Mushrooms, Evolution, and the Millennium

September 8, 1991

Terence McKenna asks the fundamental question concerning natural hallucinogens: is it an accident of nature that certain plants and mushrooms can alter human awareness in profound ways? He argues that man and hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms have co-evolved. These botanicals provide a way for people to experience their spiritual nature, and throughout history have been used by shamans whose function is to enter altered states in order to perceive the spiritual causes behind ordinary reality. Delivered at the Masonic Temple during a gathering of the Los Angeles Mycological Society.




I think of this talk as the Mushrooms and Evolution talk, and we will rove and scan over that subject, but it also arborizes into many other areas of concern. It’s not simply a revisioning of anthropology or primatology or evolution. It is all those things, but more importantly it’s a revisioning of those concerns that then carries a political and social implication for the moment and for how we all lead our lives. And it’s basically a variation on the hero’s journey. And I’m very indebted to a brilliant woman anthropologist. I’ve never met her, but her book had a great influence on me: Misia Landau. She recently wrote a book called Narratives of Evolution. And she pointed out something that I think has needed to be pointed out for a long time, which is that science is simply campfire stories in another guise.


And you’ll see what I mean as I get into this, because I want to tell you a campfire story about a poor but humble primate who came from the fringes of the action, a minor member of the flora and fauna of this planet, who embarked on a long and arduous journey into time, and had many adventures along the way, and had many allies along the way, and overcame great challenges to attain the gift difficult to come upon—the grail, if you will, or the self. I mean, all fans of Joseph Campbell are familiar with this metaphor of the hero’s journey. And what’s interesting is: we actually have made that hero’s journey. We are, all of us, tonight, sons and daughters of the ancestral heroes who overcame drought, glaciation, disease, famine, earthquake, migration, you name it. They didn’t drop the ball. And thanks to them, we’re here tonight.


And normally this is—the beginnings of this great journey are completely cloaked in mystery. It’s taught in orthodox anthropology courses. No one knows the factors which impel human beings to leave the primate existence in the canopies of the great forests of Africa and to adopt new styles of life in the grasslands, new diets trading in vegetarianism for being omnivores, trading in a life of fruitarian luxury for a life of hunting, struggle, migration, and natural selection in an extremely harsh environment. I believe that the reason this seems so mysterious to straight primatologists and anthropologists is because they have been unwilling to look carefully at the role that plants played in this adventure, particularly the role that psychoactive plants may have played, and then (most appropriately for this gathering tonight) the role that certain species of psychoachive mushrooms must have played in this evolutionary adventure.


And so tonight I would like to go through it with you in fairly close detail, because I haven’t had that many original ideas in my life, and most of what I do is book reviews and regurgitation of other people’s ideas. But this one they handed over to me, and I’ve been told by evolutionary anthropologists that I’m welcome to it. So if I don’t make the case, who will? And if not now, when? And if not here, where?


The great mystery of natural life on this planet is ourselves. We stand out in the natural order of things as something completely unique, unexpected, unpredictable. You could not calculate forward—from the pinnacle of the age of mammals some 30,000 years ago—you could not calculate forward to a world such as we have today. A world of enormous cities, globally dispersed, linked instantly by electronic media. A world of art, warfare, neurosis, vision, religious yearning, hope, despair. All of these things are the unique contribution made to reality, existence if you will, by the existence of the qualities in us which we call “humanness,” which set us aside from the rest of organic existence. I mean, I know that dolphins discuss arcane matters among themselves, and bees dance the directions to the flowers, and animal communication occurs among pack-hunting dogs of various sorts. But clearly we are something of another order.


And accounting for this other order of being that is so present in us has been the major concern of both what we call religion and what we call science—in the sense not of physics and chemistry, but of biology, anthropology, and psychology. How to account for the uniqueness of our species, and then the uniqueness that is present as a moment-to-moment fact in each one of us?


You have to go back to the origin scenario. Look at the other theories in place, and then look at the possibilities for theory-making that are offered, if we’re willing to include the presence of a psychedelic substance in the experience and diet of early human beings. For several million years, the great apes had been evolving into tighter and tighter niches in the climaxed tropical rainforests of both the new and old world. And at a point—it’s very difficult to place, because it’s locked in to the gradually shifting dynamics of climate on this planet—these forests began to retreat, they began to diminish because of absence of rainfall over very long periods of time. And we know that many primate lines went extinct at that point. But one primate line, the anthropoid apes, were abel to evolve a new lifestyle in the grasslands, which were evolving as the forests retreated.


Now, some anthropologists have argued—to my mind very convincingly—that there is no such thing as a natural grassland; that grasslands are caused by fire, human burning. The argument is very easy to understand: it’s that all the species of plants you find in the grasslands you also find in the understory of the forests on the borders of the grasslands, but you don’t find a—you find only a small number of the first species represented in the cleared areas. For an evolutionary botanist this clearly means that the grasslands are extraordinarily recent. Wherever they occur all over the Earth. And this includes the high-altitude grasslands that are called savannas.


