by Alex Shoumatoff
Dr. Maurice Dongier, a neuropsychiatrist who studies the causes of alcoholism at McGill University, and I are related by marriage, through an extended family of Rwandese émigrés in Montreal. His son is married to the sister of my wife’s sister’s husband (if you can follow that). At a recent family gathering, Maurice started telling me about the alcoholic monkeys on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. They were African green monkeys, whose ancestors were brought over by French settlers from Senegambia in the eighteenth century. Ladies of the garrison, parasols atwirl, would stroll with them on leashes, like poodles, along the ramparts of the fort. During a battle with the British for control of the island, some of the monkeys managed to escape into the island’s thickly forested interior. Now there were forty thousand monkeys on the island, about the same number as the human inhabitants– and they were such a serious agricultural pest that the government paid hunters to shoot them. They particularly liked to raid sugar-cane fields. After a rainstorm, it was Maurice’s understanding that some of the cane would ferment, and the monkeys would come out of the forest and get drunk from chewing it. Some of the males would beat their wives and children and would exhibit what he called, in his Marseilles-inflected English, “skeedrow behavior.” A McGill colleague of Maurice’s had been studying the monkeys, and had found that seventeen percent of them displayed classic symptoms of alcoholism– the same proportion reported in an alcoholism study of Swedes– and that the monkey’s alcohol-susceptibility showed clear family linkage. I sipped in appreciative silence the magnificent Sauterne that Maurice had brought up from his wine cellar. Complementing his scientific interest in intoxicating fluids, Maurice is a serious oenophile.
I told Maurice about my fascination with primates– how I had observed lemurs in Madagascar, mountain gorillas in Rwanda, mixed troops of squirrel and capuchin monkeys in the Amazon, and many other species in the wild. I was very familiar with African green (also known as vervet) monkeys– no one who has spent any amount of time in Africa can fail to be– and had written about them in connection with AIDS– the theory that the human immunodeficiency retrovirus is a mutated simian virus transmitted by the bite (or the butchering, or the ingestion ?) of a green monkey. “I’d love to see these monkeys,” I mused to Maurice, and he said, “So would I,” and he added that it would be even more interesting if we flew to St. Kitts from Montreal in a small plane. He had a pilot’s license and was part-owner of a Beechcraft that he took up most weekends.
Every time Maurice and I saw each other after that, I would ask him, “When are we going to St. Kitts ?” and he would tell me that he was working on it. After the third blizzard of the winter, the idea of actually doing this had become very attractive, and on February 26 the two of us took off in sub-zero weather from Montreal’s Beloeil Airport in a two-engine Aztec Piper and headed south. It was twelve hundred miles to Florida, and another twelve hundred over open water to St. Kitts. We could get there in two days, Maurice said, but he warned, “we are at the mercy of Aeolus.”
At seven thousand feet and a hundred and seventy-five knots, a trip like this becomes an epic voyage. Ploughing through Himalayan cloudpeaks, catching glimpses of the earth below, is
An almost hallucinatory experience. “We are literally ‘getting high,’ I yelled to Maurice over the engine’s drove, and he yelled back, “of course.” We marvelled at silver rivers slithering to the sea, at the baroque swirls of estuaries, half-frozen, like milky cataracts, as far down as Virginia, where winter began to lose its grip; at the transition from snow to frozen brown ground to green; at how every twenty minutes a strategically sited skyscraper thicket would appear, as if each were a kingdom : the kingdom of Philadelphia, the kingdom of Wilmington, the kingdom of Baltimore.
The first night we made Florence, a friendly little burg deep in the piney woods of South Carolina whose claim to fame is that it was, fifty years ago, the first stop for Nazi p.o.w.’s. Florida, the next morning, was lost under mountains of fluff which parted occasionally to reveal an enticing golf course in Palm Beach, the launching pad at Cape Kennedy. By lunch we made Nassau, but then the radio conked out. It was Sunday, and no one was around to fix it, so we spent an unscheduled night in the Bahamas (airborne the next morning, I had never realized there were so many of them– cays, and the wave-smashed lines of incipient cays, where a coral shelf had finally broken to the surface) and another in San Juan, the swinging, seething capital of Puerto Rico, due to a cracked seal on the right wing’s oil tank. It wasn’t until the morning of the fourth day that we spotted a string of lushly forested volcanic cones poking up from the cobalt sea– tiny, ex-Dutch Saba and St. Eustatius, then the slightly larger, ex-British St. Kitts and Nevis.
Maurice’s colleague, Frank Ervin, was waiting for us at the little airport. Sixty-eight, with long flowing white hair and beard, Frank looked like Walt Whitman or an eminence grise of the Sixties. Ervin had grown up in East Texas and he had an expansive, easy drawl that made him instantly likeable. “My mother was a widow, and during the Depression she worked for the Farm Security Administration, giving out loans to poor rural blacks, so I feel completely at home among the Kittisians,” he told us as we drove to Estridge Estate, a working sugar plantation on the northern part of the island where he and his wife, Roberta Palmour, a human geneticist also at McGill, were conducting the alcoholism study. .
