Shedding the Monkey

February 1986

Presented at the Shared Visions bookstore.



I feel like this is the core community on which the raps that I developed over the years have been first tried, and then carried out to other places. And it’s true what Will says, that there are many familiar faces. So I feel like there’s a sort of a consensus of vocabulary and world view that has emerged in these talks at Shared Visions. And I was saying to Kat at dinner tonight that I feel much less formal and much more as though I’m entertaining in my living room, and able to achieve that level of comfortable intimacy and free flow of thought. And I’m very appreciative to Shared Visions and to the Berkeley community, which is my community stretching back twenty years, for making that sort of public speaking situation possible. Because I think it’s very unusual.


It seems that a number of you, or quite a few of you, heard the introduction on the Shared Visions program this afternoon. In a way, this is not a good thing because I’m going to repeat myself. But in another sense it is good because the real purpose of this meeting—which is how I think of it—is to discuss this hypothesis which I put forward on the radio, and to see what kind of input people such as yourselves can bring to it. There’s no scientific truth or new paradigm trying to rise in a vacuum vis-à-vis the opinions of the general informed public. If it doesn’t fly with the general informed public, it doesn’t matter what degree of internal rigor has, an idea is probably doomed to a kind of obsolescence or a kind of obscurity.


So this idea that I want to put forth, which is the product of many people’s thought on the subject—not the least of which is my brother Dennis. And I’ve developed the idea in conversations with Rupert Sheldrake, and Kat, and Ralph Metzner, and other people over the years is, basically, an extension of orthodox evolutionary theory as it applies to the question of human origins. And then, having once established that part of the theory, going forward to try and see what kind of implications this revisioning of evolutionary mechanisms might have on contemporary life and the way in which we relate to ourselves and each other.


The orthodox theory of human origins takes the position that the evolution of human beings from higher primates was an evolutionary process no different than the evolutionary processes which had refined the mammalian forms which preceded the primates. Nor is it thought to be any different from any other evolutionary process. There is no ontological difference hypothesized. However, I think that—using the language of the evolutionary biologists—we can show that there were factors present in the pre-human and early human environment that constellated a unique concatenation of events and genetic filtration devices which created the phenomenon of self-reflecting, language-using, culture-creating animals on this planet.


Orthodox evolutionary theory takes the position that, as the African continent became subject to an increasing period of dryness, which may have initially begun as early as 2 million to 1.5 million years ago, that the general tropical forest which covered the continent began to retreat in certain areas where water was a constraint. And grasslands arose. The arboreal primates—which were occupying a kind of climaxed evolutionary niche in the tropical forests before this aridity began—suddenly found themselves under pressure because the forests were disappearing. By changing their gait and learning to walk on the surface, by changing their diet and learning to include meat, and by refining their symbol-processing capability, they transformed themselves from tribes of arboreal monkeys into creatures much more like the modern baboon. In other words, they became omnivorous pack-hunting animals capable of moving over the ground at high speed, and capable of exchanging a large number of vocal signals that related to exchange of information about hunting strategies, splitting. Because, as I neglected to mention, simultaneous to these evolutionary changes in the higher primates, other mammals were evolving in an opportunistic situation vis-à-vis the grasslands into the many forms of ungulate animals which graze on the grasslands of Africa. Not only cattle, but ibexes and giraffes and many forms which are now extinct. The primates and the higher mammals then came into a relationship where both were competing for the grassland, and one became the primary predator on the other.


