Last Saturday, Joe Bennett wrote a column, in his usual delightful style, praising wine. He defended wine's honour against the health freaks who would condemn this ancient beverage because of its cancer-causing potential.
Government health authorities worldwide are telling us to stay away from the booze because of the health risks. Even in France, a hard line has been taken.
For Bennett, a wine drinker of 50 years, this is sacrilegious. What about all the pleasure wine had given him over the years, including laughing heartily with friends? Surely this is a health benefit?
And anyway, if the pleasure of drinking wine was going to cost him a few years at the end, so be it. When calculating the calculus of life, Bennett is on the side of quality over the number of years lived.
I read Bennett's column with interest because I'd just read a book titled Drunk: How we sipped, danced, and stumbled our way to civilisation (2021) by Edward Slingerland (available from Whangārei Library).
As its title suggests, the book is a cultural history of alcohol drinking. Going right back to when our distant ape ancestors were partial to consuming the odd fermented fruit.
The history is fascinating, the writing often very funny, but the book is also a defence of getting drunk, or at least tipsy.
Let me try and distil Slingerland's central argument, built on much scientific evidence of our past and present selves.
For at least 10,000 years, humans have drunk alcohol from fermented grains or fruit. It's done in every corner of the world, by almost every culture.
Slingerland theorises that if alcohol was so bad for us, it would have died out as a habit through cultural evolution. If a teetotaling culture was better than a beer-swigging one, then surely the teetotallers would have flourished and be ruling the world.
Biological evolution would have lent a hand to this scenario by selecting traits that made drinking alcohol unpleasant, like really bad hangovers from the merest drop.
But this hasn't happened. Therefore, there must be something about drinking alcohol that has been, on the whole, and despite the damage to our livers, a benefit to cultures.
The primary benefit, argues Slingerland, is that getting drunk brings people together.
Alcohol dials down that part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), responsible for our rational, calculating selves.
This part of the brain is on the lookout for threats, including from other people. The PFC is watching people and their behaviours for any signs of being taken advantage of.
The PFC is suspicious, untrusting and generally selfish, concerned mostly with the survival of the individual human it inhabits. This is a source of anxiety in most of us when we're around lots of people.
Alcohol dilutes or washes away that anxiety, to the point where you start singing songs in a bar with complete strangers.
Drinking alcohol, as we know, can make socialising more fun. We become more trusting. We don't second-guess everything we say, worried about how it might be received by others.
We let ourselves go a bit. We smile and laugh naturally.
This is helpful for creating bonds between people. For instance, when two families come together at a wedding.
Archaeological evidence suggests that when humans started congregating in numbers larger than their hunter-gather bands, drinking alcohol was a big part of the ritualised get-togethers.
It's alcohol's role in providing a social glue that's been a historical benefit to culture.
Slingerland also maintains that alcohol consumption (and other mind-altering drugs) stimulates creativity. Again, he has studies to back him up.
Maybe the wheel was conceived at an evening drinking session, just as good ideas today can be generated by colleagues having a relaxing drink after work.
The problem is, though, and Slingerland's book doesn't shy away from this, drinking to excess can lead to stupidity and violence, or drunk driving and sexual assault. The statistics are damning in that regard.
Our society is no different from previous cultures in trying to maintain rules and boundaries that keep the worst impacts of excessive alcohol consumption in check.
And Slingerland points to those countries today, like France or Italy, where wine drinking is a normalised day-to-day activity (usually with food), and inebriated stumbling and slurring is frowned upon.
Having participated in questionable drinking practices in my youth, when it seemed more normal to do so, it's good to see New Zealand's drinking culture moving closer to the French or Italian model.
We can enjoy wine or beer in the company of friends or family, or even a stranger or two, without getting blotto.
As for the health risks, you just weigh that up for yourself. Certainly, no one has to drink, and there shouldn't be social pressure to do so.
The complete absence of alcohol from our social world is, however, very unlikely. Joe Bennett can rest easy on that one.