Tag: Alcohol

Ritual, by Dimitris Xygalatas

Whether weddings, national parades or religious festivals, rituals present a puzzle. We stress their importance, reflecting on these services as some of life’s most cherished moments. And yet, when prompted, most of us can’t explain why we perform them. What explains their persistence, and this apparent contradiction?

In his new book Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living, trailblazing anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas takes us on an electrifying tour of the world’s most exotic and extreme rituals. By fusing the latest breakthroughs in science and technology, Xygalatas presents a powerful new perspective on our most sacred ceremonies.

Ancient traditions

A native of Greece, rituals have fascinated Dimitris since his early childhood. Flicking through his first copy of the National Geographic and learning about exotic cultures in faraway places sparked his curiosity, planting the seeds of his career in anthropology.

Ironically, Dimitris started out as a ritual sceptic. “To me, the human obsession with ceremony seemed puzzling”, Dimitris writes. “Why do so many strange traditions persist in the modern age of science, technology and secularisation?”

Dimitris’s worldview was shaken when his father took him to his first football game. “For most of the game my father kept trying to lift me up so that I could watch the action. But that didn’t matter much to me. The most interesting part was what was happening in the terraces”. Forming a sea of black and white shirts, forty thousand football fans created a spectacle Dimitris would never forget. “As soon as the referee blew the first whistle, it was as though a jolt of electricity had run through the stadium . . . It was as though the crowd had become a single entity with a life of its own.”

According to Dimitris, sports events like this mirror some of our most primitive ceremonies. “There is something about high-arousal rituals that seems to thrill groups of individuals and transform them into something greater than the sum of their parts.”

Even as the Western world loses its religion, Dimitris argues that rituals remain rampant. “From knocking on word to uttering prayers, and from new year celebrations to presidential inaugurations, ritual permeates every important aspect of our private and public lives.”

Evidently, the human desire to congregate is ancient. From prehistoric hunter-gatherers to the urbanites of the 21st century, people across cultures and throughout history have felt compelled to form large crowds and participate in communal ceremonies.

The oldest known ritual is the funeral, where archaeologists have unearthed evidence of burials taking place over a hundred thousand years ago. However, humans do not hold a monopoly on rituals. Whether it’s the ritualised greetings of chimpanzees, frisky flamingos engaging in elaborate courtship rituals, or elephants trekking vast distances to pay respect to their dead, rituals have been spotted across the animal kingdom. That said, Dimitris stresses the prevalence and extent of our ritualistic practices is uniquely human.

My findings, as well as convergent discoveries from a variety of scientific disciplines, reveal that ritual is rooted deep in our evolutionary history. In fact, it is as ancient as our species itself – and for good reason.

One camp of scientists argue that the gravitational pull of rituals is an evolutionary accident, and that our ritualistic behaviour is the result of misfiring mental systems that detect danger. Although the ‘mental glitch hypothesis’ should be taken seriously, Dimitris argues the weight of evidence is stacked against it. “Evolution is not wasteful”, asserts Dimitris. “Behaviours that are impractical or maladaptive do not tend to stick around forever.”

Social glue

So, what are the functions of rituals then? In essence, Dimitris argues that rituals are cultural gadgets that help solve a raft of recurring challenges we modern humans face. These challenges include: finding a romantic partner, coping with the pain of losing a loved one, and instilling a sense of order in a chaotic world. Perhaps most importantly, rituals help solve the central challenge of getting large groups of fiercely tribal primates to cooperate.

Anthropologists have long explored the functions of traditions, amassing rich descriptions of the world’s most exotic rituals. Despite the groundwork they laid, Dimitris points out that anthropologists rarely put their theories to the test.

Through his ingenious use of biometrics, Dimitris reveals that rituals can now be detected in the human body. That is, by measuring how hard people’s hearts are pumping, and other aspects of their physiology.

Dimitris first experimented with these gadgets in the Spanish village of San Pedro, Manrique. Held on the summer solstice, the ‘festival of San Juan’ floods their small village with visitors, who catch a glimpse of the locals walking bare foot across burning hot coal. Dimitris got the idea when heard people repeatedly say that when they go out onto the stadium, ‘all three thousand people feel like one’. To Dimitris, this sounded like what the eminent sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence’— a pulse of energy that runs through a large crowd and transforms them into a cohesive unit. Perhaps these biometric sensors can capture this sense of oneness?

Clearly, this firewalking ritual evokes strong emotions—and the intensity of these emotions is felt by everyone. Dimitris and his colleagues’ research revealed an extraordinary level of synchrony among people’s heart rates, both amongst the firewalkers and spectators.

