Alcoholic animals

The alcohol culture around the world is supremely buoyant but each generation is being exposed to alcohol in a slightly different way

David Russell, Founder and Chairman of the Russell Partnership explains all

Where does the strong link between homo sapiens and alcohol come from and is it genetic and pre-programmed from our ancestors?

In this article we shall be straying away from human consumption to look at why animals, insects and reptiles have been joining humans for a regular tipple for thousands of years. A new evolutionary view called the ‘Drunken Monkey hypothesis’ postulated by Robert Dudley, links the psychoactive effects of alcohol to our ancestral primate diet of predominantly fruit. In the moist tropics where many of the world’s primate species live, there is an abundance of humidity, microscopic fungi (yeast) and sugary fruit. These three key components form the basis of the fermentation process well known by any budding brewer, where the yeast converts the sugar found in the fruit to ethanol (alcohol). Ethanol not only has antibacterial preservation properties to stop the fruit spoiling, it also acts as an appetite enhancer for those that consume it, an aperitif if you will, promoting increased intake of nutrients for the consumer and a safe source of food. Perhaps our current behaviours are shaped and linked to our rainforest dwelling ancestors of the past.

The animals, insects and reptiles of the rainforest regions have developed a sensitivity or recognition in many cases around the smell of ethanol, for example fruit flies will fly upwind when they smell ethanol on the breeze and follow the scent stream to its source. The source in this case represents a vibrant nutritional source that is ripe to eat. Some examples of ethanol loving animals include fruit-feeding butterflies, cedar waxwing birds, fruit flies and vervet monkeys, each using sight or smell sensors to find the source.

Humans however, through the chemical process of fermentation, have created alcohol in a more potent form and as a result when foraging through the aisles at the local supermarket for our next feast the products we buy have a higher concentration of alcohol and less nutritional value, therefore upsetting the natural balance our ancestors came to develop for survival.

Today humans’ ancient predisposition to alcohol as a pre-programmed link to survival through nutrition is challenged due to increased concentrations potentially driving the common occurrence of alcoholism in cultures today.

As with any substance we eat or drink; fat, carbohydrates and protein, all should be balanced and consumed in moderation. Excess in any area of nutrition can create long-term health problems, many that we are aware of such as diabetes and obesity, and is once again linked to the abundance and concentration of substances such as sugars in food and drinks. There are multiple studies that indicate low-level drinking can drive positive health benefits. I’m certainly in favour of that, however excess can lead to sickness, headaches and, in extremely prolonged cases, cirrhosis of the liver.

So for all the freshers about to embark upon, or indeed recovering from introduction week, perhaps it is our ancestral roots that are to be blamed for the occasional excesses developed in modern society driven by our inner desire to consume alcohol in the pursuit of nutrition and survival!