I think that the missing link in evolution is probably food. Somebody once accuse me of trying to recover the lost history of mankind, and I said: “No, simply the lost menu of mankind.” Well, what was that menu, and how did it impact upon us? First of all, before we discuss psilocybin mushrooms specifically, I’d like you to think about the ways in which we differ from other primates. We maximize what is called neoteny. Neoteny is this phenomenon in which juvenile characteristics are retained into adulthood. And this is a particularly effective strategy in any situation where you’re up against a kind of evolutionary bump in the road or barrier of some sort. Many species show a tendency toward neoteny, but it’s very strongly expressed in human beings. For example: our hairlessness. We are like infants. All primates are born pretty much hairless, but we retain this hairlessness throughout life. The ratio of our skull size to body size is an infantile ratio. Compared to other primates we look like the juvenile form. We never lose that. The extreme length of human childhood and adolescence is a kind of strategy so that a lot of developmental goings-on can occur outside the womb. I mean, you probably know that a deer or a calf is able to stand within hours of being born. A human infant, this is something they struggle to acquire in the first eighteen months of life.


What was it that promoted this neoteny? What was it that promoted our upright gait? What was it that promoted our acquisition of language? This is critical, and I’ll talk more about this later. Language is the great divide between us and other species. Where it exists at all as a tendency in other species, it exists as a very rudimentary, unschooled tendency. In us it has become almost the raison dêtre of our being. Physical evolution ceased in the human species when we began to elaborate languages and the technologies that follow upon them. We have designed a way around the slower-than-glaciers modification of species that exists where you have random mutations being acted upon by natural-selective forces in the environment. Until the invention of epigenetic—meaning non-genetic forms of coding, which means language, dance, theater, myth-telling, so forth and so on—until that great leap was made, we were as much an animal as any other animal on this planet.


So what happened was this. The forests retreated, these environments where food had been very abundant became nutritionally stressed, the diet had to be expanded. The choice was simple: expand your diet or die. Well now, it’s interesting. Most animals have a very narrow range of foods which they will accept. This reaches its greatest expression in insects, which some of you may have learned as children, that if you find a caterpillar walking around on the ground, and you just put it on the nearest plant, and by chance you chose the wrong plant, it will die rather than eat that plant. Insects are very, very food specific. Most animals are. Now, why is this? You would think that it would be a better strategy to be able to eat a lot of things. The answer is: foods are chemically extraordinarily complex. And chemical complexity is another way of saying potentially toxic or mutagentic. And mutation is the undoing of any species or any adaptation. So there is an effort by organisms to avoid—it isn’t a conscious effort, it’s enforced by natural selection. There is a tendency to mitigate against animals with broad food tastes because they are exposed to so many mutagens. Things which split chromosomes and damage genetic material.


However, if you’re faced with extinction, your back is already to the wall. You can see the grim reaper drawing near. So at that point expanding diet becomes a perfectly credible strategy for survival. And this is what happened to these formerly arboreal apes now descended onto the grasslands: they began to experiment with their diet. And in addition to the fruit that they had always eaten, they began to eat insects, they became carnivores, they began to evolve a hunting style. And I’ve personally observed in Kenya the food-testing behavior of baboons. And I assume that it is very much analogous to the food-testing behavior that went on in early protohominids and early human beings. The baboon will approach something, a potential food source, sniff it, look at it, place it in the mouth but not swallow, sometimes for as much as a minute, and then either spit it out or swallow a small amount of it, and then wait. And then if there’s no immediate negative feedback from this—like vomiting or burning throat or constriction of mucus production in the throat, or something like that—the food will begin to be accepted.


In this grassland—which was nutritionally fairly tightly drawn, there wasn’t an overabundance of food supply. There was, however, a parallel evolutionary event going on to the primate evolution. And that was the evolution of various forms of large ungulate animals: primitive cattle, gazelle-type animals, wildebeests, horned animals, hoofed animals of all sorts. And many of these animals had a style of existence in which they congregated in herds. Well, these herds of animals clearly represented the major concrescence or deposit of available protein in this environment. I mean, if you could kill a 200–300-pound boss primitivogensis or something like that, there was more nutrition represented in that than in several hundred acres of the gathering of corns or the raiding of anthills or something like that. So the pressure was intense to become carnivores, to focus on these ungulate mammals. And quite naturally what evolved was a kind of nomadic pastoralism based on following along behind these large herds of animals.


The other thing that was happening was: there were very large and efficient carnivores on the scene. The equivalent of today’s lions and the saber-toothed tiger and the hunting cats of the panther type. And many evolutionary biologists believe that the suppression of our sense of smell has to do with our actually passing through a phase where we predated on carrion. This is not a very pleasant thought, but what we were doing was letting the lions do the work, and then we were coming along with throwing sticks and rocks and things like this, driving the lions and the panthers off these fresh kills, and then eating this available meat. But it was pretty ripe in many cases. So there was pressure to suppress olfactory sensitivity.


Now, in fairness to these complex issues, I should tell you that another school believes that it was our bipedal gait. That, once we lifted off our knuckles and literally got our nose off the ground, then there was a kind of atrophication of the olfactory senses. So these two theories compete.


But whatever was going on, there was interest in these large herds of ungulate mammals moving across this grassland environment. And a whole host of animals were relating to them as the central source of protein. Not only the large cat predators, but also the wild dogs of many types, up to and including the great timberwolf that has been extinct since the last glaciation, and then down to dingoes, jackals, hyenas, this sort of thing. So everybody was interested in these large herds of mammals.


Well, a consequence of large herds of ungulate mammals are plenty of manure. Anybody who has been around cattle knows this. And here’s where we begin to draw the circle of the plot tighter. Because manure—food that has passed through the double stomach of these kinds of animals—is the favorite medium for certain kinds of mushrooms. Mushrooms which are called coprophilic or coprolytic, meaning dung-loving mushrooms. This is the preferred medium for them to carry out their lifecycle in.