“You will find the Kittisians extremely polite,” he went on. “A few of the younger generation affect a faddish, emulative Rastafarianism, but this is basically an old-time scene, right out of Mr. Pickwick.” The island, only twenty-three miles from tip to tip, one of the northern Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, was discovered by Columbus on his second voyage and named for the patron saint of travellers (St. Kitts is steamlined patois for St. Christopher). From 1643 on, it was the first stop for slave ships, and the auction center for the entire Carribean. It had then, and has to this day, a single economy : sugar cane. There was a tourist compound with a casino and a golf course on the other side of the island that attracted charter flights from places like Dallas, Toronto, and Cali, Colombia (in fact until a few years ago, when the Drug Enforcement Agency caught on to the fact that the cargo on these flights wasn’t only human, the island was a trans-shipment station for cocaine), Frank told us, but the shortage of white-sand beaches had kept it from becoming a big tourist destination. “Unlike on other islands, ganja is frowned upon, but there’s a lot of heavy drinking,” he continued. “Neither Isben Williams [a Barbadian analyst who had many alcoholic patients in the capital], or I have a handle on how much is genetic and how much is sociocultural. Until television arrived five years ago, there was nothing for the men to do when they came in from the cane fields but go to the rum shop and play dominoes. Places like our local pub, the Cosmopolitan Bar, are still the big gossip and buddy centers, so if you have any vulnerability at all for one drink to lead to the next, you’re going to drink a lot of booze.”
A dusty road led between tall dense walls of cane
to the ramshackle plantation house. Inside were computers and a high-tech lab. In a compound in back were eleven hundred caged monkeys, some in small, solitary cages, some in larger cages, in groups of up to a dozen. I went out to see them just as it was getting dark. A frisson of panic spread through the compound at the sight of a new bearded honkey. In cage after cage, the scampering, screeching monkeys would flow into the farthest upper corner and plaster themselves into a tight, trembling pod, their eyes bulging. Never had my arrival on a scene inspired such terror.
This was not about monkeys in the wild, I realized. It was a laboratory for breeding monkeys for medical purposes. The main income of the operation was derived from providing laboratories in Europe and the States with monkeys for medical research or the manufacture of medicine, and from pre-clinical trials of drugs on the monkeys who remained on the farm. The alcoholism study was only one of about forty that Ervin was running. Some involved the removal of organs. A young doctor from Denmark had just arrived to process six perfused kidneys for her doctorate on hypertension.
Ervin was eloquent in his defense against the animal-rights questions the operation raised. “I’m an unrepentant specie-ist,” he said. “I’m doing this for human health. If a baby monkey has to be sacrificed so its kidney can provide twenty-seven thousand thousand polio vaccines, to me this is a reasonable trade-off.” He said he could provide three hundred virus-free monkeys– enough to vaccinate the world. He had forty hypertensive monkeys with interlinking pedigrees, and he had just sold some of his drinkers to the University of North Carolina.
Maurice was the former head of the deparment, a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, an oenophile and a gastronome, and so each night a feast up to his culinary standards was prepared by Roberta and collaborators and was consumed on the porch of a stately plantation house further up the island the two of them were renovating. During these meals, and while driving around the island running errands and seeing the sights, we learned about the intellectual odyssey that had ended in Ervin’s becoming what he described a “farmer.” It was not alcoholism, but an interest in the biology of violence, that brought Ervin to monkeys. Fascinated from an early age by how the brain works, Ervin was a brilliant student. Starting in public school in rural East Texas, he rose metereorically through the academic strata until, by the Sixties, he had become a psychopharamacologist in the Harvard Department of Psychiatry. He was not impressed by the way Timothy Leary, over in the Department of Psychology and Sociology, was handing out lsd to all comers, and voted no when Leary wanted to transfer to his department.
Frustrated by the inability of clinical psychiatry to cure the most severe mental disorders, he gravitated increasingly to neurobiology. He studied schizophrenia, then the mechanisms of pain– phantom limb pain and other syndromes; then he focused on
temporary-lobe epilepsy, which introduced him to psychotic behavior, on which he eventually became a recognized authority, in demand as an expert witness at psychotic-murder trials. “Some epileptics experience between seizures increasing dysphoria [the opposite of euphoria], irritability, and loss of impulse control, which in the right setting can lead to extreme violence,” Ervin explained. “Epileptics who murder are acquitted under the Napoleonic Code, which recognizes that they are incapable of controlling themselves.”
“I’m fascinated with people who feel like killing somebody with no external input,” he went on. “They gives clues to the brain’s machinery.”
Ervin then began to wonder whether non-epileptics with similar histories of impulsive violence could be victims of other, unknown innate brain disorders, so he started looking for people with an established vulnerability to loss of control who had been ascertained by the criminal justice system rather than the mental health system. By l968 he had a hundred and eighty self-referred violent patients. “Thirty-five were murderers. We’re not talking about small-time, getting-a-little-irritable. One federal prisoner who volunteered for the study was too embarrassed to tell me what he had done. He was a little guy– looked like Peter Lorre. I read his file : he had eviscerated two girls, six and seven, masturbated on their entrails, and tried to burn down a cathedral to conceal the evidence. He was genuinely relieved to be locked up so he couldn’t hurt anybody else.
