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Information, Alcohol, Genes

Alcohol cannot have complex effects on human personalities. Just the same as banging your head. Why? Well, the alcohol we drink is one fairly simple molecule. It doesn't have information about human personalities, and thus couldn't target parts of one. And it's not evolved in that regard (no selection pressure).

But couldn't it just happen to be the right thing to have one specific effect?

Well, first off, now you're explaining things by "maybe the world just happens, by luck, to be just the way I thought it was."

And secondly, if it only takes something as simple as alcohol (the molecule isn't many thousands of atoms, just a few) to make people more liable to cheat on their girlfriends, then why haven't we yet designed a chemical to make people act more chaste?

Thirdly, people are very different, and store information in their brains differently. They vary so much as to confuse scientists, so what are the chances a plant happened to grow in a way to work on everyone (including past people, even).


Genes also lack the information to complexly effect one's personality.

Genes also never got a chance to evolve this ability, because once people had personalities and there were selection pressures on them, memes, which evolve much faster, would always do it first thus removing the selection pressure.

And again, it would be quite a huge feat of luck for some gene to just happen to have the right qualities to effect the personalities of many different people.

Elliot Temple on June 28, 2004

Comments (27)

Agree about genes but not (I think) about alcohol.

Yes, it seems unlikely genes encode much more complex info about personality than (perhaps) "outgoing or shy", etc.

Alcohol however does seem to have a complex effect on personality, it "lowers inhibitions" etc. Your arguments that this can't be, are weird.

First there's argument from simple molecule. Say what? Simple molecules can affect brain chemistry (which involve lots of complex chains of reactions, presumably). Slight change to brain chemistry can affect personality in large ways. What makes you think the {brain chemistry} to {personality} map is continuous?

Then there's "contains no info about human personality". But it contains info about human biochemistry and personality is affected by that.

So you're left with what-are-the-odds that this "plant" (alcohol not a plant btw ;) would have this effect. One might as well ask what-are-the-odds that our universe would have just the right parameters for human life? In fact people *do* ask that, in particular people who are "creationists" ;-)

I think you misidentify what evolutionary processes would be necessary for alcohol to exist, have the effect it does, and for us to know about it. The main thing that had to happen in this context was for us to know about it, not for it to (somehow) achieve some kind of complex molecular shape which encodes info about human personality.

Say early brewers experimented w/potions, chemicals, drinking stuff lying on the ground, etc. Anyone stumbling on the chemical "cyanide" who drank it, promptly died. But those who stumbled upon liquids with the chemical "alcohol" in them, and drank it, enjoyed the feeling, in particular enjoyed *the change to their personality*, and passed on the knowledge of the chemical, how to create it, and its effect. Now we know about it and its effect. You're here asking *what are the odds that this particular chemical* would have this effect.

Well, *some* chemical was bound to have such an effect, no? ;-) So the odds are "1". It's fallacious to say that the fact that the effect comes from the chemical we know as "alcohol" is some kind of coincidence. If it came from some *other* chemical we wouldn't be having a conversation about alcohol, but about that chemical.

It's possible I suppose that human physiology were not of a nature which would admit of a chemical which could alter one's personality in the "lower inhibitions" direction. But, there does happen to be such a chemical, so hey. Notice we're not here talking about a chemical which causes people to sprout wings and fly. We're talking about a chemical which happens to exist and produce a certain effect.

Why *is* human (and animal) biology such that alcohol has that effect? Beats me...

Blixa at 8:04 PM on June 28, 2004 | #984

You say some [simple-ish] chemical was bound to have the effects attributed to alcohol. Is this also true WRT the effects of increased chastity? If personalities can be effected as easily as you seem to believe, shouldn't a chastity chemical either exist in nature or be made in a lab by now?

My explanation for what alcohol does is: it changes your environment. Stuff external to your brain. Then, being in a different situation, you act differently, according to your theories about how to act in this other situation. There are traditions about what sorts of theories to have about how to act when drunk, and they are passed on.

My reason the chastity drug doesn't exist is: there's simply no tradition for chastity like there is with alcohol.