And again, based on my observations of baboons in Kenya, I’ve seen them approach—cow pies is the gentle term for these deposits of fecal material—approach a cow pie and flip it over. What they’re doing is: they’re looking for grubs. Beetles or immature beetle larvae. They understand, then, that the manure deposit is a vector for insect protein in this environment. And having a limited amount of energy, they look for food in the place where it’s likely to be.


However, by a marvelous coincidence or superb planning on the part of the extraterrestrials who rule the galaxy—you can sort of choose your poison. Ah, the lunatic fringe is not unrepresented! Good, good! Of which I number myself among them. Yes. So, these coprophitic mushrooms—particularly stropheria cubensis, which is the one that is pandemic, meaning occurs worldwide—I have seen them in the Amazon the size of dinner plates. I mean, you can’t miss this thing. It is the most astonishing object in the grassland environment. And after a period of rains, to walk out into a grassland environment and see these things by the dozens, and then by the hundreds, and always vectored in on the same cow pies that are of interest to these foraging baboons, you see, then, that by design or destiny the mushroom was placed directly in the path of the foraging protohominids, and would certainly have been tested for its food value in the same way that I describe baboons testing other plants.


Well, aside from the fact that stropheria cubensis contains psilocybin, it is delicious. It is delicious in the fresh form. Well, delicious is just a monkey’s way of saying that it’s good food. If you find something delicious, you will overrule almost all other signals coming off of it to chow down on it. So the mushroom is delicious. Well what, then, are the possible consequences of the inclusion in the human diet of a psychoactive compound like psilocybin? Well, it has three consequences. And I believe that this simple three-stage process answers this supposed unanswerable question about the origin of human cognition and human value systems and language. And it’s very simple. It’s easy to understand. It doesn’t require a leap to faith. Let’s hope I can remember it.


The first consequence of allowing psilocybin into the diet of a foraging, hungry protohominid of that type is an increase in visual acuity. I don’t think this is widely known. Since psilocybin is called a hallucinogen, people might imagine that it distorts reality or you can’t see what’s really in front of you. Well, that may be true on a dark night on a high dose, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about an animal which is foraging, eating insects, eating roots, eating whatever it finds, and including in that a small amount of randomly contacted psilocybin mushrooms. Roland Fischer—psychologist, physiologist at the National Institute of Health in the early sixties—gave psilocybin to thousands and thousands of people, and he studied the effect of low doses on vision. And he built an experimental apparatus which had two metal bars which were ordinarily in parallel. And by turning a crank out of sight of the graduate student or the person being tested, he could deform the relationship of the bars so that they would slowly slip out of their paralleleism and into a skewed mode. And this is very straightforward Psychology-1 perceptual kind of experiment. And he showed very conclusively with thousands of people that, on small amounts of psilocybin, people could pick this up much more quickly. They were asked to push a buzzer when they thought that the two bars were no longer parallel. And the people who were very lightly stoned were consistently able to do this, to grok this, more efficiently than the people who had been given placebo. And Fischer, who was a kind of a gnome himself, said to me about this: “So you see, here’s a case where taking a drug actually gives you better information about reality than if you hadn’t taken a drug.” Incontrovertible proof. Scientific experiment beyond argument.


And, though it may have no consequence if you’re dealing with a group of 25 graduate students in a class on perceptual psychology, visual acuity is the thread by which life and death are hung if you are foraging primates in a nutrition-poor environment. If you can’t see the food you’re looking for, the gentle hand of natural selection is going to quietly move you toward extinction. So to give you an idea of the power of that chemical in that situation, think of it as chemical binoculars. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that, if you’re handed a pair of chemical binoculars in a hunting situation, you’re going to be a more effective hunter. So on that first level, a level highly unconscious, a level where these protohominids are simply trying to get enough to eat, those that were willing to accept psilocybin into their diet had a slightly enhanced probability of survival through enhanced supply of nutrition than those who didn’t. This is the first level on which the use of psilocybin would tend to outbreed the population that was not accepting it into the diet.


Okay. As we all know, there’s more to psilocybin than increased visual acuity. At slightly higher levels, still well below the level of an overt mind-boggling psychedelic experience, psilocybin causes what’s called CNS arousal: central nervous system stimulation. Horniness is another way of putting this. Because what CNS arousal is is a kind of restlessness, a kind of where’s-the-action mentality, a kind of desire to go out and mix it up a little, and the ability to carry through on that in a fairly convincing style to your partner. In the dry parlance of primatology we call this increased frequency of copulation. And increased frequency of copulation means increased frequency of impregnation. I don’t see how you could have that without the first—I mean, oven basters aside.


So increased frequency of impregnation means more offspring are being born to the population which is accepting the psilocybin into its diet. And more offspring is the key to evolutionary success and to running your evolutionary competitors right off the road into the ditch. That’s they key thing. He who out-reproduces his competitors—or she, of course—who out-reproduces competitors is going to find itself the dominant species in a given environment.