“’Tell me what happens,’ I said. The man explained. ‘I go along fine, then I get these feelings like I want to do something, like burn down a house or mutilate a child. I start getting these nightmare images. What I used to do, when I was on the outside, was go to a bar to try to obliterate them.'” Ervin explained that the man “was turning to alcohol in an ignorant, miscarried attempt at self-medication. This is very common. It brought on the very violent behavior he was trying to fend off.
“If you take any maximum-security prison, the diagnosis is uniformly alcoholism,” he continued. “The majority of murders, rapes, and property crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. The question is, is drinking simply a common practice of the criminal subculture, does it contribute to the crime, or is it just contributory to their getting caught ?” Frank believed it plays an active role. “Alcohol in low doses excites the limbic system, particularly the amigdala, which organizes attack behavior, the fight or flight responses– and at the same time it dampens the inhibiting mechanisms in the frontal lobe, the neocortex, which control primal agression,” he explained– “or as a psychoanalyst would put it, the superego is soluble in alcohol.”
By the late sixties Ervin had reached a point in his research where “I needed a social group with a complex behavioral repertoire to study,” as he put it. He hooked up with some scientists who were doing experiments on the green monkeys at Livingston Falls, in what was then Southern Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. Greens were just what he was looking for. “The weed monkey of Africa,” Ervin called them. “They range all over the continent and exploit practically every habitat. They are highly adaptable and aren’t endangered, and their DNA overlaps 95.5 % with man.” One of the experiments was to remove the amigdalas of the dominant, or alpha male of the troop, and to see what happened. As expected, the males’ status in the troop plummeted. In fact, they became vegetables and were quickly eaten by leopards.
Just as Ervin was getting on the plane to set up some experiments of his own, Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called, hit the fan. Livingston Falls fell to the guerillas of Robert Mugabe, so Ervin needed to find another population. By chance, a colleague at the Smithsonian Institution happened to discover an old green-monkey skin labeled St. Kitts. Ervin flew down as soon as he could. He drove out to the arid southern tip of the island, where there is a great salt pond. A man named Mr. Wigley lived on the pond. Ervin asked him if there were any monkeys on the island, and he said, ‘Yeah boss.'”
Ervin dreamed of stocking the southern tip with monkeys and doing a massive Calhoun experiment : fencing them off in a confined area and providing them with unlimited food until, as with Calhoun’s rats, every space was filled and they became a city and began to rape and murder each other and the mothers to commit infanticide, eating their babies. Ervin could play Animal Farm games– control them with electronics and gadgets, make the weakest one the only one who could open the food, and watch how he became the leader, make the alpha male a criminal outlaw omega.
All this was a little hard-core and Island of Dr. Moreau for my blood. I really had problems with what was going on here, however important to science and beneficial it was to the human race. I wondered what Brigitte Bardot would think of this place. “Is that where they blind them? ” the primatologist Jane Goodall asked when I told her about my visit to St. Kitts. I reached her in Milwaukee, where she was giving a lecture. She is on the road three hundred days a year giving lectures and talks and making appearances to raise consciousness about the assault on Africa’s remaining wildlife by the bushmeat trade, starving refugees, and a host of other things. “This is one of these off-shore medical labs where ghastly experiments that would never be permissible on the mainland are performed. Once you accept that humans are not the only beings with feelings or personalities and reason, a whole new concept enters in, and places like this raise a lot of questions. We have too long thought we can do anything we like as long as it is vaguely postulated to be good for us.”
To which Ervin, in one of our discussions on the island, had already countered : “Even if my motives were purely selfish– intellectual curiosity, ambition, to be the one who discovers the genetic basis of alcoholism– this research would still benefit the human race. Alcoholism is the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.. One in eight children has an alcoholic parent. The annual cost of the disease is a hundred and thirty billion dollars– twice the cost of the Gulf War– mainly due to absenteeism, but also because it causes chronic heart and liver disease and several kinds of brain rot and takes up half the nation’s hospital beds, the health costs are staggering.
Half of fatal car accidents are alcohol-related, and this is quite apart from the tremendous social toll– fatherless children, abused wives, and other personal tragedies. So you can see why this is worth trying to understand. And to understand it you have to have animals whose neurobiology and endocrinology you can manipulate. No progress has been possible in any clinical problem you want to name– cancer, influenza– without an animal model.”
