A Brief History Lesson on Alcohol with Author Edward Slingerland

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Edward Slingerland

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Edward Slingerland is the Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. His newest book, “Drunk”, is available now.

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The J I feel like we should have a drink. I think we would be remiss. We have to. I think we're professionally obligated to drink. Yeah. That's nice. We're doing a podcast about drinking. Yeah. It doesn't make sense. We should have at least a small. So the historically, there's been a safety feature built into alcohol. So for most, we've been drinking. Thank you. Cheers. Cheers. Yeah. Let's try this. Whoa. Yeah, that's nice. I'll start your Monday morning. I'll start your Monday. It is a way to start a Monday morning. So this stuff is new. So having alcohol that's this strong is something we've only had for a couple hundred years. Really? Yeah. So a lot of people don't realize that. So for most of our history, we've been drinking like two to three percent beers. Two to three percent. Yeah, that's historically it's typically what beers came in at. Grape wines, you could get up to like eight to ten, but there's a built in limit to natural fermentation. So the yeast are turning sugars and alcohol, which is a poison. So the yeast are slowly poisoning themselves basically. And we've bred these super hardy yeast. So like nowadays you can get an Australian Syrah up to like sixteen percent ABV. Wow. Which is historically really unprecedented. But that's as high as you can get because then the alcohol shuts down the yeast. But a way around that is distillation. So you heat, you take that wine, you heat it up. Ethanol is really volatile. So that comes off first. And if you could figure out how to capture that vapor and turn it back into a liquid, you've got this. You've got really concentrated alcohol. Do they do that with wine? They do it with wine or they take, they'll take something that's naturally fermented. So a weak beer or wine and then they distill it. And what do they call that when they get it on the other end? Distilled liquor. That's what liquor is. Oh, okay. So it's just a kind of liquor? Yeah, so liquor, liquor or spirits refers to something that's been distilled. So you've basically extracted the alcohol out of the mixture and made it into a pure form. And once you do that, you've got like 90, you can get like some vodka, it could be like 90 something percent ABV. So that's crazy strong. It's just really, we're not equipped to, so what you're talking about, you know, this, it needs to be modulated. It was always modulated historically by the fact that we were drinking beers that weren't very strong. So there's going to be just volume limit to how much you can consume. It's also modulated by social stuff. So we're drinking typically historically in a communal situation where there's really clear ritual restrictions on drinking. So you only drink when someone makes a toast. You're modulating your drinking with other people. And even, you know, you think about just even in a pub, you don't just drink as much as you want, you order rounds. And if you down your beer real fast, you got to wait until everyone else is ready to order another round. So we socially regulate our drinking and then it's been regulated by its inherent weakness, if you want to think of it that way. But then all of a sudden you get this kind of stuff, you get really strong liquors and you can have that in your house. That's when alcohol gets really dangerous. It's only been the last couple hundred years. Yeah, distilled liquors weren't because the concepts really simple. Aristotle described distillation. But technologically, it's really hard to do because you got to be able to have metallurgy. You need to be able to heat liquids and keep them at a certain temperature. That makes sense. They're pressurized. It's really it's actually kind of so prohibition when people created stills at home. It was like early 20th century version of meth labs. You know, they were constantly exploding and people were like getting scalded with hot liquid because it's really it's dangerous. So it's hard to do. So we only mastered it. I mean, I'm telling an evolutionary story. So my story begins 10 million years ago with primate ancestors who adapted to alcohol. So 10 million years ago, about 20,000 years ago to 13,000 years ago, we start making alcohol seriously, not just relying on fruit lying around that has some alcohol in it. And then distillation happens probably around 1300s in China and 15 1600s in Europe. So that sounds like a long time ago, but really evolutionarily, it's yesterday. We just we really haven't had time culturally or genetically to adapt to access to this kind of alcohol. And a long time ago when people were drinking beer and drinking wine in particular, like a lot of what they were doing, like if they were carrying it around with them, they would carry beer or wine when they were going on trips because it didn't go bad the way water would, right? Beer, unhopped beer, it goes bad pretty quickly. Like a couple days. There's a theory that beer might have been useful in some cultures because it pure fermenting water purifies the water. So if you've got bad water from a pond or something like that, then you ferment it and make beer out of it. Yeah, yeah. So that's one of the stories. I mean the purpose of my book is to try to explain the puzzle of why we do this. Why do we put poisons into our body? Why do we like to drink? And it's mysterious because it's so it's really costly. It's damaging physiologically. It's got all these social potential social problems and yet we've been doing it forever. We've been making and drinking alcohol for just about as long as we've been doing anything in an organized fashion. In fact, it's looking likely that we were doing this before agriculture and that it's possible that the the desire to make beer and wine is what motivated agriculture. So 100 Gathers were making beer before they had agriculture. Really? Yeah. So they're making clay pots? Yeah, they're pounding the stuff. They're molting it to up the sugar content. I think that's the effect of that and then they're fermenting it. And so we have these sites like in what's present day Turkey, the site called Goblecke Tepe, is this really cool ritual site. It's these huge stone. Have you seen pictures of it? Yeah, I'm super familiar with it because of Graham Hancock who's been on my podcast multiple times. He's obsessed with ancient civilizations and that is sort of the Rosetta Stone of ancient civilizations because it's at least 12,000 years old and the thought process was at that point in time no one could build the kind of structures