So there’s a two-step process where the first step reinforces the second step. We have more successful hunting, more frequent sexual activity, more food for the offspring, and the offspring are being raised by parents who have already accepted the mushroom as an item of diet, and will pass that habit on to their children. So I’m sure as you can see, it’s beginning to push in a certain direction. Well, so, fine. Mushroom-eating increases the success of protohominids. But how does it account for the emergence of the higher functions of the human cerebral cortex—language, dance, art, poetry, song, symbolic activity of all sorts? What’s going on there?


Well, it is simply that, if we now advance from the slight dose—we’ve advanced now to the moderate dose—if we now go on and imagine that people enjoyed this arousal, this social ambiance that attended upon including this item in the diet, there surely would’ve been reckless souls among them who would’ve followed Dr. Leary’s advice that, when in doubt, double the dose, right?


Well, when you double the dose, profound things happen which are not easily calculated from the previous state of mind, which was just simply a state of sleeplessness and restlessness. Hallucination and stimulation of the area of the brain that is called Broca’s area, and that we now associate with the formation of language. Spontaneous glossolalia is a phenomenon of high-dose psilocybin use. Glossolalia is linguistic activity that seems to be not willed by the ego, but that is just simply an upwelling from the dynamics and architecture of the organism. And in our society we’re familiar with it as a phenomenon that has been appropriated by pentecostal Christianity as a proof of the indwelling of the spirit. But, in fact, this phenomenon occurs in most societies throughout the world, and most societies associate it with an indwelling of spirit—whether they be Christian, Muslim, animist, or what have you, this spontaneous vocalizing of language-like activity is seen to be a sign of special characteristics; what anthropologists call election. Shamanism, in other words. Magic. The ability to cast spells, the ability to weave story. It’s all tied into language.


And it’s just my personal opinion, but I would bet you—I don’t know how we’d ever settle the bet—but I would bet you language existed a long time before meaning. Because it is intrinsically some kind of neurological release of the organism. And there can be syntax in the absence of language. As an example: me ding gua whuadya pang galpay kektexin mi dichi ge bultong agmo whey zambo fua hakti miding digi kepehut. What this is is instant art, you see? Abstract art. Because the human organism is brilliantly wired for small mouth noises. This is something that we can do for hours with very little—I’m the living proof of it! I want to beat you to the punch before someone points this out. Small mouth noses: our special province. And with it we weave meaning, we convey emotion, we convey anger, and eventually we recreate the entire world of our imaginations. I mean, this is what culture is, is a kind of coaxing into reality of the structures of the human imagination through the medium of language. And it begins as poetry and it ends as, you know, structural engineering on the scale of the Golden Gate Bridge, or something like that. Language.


Language, then, sets us apart. And so it seems to me there is a direct linear descent through the use of this one particular psychedelic. It has to have been a grassland plant, it cannot require any preparation, even boiling or something like that, because we’re talking about a level of human culture that is more naïve than these processes that were added late. So it has to be a commonly met with plant, a plant of the grasslands, a plant requiring no preparation other than that you eat it. And then it has to put in place a series of self-reinforcing positive feedback loops that lead to self-reflection.


I think this is it, folks. I think this is where humanness came from. And when you realize that the straight people who’ve had the field all to themselves since Darwin, their best idea is that it was the coordination of the throwing arm, that it’s the baseball pitcher that is the highest exemplar of what it is to be a human being. Because as soft-bodied, weak primates it was very important to us to keep our distance from these large animals as we stoned them to death. You know, you didn’t want to get within the sweep of tusk or claw as you were attacking these things. Well, I’m as fond of the lump-cheeked hayseed on the mound as anybody else, but I don’t see him as the exemplar of humanity’s march toward the unspeakable mystery of being.


Not when you think about the truly titanic dimensions that are easily accessible to anyone of us on psilocybin. And we have, you know, ten thousand years of human history, philosophy, art, science, and literature behind us, and when we come up against five dried grams in silent darkness, it’s as awesome, as appalling, as mind-boggling, and as impossible to process as it must’ve been for those folks 25,000–35,000–55,000 years ago. It is a true mystery. None of our science, none of our language, has given us a leg up on understanding that phenomenon. So that was the vector that called us forward. That was the great attractor that this humble monkey heard the call, and set off across the plains of geological time, seeking and finding this tremendous mystery.


And I believe that this story has tremendous implications for our own lives, because we are highly dysfunctional as a society. Violence, sexism, racism, classism, linear thinking, reductionism, denial of the spirit—all this messes with our heads and our happiness. And I think that it is not necessarily so, but that it was a narrow window that opened for us. Because I am not suggesting that monkeys make fine company back as you look through the geological record. The fact of the matter is male dominance hierarchies occur in primates right back to the squirrel monkey type. The primate style is a style of male dominance.


But some time—let’s say 100,000 years ago to, let’s say, 12,000–10,000 years ago—there was a chemical fix. There was an intervention in the ordinary hierarchy-forming tendency of these evolving primates, and we actually created not a matriarchy, not a shifting of one master for another, but a partnership society. We were actually able, by forming a kind of quasi-symbiotic relationship to these mushrooms. And it was a very interesting incipient symbiosis, you see. It was a symbiosis of protohominids, cattle, grasslands, and mushrooms. It was a three-species—at least three species—symbiosis. We were able to create a partnership style of existence, which is the genesis point of our myths of paradise. This is why we have a nostalgia for paradise, a feeling that we fell into history, that there was once a golden age of balance and reasonable gender dynamics, and community, and religion that was not simply moral prescriptions that cause neurosis, but an actual relationship to the living spirit of the planet.


