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The History of Intoxication

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In 1989 (reprinted in 2005), Ronald Siegel, a research psychologist, wrote the classic, Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances. Siegel showed, among other things, that animals, despite its non-survival consequences, sought the experience of intoxication (think catnip).

In 2009, Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archeologist, wrote Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages. McGovern found that the fermentation of alcoholic beverages was identified at every site at which human civilization emerged. Indeed, McGovern postulated, alcohol was associated with the development of religion, music, art, and virtually every element that defines civilization.

In 2000, The Jewish Museum (New York) staged the exhibit, "Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times," which -- tracing the history of drinking to Biblical times and further back -- indicated that Jews invented moderate drinking. Earlier Middle Eastern cultures used alcohol solely to fuel orgiastic rituals.

The regular reliance on alcohol intoxication that we define as alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, wasn't conceived before the nineteenth century, or at the earliest at the end of the eighteenth, according to sociologist Harry Levine, author of the 1978 classic, "The Discovery of Addiction." Put simply, regular intoxication was an indulgence subsistence-level societies could not endure; additionally, alcohol was not in such ready supply as to make such drinking possible.

Today, seeking intoxication -- despite its being a regular feature of the lives of American young people -- is defined as a clinical symptom of alcoholism/addiction.

Is there something valuable -- essentially human -- in becoming intoxicated? (Even the Jews identified Purim as a holiday in which intoxication was accepted -- even de rigueur. ) Has this unalloyed human experience been lost to our modern (American) civilization?

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