Fire-walking isn’t just a challenge for participants. Spectators also feel the heat. Image credit: Dimtris Xygalatas

Ultimately, extreme rituals like the San Juan firewalk trigger a flood of stress and emotions, which in turn binds people together. “Each individual’s experience is affected and amplified by those of others, like a thousand streams of water merging to form a river that is faster and more powerful than any single stream could ever be.”

The dark side of rituals

Rituals are a source of magic, and like all potions, they can be used for good or ill.

Take degrading initiation rituals, also known as ‘hazing’ in the United States. As the crushing weight of pain and humiliation can only really be appreciated by those who have experienced such an ordeal, hazees quickly become comrades. This helps explain why societies at war perform much more brutal initiations, as these rituals instil cohesion at a time when solidarity is absolutely essential. However, Dimitris suggests if we take these rituals out of context and perform them for no good reason (say, performed at a frat party for shits and giggles), they can be extremely harmful.

That said, there are a range of rituals that seem terrible on the surface, where Dimitris and his research team have scratched to reveal these rituals’ hidden benefits. Exhibit A: the Thaipusam festival. Performed by millions of Tamil Hindus every year, the Thaipusam is one of the world’s oldest religious festival. The most extreme aspect of it is the Kavadi Attam, where devotees are repeatedly punctured with needles whilst carrying heavy shrines in a long procession to their holy temple (are you tempted?).

If you expect undergoing such hell would trash your health, you’re mistaken. Whilst the pilgrim’s wounds healed quickly, Dimitris and his colleagues discovered their mental health was substantially improved through suffering this torment— where those who suffered the most experienced the greatest psychological benefits.

A sceptic would argue that there are other activities that offer similar benefits and carry far less risk. For example, intense exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants in treating major depression. However, Dimitris notes the conundrum of getting someone who’s suffering depression to summon the strength to go for a run. “Cultural rituals may help circumvent this problem by exerting external pressure to participate.”

Ritual feasts

Whilst exploring some of the world’s most exotic and extreme rituals, Xygalatas also reflects the more mundane moments in our lives, including the artificial landscape of the modern workplace.

There are sound ethical and legal reasons why you don’t want to subject your teams to extreme rituals (HR would not be pleased to hear of new hires having needles stuck in their backs). And whilst drinking is an easy way to alleviate anxiety in awkward social situations, the appropriateness of alcohol in work settings is increasingly being called into question. However, there are alternatives that are both suitable and effective.

Having lived in Denmark, Dimitris documents what he deems peculiarities of Danish working practices. The Danes apparently work less than virtually all other nations in the world. Whilst this can help us understand why Danes are so happy, they certainly aren’t slackers. To the contrary, Danes are also amongst the most productive workers in the world. How on Earth is this possible?

Whilst numerous factors are probably involved, Dimitris suspects Danish workplace rituals can explain their striking successes. “While at first glance the numerous rituals of the Danish workplace may have seemed odd or wasteful, as soon as I embraced them it became clear to me that they contributed something vital to the efficient, productive and enjoyable work environment.”

Although less time crunching spreadsheets can be perceived as wasting company resources, the Nordics appreciate the social benefits of team activities and communal feasts, and that these benefits more than outweigh the costs. “Eating together is an intimate act, usually reserved for close relatives and friends. Sharing food therefore symbolises community and helps strengthen bonds among colleagues”.

Focusing further afield than efficiency, Dimitris suggests that communal feasts and team activities effectively harness the power of rituals, strengthening social bonds whilst also boosting morale. “What is more, work group rituals make work-related tasks feel more meaningful, which makes for a happier as well as more productive workforce.”

Of course, it’s not as easy to forge strong bonds amongst corporate workers, as does, say, devotees enduring backbreaking toil in a long procession to their holy temple. However, sprinkling the modern workplace with rituals can help the ordinary feel a little bit more meaningful and special.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living is published by Profile Books. Click here to buy a copy.

Drunk, by Edward Slingerland

As workers across the corporate world have begun scuttering back into their offices, many of us are sneaking away with our comrades for a drink. Given the substantial hazards alcohol presents, what should our stance on drinking with our colleagues be?

In his new book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilisation, Edward Slingerland, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, leaps to the defence of alcohol, arguing that the benefits of drinking have essentially been disregarded by public health experts and policy wonks.

Alcohol is evidently a lethal drug. The World Health Organisation blames alcohol for 3 million deaths every year. Not only does alcohol trash our health and strain our healthcare systems, alcohol-fuelled crime wreaks havoc in our communities and drains public finances. And behind the cold statistics of deaths and government spending, alcohol addiction has ruined many people’s lives and caused immense suffering within families. 

Defending drinking may appear crass to people concerned about harms inflicted by alcohol, including those of us who have suffered first-hand from the ills of alcoholism. However, Slingerland argues that only by stepping back and seeing drinking through the lens of evolution can we have a proper debate about the costs and benefits of drinking.