Elliot at 8:11 PM on June 28, 2004 | #985

I agree. I think that there is an idea around that alcohol "frees" people's senses.. thus they no longer have to be responsible for themselves. ewww

Camille at 9:59 PM on June 28, 2004 | #986

The thing about "if alcohol can make people looser why can't something make you more chaste" also is on your list of weird arguments. Maybe the alcohol effect, whatever it is, is simply non-reversible? Then it'd be like asking, If scrambling eggs is a simple chemical process, why can't eggs be unscrambled? why can't logs be un-burned? argument from simplicity + why-can't-it-be-reversed? just doesn't hold water w/me. Lots of simple things can't be reversed and it's not surprising or an argument that that thing's effect can't exist.

That said, there *are* chemicals which can make people more chaste, seems to me. What is "chemical castration"? Assuming that actually works..

Your theory that, (how to behave when drunk), is a theory that people can learn & pass on, makes some sense and that effect is probably present. However, I'm still pretty sure there's a distinct brain chemistry "lowering inhibitions" effect.. you're trying to speak now as if alcohol *only* changes external environment & you know you're not getting away with that :-)

Maybe *what people do* with those "lower inhibitions" can vary by culture etc. (because of different how-to-behave-when-drunk theories) but it still seems likely that eventually most cultures stumble upon the sleeping-around theory... lots of people don't need much excuse to sleep around so the activation-energy of including "I'll sleep around" into their drunk theory would be very low to begin with... closer to agreement?

Blixa at 8:09 AM on June 29, 2004 | #987

Well, scientists think they've identified a gene that affects promiscuity in rats, at least.


Gil at 10:02 AM on June 29, 2004 | #988

Rats aren't people.

Rats are just little computers with legs, and the right tinkering will make them do backflips until they die of starvation.

Elliot at 10:05 AM on June 29, 2004 | #989

What about drugs that reduce pain? Do not they effect one's behavior when subjected to pain? Or what about sleeping pills? The behavior of someone taking such a drug will be different than the behavior of someone who did not, right?

I do not see the difference between these examples and the drug of alcohol. All of these drugs effect our biochemistry in some way, which can have an effect on our behavior.

someone at 5:29 PM on June 29, 2004 | #990

you're confusing what "effect behavior" means. here's an example:

suppose you stub your toe, then swear. does stubbing your toe make you swear? no! you respond that way based on your own personality.

Elliot at 5:36 PM on June 29, 2004 | #991

The point is that the drugs are affecting the environment a person is in, but it isn't affecting their personality. If you have a theory that pain is pleasure, then taking a pain killer is going to have a different effect on you than if you hate pain more than anything. In the first case, you'll be like "damn, i was about to get off, too." and in the second case it'll be more like "Oh, happy day!" The pain killer did the same thing to both people's biochemistry but what matters is how you react to X environment, not the funky brain chemistry alterations going on in your head.

So if someone gets drunk and cheats on his girlfriend, and then says "It's not my fault, I was drunk." he's wrong because it was his theories on how to react to being in a drunken state that gave him the internal permission to go for the booty. He didn't drink a glass of wine and then suddenly have big flashing red letters in his head spelling out the urge to hook up with the waitress.

fr0ggE at 5:37 PM on June 29, 2004 | #992

F0ggE, I love the way you explain things.

Dan at 7:45 PM on June 29, 2004 | #993

Rats are just little computers with legs

And, people are bigger computers with legs.

I agree that people's behavior is largely controlled by their theories. But these theories still in reside in brains, and aren't impervious to physical changes in brains. Chemicals can change how likely we are to enact some of our theories (like behave "properly" or to withhold secrets).

I think it's good that you insist on pointing out that our behavior cannot be completely determined by chemicals or genes; but I don't think it helps to overstate the case and pretend that interesting aspects of our behavior can't be targeted and affected in predictable ways by these things either.

It seems quite plausible to me that they can.