that those people built. So when they did it, it sort of it lent credence to some of his theories that civilization has gone through multiple periods of ascension and then resets usually through catastrophic disasters like asteroid impacts. So his theory, it's not really just his theory. It's the Younger Dryas Impact Theory. And the Younger Dryas Impact Theory, it's pointing to the end of the Ice Age which coincides with real proof of impacts on Earth in the sense of they take soil samples and when they go down to the same amount of time where the Ice Age ended they find what this stuff called it's called the nuclear glass or tritonite and this stuff it occurs at blast sites where they test nuclear weapons, but it also occurs at asteroid impact sites. And they find it all over the place at around 12,000 ish years ago. And so this theory is that at the end of the Ice Age what had happened was we pass through an area in our solar system that is rich with comets and then we were hit and that it literally restarted civilization, killed off a massive amount of people, stopped civilizations dead in its tracks, and then there's a period of rebuilding. So it's Goblecke Tepe, the rebuilding period? No, Goblecke, they don't know, right? It's all speculation because Goblecke Tepe was for sure covered on purpose somewhere around 12,000 years ago, but that doesn't indicate how long ago before then it was built. But what they do know is it was made with some pretty sophisticated methods because a lot of the carvings were three-dimensional instead of carved into the stone, the stone around it was carved away to leave. And there's also like animals in it that aren't even supposed to be from that part of the world. They find that pretty fascinating. I didn't know about that. Yeah, there's some pretty cool shit to it and it's huge. You know, they've only uncovered I think like 10% of it so far. It's a cool site. So the role it plays in my story is that they're hunter-gatherers, the people who built this place. They used to think that but they're not necessarily sure of that. This is the theory that Graham Hancock is proposing. He believes that civilization predates that. So they were like full-on agriculture and they were... This is just completely theoretical and very disputed because you're dealing with you know, it's like so long ago. It's hard. Like what evidence is there? This was always the evidence against something like go back to the Tepe. Where's the evidence of sophisticated structures 12,000 years ago? And then finally they found go back to the Tepe. So now they're like, okay. Well now we have evidence of sophisticated structures 12,000 years ago, which should have been built according to our timeline by hunter-gatherers. But they are resisting that and they're thinking this Younger Dryas Impact Theory may indicate that there was something that happened that you know, if you look at Egypt, there's clearly more than one era of building styles. There's like an Old Kingdom style in New Kingdom. A lot of the old stuff is like deep under the sand when they're finding it. And it's their position that a lot of this stuff is thousands of years older than the pyramids. Okay, so my understanding of the site is that... It's a hunt with the hunter-gatherers. It was hunter-gatherers. There's no grain storage locations. They were clearly gathering. They were coming from all over and they were gathering at this site to build. So they were working to you know, erect these pillars and stuff and they were having blowout feasts. So they have all this these remnants of feasting and they have these big vats that almost certainly contained beer and possibly hallucinogen-laced beer. So a lot of early people... So these hunter-gatherers, they weren't growing the hops or whatever they made the beer out of. They were just finding it wild. They're making it out of wild grains. But the argument... So the standard story about alcohol is we invent agriculture. Then sometime after that, we note that you know, someone leaves their sourdough starter out too long and it starts to turn into beer and they're like, oh, this actually tastes all right. That's the standard story. So we had agriculture and then we get alcohol. Around the 1950s or so, some archaeologists started to argue, you know, sites like this one and other sites around the world suggests that hunter-gatherers were gathering and making alcohol before agriculture. And so this is the beer before bread hypothesis. That's crazy. Is that what motivated people to settle down and start focusing on making these grains more productive was they wanted to get high, not because they wanted to make bread. And it jives... You see the same pattern in other parts of the world. So in South America, they make this beer-like substance, chicha, out of... Now they make it out of maize, out of corn. But they used to make it out of the ancient... The wild ancestor of corn is called teosinte. And what's interesting is teosinte sucks for making grain. Like if your goal was to make tortillas, you wouldn't even notice this plant because the grains don't make very good grain products to eat. But it makes great beer. It's really good for making chicha. So this plant, if these early people were looking for something to make food with, they would overlook this plant. But if they were looking for something to make beer with, they would focus on it, cultivate it, start making it, produce bigger grains. And that's how you would get corn. That's like... What was the... Do we know what the original thing that they got high with was? Well, probably... Do we have like the first, the atom? Yeah. I mean, certainly we were getting a little bit drunk on just naturally fermenting fruit. So fruit falls on the ground, it starts to rot. What the rotting is, is some of it's being turned into alcohol by yeast. And so it's easy to discover alcohol because it's happening naturally in our environment all the time. The earliest evidence of deliberately produced alcohol is from about 13,000 years ago. So a little bit before it go by Clay Tepay. And this is in modern day Israel. They have traces of beer production. So people were clearly fermenting beer. And they were trying to find a way to get a taste of the beer. And they were trying to find a way to get a taste of the beer. And they were trying to find a way to get a taste of the beer. And they were trying to find a way to get a taste of the beer. And they were trying to find a way to get a taste of the beer. And they were trying to find a way to get a taste of the beer. And they were trying to find a way to get a taste of the beer. And they were trying to find a way to get a taste of the beer. And they were trying to find a way to get a taste of the beer. Spotify now to get this full episode of the Joe Rogan Experience.