We all know the potentially harmful effects of alcohol, both on our health and on society, so a question I’m often asked is why the motivation to consume such substances would have evolved in the first place. Given that the problems of over-consumption have been well documented over thousands of years, surely natural selection would have long ago determined that teetotal humans would have had some competitive advantage?
Leaving aside the fact that evolution doesn’t quite work like that and according to such timescales, there are many reasons why a seemingly maladaptive behaviour – at least when taken at face value – may have been selected for and, in fact, could well be adaptive after all. When it comes to alcohol, this is certainly the case and we also need to remember that, as always, a behaviour we think of as being particularly human is not actually unique to us at all.
In their fascinating new book, Alcohol and Humans: A Long and Social Affair, Kimberley Hockings and Robin Dunbar present a collection of thought-provoking essays that explore just such issues and the the fact that apes generally seem to have developed a taste for alcohol (well, at least in its ‘rotten fruit’ form) at around the same time in our evolutionary history. I won’t spoil enjoyment of the book, which i’d whole-heartedly recommend, by saying too much here. However, there are three main themes running through the essays that I will flag up as being of interest. First, there is the often-cited health benefits of drinking wine-in-moderation, which the book sheds some new light on through its consideration of more primate-general trends. Then there is what I suppose is a more obvious survival-related advantage in that wines and beers in particular can be high in calories, something that would give such beverages enhanced appeal in the calorie-scarce environment inhabited by our ancestors. And then there are the more positive social consequences of sharing alcohol, a practice with a long social and cultural heritage that cements the tribal cohesion all primate colonies need in order to survive, reproduce and pass on their genes to subsequent generations.
All things considered, and not withstanding all the quite obvious negative consequences of alcohol (ab-)use, Hockings and Dunbar do an excellent job in presenting a new and balanced account of the ape obsession with beers, wines and spirits. More than many other books, this one gets across the key message of evolution; namely, that it is about overall cost-benefit ratios, rather than whether something is useful or harmful on one specific dimension.
For me, though, the book perhaps also gives a clue as to why from Monkey Shoulder Whisky to Blue Monkey Ale, alcohol brands containing references to monkeys seem strangely appealing to modern humans!