The biomolecular archeologist Patrick McGovern has said, “We are set up as biological creatures to drink alcohol. Biology, chemistry, genetics, ancient texts, art, ethnography, and archeology all support this.”
Other animals in particular have provided scientists with lots of clues regarding our own alcohol consumption. From the tiniest fleas to the biggest elephants, drinking alcohol is often an occasional, if not regular, part of life. In one fascinating study, for example, scientists showed that male fruit flies who were not allowed to mate drank more of an alcoholic liquid than their luckier brothers.
The tree shrews of the Malaysian rainforest are particularly profligate imbibers. Shrews can consume many times their body weight in alcohol by slurping the fermented nectar of Bertram palms. Even though an adult human would pass out from a proportional amount of alcohol, shrews show no drunken behavior. Scientists who study them have concluded that for shrews, alcohol has nutritional and caloric benefits—much as a daily jug of wine did for a farmer in France no more than a century ago.
“We are set up as biological creatures to drink alcohol. Biology, chemistry, genetics, ancient texts, art, ethnography, and archeology all support this.”
Certain primates are also big partiers. Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas (and humans) all have a high tolerance for alcohol thanks to a shared genetic mutation that allows us to metabolize alcohol 40 times faster than many other primates.
Other mammals and species metabolize alcohol far less well and some, like elephants, have lost the ability to metabolize alcohol over time. Needless to say, when elephants start to stumble around after drinking too much, the situation can get dicey. In 1974, after a herd of 150 elephants broke into a brewery in West Bengal, India, the intoxicated pachyderms went on a rampage that destroyed buildings and killed five people. Soon after, a piece in the newspaper carried the headline: “Trunk and Disorderly!” Scientists who study elephants today report that, despite the elephants’ inability to metabolize alcohol, the animals actively seek out and eat fermenting fruit.
Elephants alas are testament to the fact that you can lose the ability but not the desire.