Animals regulate their body temperatures a bunch of different ways. Warm-blooded animals like mammals and birds have more mitochondria per cell, which make more heat but also mean we have to eat more. We also shiver and sweat and, when we’re babies, have brown fat around our backs and kidneys that stop us from freezing. So that’s all physiological self-regulation (homeostasis). Cold-blooded animals do a lot of behavioral homeostasis, which is why I find garter snakes sunning themselves on the gravel next to my back door in the spring time and box turtles hanging out in the middle of the road. Warm-blooded animals do a lot of behavioral thermoregulation too, which is why we tend to come in out of the rain. Some animals do very interesting social behavior to regulate their body temperature- termite mounds are partially designed to balance getting enough ventilation with not getting too hot, and the tent caterpillars you can see throughout the Northeast US swarm inside their tents as a group to stay warm on cool days and nights in the spring and then spread out on warmer days to cool off as well as to feed on leaves. And of course, humans do a lot of social thermoregulatory homeostasis as well, what with building houses and making clothes.
So when you think about something like why the alcohol-related death rate is so rapidly rising over the last few years…
…you could see it as a breakdown of each of these types of homeostasis or self-regulation: physiological, behavioral, and social. While it’s true that alcohol is in many ways a toxin, and as Alice says, if you drink very much from a bottle marked poison it’s bound to disagree with you sooner or later, this isn’t exactly fentanyl, a novel if apparently attractive way of killing ourselves, newly introduced into our social environment. Take this description, from Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Tastes of Paradise, of 17th century beer drinking habits:
Sure, sure, the beer was of varying and often low alcohol content, But three liters a day, “children included,” is still a lot. More recently, as Mad Men and various cinematic versions of Winston Churchill remind us, mid-20th century men and occasionally women were drinking a lot throughout the day, not just at night, and stronger stuff. So increasing deaths from alcohol in populations and cultures with hundreds or thousands of years of exposure to alcohol is at least suggestive of a breakdown of certain forms of regulation and self-stabilization or homeostasis.
To take the hierarchy above, I wonder if physiologically, Americans are, due to interactions with other drugs compromising their livers and obesity, greater inactivity and general ill-health, less able to metabolize alcohol. To go back to Winston Churchill, perhaps whiskey and cigars were a more sustainable combination than the whiskey and prozac, whiskey and oxycodone, and whiskey and adderall combinations we subsidize now.
Increasing chronic pain might also increase the temptation to self-medicate.
Behaviorally, increasing free time as well as the easy availability of alcohol in great quantities for very little money relative to incomes can make it easy to drink too much, too quickly. And socially, we are both more isolated, allowing us to drink more alone, and liable to view alcohol and sexuality as the sole remaining redoubts of adult life distinct from childhood, encouraging us to drink more- and more competitively and excessively– together.
Failures in physiological, behavioral, and social homeostasis can all accompany and reinforce one another to produce a single worrying trend.