I’d like to draw your attention to a fascinating article that appeared in the Financial Times Life & Arts section Saturday last (12th August).
It was written by evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. He’s currently head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, winner of the Huxley Medal (2014) and the ‘cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships’ better known as Dunbar’s Number.
In other words, he sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about.
He poses a simple question – ‘Why do humans drink?’
His answer, referencing recent researches in various fields, assuming that if I’ve understood the good professor correctly, is because it makes us feel good. – ‘Rather, the alcohol triggers the brain mechanism that is intimately involved in building and maintains friendships in monkeys, apes and humans. The mechanism is the endorphin system.’ In other words, we’re hard-wired to drink and enjoy alcohol and it helps us make friends and create friendship networks. And, inter alia, the more friends we have, the happier and healthier we will be.
Naturally, this is not a justification for going out and getting pissed every night. Heaven forfend. As Professor Dunbar points out that, while moderate amounts of alcohol may promote sociability and and hygge, excess does the reverse – ‘Of course,like anything biological, overdo the alcohol and you’re on the downward curve before you know it……a few drinks will relax your and make you sociable; they may even do you some good. But have the proverbial one too many, and you end up by paying the price.’
I’m not sure that Professor Dunbar’s analysis will go down terribly well with the medical establishment. But I’ve long thought that, while health professionals are quick to point out the damage that excess drinking does to the individual, their families and society at large, and how much this costs the Exchequer, they have never got round to quantifying how many miserable jobs, loveless relationships, and careworn lives are made tolerable by the warm fingers of alcohol reaching up into the brain, a kind of cranial massage, of an evening; how many friendships have been made possible by a glass of beer or wine or two; or how much pleasure, joy, and happiness alcohol gives us along our way to the grave.