I don't think this destroys the case for our responsibility for our actions; as long as we are choosing which drugs and gene therapy to take. We remain responsible for which theories we prefer and choose to enact, even if we use chemical assistance to do so. I don't think that "natural" brains are incapable of judging these theories and choosing among them, so it is always our own (affected but unforced) choices that determine our behavior.

Gil at 9:52 AM on June 30, 2004 | #994


I think targeting our personalities with chemicals is physically possible! However, I think such a thing must either be designed or evolved for this purpose to have a snowball's chance in hell.

It is misleading to describe people as computers on legs because humans have emergent properties that rats do not have.

Elliot at 9:59 AM on June 30, 2004 | #995

What Gil said.

frOggE, no one ever claimed that if it were true to say alcohol changed personality, this would absolve people of their behavior while drunk. Not even the issue.

Elliot, were hallicinogenic mushrooms designed or evolved for the purpose of causing humans to experience hallucinations? If not, how can they have this effect? Just still trying to understand your reasoning here.

Blixa at 1:47 PM on June 30, 2004 | #996

Better example: the tree bark from which aspirin is made, that (we are told) Indians and such used to chew on. How is it that trees could have possibly evolved so as to cure humans' headaches?

Blixa at 2:25 PM on June 30, 2004 | #997


I think the point is that however big my headache is, or however drunk I am, it doesn't change most of the facts of reality. For instance the fact that 37*8 = 296 doesn't alter. Even if I'm too drunk to work it out in my head -I might need crayons and a giant sheet of paper first.

Likewise, punching somebody on the nose because they're looking at me funny, remains dumb.

If I've experienced the drug a few times before, I am equipped to compensate for its effects. So I won't drive when drunk, I won't go bob-sleigh riding if I've got a headache. I won't dismantle electrical equipment if I've just taken an untried drug, etc.

Changing my internal environment certainly may well change my propensities. This applies just the same for changes in the external environment. How many here can claim that being whisked off to the Planet of the Nymphomaniacs wouldn't affect choices of what to do for the rest of the day? However, one's core values ought not to change, if they're objective.

People do seem to use their theories about drugs as an excuse to behave in outrageous or even bad ways.

For example, the Labour government here in England wants to charge pub and club owners for part of the cost of policing the streets outside their establishments on busy nights.

Tom at 4:10 PM on June 30, 2004 | #998

Headachey people, chewing on tree bark, report a lessened headache, on average.

Drunken people behave in many different ways. The cause of any specific complex behaviour is more likely to be a meme they picked up from other drunk people in the past. If it was a bad thing, they may use the alcohol as an excuse. But they are still responsible. Beforehand, they presumably *wanted* to get drunk.

Tom at 4:21 PM on June 30, 2004 | #999


The distinction is between causing chemical and sensory changes, and causing behavioral changes.

It's fair game for a chemical to block, slow, or speed up signals from one place to another. Our body uses chemicals itself, to regulate all sorts of bodily functions. Adding more of them, or adding a chemical that reacts with one of them, would certainly have effects.

But to actually cause behavior, instead of just changing external environment (external to *mind*, not body) would require very very exact tampering with the brain.

For hallucinations, perhaps the drug causes random errors in sensory input, combined with some other odd, confusing stuff. This could get people with overactive imaginations to do and think all sorts of things ... just like a "haunted" house w/ some special effects could.

For headaches all we need is a placebo effect. Or something in the bark could mess with signals from the complaining nerves. Or could actually heal something I suppose.

Elliot at 4:57 PM on June 30, 2004 | #1000

Not sure about Aspirin, but I know Ibuprofen messes with the signals from the complaining nerves. Namely, makes you produce less of them.

Dan at 9:32 PM on June 30, 2004 | #1001


Don't disagree with anything you say but it doesn't seem to relate to the issue. Again, AFAIK no one (well, here) was claiming that if "alcohol changes personality" this *excuses* anything one does with their new alcohol-induced "personality". I honestly don't know why you're arguing this as it is not in dispute.


But chemical changes can cause behavioral changes. Okay so "all" it does is change the external-to-mind environment. Which can then cause behavioral changes. (no?)