Now, one of the curious and unexplained things about the major psychotropic plants that occur on this planet is that several of them are remarkably involved with human culture and the domestication of plants. I’m thinking of the ergotized rye, which figures in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Rye was a domesticated grass that, through selection, had been bred into this large-kernel cereal grain. Similarly, the psychedelic mushrooms which are most noticeable in nature are the so-called coprophitic ones, the ones which grow on manure. In the Pacific Northwest there are numerous species of very ephemeral mushrooms which grow in the detritus of the forest floor. But as far as we know, the northwest coast Indians noticed them sufficiently to utilize them as a shamanic vehicle. However, the coprophitic mushrooms are extremely noticeable in any environment, because here you have this golden or silvery or golden-yellow, anomalous object, standing from four to seven inches high in the grassland. And because it is coprophitic (or manure-loving), they invariably aggregate in the droppings of these ungulate animals. Well, it’s very clear that they could hardly choose a situation more opportune for their being encountered by these omnivorous primates who are preying on these herds of animals. And I should mention that it’s assumed that there was considerable pressure on the availability of protein in this grassland situation. In other words, everybody was running hungry. And if you’ve ever seen films or actually observed the behavior of baboons in the wild, they kick things up and look at them, and they sniff the ground. And this is their main behavior pattern: sniffing the ground, and picking things up, and looking at them, and testing them to eat them.


Well, almost, I would say, coincident upon these factors all converging on the African veld, the mushroom would then become included as part of this omnivoric diet of these primates. Now, I mentioned when I talked on the radio today this very important series of experiments by Roland Fischer, who is one of the great and really—he isn’t given the credit he deserves—one of the great researchers into altered states. He’s retired now and lives on Mallorca. But he did a series of experiments which were a model of behaviorist rigor. He had an apparatus which had two parallel bars which could be deformed by rotating a crank which would impart mechanical pressure to one of the bars so that it would be torqued. And slowly, parallelism would be lost between these two bars. And he gave psilocybin in small amounts to hundreds of people, and sat them down in front of this apparatus, and told them to watch the situation with the two parallel bars, and to press the buzzer when they felt that the two bars were no longer parallel. And he did it with hundreds and hundreds of controls. All of this work was done at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s. And he showed to the satisfaction of everyone, I think, that the people who were given the sub-threshold doses of psilocybin were able to pick up this deformation faster than the controls, the unstoned ordinary subjects. And he said to me, jokingly: “This proves, you see, that drugs give you a truer picture of reality than being straight.” But it was quite so.


What he—he didn’t, then, make the leap to ask the question: well, then, what impact would this increased visual acuity have had on an animal which was including this mushroom in its diet? And the answer is: if you were, as a matter of course, where you were eating all protein available in your diet, including this vision acuity improving compound, you would gain an adaptive advantage over individuals of your species which were not including this item in their diet. And this is just as straight an exposition of the evolutionary mechanism as could ever be given. There’s nothing wild-eyed about it. And the conclusion is that, very quickly, any primate not including this item in its diet would be written out of the picture by being maladaptive. Well, that’s what happens when you take psilocybin in the sub-acute dose. But obviously it would be explored at all dosage levels.


Now, it has another curious property which a number of researchers have noted; a property of the mushrooms, which is that they seem to activate or stimulate the language-forming center of the brain. Whether that’s a physical location or simply a name for a set of functions, it seems clear that psilocybin—by its ability to inspire glossolalia, inner voices, spontaneous shamanic singing, et cetera—operates on symbolic processing parts of the brain. These were, recall, pack-hunting animals, which had already evolved a complex set of signals, arising first out of their arboreal existence and then transferred into this pack-hunting mode. So it’s reasonable, I think, to suggest that psilocybin can be seen in that situation as a catalyst for language. It is a catalyst for greater visual acuity and hence hunting prowess, and it is a catalyst for greater hunting prowess expressed through a greater facility for the processing of symbols.


At a still higher level this gives way, of course, to the shamanic experience that we associate with psilocybin, which is the visionary state that does not have any obvious evolutionary efficacy—basically because you lie down and close your eyes and don’t move around and cease to be an actor on the stage of Darwinian competition. So I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the development of language and the dominance of this particular adaptation of the primates can be put down to the fact that there was a catalytic enzyme in the diet which was pumping this to the detriment of all its competitors. For instance, the other great apes—the gorillas and the orangutans—did not adapt the omnivorous strategy, did not adapt the running gait, and they are of course in danger of extinction and never achieved high culture at all (except, of course, for Koko).