And this was achieved through psilocybin and through the lifestyle that it reinforced. Because—recalling my little three-step process—the psychedelic aspect and the sexual arousal aspect were simply two ends of the same experience. The style of these early nomadic pastoralists into cattle was orgiastic, meaning everybody got together at the new and full moon and flopped in a heap. And these were groups of seventy or eighty people. Small human groups.


Now, what this was doing, this tendency toward group sexual activity and orgy promoted by the psilocybin in the diet, what it was doing was: it was interfering with the tendency to stress male lines of paternity. Because you can’t know in a society that has institutionalized orgiastic sexuality, men cannot know who their children are. Women know who their children are because they see the children come out of their bodies, and there’s a bonding. But for men the children are community property. And this, I think, was the link.


And in the absence of psilocybin you get a recursion back to the previous mode of primate organization, which is a turf-guarding, territorial, egoistic style. And this is the point I really want to make: that psilocybin is a kind of inoculation against the formation of ego. It dissolved the primate ego and it kept it dissolved until factors (which I’ll discuss in a minute) limited the availability of the psilocybin, and then this atavistic tendency—the existence of the ego—returned with a tremendous vengeance.


So the implication of what I’m saying is that the ego—which grows like a calcareous tumor or an abnormal growth in the dynamics of the psyche—can actually be dissolved by repeated exposure to this boundary-dissolving psychedelic compound. Well, so then, if things were so wonderful, why didn’t it just last forever? Why did we fall into history? What happened to [???] patriarchy, turf consciousness, warfare, city-building, and so forth and so on?


Well, it’s a no-blame story. It’s that the very dynamic processes which drove the arboreal apes out of the trees and into this paradisical symbiosis on the grasslands, which lasted 25,000–30,000 years, the very forces which created that ambiance—which were climatological forces: the drying of the planet—destroyed that equilibrium paradise because the drying process did not halt. It continued. It accelerated. And as we all know, today the Sahara desert is one of the most inhospitable climates on Earth. I mean, it’s a land of endless sand and fantastic high temperatures and no vegetation whatsoever to speak of. Nevertheless, there are archaeological sites out there which are the best evidence for this theory that I’m putting forward. Because in southern Algeria, on the Tassili plateau, there are rock paintings dated from 12,000–15,000 years old that show shamans with mushrooms sprouting out of their bodies. Unambiguous. Because they’re not simply being held in the hand. In some cases, when a mushroom-like object is held in the hand, some anthropologists and art historians want to call it a chopper. But what do you do when there are mushrooms sprouting out of the body by the dozens? I mean, it becomes incontrovertible. So the archaeological evidence is there, the primate behavior provides evidence for this.


And what happened, I think, is that these orgies—which originally, at the heyday of this partnership society—these group get-togethers were probably at the new and full moon. Well then, as the drying accelerated, they became merely lunar—every 28 days instead of 14 days. And then, ultimately seasonal, or associated only with certain areas. The rainfall became sparser. And there became—strategies had to be developed then to spread fewer and fewer mushrooms over a wider and wider area. And I believe that we can even—as long as we’re loose in the realm of speculation, we might as well go whole hog—I think what probably happened, based on a fairly careful reading of the archaeological record out there, was that honey emerged as a very important part of this story. Because, you see, if you don’t have refrigeration, you can use honey to preserve delicate foods. And to this day there are parts of Mexico where mushrooms are mixed into honey, and then they don’t decay and can be used for many months.


Now, the problem with this is that honey itself has the potential to undergo chemical change and turn itself into a psychoactive substance, but a psychoactive substance with a very different character than psilocybin. In other words: mead, alcohol. Crude alcoholic beverages probably began with the fermenting of honey and fruit juices. Well, that puts you firmly in the domain of the messed-up culture that we’re in. Because I told you what the qualities of psilocybin were—to promote visual acuity, sexual activity, religious experience, language. What are the qualities of alcohol? What does it do if viewed as a psychedelic drug? Well, it does two things. It lowers sensitivity to social cuing, and it empowers aggressive behavior. In other words, it makes you into a jerk! And time spent in a busy singles bar on a Friday evening will convince you of the truth of this. And, in a way, it’s no joke. I mean, I think probably for a thousand years nobody got laid in Western civilization unless they were swacked! Because people were so uptight on the natch, having imbibed this whole monotheistic moral trip, that unless they took a powerful drug which dissolved social inhibitions and empowered aggressive behavior, they weren’t able to make a move. How many women can think back to their first sexual imprinting and realize that it occurred in an atmosphere of aggressive use of alcohol? I mean, this is almost the standard model. Maybe not so much anymore, but throughout the first five decades of this century I think that would be a pretty fair statement.


So, you see, drugs are like the invisible lenses through which we view reality. And no culture has been without them, it’s just cultures accept some and repress others according to the particular cultural values which are trying to be conserved. The reason this is not simply armchair speculation among anthropologists is because we now are the inheritors of a planet which is dying under anesthesia. Our entire cultural crisis is predicated on the fact that we cannot feel or connect with the consequences of our history; that we have behaved very badly—we of the high-tech societies—we have trashed gender relationships, we have trashed aboriginal societies, we have cut down the rainforest, we have robbed our own children of a future as rich as the future that we expect ourselves to enjoy. There isn’t even a name for this sin, where you destroy the opportunity of your own children. I mean, no society has been that perverse. And we’re doing it under a massive infusion of alcohol laced with monotheistic moral propaganda.


