answer to all of these questions revolves, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink, but also how, where and with whom you do it. But before we get to that, we need to consider a more fundamental question, which we rarely stop to ask ourselves: why do we drink in the first place? Through weI mean Americans in 2021, but I also mean human beings for several millennia.
Let’s go out of the way: part of the answer is “because it’s fun”. Drinking releases endorphins, the natural opiates that are also triggered, among other things, by food and sex. Another part of the answer is “Because we can”. Natural selection has endowed humans with the ability to drink most other mammals under the table. Many species have enzymes that break down alcohol and allow the body to excrete it, preventing death from poisoning. But about 10 million years ago, a genetic mutation left our ancestors with a swollen enzyme that increased alcohol metabolism 40-fold.
This mutation occurred as a major climate disruption transformed the landscape of East Africa, ultimately leading to widespread extinction. In the race for food that followed, according to the mainstream theory, our predecessors resorted to consuming fermented fruits from the rainforest soil. Animals that liked the smell and taste of alcohol and metabolized it well were rewarded with calories. In evolutionary hunger games, the drunken monkeys beat the sober.
But even assuming that this natural selection story is correct, that doesn’t explain why, 10 million years later, I love wine so much. “This should intrigue us more than it does,” writes Edward Slingerland in his large and provocative new book, Drunk: how we sipped, danced and stumbled on our way to civilization, “That one of the greatest centers of human ingenuity and concentrated effort over the past millennia has been the problem of how to get drunk.” The damage caused by alcohol is profound: cognitive and motor impairments, belligerence, injuries and vulnerability to all kinds of short-term predations; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction and premature death as years of binge drinking pile up. As the importance of alcohol as a calorie solution diminished, why hasn’t evolution ultimately moved us away from alcohol consumption, for example by promoting genotypes associated with hatred of taste. the alcohol? This did not suggest that the harms of alcohol were, in the long run, outweighed by serious benefits.