For the next four years, after discovering that there were monkeys on St. Kitts, Ervin would come down whenever he could and study the monkeys in the wild. He found that true to their species, they had adapted to practically every one of the island’s mini-ecosystems. The traditional African troop has eighteen members, half male and half female, a third of whom are adults. There is a sharp male hierarchy, with one predominant alpha male, and three or four betas, and a similar pecking order among the females. The troop moves in formal, almost military, array, with beta outriders keeping a lookout for leopards or other predators. But the St. Kitts greens have been without predators for centuries, and their social organization, Ervin noted, was much looser and more relaxed, “like a Quaker meeting,” as he put it. The African greens have a repertoire of fifty-two vocalizations, but he had only identified thirty-six on St. Kitts. Had some, like LEOPARD ! been dropped, and others, like IT’S ONLY A TRACTOR been added ? he wondered.
He paid particular attention to their diet. The ones on the arid peninsula ate sea grapes and clammy cherries, and plucked limpets off rocks. Most of them raided the crops, so the local authorities, who paid hunters to pop them, had no problem with Frank capturing some of them to study in a more controlled setting. But it wasn’t until l972 that Kittisians began to take his requests for monkeys seriously, and the first ones began to come in.
Ervin read in an eighteenth-century natural history of the island by a Jesuit naturalist Father LeBlanc how the slaves would set out halved coconuts filled with molasses and rum to lure the monkeys in from the forest; barbecued monkey is still a popular dish on the island. This got him thinking about how the monkeys might be useful for alcohol research. It was during this conversation, driving down to Basseterre, that a serious confusion about the monkeys getting bombed on the fermented sugar cane emerged. Maurice and I thought we were going to see feral intoxication. This was what we had flown all the way down here to see. Ervin had assured me over the phone that seeing this was only a matter of patience and the amount of time we had. But now he confessed that he had never personally witnessed a single act of spontaneous wild drunkness, nor were there any reports of such a thing happening. Moreover, the cane didn’t ferment after rain- he didn’t know where we had got that idea. But there was a tree on the island known as the jumbie cutlass whose fruit was hallucinogenic, and the monkeys had frequently been observed tripping out after eating it. So wild drinking “would be expected,” he now said. “Look at all the alcoholic dogs.”
He pointed out that “Alcohol is not a bad food source, as Joe Six-pack’s belly attests. One can imagine the selective advantage of being able to eat fermented fruit. One can even imagine genes for extracting the calories in alcohol, and seventeen percent who didn’t get efficient at doing this and leave acetaldehyde (which is what you make when you drink alcohol) in the brain long enough for addictive compounds to form.”
This was one approach that Frank was looking at : alcoholics may be pushed heavily by their genes or their environment, but alcohol itself may be also intrinsically addictive. “If you do your homework on the blackboard, you could show that acetaldehyde going to the brain can in theory interact with dopamine, serotonin, and probably other neurotransmitters, to form an adduct which would be an opiate-like compound that could be the basis of a true addiction like morphine, opium, etc.. But nobody has been able to demonstrate that this happens in man. So far such opiate compounds have only been found in the spinal columns of Parkinson’s disease patients, but not alcoholics. It takes a certain kind of enzyme to tie together acetaldehyde and dopamine.”
It was to explore such avenues that Ervin and Palmour started their alcoholism research program in l980. Rats had been used in alcohol research since the twenties, but theirs was the first monkey model. Since then rhesus monkey have been tested in Rotterdam and at Harvard, sinomologus monkeys in Denver, and Frank had just sold some of his drinkers to the University of North Carolina. “When I started the study, the literature said animals will not voluntarily consume alcohol in excess,” he continued. “The existing studies were set-ups for the animals to self-inject intravenously, which is a more useful model for heroine, or forced-drinking set-ups, where the animal is shocked every ten seconds until he takes a drink. But I screened two hundred monkeys for voluntary consumption, and found thirty-five drinkers.”
I accompanied Amanda, a local girl who is responsible for putting out the rum and recording how much each monkey drinks, one one her rounds. The rum that is used is a hundred-and-fifty-proof local moonshine brewed in the hills and known as “hammond,” for Lord Roy Hammond, whose agents cracked down on the practice after the Second World War. The hammond is diluted with water to thirty proof and is placed from nine a.m. to one p.m. in a bottle alongside an identical bottle of pure water. The monkey has the choice of which liquid he wants to drink. “After two weeks you can tell who is a drinker and who isn’t,” Amanda explained. “This tall one’s a crazy alcohol drinker,” stopping at cage 0609-3. “He has already drunk 275 cc’s in an hour and a half. He usually drinks over 400 cc. After three hundred they get drunk and lay down.” 01907, however, hadn’t touched his hammond bottle.
The monkeys in the study were in small solitary cages, to keep environmental influences to a minimum. But I wondered whether boredom and isolation factored in a monkey’s choice of which fluid; if I were locked in solitary like this day after day, I’d probably go for the rum myself.
Ervin had prepared a group of ten males so Maurice and I could observe the effects of hammond on social behavior. We would be “sort of like a bartender observing his customers,” he explained. A bald patch had been shaved on a different part of each monkey’s body to tell it apart. Ervin gave us a crash course in first-level screening for sixteen basic categories of behavior– the same techniques employed by biosocial anthropologists in the field, which he said have proved surprisingly useful on mental wards and in prisons in predicting recovery and recidivism rates. “Psychiatrists are too hung up on speech,” he said. “A person can sound completely rational, but you can tell from his body language that he’s dying to kill you.” (Here Ervin became a psycho maniacally wringing his hands in his crotch and jerking his head uncontrollably to the right.)
