• Richard Murff

The Drunken Monkey Theory

If nothing else, booze is natural. Just leave fruit around to get rained on and rot just rightand it will ferment, which produces sugar and alcohol. For Ben Franklin, this was all the proof he needed that God loved us and wanted us to be happy. To get all Oprah about it, this might be proof that the universe really does provide us with everything we need. The rub is that it doesn’t produce everything that we want. And what we wanted was to get gassed.

Our earliest forebears lived in trees which provided fresh food and some protection from anything that couldn’t climb a tree. There is one sensible theory that what brought us out of the safety of the canopy was happy hour. Fresh fruit hanging in a tree is lovely and conveniently above the heads of most of what was trying to eat you., but the rotten fruit is all on the ground. It’s literally called the Drunken Monkey theory, and it posits that, like teenagers going to lousy neighborhood in search of a gas station that doesn’t card, early humans came down from the trees to stock the bar. It’s not universally accepted, but as we’ll see, it does ring a lot of bells.

Fruit in this advanced funky state has lots of sugar – meaning lots of easy calories – as well as alcohol in it too. The theory follows that we developed a “nose” for alcohol because it lead us to more sugar and calories needed to run for your life from everything that was trying to kill you: A favored pastime of humans. Evolutionarily, this makes sense, as alcohol triggers the sensation of hunger, causing us to eat more calories that we need at the time for future storage. Understand that for 99.9% of human existence, the world was so tricky that the simple ability to get fat was a huge plus. In short, it got your ashes dragged.

Unfortunately, evolution moves far slower than Instagram. The knock-on effect was that some God-only-knows how many years later the taste of smell of alcohol still triggers our appetite. Although, the love handles have gone out of fashion.

You may have noticed that alcohol will do more to most of us that force us to start picking off your date’s plate. It’ll get you gassed if you aren’t careful. Some biologists reckon that about 10 million years ago, we developed a genetic mutation that caused us to produce an enzyme (ADH4 – and that’s all I know about that) to help us process the alcohol. Or, more to the point, hold our liquor better than a chimpanzee.

Primates – apes, chimpanzees, teenagers – are essentially social animals. For humans, coming out of the trees the way we did, social groups became a lot more important because there is safety in numbers. If you are part of a pack, then a short turn of bad luck may not prove fatal because you’ve got family and friends to help out. Of course, its not just your charming personality, but the fact that they know that you’ll help them through a bad turn too. They have faith in you for the same reason you have faith in them – because whoever doesn’t hold the bargain gets socially banished. At which point it would take an unbroken streak of fantastic luck to live into the next financial quarter. Even a drunk monkey can calculate those odds.

So, the pack provided safety, while a nose for alcohol led us to sugary calories – which we in turn share with the gang and they shared with us. The alcohol, once we’d developed the right enzyme, didn’t slap us around too mightily anymore. In fact, it made us feel all fuzzy within the group and we got all “I love you, Man” and “She’s my BFF, amirite!” And the gang grew tighter. At this distance, there is no way to prove any of this, but anyone who ever pledged a sorority or fraternity has likely lived through a live action example of this sort of foolishness. Basically, evolutionarily formed habits are very, very hard to break.

The arrangement worked so well that early humans invented something of a game changer: Old people. Archeologists argue that the oldest evidence of hand tools seems to coincide with the existence of teeth from old people. Keep in mind that by old people I actually mean anyone who has reached about 30. Granted, these thirtysomethings and their impulse control were still something of a rarity, but there were enough around to say to the young’uns – “Now, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

All of these things led to more humanoids loitering about, which led to the problem that while nature produces alcohol naturally – it doesn’t produce than much of it by accident. Not enough to get really pie-eyed, at any rate.

IGNORANCE AND STUPIDITY are not the same thing. We all start out ignorant, and while a large part of the population stays that way, we can do something about it. Just ask some questions and then shut your trap while you listen. There isn’t much you can do about stupidity.

Early humans weren’t stupid, they just didn’t have the benefit of 300,000 years of trial and error and productivity reports to help them out. They were dealing with a complete dearth of the accumulated knowledge that we take for granted. The smart bet is that our ancestors, while ignorant, were a lot smarter than us. They had to be, their entire world was trial and error. And observation.

Fortunately, booze isn’t that hard to make if your standards are low enough. Learning the trick actually gets fairly simple if you focus on the “what just happened?” rather that the “why did that happen?” And probably what happened, aside from sniffing out overripe melons, was a dead tree that had been colonized by bees was knocked over in a storm and the cavity filled with water in roughly the right ratio to the honeycombs inside, add a little airborne yeast and sit there long enough to start to do its thing. Presto! The universe has provided you with a tree trunk of mead. Sure, by modern standards the final product lacked finesse, but these were people who shoved their faces in ponds and creeks every time they got thirsty.

Along strolls a pair of early humans, with an idea to get up to something that’s even easier to figure than making booze. They smell a dead tree full of sweet, honey-water and dunk their faces into it for a long slurp. Then another. What happens next is both groovy and scrumptious. We’re sitting on the accumulated knowledge of humanity but all these two know is that they wandered up to a tree full of waterlogged honey and realized that it made them taller, smarter and just a hair less gross. Don't sneer, we still do this.

Early humans reckoned the why was fairly unknowable. And in the case of global community garden trying to kill you as a baseline assumption, the why of it is irrelevant. You just want to know what is trying to kill you and if you’re a real intellectual, how it plans to execute the maneuver. So likely, they didn’t care about the why, they wanted to know what happened so they could do it again. Think about it, a log full of mead just lying about is a rare thing.

With a little of reverse engineering they can figure out how to create their own: A somewhat water tight container, something to rot – fruit, honeycomb etc. – and water. They didn’t know about yeast, but it got sprayed about every-time the wind blew. You don’t really have to do anything else but leave it alone, and you are producing booze.

Of course then all we had to do was invent civilization.