Intoxication by Ronald K. Siegel

IntoxicationOriginally published in 1989 under the title ‘Intoxication: Life in the Pursuit of Artificial Paradise,’ this 2005 reissue by Park Street Press is entitled ‘Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances.’ The author, Ronald K. Siegel is a psychopharmacologist interested in the social and psychological effects of drugs. His other works include ‘Fire in the Brain’ and ‘Whispers: The Voices of Paranoia’.

For the animal rights activist this book would read very closely to a book of horrors, which includes all-kinds of experiments examining the use of all-manner of drugs, from hallucinogens, to coca, to alcohol, on the behaviour of everything from insects to ‘higher’ primates. However, while these various experiments—some conducted by the author himself and others cited—might get the blood of the animal activist boiling, the results are without-a-doubt interesting; regardless of the ethics involved. Moreover, and perhaps more compellingly in reference to the overall point of the book, are the examples taken from the wilds of nature herself. Not only are the relationships between animals ‘in pursuit’ of intoxication and plants examined, but also the defences that deal with predators from within the plants (i.e. the intoxicants), and the defences to these strategies in the animals/insects chomping on them. The numerous examples form the content and backdrop of Siegel’s book.

The overall point of the book is most easily described as the ‘fourth drive’—wherein intoxication takes its place alongside the drives (desires?) for food, drink, and sex. In establishing this premise, Siegel believes: “If we can understand intoxication as a universal and totally natural phenomenon, if we can apply the teachings of plants and animals to the questions raised by our own pursuits, then we can free ourselves from repeating past history and move on to design a new future” (Siegel 2005, 15). In the final chapter, Siegel puts today’s ‘drug problem’ very succinctly. While medical drug use has side-effects it is tolerated because it is medical, while intoxicating drugs are deemed ‘morally unacceptable.’ The answer, as he sees it, lies in firstly understanding the medical potential of ‘intoxicating drugs’ and simultaneously having society recognise intoxication as a fundamental drive—the upshot of which is for society to create safer spaces in which this can take place (rather than in unregulated, hidden black-holes.)

A question that seems implicitly danced around in Siegel’s analyses concerns anthropomorphism, which is to say the application of human traits on the animal population. At times, it is referred to as a nineteenth century romantic ideal, but so far as the author’s behaviourism is concerned it is a very prescient relationship. Primarily, he talks in terms of intoxication and addiction and applies these to his animal patients. Recognising that we cannot know the subjective experience of a monkey on a high-dose of THC is one thing, but knowing that he stares, emptily into space for long periods just as human subjects do appears to reveal a lot about brain mechanisms. The most prescient human-animal comparison lies with his section of elephants getting drunk; who under the stress of close-confinement transform from a happy family, into dissociating, aggressive, or submissive individuals (depending on their role in the social hierarchy.) Siegel writes:

The lesson should always be remembered. Under the right conditions, the intoxication itself can become a reason for use and animals with access to alcohol will intentionally get drunk by consuming more than their usual amounts. For laboratory animals the stress of captivity, confinement, or conflict will persuade many to become alcoholic. When similar conditions occur in social colonies, herds, or natural habitats, they drive animals to alcohol. The most convincing examples have been the two animals that have life expectancies of approximately seventy years, select mates for life, provide collective care for their young, suffer death from heart disease, bury their dead, and kill for love of drink: people and pachyderms. (Siegel 2005, 122)

As with any analysis that utilizes the addiction/withdrawal model there is a certain amount of stereotyping. For example, there are plenty of adults who drink heavily but do not turn to violence, and certainly wouldn’t ‘kill for love of drink’. Although there is treatment for ketamine addiction. However, in behavioural terms, there is a level of coherence that does point toward a generalised efficacy. The leap of knowing how an aggressive elephant might actually describe their propensity to anger within an enclosed space is one too far, however, and thus the anthropomorphic analysis prevails until we learn to communicate with other species more coherently.

In many respects, Siegel’s intoxication-addiction-withdrawal framing is starting to feel a little antiquated in the twenty-first century, but the evidence for a universal drive toward intoxication does not. The premise holds very well and is indeed more valid than the typical pharmacographical position of ‘culturally-universal’ when cited across such a diverse range of animals; simply ‘universal’ might be the best starting point. The author also points towards the feeding and intoxicating strategies of animals and, lest we forget our origins, they are not so different to our own and, in fact, there are many examples of inter-species learning—so at least one evolutionary proven communication does take place. Overall, a fascinating insight into the intoxication complex.

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3 Responses

  1. Exceptionally worth reading if you have a serious interest in drugs and drug use.

  1. April 21, 2015

    […] (that includes humans too) drawing largely on the investigations by Ronald K. Siegel. His book, the Intoxication:The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances narrates how bees drop to the ground in temporary stupor after sampling orchids, birds get high on […]

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