School of Biology Seminar

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"The Drunken Monkey: Is Human Alcoholism an Evolutionary Hangover"

Robert Dudley, PhD

Professor of Biology
University of California, Berkeley

In the field of addiction research, the possibility of ancestral exposure to psychoactive compounds has generally been excluded. A paleobiological approach to the human diet, however, illustrates the potential utility of historical data in interpreting modern-day addictive behaviors. Low-level dietary exposure to ethanol via ingestion of fermenting fruit has probably characterized the predominantly frugivorous anthropoid lineage for about 40 million years. Potentially adaptive primate behaviors associated with the natural occurrence of ethanol include the olfactory use of ethanol plumes to localize fruit crops, the use of ethanol as an appetitive stimulant to facilitate rapid consumption of transient nutritional resources, and the physiological exploitation of the caloric benefits of ethanol. Such behavioral and energetic advantages probably pertain to all animal taxa that consume fermenting fruit, and may have been retained in modern humans in spite of considerable dietary diversification over the last several million years. In contemporary human environments, excessive consumption of ethanol would then represent maladaptive cooption of ancestrally advantageous behaviors given essentially ad libitum access to a compound otherwise found only within scarce nutritional substrates. Epidemiologically demonstrated health benefits of low-level alcohol consumption are consistent with an ancient and potentially adaptive exposure of primate frugivores to this most common of the psychoactive substances.

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