The role of alcohol in social relationships, creativity burns in a new book


Opinion: Edward Slingerland’s enlightening new book, which explains how alcohol lubricated social trust, offers a whiff of anti-conformism in an increasingly conformist society

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“Hip, Hip, Hurray” is a famous late 19th century painting by Danish artist Peder Kroyer, depicting a group of artists and their families standing around an outdoor table under trees, toasting each other with fluted champagne glasses.


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It is a celebration of the wonderful togetherness that can occur between a mixture of people when they let their guard down with the help of alcohol.

The fact that a poster version of the 1888 painting hangs in our kitchen is a testament to my bias towards the new book by University of British Columbia philosophy professor Edward (Ted) Slingerland, entitled Drunk: How we sipped, danced and stumbled on our way to civilization (LittleBrown).

This enlightening and scientific book, which explains how alcohol has lubricated innovation and social trust throughout history, is a whiff of anti-conformism, even risk-taking, in a North American society (and scholar) increasingly obsessed with Puritanism, “safetyism” and the orthodoxy of public opinion.


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Slingerland’s book of scholarship and wit vaguely echoes this year’s Oscar-winning international film, Another round, which features a group of high school teachers and longtime friends testing a theory, with mixed results, that a certain blood alcohol level leads to greater satisfaction and inspiration.

Like director Thomas Vinterberg, who brilliantly explored the limits of hyper-vigilance and so-called free love in The Hunt and The Commune, Slingerland knows how to handle a potential landmine of a subject with frankness and frankness. responsibility.

Many powerful things besides alcohol also have the ability to be extremely dangerous, such as sex, competition, and religion, the latter of which is a subject Slingerland also specializes in.


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Alcohol and its ilk are akin to fire – they have the potential to hurt and destroy, but they can also fuel the most beautiful parts of life. They can make us feel alive.

Some cultures try to forbid these forces, or at least to marginalize them. But Slingerland argues that when it comes to fun and common bonds, beer and wine have often led the way.

“The intoxicants provided the spark that allowed us to form truly large-scale groups,” he writes, venturing into evolutionary psychology. Alcohol has contributed to the development of civilization because it causes humans to “become, at least temporarily, more creative, cultural and community”.

“A childish state of mind in an adult is the key to cultural innovation – intoxicants allow us to enter that state,” writes Edward Slingerland, seen here having a drink in Europe. (Author’s document) Photo by Author’s Document /jpg

How does alcohol do it? It’s a chemical that targets the prefrontal cortex, the late-developing part of the brain devoted to rationality and abstract thinking, not to mention anxiety and stress. Alcohol temporarily weakens the prefrontal cortex, allowing humans to play more. In some ways, intoxicants cause loss of control, a condition some people wish to avoid.


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But Slingerland maintains “a childish state of mind in an adult is the key to cultural innovation – intoxicants get us into that state”. His research spans history, from the Vikings to early Hindus, as well as Irish pubs and Fijian villages today.

The chemical brain unblocking that occurs through alcohol is why executives of high-tech companies like Google once took Slingerland to one of their special rooms, where coders who are stuck in their thinking can go. relax their brain over a drink.

“The Google Whiskey Room is, crucially, a common space, filled with informal arrangements for group seating – not a place to get drunk alone,” he says, warning against drinking alcohol. in isolation, one of the many ways he clarifies is the dark side of alcohol.


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I have a lot of friends and relatives who don’t or drink sparingly for reasons of poor health, religion, belief, or past addictions. They are generally an engaging, non-judgmental company among those of us who soak up. And that’s the way it should be. Slingerland goes out of its way to describe ways to make drinkers and non-drinkers feel included in the same event.

At the macro level, however, he boldly asserts that, since intoxicants help foreigners overcome their fear of each other, this has been key to the rise of cities. “It is no coincidence that, in the brutal competition of cultural groups from which civilizations have emerged, it is drinkers, smokers and trippers who have emerged triumphant.


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Which brings us to morals and religion, a topic on which Slingerland conducts multi-million dollar international research projects. What are we to make of the drinking bans in Orthodox Buddhism, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) and Islam, which has 1.8 billion adherents? In predominantly Muslim countries like Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, drinking is illegal.

“It cannot be denied that, in the game of cultural evolution, Islam has enjoyed great success,” writes Slingerland. But it also explores how other intoxicants, like cannabis, are not necessarily banned in Islam. And that “despite the theological ban, Islamic cultures have historically varied considerably in the way they strictly enforce the ban on alcohol”, especially among the wealthy.


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While Islam is decidedly not as passionate about alcohol, especially wine, as Christianity, Judaism, and Confucianism, I, like Slingerland, can testify to how some of my staunch Muslim friends around the world people sometimes consume beverages in the privacy of their own homes.

Given that the UBC professor has received angry denunciations for daring to endorse moderate drinking, it’s worth pointing out that Drunk goes into great detail about how overuse can lead to tragic results, especially alcoholism, drunk driving and violent outbursts.

Still, it doesn’t scare her to cling to the cultural ideal defined in regions like Italy and Spain, where mindful consumption is for the most part a community experience that improves life.

Intoxication has many faces, some ugly, but Slingerland argues that it deserves a little reverence as well.

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