“Altered states of consciousness are hard wired into the species”- can science explain humans love of partying?
Let the record show, humans know how to party.
From Studio 54 to the Ancient Egyptian festival of drunkenness, as a species we enjoy drinking alcohol, dancing, taking drugs, and listening to music. But why? Why do humans party? Beyond the rudimentary answer of ‘because it is fun’, scientists have been exploring the question for years, and they might even have come up with some explanations.
“I lived in Panama for five years”, Robert Dudley tells me. “I saw a lot of primates. I saw lots of different kinds of interactions between vertebrates, birds, mammals, and fruit. And, of course, we would drink from time to time.”
Robert Dudley is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at The University of California, Berkley. He is an evolutionary physiologist, which means he studies how animals function and evolve. He also carries out field work in the tropics, and it was there that he came up with his most popular theory.
“It was about 20, 25 years ago and I was thinking why do we drink alcohol?”, he explains. “I got thinking. Fruit, monkey, primate, human, alcohol, fermentation. Ah ha! It is because fruit ferments naturally, particularly in the tropics. So maybe it’s just that simple. It’s a nutritional signal, and we’ve evolved to enjoy the taste of alcohol because we need the calories.
It was from these musings that Professor Dudley developed his Drunken Monkey hypothesis. First explored in an academic paper back in 2000, the theory later become the topic of his 2014 book The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink and Abuse Alcohol. In layman’s terms, the theory suggests that our enjoyment of alcohol is a result of our evolution.
“We’ve just evolved to enjoy the taste of alcohol because we need the calories, alcohol derives obviously from the fermentation of sugar”, Professor Dudley explains. “I call it an evolutionary hangover; we inherited this ancestral bias associating ethanol with nutritional reward.”
We speak over Zoom, Robert from his office in sunny California, me from my flat in not-so-sunny Manchester. Against a very academic looking backdrop (his shelves are filled with books while the walls are adorned with maps), Robert tells me how his Drunken Monkey theory has gained worldwide press attention.
“I did a Russia Today TV show recently on this topic, I did Japanese television a couple of years ago”, he says. “Everyone likes this story, but in some sense I guess you want to caution against convincing yourself that it (drinking alcohol) is necessarily a good thing, because it evolved this way.”
Which is a good point. After all, while there are some benefits associated with low level alcohol consumption, last year alcohol misuse was responsible for 7,423 deaths in the UK, the highest number for 20 years. So why do some people end up abusing alcohol, while others drink socially?
“I like to cut my analysis off around 10,000 years ago”, Professor Dudley explains. “I feel I’ve established the natural background of exposure and attraction to alcohol. Modern humans of course also have high levels of cultural and social evolution”.
So, while The Drunken Monkey theory explains the evolutionary background for our love of alcohol, there are many other aspects to human partying behaviours.
Throughout history, in nightclubs and other venues, people have come together to dance. Sometimes to music, often with an alcoholic drink in hand. According to the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, this behaviour can be attributed to something called collective effervescence.
In the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Paul Carls from the University of Montreal writes, “When individuals come into close contact with one another and when they are assembled in such a fashion, a certain electricity is created and released, leading participants to a high degree of collective emotional excitement or delirium.”
Sounds familiar right? Go to any good nightclub or festival and this “electricity” will be palpable. And while Durkheim may have originally been writing about religious ceremonies (“Collective effervescence refers to moments in societal life when the group of individuals that makes up a society comes together in order to perform a religious ritual,” writes Carls), the phenomenon is seen across the board in society - from football matches, to protests, and at parties. After all, didn’t Faithless once say that God is a DJ!
When people attend nightclubs, absorbed in the “electricity” of collective effervescence or enjoying an alcoholic drink, some choose to also use party drugs.
“We have quite an embedded recreationally drug culture that goes back half a century”, Harry Shapiro tells me. “We’ve got a much longer history than most other countries in Europe”.
Harry has been involved in the drug sector for over 40 years. He started out at the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence (ISDD) in 1979, which in 2000 merged with another charity to become DrugScope. He was Director of Communications at DrugScope for a time before it closed in March 2015. Now, Harry is director of online information service DrugWise, where he and his colleague Jackie Buckle continue the work of DrugScope.
I speak to Harry over Zoom from his home. Having just released his latest book, Fierce Chemistry: A history of UK Drug Wars, we talk about some of the reasons that people use party drugs.
“As far as I am concerned, altered states of consciousness are hard wired into the species”, he explains. “And I take that across the board - that’s coffee, cigarettes, pills, drugs, you name it. To a greater or lesser extent, people want to change the way they feel.”
Harry is not alone in this belief. In the 1989 book Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise, American psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel outlined his Fourth Drive theory. Siegel believed that, alongside our need for food, water, and sex, humans had an innate desire to get high.
“Ron Siegal’s book, intoxications, is quite interesting”, Harry says to me. “To a greater or lesser extent, people want to change the way they feel, for whatever reason. The interesting thing about it is that it is not just us, elephants will go for bloody miles to find rotting fruit and get pissed. Domestic cats and catnip, it’s the same idea really. We all want to get high”.