For years scientists believed that humans were the only species that sought out intoxicating substances, but that didn’t tally with Professor Ronald K. Siegel’s observations. So he set out to find if other animals could be secret stoners.
He was first tipped off to the possibility when a mongoose he had in captivity lost its mate in a storm. Seeing the corpse, the remaining mongoose sort solace in drugs, as journalist Johann Hari reports.
Two months before, the professor had planted a powerful hallucinogen called silver morning glory in the pen. The mongooses had all tried it, but they didn’t seem to like it: they stumbled around disoriented for a few hours and had stayed away from it ever since. But not now. Stricken with grief, the mongoose began to chew. Before long, it had tuned in and dropped out.
Hari is author of a new book, Chasing the Scream, which looks at the “war on drugs” 100 years after the United States first banned psychoactive substances. His research led him to believe that many of the things we think we know about addiction are just not true.
After sampling the numbing nectar of certain orchids, bees drop to the ground in a temporary stupor, then weave back for more. Birds gorge themselves on inebriating berries, then fly with reckless abandon. Cats eagerly sniff aromatic “pleasure” plants, then play with imaginary objects. Cows that browse special range weeds will twitch, shake, and stumble back to the plants for more. Elephants purposely get drunk off fermented fruits. Snacks of “magic mushrooms” cause monkeys to sit with their heads in their hands in a posture reminiscent of Rodin’s Thinker. The pursuit of intoxication by animals seems as purposeless as it is passionate. Many animals engage these plants, or their manufactured allies, despite the danger of toxic or poisonous effects.
As Hari says, it seems Noah’s Ark “would have looked a lot like London on a Saturday night”. He uses the findings to suggest that the war on drugs is unwinnable, as seeking out intoxication is hard-wired in all species.
Professor Siegel’s story of buzzing cows and tripping bees is, he believes, a story about us. We are an animal species. As soon as plants began to be eaten by animals for the first time — way back in prehistory, before the first human took his first steps — the plants evolved chemicals to protect themselves from being devoured and destroyed.
But why do we – and other animals – do it? Hari quotes Siegel:
“The brain produces endorphins. When does it produce endorphins? In stress, and in pain. What are endorphins? They are morphine-like compounds. It’s a natural occurrence in the brain that makes them feel good . . . People feel euphoric sometimes. These are chemical changes – the same kind of chemical changes, with the same molecular structures, that these plants [we use to make our drugs] are producing . . . We’re all producing the same stuff.”
The whole article is well worth reading.
Siegel is not the only scientist to have suggested this phenomenon.
Dudley, Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that if we accept the fact that people are naturally inclined to seek intoxication, we may better help those with a problem.
“We owe it to the sufferers of alcoholism, and to those who indirectly endure the outcomes of this disease to pursue these questions further,” he says.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.