Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/October 1882/The Utility of Drunkenness



IN the early argumentative struggles between the advocates of total abstinence from alcohol and their opponents, the latter believed they settled the question by affirming that "these things are sent for our use," and therefore that it was flying in the face of Providence to refuse a social glass. This and many similar arguments have subsequently been overturned by the abstainers, who have unquestionably been victorious "all along the line," especially since Dr. B. W. Richardson has become their commander-in-chief.

In spite of this, I am about to charge their serried ranks, armed with an entirely new weapon forged by myself from material supplied by the late Dr. Darwin, my thesis being that the drunkenness which prevails at the present day is promoting civilization and the general forward progress of the human race.

Malthus demonstrated long ago that man, like other animals, has a tendency to multiply more rapidly than the means of supporting his increasing numbers can be multiplied; he and his followers regarded this tendency as the primary source of poverty and social degradation. Darwin, starting with the same general law, deduces the very opposite conclusion respecting its influence on each particular species, though his antagonism to Malthus does not prominently appear, seeing that his inferences were mainly applied to the lower animals. Darwin shows that the onward progress, the development, or what may be described as the collective prosperity of the species, is brought about by over-multiplication, followed by a necessary struggle for existence, in the course of which the inferior or unsuitable individuals are weeded out, and "the survival of the fittest" necessarily follows; these superior or more suitable specimens transmit more or less of their advantages to their offspring, which, still multiplying excessively, are again and again similarly sifted and improved or developed in a boundless course of forward evolution.

In the earlier stages of human existence, the fittest for survival were those whose brutal or physical energies best enabled them to struggle with the physical difficulties of their surroundings, to subjugate the crudities of the primeval plains and forests to human requirements. The perpetual struggles of the different tribes gave the dominion of the earth to those best able to rule it; the strongest and most violent human animal was then the fittest, and he survived accordingly.

Then came another era of human effort gradually culminating in the present period. In this, mere muscular strength, brute physical power, and mere animal energy have become less and less demanded as we have, by the aid of physical science, imprisoned the physical forces of nature in our steam-boilers, batteries, etc., and have made them our slaves in lieu of human prisoners of war. The coarse muscular, raving, yelling, fighting human animal that formerly led the war-dance, the hunt, and the battle, is no longer the fittest for survival, but is, on the contrary, daily becoming more and more out of place. His prize-fights, his dog-fights, his cockpits, and bull-baiting are practically abolished, his fox-hunting and bird-shooting are only carried on at great expense by a wealthy residuum, and by damaging interference with civilized agriculture. The unfitness of the remaining representatives of the primeval savage is manifest, and their survival is purely prejudicial to the present interests and future progress of the race.

Such being the case, we now require some means of eliminating these coarser, more brutal, or purely animal specimens of humanity, in order that there may be more room for the survival and multiplication of the more intellectual, more refined, and altogether distinctively human specimens. It is desirable that this should be effected by some natural or spontaneous proceeding of self-extinction, performed by the animal specimens themselves. If this self-immolation can be a process that is enjoyable in their own estimation, all the objections to it that might otherwise be suggested by our feelings of humanity are removed.

Now, these conditions are exactly fulfilled by the alcoholic drinks of the present day when used for the purpose of obtaining intoxication. The old customs that rendered heavy drinking a social duty have passed away, their only remaining traces being the few exceptional cases of hereditary dipsomania still to be found here and there among men and women of delicate fiber and sensitive organization.

With these exceptions, the drunkards of our time are those whose constitutions are so coarse, so gross and brutal, that the excitement of alcoholic stimulation is to them a delicious sensual delirium, a wild saturnalia of animal exaltation, which they enjoy so heartily that every new raving outbreak only whets their appetite for a repetition. While sober they actually arrange and prepare for a forthcoming holiday booze; work and save money for the avowed purpose of purchasing the drink and its consequent ecstasies, which constitute the chief delights of their existence. When a professional criminal has "served his time," and is about to be released from prison, his faithful friends club together to supply him with the consolation of an uninterrupted course of intoxication; the longer its duration the greater his happiness, and the deeper his obligations of gratitude to the contributing "pals."

We know that such indulgence has swept away the Red Indian savage from the American Continent, and prepared it for a higher civilization, as the mammoth and grizzly bear have made way for the sheep and oxen; and this beneficent agent, if allowed to do its natural work, will similarly remove the savage elements that still remain as impediments to the onward progress of the more crowded communities of the Old World. If those who love alcoholic drinks for the sake of the excitement they induce are only supplied with cheap and abundant happiness, our criminal and pauper population will be reduced to a minimum.

It is commonly supposed that, because nearly all criminals are drunkards, therefore drunkenness is the chief cause of crime. This is a confusion of cause with effect. Crime and drunkenness go together because they are concurrent effects of the same organization. Alcoholic stimulation merely removes prudence and brings out true character without restraint or disguise. The brute who beats his wife when drunk would do so when sober if he dared and could; but what we call the sober state is with him a condition of cowardly depression and feebleness due to the reaction of intoxication. If a number of quarrelsome men assemble and drink together, they finish with fighting. If a similar number of kindly disposed men drink together, they overflow with generosity, profuse friendliness, and finally become absurdly affectionate. The citizen who would have subscribed but one guinea to a charity before dinner will give his name for five after the "toast of the evening."

My general conclusion is that all human beings (excepting the few dipsomaniacs above-named), who are fit to survive as members of a civilized community, will spontaneously avoid intemperance, provided no artificial pressure of absurd drinking customs is applied to them, while those who are incapable of the general self-restraint demanded by advancing civilization, and can not share its moral and intellectual refinements, are provided by alcoholic beverages with the means of "happy dispatch," will be gradually sifted out by natural alcoholic selection, provided no legislative violence interferes with their desire for "a short life and a merry one."—Gentleman's Magazine.