What is the antidote to this? Well, it’s what I call the archaic revival. It’s something that’s been going on throughout most of the twentieth century, but with increasing depth and urgency. It’s that we must reach back into the past, to the last sane moment that we ever knew, and figure out what was going on then, and get with the program, and attempt to recover some amount of cultural equilibrium and balance. And I believe that—you know, using the broad brush of generalization—we could say all our problems can be traced down to ego. Ego lies behind private property, it lies behind the domination of women by men, it lies behind dollar-chasing, it lies behind all of the maladaptive behaviors (the arms race, the whole thing), it lies behind all of the maladaptive behaviors that are pushing us toward planetary toxification and species armageddon.


I’m not advocating a return to the religious style that includes orgy. I mean, I wish I could, but we are not nomadic pastoralists of seventy individuals. We’re a global society of five billion shot through with epidemic diseases and contagion and so forth and so on. We can’t adapt the orgiastic style on a mass scale without severe social consequences. But we can look back at the use of psilocybin and at least construct a social alternative where small groups of people are using this to diminish ego and build community. Build communities of like-minded people and diminish the almighty sense of ego. And psilocybin does this very effectively in two ways.


First of all, it dissolves boundaries between people. And another way of saying “ego” is that I strongly distinguish between “you” and “me,” you know? That’s what ego tells you: who you are, and how important you are, and how you’re not her or him or that or that, you’re this. Psilocybin tends to dissolve that language-reinforced misperception. And the other thing it does is: it shows you that behind your eyebrows is a world richer by far than any of the crap that’s being peddled on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue in New York City or anywhere else. In other words, it shows you the pathetic nature of materialism by reintroducing you to the reality of the spirit—not as a religious abstraction that’s used to beat you over the head to follow somebody’s moral recipe, but as a felt experience of the indwelling of an extreme power. A power that connects you to all the life of the past on this planet, to the planetary future, to the universe at large. So, really, it’s a rediscovery of our birthright as human beings. History is a bad deal. It’s a mass of pottage. It’s broken machines and broken dreams. Because we have projected our value system out into matter, and matter has not responded in a satisfying way. And so we’re then dysfunctionally neurotic, always seeking, never finding.


The answer is to go within using the classical tools of self-redefinition, transformation, and ego-diminishment. We can reinoculate ourselves against the ills of civilization by simply availing ourselves to the shamanic tools that were available before the fall into history. And, you know, the fact that this poses some problem for the currently constituted constabulary is of no concern to anybody who’s thinking on a scale of millennia. That’s just a kink in the social machinery brought on by stupidity and anxiety. It isn’t sufficient reason to turn away from a reasonable program that would carry us toward a group psychology, that would then allow us to turn toward the real threats that face us as a species and a planet, and do something about it.


I put this before you this evening because I think, in the absence of this theory, the psychedelic community has no strong argument to lay before society at large as to why these things are so important. But if in fact these psychedelic compounds are the catalysts for everything that we call humanness—for the very basis of the notion of caring, altruism, civilization, community—if what lies behind these notions is a symbiotic relationship to psychedelic plants present in the environment, then the sooner we return to that mode, the sooner we can overcome the historical dysfunction that otherwise is a death sentence upon us.


So I don’t advocate this because I think it’s easy or because it has a high probability of being accepted and implemented. I advocate it because I think it’s the only answer, and that it would be gross malfeasance on my part, believing that, to not lay the cards on the table. That’s all that I can do. And I hope that, if you find this argument convincing, you will find further arguments to buttress it, and we can get this phenomenon out of the closet and into the general theater of debate about the fate of global civilization, so that we can begin to make real positive changes.


Because the clock is ticking, folks. This is not a test. I mean, we have to either create some fantastically brilliant forward escape out of the closing, grinding jaws of history, or we will be history. Thank you very much! Thank you!

Q & A Session


Well, it’s nice to be here. It’s great to see so many people turned out for the Los Angeles Mycological Society. The people who put this thing together worked very hard at it, putting to death once and for all the rumor that mycologists only do it spore-adically! So—is that groaning I hear?


The organization that I’m associated with—which is Botanical Dimensions—it’s a parallel agenda to the L.A. Mycological Society. What Botanical Dimensions does is collects and preserves plants with a history of shamanic and medicinal usage worldwide—not only the plants, but the information about them. As I’m sure you’re all aware, the rainforests are disappearing at an alarming rate, and with them is disappearing 25,000–30,000 years of very painfully garnered medical information that these aboriginal peoples have preserved up until the present moment. But unfortunately for these peoples, the present moment contains social challenges like nothing they’ve ever dealt with before, and the shamanic gnosis is not being handed on. Young men and women who would ordinarily have become shamans are learning outboard motor repair and how to wait tables in tourist traps and this sort of thing. And this medical information—which is the basis of most of the drugs sold as prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs today—much of that information will be lost. So my partner Kat and I run a botanical garden in Hawai’i, and we’re a nonprofit organization able to accept your donations if you are so inclined.


Well, this is a talk that I’ve wanted to give for a long time. And some of you may wonder why I say that, because you may have heard it before. But you have never heard it under the auspices of a prestigious scientific organization such as has chosen to sponsor me tonight. And that was my fantasy: to take this idea, notion, theory, and actually launch it in a venue of great respectability and scientific veracity. And certainly, the Los Angeles Mycological Society provides that.


