Has progress banished us from a prehistoric paradise?

What the Lifestyle Gestapo ignore or are too dumb to realize is that intoxication has always been with us. You don’t have to be Darwin to realize that if any animal’s activity persists over thousands of years it’s got to be good for something. Human consciousness is an example. It has its uses. In the old days it was handy for outwitting the average yam and developing ballistic missiles to relieve wildebeests of their intrusive thoughts. But once you’ve done those things, eaten all you want with plenty to spare, then you really won’t need consciousness again for a while, maybe not for days. That’s when it becomes a distinct nuisance. You start getting some intrusive thoughts of your own. Included in these are “choices.”

Some will choose “creativity.” They’ll do a fair portrait of you in banana leaves. They’re mostly harmless. But others with no vision, no sense of the big banana picture, choose to ‘improve’ the human condition as their way to get relief from consciousness.

In our evolutionary past they were the ones who hit big rocks with small rocks and studied the sand they got, tried eating it, tried making you eat it, tried boiling it, setting fire to it — everything — until eventually they got metal. Such people simply can’t leave well alone and let life find its own level. You’ve already got fire, sharp sticks, and huts. Good things to have, sure. But some people don’t know when to stop. They have to go and discover Siberia and then actually think up ways to stay there. Wildebeests aren’t good enough for them. They want mammoths.

It’s thanks to them that the planet is now home to billions of us. That might be good or bad but what’s for sure is that inventors have made organized societies possible and given us all plenty of work to do, now that there isn’t enough free food to go around. So much for the labor-saving benefits of technology. Inventors invented stress. Long periods of longueur are not an option for most of us any more, but our bodies are still adapted to expect them — well, mine is — and our brains still need something more than sleep to dampen down useless interludes of free-floating awareness.

Luckily, in prehistoric times, the likes of you and me were busy with our own choices. Our experiments with elderly fruit and old coconuts full of rain and yam shavings were producing results. There was still some work to do on the taste but we were the visionaries. We knew intuitively that consciousness had developed ahead of an adequate internal means to deal with it and that we needed help with that from the environment as surely as we needed water, food, and air. Who says that needing food and air is a weakness? So why should needing alcohol be any different? And we also knew that, even if we had to live with them, our industrious colleagues were fools. They were trouble now, hard to bear, and would be more trouble and harder to bear in the future. Their plans and obsessions would change life for all of us. But neither beating them, as in caving their skulls in, nor joining them was necessary. Not so long as temporary psychological escape was there as a simpler option.

It’s been the best option for many ever since. So, by   Darwin’s theory, getting plastered must be adaptive, a good thing, or the habit would have died out long ago. That’s what never occurs to the Lifestyle Gestapo. They don’t understand biodiversity, that drunkards are as much a triumph of natural selection as are Nobel-Laureates, if not more so. That sometimes they are Nobel-Laureates only proves the point. Drunkards are resilient and tolerant of a huge range of environments and deprivations, as long as they don’t have to tolerate them sober. Unlike laser-physicists, when resources are minimal, drunkards can still do what they do best, do what they’ve dedicated their lives to. They just need some water, a bit of vegetation, and some fermentation time.

So have the inventors and the other adventurers into knowledge really improved the human condition? They’ve certainly made themselves indispensable. Don’t let’s list all their achievements, from medicine to space-exploration. Not right now. Let’s put our own pleasures first instead. That’s what we’re usually accused of doing after all. Inventors have done some good things for hedonists in general. I can appreciate a good music system or the purr of a sumptuously-upholstered powerful car as much as anybody, especially if I’m in the back with the music controls and the cocktails and somebody else is driving.

Pleasing though such things can be , I can’t believe that they’re necessary or that they make us uniquely content compared to our ancestors. The pleasure they give is no better on any index than what I’d have got sitting at home 20,000 years ago, well-fed with more food out there for the taking, a fire at the door to keep the hyenas out of the hut, and a vat of a brew to keep the insufferable attitudes, needs, and ambitions of sobriety and the sober out of my head. Little of the rest, little of all that’s happened since, with the sure and certain exception of the still, would have come about if left to drunkards. We’d have made do with streams and stone-lined holes in the ground for refrigerators. Not ideal, but worth putting up with when the eventual alternative is mass-enslavement to the 40-hour work week.

Nobody can say that drunkards don’t have ideas or insight or never do any work. Most of us most definitely do and some very famously so. But we were always able to see where technology and a work ethic would lead. We have always known that the true value of work is to extend and improve your drinking time and to earn the right to enjoy it. We knew that most “advances” would make not a damned bit of difference to our ability to enjoy the high peaks of drunkenness that we could enjoy already. The reverse, if anything.

I’m not an anthropologist. Maybe I simplify a bit. I just wish sometimes that our ancestors had done the same.

Jim Baxter