As for my aspirin/mushrooms examples, you explain well enough how those things could work, but that doesn't address the point I intended to raise by bringing them up. I was asking you why it doesn't bother or "surprise" you how such things (headache curing tree bark, hallucination causing shrooms) could just "happen to" exist. How did they evolve? Maybe I'm just missing something in what you're saying.

Blixa at 2:05 PM on July 1, 2004 | #1002


It doesn't surprise me that the effects I believe alcohol actually has exist in a chemical.

if alcohol changes ur external environment, then u act differently, it's "causing" behavior in the same sense a trip to alaska does (you'll make more snowballs, or whatever). in both cases, it's more accurate to say that you're choosing your own behavior based on what situation you are in, and the only cause of your behavior is you.

Elliot at 4:29 PM on July 1, 2004 | #1003

It seems to me that these are distinctions without differences. Yes a drunk person himself (and not the alcohol or something) is choosing behavior X. Being drunk (the alcohol stimulating his brain nerve inhibitors, or whatever) has made him more likely to do so. Indeed, had he not been drunk he probably would not have done so.

I do sort of now understand what you're trying to do here with this exercise, however. Allow me to fast forward. Here is the part where I say something like,

To me "the alcohol changed his personality" is a perfectly reasonable description of this phenomenon seeing as how he's acting and behaving and interacting with people in ways much different than he did/would before the alcohol.

Then you say how it's 'only' his external environment (i.e. even the chemicals, nerves in his brain, inhibitors of those nerves etc are 'external') which has changed. And that's not the way you define "personality" and "mind" and so forth, which is some internal quintessential thing that (for example) is not affected by external things such as brain chemistry.

Then I say, But that's circular, you're kind of defining "personality" to get that result you wanted.

Then you kind of shrug and say, Well yeah, sort of, but I'm just making true observations here (or whatever)

Then finally I say Ok, I guess.

So, I think I get it now, thanks ;-)

Blixa at 6:25 PM on July 1, 2004 | #1004

well, trip to alaska makes throwing snowballs more likely, right? but saying "the trip changed his personality" is unreasonable. it was already a part of his personality that he makes snowballs when it's snowy. so too was it already a part of his personality that he acts X way when drunk.

maybe you'll see the difference this way: i assert if someone grew up and never heard a word about alcohol, then had some, and still was told nothing about it, it would not cause the effects generally attributed to it. not "might not" but no bloody way.

Elliot at 6:32 PM on July 1, 2004 | #1005

Ok, I guess.


P.S. Point about effect of alcohol with no cultural baggage, is interesting. I wonder if it or something like it has been tested. By "effects attributed" I assume you're (still) talking about sleeping around or something like that. No perhaps not.

But would our new alcohol drinker act giddy? lose balance? stumble? laugh more easily? I rather tend to think so. All depends on how specific you think one must define "effects of alcohol on personality" before you accept it as a meaningful concept.

Blixa at 7:47 PM on July 1, 2004 | #1006

would he:

sleep around more? no

giddy? i think not with no cultural baggage of any kind. just no mention of alcohol, maybe yes. hard to say.

lose balance - yes

stumble - yes

laugh more easily - only if he had other cultural baggage about laughing when confused, uncomfortable, or something

not that losing balance and stumbling aren't choices.

Elliot at 7:52 PM on July 1, 2004 | #1007

Just wanna say...

Curi. Have you ever been shitfaced drunk? Cause if not, you really should. Then post again on alcohol.

Y'see, if you haven't gotten whammed before, all I can really say now is that you haven't done the correct research. ...Well, that's my opinion anywho...And my opinion isn't worth much, but oh well. *Wanders off*

Oh So Mighty S. Larson at 2:25 PM on July 10, 2004 | #1008

If I was drunk, what would I experience that would be relevant to the argument? Just tell me, if you have a point.

Elliot Temple at 7:44 PM on July 10, 2004 | #1009

*shrugs* You'd have experienced it. It might make you draw new conclusions. Something like that.

Now, I'm off to be sick. So. Yeah. If you still don't see my point, screw you, I've got more important things to think about.

Unknown at 9:58 PM on July 10, 2004 | #1010

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)