It’s obvious that I can only touch a tiny number of these questions, and many of them seem very good, if not prolix. I see a short one here. How many people here are under 25? Alright! That’s great! That’s great. Oh, here’s a cheerful question; a troublemaker in the group. If the mushroom played a large part in the development of the mystical side of man, do you think it also played a pivotal role in the emergence of human sacrifice? Well, human sacrifice on a mass scale is something more typical of the Mesoamerican civilizations, which certainly used mushrooms—the Maya, and then later the Aztecs. But this was a much later stage of cultural development with mathematics and written language in place, and so forth and so on. And I’m not saying that it didn’t, I’m just saying a fair answer would be: we don’t really understand the genesis of human sacrifice in the new world civilizations. But it didn’t appear to play a major role in the evolution of the early civilizations that I’ve been talking about. I don’t see why it should have. It doesn’t seem to me an obvious strong connection.


Let’s see here…. Here’s a question. I don’t claim to have more than a feeble understanding of man’s ultimate destiny. I’m unclear on what your message is. You seem to advocate leaving Earth for destinations unknown. Isn’t this agenda too premature to promulgate, as we need very much to focus our human potential on the global environmental/interpersonal/interspecies crisis rather than focusing on scenarios which imply the disposability of the planet? Good question! You know, it seems to me the kindest thing we could do at this moment is sever our connection to the planet—for the planet’s sake. I’m less sure what good it would do for us. It’s certainly true that the planet is the cradle of humanity, the question is do you remain in the cradle forever? And I’ve had a hard time figuring out a scenario that would keep us on this planet and retain any kind of society that anyone would want to live in, simply because of the acceleration of our population.


I actually am loath to get into this subject so late in the evening, but in the interests of fairness and honesty—I put this question to the mushroom: how can we save the planet? And without hesitation it replied: every woman should bear only one natural child. That’s not my answer, that’s stropheria cubensis speaking. It would create a demographic collapse that would cut the population of Earth in half without war, disease, or forced migration in less than forty years. It would also slice the population in half again in the next forty years. We tend to think that there are no solutions, and yet here’s a solution that requires the responsible action of female individuals—a group that has not yet waded in to the set of historical problems that we have inherited from the past. So if there is a tendency for men to stand in the way of solutions—and I’m not saying they do or they don’t—here is a program that could be put in place that would have a radical impact on human destiny on this planet.


I discussed this with demographers after the mushroom made this suggestion, and I learned an amazing fact. Some of you may know this; I certainly had never thought of it this way. A woman on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or in Malibu or in Scottsdale—in other words, one of these quite upper-class, college educated, wealthy communities—a woman in that situation, if she has a child, that child will be between 800 and 1,000 times more destructive of the resources of the Earth than a child born to a woman in Bangladesh or Pakistan or Zaire. We tend to think of the population problem as a population problem—it’s a resource abuse problem, and the main resource abusers are the citizens of the high-tech societies. So if you have a house full of kids and you’re buying them all 140-dollar pairs of running shoes, you go on the list of major social criminals. I’m guilty. I’m guilty, so I’m not trying to lay a trip on you, but we tend to not think of our problem that way. We think it’s all those beastly little brown people on the other side of the world breeding furiously. Well, I’ve got news for you: we’ve met the enemy, and it is us. You know? If we could get the honkeys to slow down their consumption of resources, we wouldn’t have the gun to our head in quite the same way. But I digress….


Within the last 25 years there has been a quantum increase in the strength of cannabis. Has there been a corresponding intensification in psilocybin? Is today’s insight into the present, future, more powerful? Probably not. Because fungal genetics is notoriously tricky stuff. And as an ex mushroom grower and the author of Psilocybin: Mushroom Grower’s Guide, I think what we call strain selection for psilocybin is a pretty rule of thumb kind of thing, while the cannabis botanists among us have worked a miracle on the scale of Luther Burbank’s wilder endeavors. And we should take our hats off to them. The same arguments that I made here tonight for psilocybin, in a slightly modified form and at a slightly later stage of cultural history, I think cannabis was the major pharmacological habit of human beings retarding patriarchy, male dominance, urbanization, propaganda, so forth and so on. Cannabis is really not given its due. It’s been a tremendous bulwark against the values of dominator culture, and I certainly hope it continues to function that way.


Is psilocybin conducive to art activity? Does the Pope live in Rome? How do you recommend we use this information in an applied way in our personal lives? Well—and there are other questions which relate to this, like how can you tell if mushrooms have been contaminated by other compounds, and so forth and so on—I think that the most enlightened thing a person can do, or one of the most enlightened things, is to cultivate mushrooms. This completely goes around the possibility of criminal syndicalism, adulteration, degradation through aging, contamination by bacterial parasites. And there are all kinds of problems which are overcome by cultivation. Sometimes people say to me: how do you—what can you do to get ready for a big psilocybin trip if you’ve never had any psychedelic experience? Well, I think the best advice is: grow the mushroom. Those of you who have done that know that it teaches all the virtues that you will need to have when you get out there in the billows. It teaches cleanliness, punctuality, attention to detail, focus, so forth and so on—the things that will serve you invaluably not only in the psychedelic experience, but in life. And it’s a tremendous—you can really feel the force of a possible symbiosis if you cultivate mushrooms, because it’s so efficient. I mean, you take a thirteen-dollar, twenty-five pound bag of rye, and you can turn it into 400 or 500 hits. The conversion rate is an astonishing 12% dry weight of rye to dry weight of psilocybin. I mean, it’s like an industrial process. It’s awesome to see this stuff at work. I mean, it is such a workhorse for humanity I used to say that it was alchemy, and the formula was “rye to mold and mold to gold.” So it’s a very short step. And it teaches you all these values that you may have overlooked in your own toilet training.


