Drinking and evolution: Why do we seem programmed to consume alcohol if it’s bad for our health?

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Credit: Robert Neubecker
Credit: Robert Neubecker

At sites in eastern Turkey, dating to perhaps 12,000 years ago, the remains of what appear to be brewing vats, combined with images of festivals and dancing, suggest that people were gathering in groups, fermenting grain or grapes, playing music and getting truly hammered before humanity had even figured out agriculture. In fact, archaeologists have begun to suggest that alcohol wasn’t merely a byproduct of the invention of agriculture but actually a motivation for it. 

[A]lcohol is mind-bogglingly dangerous, both physiologically and socially. The fact that our supposedly accidental taste for it has not been eradicated by genetic or cultural evolution means that the cost of indulging in alcohol must be offset by benefits.

Evidence from archaeology, history, cognitive neuroscience, psychopharmacology, social psychology, literature and genetics suggests what some of these benefits might be. For instance, the ancient and cross-cultural view of alcohol as a muse is supported by modern psychology: Our ability to think outside the box is enhanced by one or two drinks.

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Consumed in moderation, alcohol also alleviates stress, enhances mood, makes us more sociable and provides a much-needed vacation from the burdens of consciousness. 

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