The Alcoholic Monkeys of St. Kitts
Smoke and mirrors on a small Caribbean island
Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Maurice Dongier of McGill University studies the causes of alcoholism. He and I are related by marriage, through an extended family of Rwandese émigrés in Montreal and, 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 Senegal and the Gambia 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. The monkeys 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 behaviour.” A McGill colleague of Maurice’s had been studying the monkeys, and had found that 17 percent of them displayed classic symptoms of alcoholism—the same proportion reported in an alcoholism study of Swedes—and that the monkeys’ susceptibility to alcohol showed clear family linkage. I sipped in appreciative silence the magnificent Sauterne that Maurice had brought up from his wine cellar.
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 run into them. “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 175 knots, a trip like this becomes an epic voyage. Plowing 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 drone, 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, half a century ago, the first stop for Nazi POWs. The next night we made an unscheduled stopover in the Bahamas, after our radio conked out, then 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 in St. Kitts. Sixty-eight, with long flowing white hair and beard, he looked like Walt Whitman or an éminence 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 streamlined patois for St. Christopher). From 1643 on, it was the first stop for slave ships and the auction centre for the entire Caribbean. 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, Ervin told us, that attracted charter flights from places like Dallas, Toronto and Cali, Colombia (the island was a transshipment station for cocaine 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). However, 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 with 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 centres, 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 honky. 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 European and American laboratories with monkeys for medical research or drug production and from preclinical drug trials on the monkeys who remained on the farm. The alcoholism study was only one of about forty that Ervin was running.
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 meteorically through the academic strata until, by the sixties, he had become a psychopharmacologist in the Harvard Department of Psychiatry. He was not impressed by the way Timothy Leary, over in the department of psychology, 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 temporal lobe epilepsy, which introduced him to psychotic behaviour, 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 give 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 identified by the criminal justice system rather than the mental health system. By l968 he had 180 self-referred violent patients.
“Thirty-five were murderers,” Ervin recalled. “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 behaviour 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?” Ervin believes it plays an active role. “Alcohol in low doses excites the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, which organizes attack behaviour, the fight or flight responses—and at the same time it dampens the inhibiting mechanisms in the frontal lobe, the neocortex, which control primal aggression,” 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 he “needed a social group with a complex behavioural repertoire to study.” 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 percent with man.”
Ervin hooked up with some scientists doing experiments at Victoria Falls, in what was then Southern Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. Just as he was getting on the plane, however, Southern Rhodesia hit the fan. Victoria Falls fell to the guerrillas of still-in-the-bush, soon to become the despotic, erratic head of state Robert Mugabe, so Ervin needed to find another population. By chance, a colleague at the Smithsonian Institution discovered an old green-monkey skin labelled “St. Kitts.” Ervin flew down to the island as soon as he could. He drove out to the arid southern tip, 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 Mr. Wigley replied, “Yeah boss.”
Ervin dreamed of stocking the southern tip with monkeys and conducting 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 began to rape and murder each other, the mothers committing infanticide and 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. “This is one of these offshore 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.”
Ervin was eloquent in his defence against the animal-rights issues the operation raised. “I’m an unrepentant speciesist,” he said. “If a baby monkey has to be sacrificed so its kidney can provide twenty-seven thousand polio vaccines, to me this is a reasonable trade-off.” Defending his research on alcoholism, he noted, “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 US. One in eight children has an alcoholic parent. The annual cost of the disease is $130 billion—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,” he continued, “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 St. Kitts greens had been without predators for centuries and their social organization was much looser and more relaxed than the traditional, sharply hierarchical African troop; “like a Quaker meeting,” as Ervin put it.
In an eighteenth-century natural history of the island by Jesuit naturalist Father LeBlanc, Ervin read of 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. While driving down to Basseterre, a serious confusion about the monkeys getting bombed on the fermented sugar cane emerged. Maurice and I had been led to believe 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 drunkenness, 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. (From him, actually, his Texan penchant for hyperbole apparently having got the better of him.) 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.”
I later sent out a query about “feral intoxication” to a Web site where 550 primatologists schmooze with each other, and got a number of interesting responses. That wild ring-tail lemurs get drunk on fermented lily pods in Madagascar is well documented. In Kenya, there are folktales about wild drunken galagos, and in a video called “Animals are Beautiful,” not only baboons, but elephants, warthogs and kudus feast on the fermented berries of a marula tree and get into “what to human observers 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’ve heard even certain species of ants trip out on hallucinogenic fungi. There does seem to be a basic desire on the part of many sentient beings to get high. Some can handle the consciousness-altering substances, others become addicted.