What do you say when your four-year-old asks if you do drugs? Well, what you say is that you do some drugs, and then explain which ones. I mean, I have two children. I’ve been through this. I think it’s really weird, people who say, “Oh, we can’t get stoned until the kids go to bed.” I mean, what kind of malarkey is this? In the first place, the kids know, so then you’re exposed as some kind of halfwit, and as totally dishonest, totally not at peace with your own habits. I had habits which shall remain unnamed which I abandoned because I wasn’t comfortable explaining them to my children. So I just dropped those things out of my life. Mushrooms and cannabis were certainly not numbered among them. So, I mean, you have to be honest with your children.


If psilocybin promotes language and diminishes ego (also a form of language), don’t we then have something destroying what it creates or creating what it destroys? Is this a contradiction? Well I’m not sure I buy into the notion that ego is a form of language. However, I sense the point in this question, because it’s been suggested that language was created to lie. And is that really what we want to do with each other? But I think that that’s—I don’t really take that seriously. I think that truth-telling and truth-withholding are a very delicate matter. You know, Winston Churchill said once, “The truth is so precious that she must be accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard of lies.” And I think that captures some of the paradoxical nature of language.


Have you read the theoretical work by Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? What do you think of it? For those of you who haven’t read it, this is a theory that, until very recently, what we call the ego was actually a psychic function that had not yet been integrated (in the Jungian sense) into consciousness. So that as recently as 3,000 years ago, if somebody got into a tight spot, suddenly a voice would switch on in their head and say the equivalent of, you know, “Get your ass out of there!” And people interpreted this as the voice of god, or a god. It was a higher function in the psyche that was only triggered by extreme stress. Well, then we actually assimilated this psychic function that had been evolved to respond to extreme danger, and we, as it were, layered it in to the lower levels of the personality. And so what had been god became ego. And this has happened in Jaynes’ opinion around 1000 B.C., just at the time when the last mother religions, the last goddess religions were dying out and, on the Greek mainland, Mycenaean piracy was taking over from Minoan partnership and mother goddess worship.


So yes, I mean, this may definitely be part of it. What makes Jaynes’ book so frustrating is: here is a book (I think it has over 630 pages in it), it’s a book on the cultural impact of hallucinations, and there is one reference to psychedelic drugs. It’s a reference to mescaline in a footnote. So Jaynes—either through lack of information or intellectual queasiness—didn’t make use of the massive body of information associated with hallucinogenic shamanism that he might’ve made use of to make his case.


It’s incredible how pharma-phobic academic speculation has been. I mean, people just don’t want to get near it. And yet, obviously, drugs of all sorts have shaped every aspect of our lives. I’m doing a book for Bantam that will be out next spring sometime about the cultural impact of drugs—psychedelic and non-psychedelic—and one of the things I learned that just had never occurred to me was: slavery died with the fall of the Roman empire. It absolutely died. I mean, during the medieval period, if you owned slaves, you owned one slave. It was like owning a Duesenberg or something. It was the absolute proof that you were a person of immense wealth. And then this slave would serve your food or something like that. But the use of slave labor in agriculture was something that was brought back in the fourteenth century by the Christian gentlemen of Europe specifically for the production of sugar. No other reason. The stuff which came later—the tobacco and the cotton and all that—that was simply because there was an oversupply of slaves, and so there was a need to soak up all this slave labor. Why sugar? Because it was an addicting drug. Nobody needs white sugar. You can go from birth to the grave and never get near it and never miss it. But sugar is made in open vats—you know, the way it was done 500 years ago—at a temperature of about 135 degrees. No free person will work sugar. You have to chain people to the machinery. You literally have to chain them to the machinery, and then they die in short order from heat prostration. In 1800 every ounce of sugar entering England was produced by slave labor, and Western civilization barely had a thing to say about it. And we don’t even think of sugar as a drug unless we’re very highly sensitized to these issues. But, you know, if you have small children, you just might as well lay out railers of blow if you’re going to turn them loose with those Pepperidge Farm chocolate chip cookies. I mean, my god!


So I just offer that as an example of our naïveté about drugs, and our naïveté about our own cultural history. I mean, people say, “Well, slavery—they got rid of it with Lincoln, but it’d been going on for thousands of years.” Nu-uh. No, no. Not at all. It had been dead for a thousand years, and then it was brought back by the drug trade. And how many steps backward in the process of trying to define and honor the human spirit have occurred because of drugs like sugar, opium, tea, coffee? Look at the caffeine drugs: they’re the only drugs on Earth that modern industrialists recognize to the point that they write them into contracts with workers—the coffee break. This isn’t because they love workers, it’s because it makes workers work! And caffeine and the demands of linear industrialism made a marriage in hell, which exists right up to this day with untold consequences in the form of stomach cancer, anxiety, aggressive behavior, you name it.


Well, we’re over the time. We have piles of questions. I love you all. Stay happy. Take it easy—but take it!

Terence McKenna

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