The evolution of addiction and the fetishisation of smoking

Paul Raven @ 20-05-2010

Not-entirely-unsurprising news from the world of evolutionary psychiatry: human use of psychoactive compounds found in plants and animals is thousands of years old, and evolutionary selection may actually have favoured those of our ancestors who were wired to get a kick from certain substances:

According to Randolph Nesse, evolutionary psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, at some time in humanity’s distant past, individuals whose brains had a heightened response to emotion-linked neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and serotonin) were better suited to survival.

This meant that as the generations passed, heightened response became the norm. […]

Archaeologists have found evidence of kola nut (caffeine), tobacco (nicotine), khat (an amphetamine-like plant), betel nut, and coca, at various sites dating back at least 13,000 years, indicating that humans have, in fact, been drug users for a very long time. Across the globe, people in non-Western cultures are very familiar with these and other mind-altering substances.

“It’s widely believed that human drug use is a new and pathological phenomenon,” says Roger Sullivan, an anthropologist at California State University at Sacramento. “But psychoactive plant toxins were a mundane occurrence in the environments of hominid evolution, and our ancestors may have been exploiting plant drugs for very long periods of time.”

Sullivan and Edward Hagen of Humbolt University in Berlin believe that compulsively seeking these items in the past might have been adaptive during times when nutrients were hard to find.

Human beings: getting baked to deal with hard times since 11,000 BC. Goes some way to explaining why drug legislation – a very very recent phenomenon indeed – has done so little to stop folk wanting to get loaded… and promises a whole new generation of slogans from psychoactive evangelists.

Speaking of legislation, control and addictive substances, here’s a research project of staggering pointlessness: how many videos of people smoking cigarettes in a fetishistic context are easily viewable by teenagers on YouTube?

“The high frequency of smoking fetish videos concerns me,” says Hye-Jin Paek,  associate professor of advertising, public relations, and retailing.

(With that sort of background, one assumes she’s eminently qualified to know how well associative imagery can push psychological buttons… )

Paek conducted the study of “smoking fetish” videos—videos that combine smoking and sexuality. “The fact that we can see the videos and analyze their content means that teenagers can see them too.

[…]

The majority of smoking fetish videos studied explicitly portrayed smoking behaviors, such as lighting up, inhaling, exhaling, and holding the tobacco product. More than half were rated PG-13 or R.

More than 21 percent of the videos contained at least one of the five fetish elements defined in the paper, including gloves, high heels, boots, stockings, and leather or latex clothes.

More than a fifth? O NOES! Well then, we’d better censor all that stuff pretty sharpish, hadn’t we – after all, wrapping up a behaviour one wants to discourage in veiled mystique, puritanical panics and age restrictions has always worked so well before… if we airbrush out everything we don’t like in the world, eventually everyone will be just as self-satisfied as we are!

[ Pre-emptive: I’m not suggesting that teenagers or anyone else smoking cigarettes is a “good” thing. What I’m suggesting is that worrying about videos of people smoking on YouTube as a strong cause of such is laughably foolish. ]