So this, I think, is the hidden factor. Now, this may not sound revolutionary, but ever since the notion of a human descent from a primate ancestor has been articulated, the search has been for the missing link in the form of a transitional skeleton which would show that there was no question that one had become the other. And while skeletons have come to light reflective of various stages in this process, it’s still unsatisfying to the evolutionary anthropologists to try and explain the speed with which this process happened—the fact that in the last 30,000–50,000 years the brain of human beings has evolved more than in the previous 3 million years. And so what I want to suggest (to you and to the community of people who are concerned with the mechanics of human evolution) that what we need to be looking for is an exogenous catalyst to this sudden burst of primate development. And I think that it can be found in the presence of these psychoactive compounds in the food chain.


Now, at a slightly later stage, as cognition and self-reflection and language are all beginning to template onto reality, it seems very clear to me that the cattle would be seen as the source of the mushroom. The mushroom would seem (to that mentality) as obviously a product of the cow as milk, meat, or fuel—meaning the dried manure burned as fuel. So that the mushroom was a gift of the cow, you see? And then the experience of the mushroom is the experience of this feminine informational matrix that knits everything together and infuses it with numinosity. But it is specifically feminine. So another implication of all this is that the goddess cattle religions of prehistoric Africa and the ancient Middle East are actually trinitarian religions of which the esoteric third member of the trinity is a psychedelic compound—probably the psychedelic compounds contained in the mushroom.


In the nineteenth century—in the first wave of comparative mythology which was headed up by Frazer and that school—much energy was expended on the notion of the great vegetation goddess, and how this was seen to be evident in all the cults of the old world. The cults of Tammuz and Attis and Cybele. These were all seen to be particularized historical expressions of the great vegetation goddess. I want to suggest that this vegetation goddess was not a—they make it out as a kind of generalized awareness of the fecundity of nature expressed in the bounty of vegetable nature. Which I’m sure metaphorically it was that, but I think it’s reasonable to suggest that it was focused quite tightly on this image of the mushroom.


Now, the only previous foray into trying to inculcate mushrooms into early human origins is, as I’m sure aware, Gordon Wasson’s effort to show that the pre-Vedic sacrament soma was amanita muscaria. Amanita muscaria is an intoxicating mushroom. It does not contain psilocybin. The spiritual worth of it seems closely bound to the cultural context. It seems very hard for people who have not been brought up in the tradition of Arctic shamanism to actually get a good connection with it. Nevertheless, Wasson wanted to suggest that it was Indo-Aryan people coming out of the Caspian Sea area and into Mesopotamia, carrying with them a mushroom cult that they then deified as soma, and then forgot in the Vedic centuries where they were establishing themselves in India. I think that a different view might well be that these Vedic people, when they swept down from the Caspian Sea area, encountered a mushroom religion that was a goddess cattle religion. You see, amanita muscaria is not symbiotic to cattle. It’s symbiotic to birch trees. It has an entirely different kind of symbiotic relationship. So that I want to suggest, based mostly on the fact that I think it’s clear that psilocybin is the kind of chemical compound which could’ve worked the kinds of changes we’re talking about. To suggest that psilocybin was the factor in the environment, but that the story may be that these Aryan peoples had to accept the mushroom that they found the goddess people using, and then carried that to India.


