Alcohol kills many other species. Are we humans lucky, or what? We like to party with it. Why? The reasons go further back and deeper in our psyche’s than you think.
As you know, mature fruits continue to ripen until they make a watery mess we often find at the bottom of a bowl of grapes or apricots, and in there you’ll find the alcohol type called ethanol. It’s the same stuff we add to gasoline and our bloodstreams. Many thousands of years ago we learned to turn fruit into a tasty liquid called wine. And it sure beats sucking a rotten peach.
But, that was comparatively recent. It turns out we’ve been tossing back ethanol for, oh, about ten million years. Biological science suggests the pen tail tree shrew might have had something to do with the story. And we now know we have our DNA to thank—or curse—for hangovers.
It was in those way-back times our primate ancestors developed an alcohol tolerance gene and we’ve been getting a kick out of it ever since. Whether we are indebted or not to the that tiny animal is uncertain, but the tree shrew of Malaysia is disturbingly similar to our earliest ancestors. Weighing in at 3 to 4 ounces, it dines daily on fermented palm nectar. It’s only a guess, but maybe the bertram palm, the home of the pen tail shrew, used its joy juice to seduce the little creatures to live in its branches. They serve as pollinators. And they have the ability to tope heroic quantities, while never getting too plastered to evade hungry raptors. The shrew developed specialized mechanisms for neutralizing the toxic properties of ethanol and so they can handle several times the blood alcohol that would kill a human–and they never took t0 wearing lamp shades on their heads at New Year’s parties.
The alcohol tolerance gene eventually found its way into our evolutionary branch in the tree of life. But, why did our primate ancestors want to drink in the first place? It might have had something to do with another gene—the one that dictates we must pass our DNA on to the next generation. Those who failed to do that did not become our ancestors. Our ancestors are the ones who produced as many offspring as they could and early man and his hominid antecedents probably found alcohol helped with that. Modern man understands this too. Ogden Nash put it best: “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” According to this narrative, our brains are genetically wired for using substances like alcohol to break down social inhibitions to, well, you know. It is even more plausible, though, to think those early beings got a tranquilizing relief from alcohol in dealing with a pretty treacherous environment. Many today still think of the world as a jungle out there.
Moreover, other species are fond of fermented fruit too. It you want to see an elephant stagger, lead him to a marula tree when the fruit is overripe. He won’t leave it until standing is a challenge. Howler monkeys in Central America and African chimpanzees are also great juicers. The chimps make sponges out of crumpled leaves to soak up fermented ooze from the raffia palm and then suck on them. Fruit flies are also notorious tipplers – ethanol makes them feel chipper.
Here’s hoping you enjoy New Year’s Eve without the lampshade trick and wishing you a Happy New Year!
© Rights reserved to Dave Finch 12/31/2017
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