“The first split is between social and individual behavior,” he explained. “Individual is eat, drink, defecate, urinate, masturbate, orient (focus on something). Signs of anxiety include scratching, ear flapping, yawning; abrupt anxiety may be expressed by an involuntary liquid defecation. Social behavior breaks down into affiliative and agonistic. Grooming is the female affiliative behavior par excellence, as you can test by driving around the island and seeing all the girls platting and braiding each other’s hair, while the boys are chasing each other and rough-and-tumbling. The same is true of monkeys.
“For agonistic behavior you describe what the focal animal is doing. You separate the social hierarchy by the rate of threats received or emitted. The lowest level of threat is displacement. A big male displaces a smaller one from the shade. At the first level of aggression there is eye-to-eye contact, frequently accompanied by a smile or half-yawn, a slight demonstration of the teeth. At the second level, the mouth opens fully, the canines are displayed, and the monkey barks. The recipient escalates or backs off. In a full dominance confrontation the loser submits, and you get a pelvic present. In the case of stumptail macaques, the loser is buggered.
“If the conflict is not resolved by symbolic semiotics,” Ervin went on, “the antagonists chase each other and cut each other up. Their canines are as sharp as straight razors. Eighty percent of the bites are at the axillary, femural, or carotid arteries, where they are most likely to kill.”
Not wanting to condition us in any way, Frank did not tell us until afterward that the ten monkeys in Cage 33 had been screened several months ago and had not been offered alcohol since. Some were drinkers, some not. Having lived together as a group for some time, they got along pretty well. As soon as Frank left, they all approached, making contact calls. It didn’t take long to pick out the dominant ones; they hadn’t been together long enough for their to be a single obviously paramount alpha. Left Shoulder, as we named him, was the boldest, but not the biggest. Big doesn’t mean boss, Ervin later explained. Dominance is often hereditary. LS approached with penis erect, yawning. The others, ranged along the perimeter of the cage, gazed wistfully out, occasionally directing a half-yawn at nobody in particular– a “displaced threat.” Two monkeys sat on a pole, swishing their crossed tails, meaning “buddies.” A little adolescent came up to us, masturbated briskly, and licked the cum off its fingers; “hate to waste protein,” Frank explained. Masturbation, he said, was basically something to do to while away the day. Another monkey caught a fly in the air with a lightning swipe of the hand and ate it. Left Thigh sodomized Right Thigh three times in the course of the morning, stepping up on the crooked back of his calves to get a better angle of thrust. I recalled the gradient of expressions for “hanging out” in northern Mexico : around Mexico City people say they are tragando cañote, “sucking cane;” in Chihuahua it becomes comiendo moscas, “eating flies;” while in northern New Mexico it is chingando la borega, fucking the sheep. On St. Kitts the expression is “liming.” Liming was the main behavior Maurice and I saw over nineteen hours of observation between us. The effect of the hammond was not unlike the effect on rum on the planters of St. Kitts, described by an early chronicler named Richard Ligon : “it lays them asleep on the ground.”
After an hour of baseline study, Amanda brought four bottles of hammond. Four of the monkeys showed immediate interest in them, particularly Small Central Thorax, the wimpiest, scrawniest, and mangiest of the group, who clinging to the wire by all fours, with his eyes blissfully closed, sucked the spout for five minutes straight and returned for several more equally long drafts. The hooch took effect in less than half an hour : SCT was staggering and weaving like a classic drunk. After several attempts to reach the pole laid across the center of the cage, above his head just out of arm’s reach, he finally made it, but soon afterward, unable to keep his balance, he fell back down to the floor. The other three drinkers, who were also omegas, lay down and slept for a few minutes; when they came to, they seemed normal. SCT was the only real “skidrow” monkey of the lot. There seemed to be a correlation between drinking and low status. None of the alphas were drinkers. One alpha, in fact, the local member of the Temperance League, apparently, shoved the spout of one of the bottles so that no one could reach it. A few mornings later, when SCT was reeling drunk again, Maurice observed several of the sober monkeys catch him and prop him up as he was about to fall. Apart from a few tiffs, we saw no violence. In fact, the alcohol seemed to produce more altruism than aggression. Maurice agreed; what we had seen supported the contention of Maragarite Duras, the author of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a severe alcoholic who claims that liquor makes you more intelligent, social, and socialistic.
Ervin explained that you wouldn’t expect to see changes in social organization and level of aggression for another two weeks, when the drinkers would be putting away four hundred cc’s a morning. “They’re not an established drinking party,” he explained. “In a normal social group, aggression is a highly ritualized and controlled phenomenon,” he explained. “There are a whole lot of rules about it. There’s a minuet of exchanges before anyone actually comes to blows. If a subordinate male wants to encroach on the space of a dominant, to share shade, he must pay ritual respect : submit, groom– then he can steal the mango he was after all the time. With alcohol the ritual system breaks down. A drinker will initiate an act like appeasement or sex play, then break it off. Failing to send the right signal, he is attacked, and because he has lost judgment, he attacks back, then all hell breaks loose. The same sort of breakdown of the agonistic minuet happens in bars. Take, for instance, this exchange, which actually happened a bar on the North End of Boston :
Guy 1 to Guy 2: Got a smoke ?
