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Does Monogamy Really Drive Us to Drink?

• August 19, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: MINERVA STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Another example of how correlation does not equal causation.

An article (PDF) by Mara Squicciarini and Jo Swinnen in the journal of the American Association of Wine Economists (and no, I’m not making that up) suggested the answer to the question posed in the headline, “Does Monogamy Drive Us to Drink?,” might be “yes.” Wrote the authors: “Historically, we find a correlation between the shift from polygyny to monogamy and the growth of alcohol consumption. Cross-culturally we also find that monogamous societies consume more alcohol than polygynous societies in the pre-industrial world.”

Naturally, lots of bloggers picked up the story, delighted (as bloggers almost always are) to be told what they already believed to be true: Monogamy is so frustrating it drives us to drink. Implicitly they were suggesting a beer in the hand is not worth two in the bush.

I was curious to know whether this article might actually support the idea that monogamy drives us to drink, so I asked my colleague Raymond Hames, chair of anthropology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to give it a look-see. Ray seemed the perfect person to ask, since his work is cited in this article, he’s studied some of the populations considered, and he’s engaged (with a former student) in a major study of polyandry.

Ray wrote me back after taking a look at the paper:

Indeed they have a correlation using a standard ethnographic sample from the Human Relations Area Files. And they did their homework on anthropological theories of polygyny. The methods and statistical techniques are very good, which is something I have come to expect from econometricans. Unfortunately, their explanatory framework is a conceptual mess.

Ray went on:

So the claim is that alcohol consumption increases, polygyny fades, and monogamy develops as we move from hunting and gathering societies to intensely agricultural societies. True, but this is not true for the reasons they expect (namely the anxiety reduction effects of alcohol). In order to engage in high levels of alcohol consumption, one needs good carbohydrate sources (grains) and facilities (storage vats). Hunter-gathers gained more food resources from meat and plants without the dense carbohydrate stores needed for brew, and given their mobility patterns could not haul vats of liquids around (they did not even have ceramic vessels of any sort) nor did they stay in any place long enough to ferment anything.

In other words, alcohol production and consumption becomes possible when groups stop wandering and become agricultural. But it isn’t that the monogamy causes them to make and drink more booze. It’s that a shift to an agricultural lifestyle seems to lead to both monogamy and alcohol production and consumption.

Ray added: “For my social structure course, this might be a fun example of how correlation does not mean causation. This appears to be a nice example of when the real relationship is determined by a third variable,” in this case the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture.

That’s right: It turns out hoes are actually what drive us to drink.

POSTSCRIPT: I found especially amusing various bloggers’ hints that we should use the information allegedly shown in the Wine Economists’ paper to abandon monogamy. I’m pretty sure the Wine Economists had a different take-home lesson in mind, one that, um, might involve buying some wine?

Alice Dreger
Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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