Book Review: Of Vice and Virtue

Even in the best outcomes, drinking often exacts a heavy toll, from hazy heads to cringeworthy karaoke memories. And at its worst, the consequences can be truly catastrophic. So why do humans keep bellying up to the bar thousands of years after the first hangover? The question is at the center of Edward Slingerland’s erudite, entertaining and edgy defense of (mostly) moderate drinking, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (Little, Brown Spark).

Evolution isn’t stupid, he writes. Serious booze has been flowing in human society for around 9,000 years, ever since the advent of agriculture and large-scale fermentation. That’s plenty of time for genetic and cultural adaptations to have put an end to the shenanigans if alcohol were a net drain on humanity. That they haven’t even come close suggests booze has given more than it has taken, at least historically.

Why bond over a toxic, organ-destroying, mind-numbing chemical when a rousing game of Parcheesi might suffice? Without an answer to this question, we have no way to intelligently weigh arguments for or against replacing after-work pub sessions with escape room competitions or laser tag outings. 

Indeed, for Slingerland, ’91, PhD ’98, a professor at the University of British Columbia, intoxicants—alcohol chief among them—are foundational to civilization. We are at base selfish, suspicious primates evolved to cooperate with relatives and certain tribe members, he writes, and yet we live in vast societies, packed cities and ordered nations with a level of cooperation verging on antlike. Intoxication provided the chemical key for our ancestors to come together into a more social, trusting and collaborative world. “We could not have civilization without intoxication,” he declares. 

The book samples poetry, history, pharmacology, social science and literature to show drinking’s dividends throughout history. Moderate drinking enables creativity, culture, bonding, stress reduction and pleasurable escape now as much as ever, Slingerland writes. It’s why the number of patents fell in the first years of Prohibition, Google engineers have a whiskey room, and office party isn’t necessarily an oxymoron. It’s enough to make you raise a glass to booze itself.

At least until the book’s final section, where he turns to the “dark side of Dionysus,” always there but only darker in modern times. For most of drinking history, people got tipsy on low-alcohol beer and wine in public settings, where they could reap the social benefits protected by social norms against over-indulgence. The arrival of liquor and drinking at home—distillation and isolation—threatens to unsettle alcohol’s delicate balance between usefulness and harm. Here, Slingerland takes a tack even a teetotaler would like. He favors raising the drinking age for hard alcohol and, via taxes, its cost. Or, even better, avoiding it entirely. “We are apes built to drink, but not 100-proof vodka,” he writes. “Beware liquor and don’t drink alone.”


Sam Scott is the senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.