Guy 2: Sure. Hands Guy 1 unopened pack. Guy 1 peels cellophane and throws on floor.
Guy 2: Pick up your trash.
Guy 1 : Fuck you.
Guy 2 pulls gun and blows Guy 1 away.
Like most Frenchman, Maurice had been drinking at least three glasses of wine a day for decades. “In America, I would be considered a heavy drinker, but I am not an alcoholic,” he explained. As far as most Frenchmen are concerned, there are no alcoholics in France, although France has one of the world’s highest per capita consumption rates– fourteen gallons of pure alcohol a year, compared with eight in the United States– and one of the world’s highest cirrhosis rates. Wine is part of the meal.
What exactly is alcoholism ? I wondered. No gene or genes associated with it have been found yet in any species. A big mistake of popularizers, Ervin said, is that there a “gene for alcoholism,” like “a gene for criminality,” just waiting to be found. “Alcoholism is a complex, multifactorial disorder, heavily influenced by sociocultural factors,” he explained. “It could be not one but hundreds of syndromes, some of which may have a genetic aspect. But all such genes might do anyway is to give you a susceptibility, a predisposition. Your alcoholism might never be expressed– for instance, if you were a Muslim.”
There is anecdotal evidence, but no hard statistical data, Maurice remarked, of a lot of serious drinking in Russia. But how much of this drinking is biological, how much is frustration with the demoralized and oppressive poshlost of the society, and how is much due to the cold ? Extreme cold and hot climates (Brazil, for instance) produce heavy drinking, but then the Irish are no slouches, either. Maurice, Frank, and Roberta were part of a multidisciplinary team studying alcoholism in northern Ontario, whose males are dramatically more prone to the disease than southern Ontarians, perhaps because many of them are rowdy, anti-social, heavy-drinking, frontier types, like the sort who gravitate to the Yukon or Alaska.
There is a strong correlation between alcoholism and high scores on a sixty-point questionnaire devised fifteen years ago by the neuropsychiatrist Marvin Zuckerman to identify “sensation-seeking” behavior. Zuckerman-positives, who abound in North Ontario, seek out adventure, danger, and constant stimulation, and tend to drink a lot. There is also a correlation between alcoholism and depression, which is caused, according to the latest thinking, by a malfunction of the dopamine, seratonin, and norepinephrine receptors. Depressives are drawn to alcohol for the initial short-term spike in these chemical neurotransmitters, but alcohol, like marijuana, is a depressive, and its chronic effect is to desensitize the receptors, and to make you more depressed.(Although I don’t find this to be the case with cannabis.) Addiction may be an attempt to get back to the original excited state.
There is also anecdotal evidence, but no good studies, either, of heavy drinking among Native Americans. One drunk Navajo is said to die of exposure every day on the Navajo reservation. Asians– Japanese, Tibetans, and some Native Americans–do have a proven congenital reaction to alcohol : they flush. The flushes are very uncomfortable, like menopausal hot flushes, and are often accompanied by nausea and dizziness. One would expect that native American alcoholics are pushed by their genes, but how much of their drinking is attributable to cultural degradation (defeat is particularly hard on the males of the defeated culture; world-wide, there are three times as many male alcoholics in subjugated or formerly subjugated societies), how much to the cultural value many tribes attach to alternate states of consciousness ? Native Americans themselves complain that they were deliberately addicted to “firewater” by early traders, the way the Chinese were addicted to opium by the British East India Company. Indians drink to get drunk. So do Russians. So do I, every once in a while. When I drink, and I’m not much of a juicer, my liver being shot, having had hepatitis and malaria two times, I keep drinking. Why else drink unless you’re going to get drunk ? This makes me an alcoholic, according to the current, rather lame definition of the disease. In the absence of actual genes, alcoholism is defined functionally, as drinking to the point where you are no longer in control, where you’re unable to stop although you have become physically, economically, or socially impaired because of alcohol : you have cirrhosis, you’ve lost your job, your family is disintegrating. This definition includes the need to get smashed periodically, whether it is the binge drinker who ties one on every nine months and is a sober, responsible citizen the rest of the time; people like Winston Churchill, who started his day with a shot of brandy and by evening was famously, vituperatively drunk; and four American Nobel prize winners who are alcoholics. Alcoholism seems to be the occupational hazard of writers, particularly, who need substances that will turn off the machine or grease their mental wheels. The most reliable substance, the old standby, is booze.
At this point there is no definition of alcoholism in monkeys, but Maurice said that if Small Central Thorax kept drinking the way he had been for twenty days, and you took away his hammond and he started having violent withdrawal symptoms (another aspect of the disease whose neurochemistry is not well understood), you could safely conclude that he was an alcoholic.