One can become addicted to almost anything, though—chess, golf, jogging, Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. The question then becomes, to what extent is the addiction biological? Ervin 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 17 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 Ervin 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 1980. Rats had been used in alcohol research since the twenties, but theirs was the first monkey model. Since then rhesus monkeys have been tested in Rotterdam and at Harvard, cynomolgus monkeys in Denver, and Ervin 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 heroin, 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, on her rounds. The rum that is used is 150-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 9 am to 1 pm 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’s. After 300 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 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 behaviour. 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 behaviour—the same techniques employed by biosocial anthropologists in the field, which he said had proved surprisingly useful in mental wards and 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 behaviour,” 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 behaviour breaks down into affiliative and agonistic. Grooming is the female affiliative behaviour par excellence, as you can test by driving around the island and seeing all the girls plaiting 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 behaviour 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, femoral or carotid arteries, where they are most likely to kill.”
As soon as Ervin left, the ten monkeys all approached, making contact calls. It didn’t take long to pick out the dominant ones; they hadn’t been together long enough for there 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; this meant “buddies.” A little adolescent came up to us, masturbated briskly and licked the come off its fingers. “Hate to waste protein,” Ervin 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 Mexico and the Southwest: 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 el borrego, “fucking the sheep.” On St. Kitts the expression is “liming.” (Liming was the main behaviour Maurice and I saw over nineteen hours of observation between us.)
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 (SCT), 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 centre 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. The effect was not unlike that of rum on the planters of St. Kitts, described by an early chronicler named Richard Ligon: “It lays them asleep on the ground.”
SCT was the only real “skid row” 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 the writer Marguerite Duras, a severe alcoholic, who claimed 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. “With alcohol the ritual system [of aggression] 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 judgement, he attacks back, then all hell breaks loose.”
“The same sort of breakdown of the agonistic minuet happens in bars,” he continued. “Take, for instance, this exchange, which actually happened in 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.”
What exactly is alcoholism? I wondered. Like most Frenchmen, 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 simply part of the meal.
To date, no genes associated with alcoholism have been found in any species. A big mistake of popularizers, Ervin said, is that there is 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 much is due to the cold? Extreme cold and hot climates (Brazil, for instance) produce heavy drinking, but then the Irish are no slouches either. Maurice, Ervin and Palmour were part of a multidisciplinary team studying alcoholism in northern Ontario, whose males are dramatically more prone to the disease than southern Ontarians. This may, however, have less to do with geography than with personality. 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” behaviour. Zuckerman-positives, who seek out adventure, danger and constant stimulation and tend to drink a lot, abound in northern Ontario.
There is also a correlation between alcoholism and depression, which is caused, according to the latest thinking, by a malfunction of the dopamine, serotonin 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, 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 a defeated culture; worldwide, 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.
Native Americans 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 malaria twice and hepatitis once—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, even 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. 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. In one of his recent Vanity Fair columns, Christopher Hitchens, himself an unapologetic hip-flask journalist, extolls the salubrious effects of liquor on creativity.
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, you could safely conclude that he was an alcoholic.
The important thing, Ervin 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.” 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 the Che Guevaras of this world, that I was saying 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 “Behaviour,” then just below it he drew four boxes representing motivational states, which he labelled “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 a 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.”
Palmour 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 that prompts some monkeys to drink alcohol more readily than others. Palmour, 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 re-establish homeostasis—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 behaviour.”
But it could 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.
I was eager to see some wild greens. 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 by Father LeBlanc’s report as well as by the behaviour of Ervin’s captives. 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 coconut. But we never got around to doing it. According to Jane Goodall, the same sort of thing is rumoured to be done with palm wine to bait chimpanzees in Guinea.
Ervin said there were some monkeys on the slopes of Mount Liamuiga—the volcano in the centre of the island, also known as Mount Misery—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, spiderlike 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. Along with introduced mongooses, they had wiped out the ground birds, the large, edible toads known as mountain chickens, the parrots, the St. Kitts bullfinches, the agoutis, the iguanas and the grass snakes. “They hassle farmers’ crops, the sugar cane, the birds’ nests,” he complained.
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 all right, 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 Teotihuacán.
The last time I talked to Maurice he had an epigram for me—from Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro: “Boire sans soif et faire l’amour en tout temps, Madame, il n’y a que ça qui nous distingue des autres bêtes.” (To drink without thirst and to make love whenever you feel the urge, Madame, there is nothing but this that distinguishes us from the other animals.)
“We now can say that this is not true,” he told me.