The traditional historiographical account that dates the birth of agriculture to around 8,000 BC places the production of the first alcoholic beverages a couple of millennia later.
But the research yields new clues: an ancestor of sapiens, common to other primates, developed a mutation in an enzyme 10 million years ago that made it possible to metabolize ethanol.
It seems that drunkenness may have represented an adaptive advantage for early hominids.In prehistory there is archaeological evidence of alcohol production in China and Georgia between the tenth and eighth millennium BC And in the ancient world, philosophies of the East and West, and the thought expressed in classical poetry – Chinese, Greek or Arabic – praise without ceasing the wine as a metaphor of knowledge, progress, and well-being.
Why do we get drunk? With these premises and wondering about the civilizing role of alcohol, Edward Slingerland, a philosopher specializing in Chinese thought, writes a monumental work on the importance of drunkenness from yesterday to today.
And he does it by going back to remarkable antiquities, historical and prehistoric, combined with scientific data from the cognitive evolution of the human being and current psychological and sociological research. The result is simply exciting.
The search for ethylic ecstasy, combined with sexual or social, plays an important role in evolution. You could almost say, to paraphrase Slingerland, that we are “apes looking for drunkenness.” For thousands of years, not only the origin of civilization, but its own development has been linked to drink, drunkenness and the pursuit of pleasure in a way that is not only hedonistic -beyond the basic instincts of reproduction-, but rather epicurean.Much has to do with the development of our complex societies, the birth of religions, abstract thought, art and science. Needless to mention the importance of the sacred soma in the Vedas, of the wine of Dionysus or of Christ, and of the metaphors of divine intoxication in Plato, Ibn Arabi or Saint Teresa. «In vino veritas». But why do we like drunkenness?: The story moves from chemical testing of wine grapes at the dawn of humanity, long before the Neolithic revolution, to interesting insights into the evolutionary benefits and possible genetic reasons for the search for drunkenness.
From prehistory to the Middle Ages, “alcoholized” societies are examined, such as the Germans and the Vikings, whose supreme “aesir” was Odin, not in vain the god of drunkenness. In a second stepThe cultural consequences of drunkenness on creativity are explored: alcoholic poetry from Anacreon to Omar Jayyam and plastic arts from cave paintings to the avant-garde, are related to the ingestion of psychoactive elements.
In the background, deep psychological causes speak of the improvement in levels of communication and cooperation of sapiens with these media. For the artist, speaking Nietzscheanly, the idea of overcoming the self and merging into the vitalist community or recovering the “infantile mentality” is fundamental: it is to lift the veil of the Hindu “maya” to, as the author wishes, “leave the door open to Dionysus. If we follow the fascinating footsteps of Dionysus, from the Greeks to Nietzsche and psychoanalysts, ecstasy is explained as a key aspect of civilization. The muses of creativity, religiosity or sociability are often ecstatic or shamanic and ask for intoxicating consumption. Slingerland shows it in ancient Chinese poetry: wine is a metaphor for good politics.As seen in Chinese texts from the fourth century BC, any political agreement involved drink.
And it is that drunkenness is a collaborative social medium from the pre-Neolithic city of Göbekli Tepe to modern Christmas company dinners. In the end, the modern views of sociologists or psychologists are put forward: drunkenness is the key to cooperative sociability. In the age of social networks, «skype» has not ended business trips and after the pandemic we return to face-to-face congresses with a «Spanish wine». Psychologists study why we trust people more in relaxed environments and between drinks, not only to establish social, sexual or playful contact, but also to establish trust in the business world.
To conclude, we must talk about the “dark side of Dionysus”, the problem of alcoholism: it is usually synonymous with social isolation. Two models are opposed: that of the tradition of drinking in community, from the Greek symposium to moderate alcoholic consumption at family parties in the current countries of Southern Europe, and that of Northern and Eastern societies where “you drink only”.
With studies and statistics, the current situation of alcoholism is shown and it is proposed to continue “living with Dionysus” in the moderate traditional way, as the societies of southern Europe that Slingerland gives as an example do, following this social and cultural path. It is curious to study the failure of attempts at prohibition, from Islam to communism, “dry law”, Mormons and other teetotal movements.
There is no apology for alcohol here, but proof that civilization has been based since ancient times on friendship, love and wine, as happens to the wild Enkidu in the Gilgamesh poem. Wine and civilization, a perfect equation at least since the ancient East. And, if not, remember the words with which Christ’s journey begins in the Gospels: “They have no wine.”