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Is Evolution to Blame for Alcoholism?

A new book by Robert Dudley called The Drunken Monkey has suggested that humans are hard-wired to drink alcohol. The author believes that alcoholism is a type of 'evolutionary hangover'. He has developed the 'drunken monkey hypotheses' which is based on the idea that learning to smell and taste alcohol on ripe fruit provided an evolutionary advantage. Therefore, this would mean that alcoholism is a consequence of having primate ancestors who lived on fruit.

Drunken Monkeys

Robert Dudley is a professor of biology at Berkeley University in California, and he developed his theory while studying animals in the Panamanian rainforest. He noticed that monkeys liked to eat the type of ripe fruit that was likely to contain small amount of alcohol. This led him to wonder if the preference for this type of fruit had, through evolution, been passed down to humans. It is believed that monkeys (as well as other fruit-eating animals) use the smell of ethanol to help them choose the best fruits. When fruit starts to rot, chemical reactions within create alcohol, which can climb to as much as eight per cent proof. Therefore, if the primate ancestors of humans were highly skilled at detecting this smell, it would have given them an advantage. The downside is that the side effects of this ability have also been passed down to humans, which makes us more susceptible to alcoholism.

It has been proven that humans have been consuming fermented drinks for at least the last nine thousand years - this is supported by archaeological evidence showing traces of alcohol in ancient earthenware. Robert Dudley is suggesting, though, that human enthusiasm for alcohol can be traced back millions of years before this, to a time of our primate ancestors. It is almost certain that these animals would get drunk on ripe fruit as this behaviour can still be observed in the animal kingdom today. This would mean that becoming intoxicated due to alcohol is firmly part of the human makeup.

Are Alcoholics to Blame for Their Problems?

If Robert Dudley is correct and humans are predisposed to alcoholism, does it mean that alcoholics are not responsible for their situation? The idea that individuals in this situation are not to blame for their addiction is nothing new and the most popular theory of addiction is that it is a type of disease. This work on the evolutionary basis of the issue only adds to the idea that alcoholics are not bad people or weak-willed. Blaming somebody for their alcoholism is no different to blaming them for any other disease that is passed down through the genes.

Nobody ever chooses to become an alcoholic, but this does not mean that the individual does not need to take responsibility for his or her situation. In fact, unless the person does take some responsibility, there is no way that he or she would be able to break free. Understanding that humans may be hardwired for alcoholism is good to know, but it does not really provide a solution for dealing with it. Individuals are influenced by many different factors and they have a choice as to how these factors are going to play out in their life. So yes, the person may be alcoholic partly because his or her primate ancestors were skilled at finding fruit, but this does not excuse continuing with the behaviour.

The book by Robert Dudley provides some fascinating ideas about why humans often have such a troubled relationship with alcohol. It is amazing to think how far back in time this type of addiction may stretch, and it may yet increase our understanding of how to treat it.

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