To date, scientists’ main explanation for our thirst for firewater has been either ‘hijack’ or ‘hangover’. The white jackets in the hijack camp claim alcohol parasitises our brains’ reward systems, whereas those endorsing the hangover theory see drinking as an ‘evolutionary mismatch’. That is, getting a little tipsy may have been beneficial for our distant ancestors. But in the modern world awash with cheap booze and happy hours, drinking has become deleterious.

Although plausible, Slingerland pours cold water (or rather, warm beer) on these explanations. “Evolution isn’t stupid”, Slingerland quips, where he argues that evolution can happen much faster than most people think. “If ethanol happens to pick our neurological pleasure lock, evolution should call in the locksmith. If our taste for drink is an evolutionary hangover, evolution should have long ago stocked up on the aspirin. It hasn’t”.

Like an expert mixologist, Slingerland melds evidence from disparate fields including archaeology, history, neuroscience and social psychology. Far from being an evolutionary mistake, Slingerland argues that chemical intoxication has helped humans overcome an array of social challenges. For example, drinking helps alleviate stress and anxiety, especially in awkward social situations. Similarly, Slingerland claims hitting the bottle helps build trust and cohesion amongst strangers, providing a quick and easy way to get ‘fiercely tribal primates’ to cooperate.

“Humans have been getting drunk for a really long time”, Slingerland writes. He points to this, along with the ubiquity of drinking across cultures, as the primary evidence for alcohol’s adaptiveness. “Images of imbibing and partying dominate the early archaeological record as much as they do twenty-first-century Instagram.”

Of course, religions such as Islam have come down hard on alcohol like a ton of bricks. Although Slingerland concedes that “in the cultural evolution game, Islam has been extremely successful”, he questions how strictly curbs on alcohol have actually been enforced in the Muslim world. Slingerland also emphasises the efforts to outright ban alcohol, whether in ancient China or more recently in the United States, have all essentially failed. “If a ban on alcohol were a cultural evolutionary killer app, you’d expect it to be more consistently enforced”.

Incredibly, Slingerland goes as far to argue that alcohol consumption played a starring role in the rise of large-scale human civilisations (known as the ‘beer before bread’ hypothesis). In support of this theory, archaeologists working in the Fertile Crescent have been surprised by their findings: the tools and grains they’ve unearthed seem more suited to brewing beer than for making bread. Slingerland argues the best explanation is that these hunter-gatherers were stocking up on the magic sauce for an epic religious experience. Although the jury is still out, this proposition challenges existing narratives about how agriculture got the ball of human civilisation rolling.

Our (at least) 9,000-year love affair with booze. Image credit: National Geographic.

Although other drugs also play a role in this story, Slingerland crowns alcohol as the ‘unchallenged king of intoxicants’. Whatever the benefits of other recreational drugs are, Slingerland claims none of these potions offer alcohol’s full suite of features.

As stated by Slingerland:

It’s challenging to negotiate a treaty whilst high on mushrooms; the cognitive effects of cannabis show a high degree of variability between people; And dancing all night without food or sleep makes it really hard to show up for work in the morning. A two-cocktail hangover is, in contrast, a relatively minor burden to bear. This is why alcohol tends to displace other intoxicants when introduced into a new cultural environment, and has gradually become ‘the world’s most popular drug’.

That alcohol serves as a social lubricant may not be an earth-shattering revelation. Another less obvious benefit of drinking is that it gets our creative juices flowing. Slingerland endorses the ancient trope that poetic inspiration can be found at the bottom of a bottle. Indeed, Slingerland’s idea to write Drunk was seeded whilst boozing with Google employees.

When it comes to communal bonding and creativity, Slingerland singles out the prefrontal cortex as the enemy. The prefrontal cortex is the most evolutionary novel part of the human brain, and is the motherboard of rational thinking. Slingerland says the prefrontal cortex is arguably what makes us human, but that it also trips us up.

To embody the tension between self-control and creativity, Slingerland draws on Greek mythology. Apollo, the son of God, symbolises rationality, order, and self-control. Conversely, Dionysus is the God of wine, drunkenness, chaos, and fertility. So, what’s the moral of the story? If we want to be more creative, we need to quieten our overly controlling prefrontal cortices. Slingerland argues that alcohol is perfectly adapted to mute the prefrontal cortex, giving us permission to be more open and present in the moment. In other words, allowing our inner child to reemerge.

Being human requires a careful balancing act between Apollo and Dionysus. We need to be able to tie our shoes, but also be occasionally distracted by the beautiful or interesting or new in our lives. Apollo, the sober grown up, can’t be in charge all of the time. Dionysus, like a hapless toddler, may have trouble getting his shoes on, but he sometimes manages to stumble on novel solutions that Apollo would never see. Intoxication technologies, alcohol paramount among them, have historically been one way we have managed to leave the door open for Dionysus.

