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Faye Flam

Drunken Monkeys and the Evolution of Boozing

Raise a toast to your primate ancestors: They learned to like alcohol 10 million years ago.
Care for a “banana split”?

Care for a “banana split”?

Photograph: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg

Nothing rings in the new year like a solution of bubbling, neurotoxic ethanol. Humanity’s longstanding relationship with alcohol poses an evolutionary puzzle: Surely natural selection would weed out those of our ancestors with a taste for something that clouds judgment, slows reflexes, dulls the senses and impairs balance. Animals in such a state would likely be the first picked off by predators, if they hadn’t already fallen out of a tree.

And yet humans all over the world drink ethanol in various concoctions, or they enforce strict rules against it -- rules that surely wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a desire. We’ve been at it a long time: Archaeologists have found wine and beer stains on 10,000-year-old stone age pottery.