The important thing, he emphasized, was to realize that the difference between organic and functional psychosis is artificial. There are two languages, one neurobiological and the other psychosocial, for describing the same phenomenon. “You can say clinical depression, or low serotonin level. The problem with the overspecialized scientists of today is that too few of them are bilingual.” But ultimately, he added, everything is organic : “since there is an underlying brain, nothing happens without mixed-brain concomitants.” This was the point Ervin was trying to make in a book on the biology of violence that he published in l970, which was attacked by leftist intellectuals who “thought that I was trying to do away with Che Guevaras of this world, that I was saying was that there was no legitimate cause for anger, such as social injustice, because it was purely biological,” he explained. “But what I was saying was that each of us has a well-oiled attack mechanism that is under varying degrees of control, and our anger, whatever triggers it, is accompanied by specific, measurable changes in brain chemistry. And in fact, just as everybody was saying that violence couldn’t possibly be genetic– this is hot off the press– a Dutch librarian assembled a three-hundred-year pedigree dripping with murderers, rapists, and arsonists who have been found to share a defective NMAO gene. For the first time a gene associated with impulsive criminal violence has been isolated and sequenced.”
Ervin went to his blackboard and at the top he wrote BEHAVIOR, then just below it he drew four boxes representing MOTIVATIONAL STATES, which he labeled TASTE, ANTI-ANXIETY, ANTI-DEPRESSANT, and CRAVING (ADDICTION). Then at the bottom of the board he wrote GENE. “The puzzle of the system is how do you get from the gene, which makes a protein molecule, typically an enzyme, to the states? There may be several paths. There could be a single defective gene, or several disorders. We’d be willing to argue that every alcoholic family has a different genetic lesion. You can have your error on any one of twenty points down the line. Even a single mutation of the right kind can disrupt complex function like intelligence. What happens at one enzyme, if you knock it out or slightly increase or decrease its activity, can reverberate throughout the system. It’s like what happens in the rain forest if you pull out the monkeys.”
Turning to his caged monkeys, he continued: “Let’s say you have identified a hundred excess drinkers, who meet all the criteria. The first thing you do is check their pedigrees to see if they are family-history-positive or sporadic. A sporadic alcoholic could have suffered an accidental lesion prenatally– at fertilization, formation of the egg, or meiosis– or because of disease at any time. There is no strong unifying hypothesis, you can’t find a unifying pathophysiology, so the sporadics are irrelevant to research, and you concentrate on the familial alcoholics. Are the family histories identical ? No. Some pedigrees have only male alcoholics, others both sexes. If you limit yourself to one pedigree, you can be reasonably sure that if there is a biological disorder, it’s the same one. If the pedigree is male-limited, it seems unlikely that it’s multiple-gene disorder. More likely it’s a single-gene error.”
Roberta explained that there are “a handful of candidate loci” for the genetic basis of alcoholism. A study of rhesus monkeys at Harvard supports the hypothesis that there may be a genetic malfunction for handling stress which prompts some monkeys to drink alcohol more readily than others. Roberta, who is studying her third generation of greens, has found genetic abnormalities in some of the drinkers’ adenylate cyclase that are identical to abnormalities in alcoholic humans. Adenylate cyclase, she explained, is a “dopamine transducer. A transducer is one of four or five ways cells can talk to each other. Alcohol-preferring monkeys who have not been drinking have a dramatically higher level of adenylate cyclase than non-preferring monkeys, but if you let them drink for two weeks, the level normalizes.
“So we are considering evidence that many of the things we regard as psychopathological are not the consequence of a small primary lesion, but of the attempt of the organism to reestablish homeostatis– of overcompensation. This hypothesis, that adenylate cyclase may play a role in alcohol addiction is attractive because it is involved in dopamine production, and if it holds up between humans and monkeys, it has to be on the common pathway between gene and behavior.”
But it could be also be a dead end, Ervin admitted. A scientist considers himself lucky when one out of thirty hypotheses holds up for five years. Such is the progress of research. Meanwhile, the monkeys were also being used for more pragmatic types of research, like drug testing. Maltrezone, which blocks opiate receptors, several serotonin reuptake inhibitors (sri’s, which include the anti-depressant prozac) and dopamine antagonists were undergoing pre-clinical trial. “Human trials are a big pain,” Ervin explained. “So many variables can influence pill-taking and drinking, so if a primate model overlaps in even a subset of human drinkers, you have a very clear and powerful way of testing the efficacy of these drugs.”
One morning a spectacular, crackling fire was sweeping through the cane fields above Estridge Estates. Frank said it was probably arson. “That’s how the Kittitians let off steam. They set the cane on fire. There’s a high statistical probability the arsonist was a disgruntled, mildly inebriated labor supporter.”