Apollo and Dionysus’, by Leonid Ilyukhin. Image credit: Leonid Ilyukhin.

In summary, Drunk is both fascinating and hilariously fun. Exploring alcohol consumption through the lens of cultural evolution provides nuance and perspective on drinking that has so far been lacking. Combined with Slingerland’s sharp wit and exquisite writing, Drunk packs a punch.

As is always the case, there are quibbles one could raise. I’m sure sceptics will contest the adaptationist programme that Slingerland subscribes to. To elaborate, Slingerland points to the prevalence of drinking across cultures and throughout history as the primary evidence for alcohol being a cultural adaptation. However, could this reasoning not also be used to argue that trephining and bloodletting were ‘adaptive’ too? Understandably, scientific studies that directly measure the effects of alcohol on groups’ performance are sparse. More research in this space would presumably bolster Slingerland’s claims of alcohol’s benefits.

Slingerland mentions ‘Asian flushing’, where some people with Asian ancestry experience unpleasant side-effects when drinking. Possessing the gene responsible for alcohol flushing, ‘ADH1B’, dramatically lowers your odds of abusing alcohol. ADH1B has been kicking around the gene pool for at least 7,000 years, where Slingerland argues it should spread like wildfire if drinking was merely an evolutionary mistake. However, what’s interesting is that this gene is most common in areas of Asia where some of the earliest cases of drinking have been documented. So if Asia got the party started, perhaps evolution’s locksmiths are already on their way?

Ironically, Slingerland comes full circle and presents a revised version of the ‘hangover’ theory. The arrival of spirits dramatically raised the stakes of drinking, allowing anyone to consume a lethal amount of ethanol in just a few gulps. “It is very difficult to pass out from drinking beer or wine; it is nearly impossible to kill oneself,” Slingerland writes. “Once distilled liquors are in the mix, however, all bets are off.” Infused with the modern epidemic of loneliness and binge drinking cultures in the Northern hemisphere, Slingerland argues that spirits may fundamentally change alcohol’s balance sheet, moving alcohol from being a net-benefit to a net-harm.

Drunk is filled to the brim with references to the workplace. According to Slingerland, appreciating alcohol’s ancient roots can help us think more clearly about what role drinking should play in our professional lives.

Slingerland penned Drunk during the coronavirus pandemic, where he says it will take us years to fully understand how lockdowns and home working have impacted innovation. Slingerland observes that the length and scope of our conversations through Zoom have narrowed, where our discussions have become more regimented. “Video meetings are probably more efficient; But efficiency, the central value of Apollo, is the enemy of disruptive innovation.”

Parallel to the challenge of hybrid working is prioritising business travel in a post-pandemic world. According to Slingerland, the ultimate function of business travel mirrors our thirst for firewater. “Neither makes sense unless we discern the cooperation problems to which they are a response.” Whilst most of us are happy buying goods online from a faceless website, Slingerland says he’d hesitate to enter into a foreign business venture if he didn’t know who he was getting into bed with. “If I am entering into a long-term, complex venture with a company in Shanghai, where the impact of screwups or corner-cutting or backstabbing or simple fraud is multiplied a thousandfold, I need to know that the people I’m dealing with are fundamentally trustworthy.”

By coincidence, a key requisite for doing business in various countries is the drunken banquet. “In the modern world, with all of the remote communication technologies at our disposal, it should genuinely surprise us how often we need a good, old-fashioned, in-person drinking session before we feel comfortable about signing our name on the dotted line.” For Slingerland, folk wisdom that we’re more honest whilst drunk rings true. With our prefrontal cortex compromised, aspects of our personalities that we successfully suppress will inevitably burst to the fore. “You may seem like a nice person on the phone, but before I really trust that judgement I would be well advised to reevaluate you, in person, after a second glass of Chablis.”

President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai toast the opening of US – China relations in Beijing, February 1972 . Image credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Whilst toasting to rituals like the drunken banquet, Slingerland doesn’t gloss over the worse aspects of drinking. For example, Slingerland warns of drinking cliques reinforcing the ‘old boy’s club’. Here, he reflects on his own university department’s pub sessions, where those who attended were virtually all men. “Female colleagues were welcome, indeed encouraged, to join, and occasionally did. But it was usually about as male-dominated as the Japanese water trade.” Although problematic, Slingerland argues the solution is not immediately obvious. “Given the demonstrable payoffs of this sort of alcohol-lubricated brainstorming, it seems counterproductive to declare that it should never happen. And yet there are obvious dangers of exclusion and inequity”.

Ultimately, Drunk is a love letter to the Greek god Dionysus. However, your Apollonian inner parent may ask if Dionysus is a lover you should really be courting.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilisation is published by Little Brown Spark. Click here to buy a copy.