St. Patrick's Day Inquiry: Do Monkeys Get Drunk?
Think about what a monkey, a great ape, or our early human ancestors foraging the earth would be looking for. Chances are you'd want something sweet—ripe, fleshy fruits—and if you see something colorful that also feels squishy, you might have your hands on a yeasty, fermented fruit with one of nature’s great intoxicating chemicals: alcohol.
In 1994, scientists hosted a symposium (Greek speak for "drinking party"), "In Vino Veritas: The Comparative Biology of Alcohol Consumption" in (where else?) New Orleans, to examine the drunken monkey hypothesis. Robert Dudley, of the University of California at Berkeley, had suggested that our attraction to ethanol (alcohol), and its associated effects, had a long evolutionary history. Low-level alcohol consumption comes with eating ripe, nutrient-rich fruits and also acts as an appetite stimulant, which is a good thing if the food you're looking for is only around for a short period of time. Alcoholism, he suggested, represents an evolutionary hangover, or, if you will, “a maladaptive co-option of ancestral nutritional strategies.”
So, much like we evolved to eat sugars and high-fat foods and now that evolutionary strategy appears to be working to our disadvantage—in a world saturated with readily-available, nutrient-poor foods—could the same be true for booze?
Well, Katharine Milton, a primate researchers I spoke with recently, weighed in at the symposium with a paper titled "Ferment in the Family Tree." She suggests that there's little biological evidence that predisposes humans to seek out fermented fruits. Milton says drinking and its problems appear to be learned, cultural behaviors, arguably with a long history.
As cultural animals, humans have little innate nutritional wisdom and for this reason may have unusual difficulty in determining when it is prudent to quit ingesting ethanol. Humans also appear to be the only animals with a highly developed sense of self-awareness and thus they may be the only animals that might wish to escape from their own consciousness.
Now, whether that intoxicating pharmacological effect and the resulting behaviors work towards our evolutionary advantage, well, you should watch this funny, anthropomorphic video and decide for yourself.