I was eager to see some wild ones. But apart from a couple of dozen on the arid south tip who are habituated to tourists, the other forty thousand or so keep an extremely low profile. It’s hard to see them doing anything, let alone getting spontaneously drunk. But that some of them had a hankering for alcohol was suggested not only by the behavior of Ervin’s captives, but by Father LeBlanc’s report. In fact there was one monkey that had escaped but remained on the compound, taunting the others, and Ervin was dying to catch him. We could put out some rum and molasses in a halved cocoanut. But we never got around to doing it. According to Jane Goodall, the same sort of thing is rumored to be done with palm wine to bait chimpanzees in Guinea.
I sent out a query about “feral intoxication” to a site that five hundred and fifty primatologists schmooze with each other on, and got a number of interesting responses. That wild ring-tail lemurs get drunk on fermented kily pods in Madagascar is well-documented. In Mombassa, Kenya, there are folk-tales about wild drunken galagos, and there is actual footage, in a video called “Animals are Beautiful,” of not only baboons, but elephants, warthogs, and kudus feasting on the fermented berries of a marula tree and getting into “what to human observors may be an all too familiar state,” as the video’s narrator comments. Cedar waxwings get loaded on fermented juniper berries. Cats are driven crazy by catnip. I believe even certain species ants trip out on certain species of hallicinogenic fungi.
There seems to be a basic desire on the part of many sentient beings to get high. Some can handle the conscious-altering substances, others become addicted. The question then becomes, to what extent is the addiction biological ? One can become addicted to almost anything. Chess, golf, jogging, Ella Fitzergerald singing Cole Porter, Pilsner Urquell, the prize-winning beer of Czechoslovakia. Chile has a mildly addictive compound called capcasaicin, which releases Substance P, the enzyme the brain produces to override pain, so you eat chile for the rush. Chocolate is mildy addictive for the different rush– a sugar spike. Marijuana is frequently described as being “psychologically addictive,” but the neuroceptor it acts on has been found– it’s a different one from the one alcohol acts on– and it may prove to be more physically addictive than previously thought. But planet-wise, addiction to alcohol is the one most frequently encountered. .
“Handling alcohol is a mammalian necessity,” Ervin pointed out. “The body makes alcohol, and fermentation is part of food processing. Horses can eat sileage, which is fermented hay, all day long, and because they have unusually potent dehydrogenase enzymes, which burn alcohol, they don’t get drunk.”
Ervin said there were some monkeys on the slopes of the volcano in the center of the island, and arranged for me to climb it with a huge dude named Cleaver, who hunted monkeys for a living. The government paid him by the day, and he sold whatever game he shot locally. As we climbed through the rain forest, Cleaver told me his recipe for marinating and barbecuing monkey ribs. The monkeys in the forest were “very bashful and sensitive. They see and hear more than we do.” There were all sorts of folk-tales about the monkeys– Anancy stories, he called them (Anancy is a cunning, spider-like Caribbean culture hero of West African origin)– like about how they stole the straw hats and sunglasses of the tourists. Ecologically, he said, the monkeys had been a disaster. They and introduced mongooses had wiped out the ground birds, the large, edible toads known as mountain chickens, the parrots, the St. Kitts bullfinch, the agoutis, the iguanas, and the grass snakes. “They hassle farmers’ crops, the sugar cane, the birds’ nests,” he complained.
Mt. Liumuiga, also known Mt. Misery, was the youngest of the island’s four volcanos, only six thousand years old; the oldest is thirty million years old. It is described as “dormant,” but it periodically makes disquieting noises in its sleep. Should it blow, it would take every living on thing on the island with it. St. Kitts exists on its suffrance. It last acted up in l988, throwing to the ground nineteen tourists who had hiked up to the crater.
The monkeys who live on the slopes of the volcano and in its crater have plenty of wild food, so they have little truck with humans. Cleaver and I climbed through a mango forest into a palm brake; the palms are mountain cabbage palms, whose tender lead shoots are the source of the salad delicacy, palm hearts . After three hours we entered an elfin cloud forest of small, twisted trees dripping with Spanish moss, with small epiphytic orchids in their crotches, and at last we reached the crater’s rim. We could hear, but couldn’t see, a raucous troop of monkeys calling to each other in the frothing jungle at the bottom of the crater, and fifty yards from us, a monkey walked briefly out on a branch to check us out and disappeared back into the forest.
They were there alright, and who was to say they don’t get smashed on fermented fruit from time to time, or even make their own secret brew of hammond, Maurice quipped afterward– like the monks from whom monkeys get their name, with their Chartreuse and their Benedictine ? The question is completely unstudied.
Maybe we should come back next winter, and mount a feral intoxication study, I suggested. Maurice agreed that we must continue our research, but he had another subject in mind– the pulque-guzzling burros of Teotihuacan.
The last time I talked to Maurice he had an epigram for me — from Beaumarchais (“The Marriage of Figaro,” etc.) : “Boire sans avoir soif et faire l’amour en tout temps, Madame, voilá ce qui distingue l’homme des animaux.” (To drink without being thirsty and to make love whenever you feel the urge, Madame– this is what distinguishes man from the animals.)
“We now can say that this is not true,” he told me.
by Alex Shoumatoff