Now, this tradition occurs as late in the West as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Wasson made a strong case that the Eleusinian Mysteries were ergotized rye beer. That a non-toxic strain of claviceps paspali was actually infecting the rye which grew on the Eleusinian plain, and that a beer was brewed out of this which was the intoxicating sacrament of Eleusis. His case is very convincing. However, he doesn’t mention the strongest competitor in terms of an interpretation of the Eleusinian Mystery, which is that Robert Graves showed that the recipes for the Eleusinian ambrosia always contained words which could be arranged in such a way so that the first letters, when read downward, would spell out the word “mushroom” in Greek. This is called an ogham, and I’m sure you’re all familiar with it. And he showed that the ingredients of the Eleusinian ambrosia, which were always listed as honey, barley, something else, and water—and he said what kind of an ingredient is that? Everybody knows that water is an ingredient of beer. But he said the word “water” is always present in order to provide the letter which is necessary to form this cryptogram which explains that it was really mushrooms.


It’s interesting that Greek culture is—there was a school of scholarship in the nineteenth century that held that high Greek culture was derivative from Mycenae; the Mycenaean kingdom, of which the House of Atreus were the ruling family. Well, this m-y-c sound is a mushroom sound. It’s philologically a clue. The island of Mykonos—if you look in a modern Greek dictionary for the etymology of the island of Mykonos, you find that it is the island of the little bald-headed men. Well, now I ask you…! So Mykonos, Mycenaean—these are words which clue us to the fact that very early—and the word “mucus” is also in there and lays the basis for mycophobia in later languages.


So what’s so great about all this? Well, what’s so great about it is, first of all: it provides a kind of mechanism for seeing how something as complex and self-reflecting as ourselves could emerge from the background of animal nature without a deus ex machina, without the hand of God intruding into nature. We see, rather, that it’s simply a set of very sophisticated mechanisms of catalysis and filtration which promote certain things—a certain kind of binocular vision, certain kinds of information processing, and certain kinds of experiences—which then language, you see, seeks to template. These pack-hunting monkeys, once they had the sacrament of mushroom intoxication, had an object for the inner ocean of language to beat against in an effort to describe and encompass and communicate it that laid the basis for religion.


The word “religion” is related and based in the idea of origins. Religio is the going back to the origins. This idea also has an implication for the modern dilemma of attempting to relate to drugs. I mean, what are they? Are they good? Are they bad? Are they the scourge of the devil or the portal to enlightenment? What are they? And I’m speaking now of plant compounds. How are we to relate to the plants which intoxicate? Do they drive us mad or do they return us to the religio; to our own origins? Are we to see the states of mind which they invoke as tremendously alien or are we to see them as, in fact, a way of going back to the primary situation in which everything that we call human found genesis? And I think because science is the reigning religion of the modern world, if you want to change people’s minds about something you have to get scientists to change their minds. And what evolutionary biology (to its detriment) has ignored is the role of all forms of symbiotic relationships in nature. The Darwinian idea of evolution is: it’s a world of fang and claw, and the swiftest, the cruelest, the largest, the fastest—these dominate. The actual situation (which has been seen to be now for about thirty years, but the implications are making their way very slowly into orthodox evolutionary theory) is actually: cooperation is what nature seeks to consolidate and conserve. And it is the species which can make itself most user-friendly to its neighbor species which actually survives. That’s why there’s hardly a tree which grows on this planet without a mycorrhizal relationship to a fungi. A mycorrhizal relationship means that the tree cannot grow and live unless the roots are covered by a fungus—which is a completely independent organism, but which mediates the buffering and transport of mineral salts and that sort of thing, and makes the exterior environment palatable to the tree.


Now, I mentioned today on the radio: many of these relationships start out as parasitic. But a parasite is either an evolving or unsuccessful symbiote, because there is no percentage in a biological relationship where you kill the host. And this is what parasites do. They are lethal and they spoil the party. They kill the host and then the guests have nowhere to go. And that’s a crisis for host and guest, you see. But over time these lethal parasitic relationships evolve into symbiotic relationships where each party is contributing something to the well-being of every other party. And this is what happened in the situation with the mushroom, the human beings, and the cattle. The domestication of cattle ensured their survival. There are numerous ungulate animals that we can only see in museums, and it was because it was easier to kill them than to domesticate them. Because they were either very wild and unruly, or very large. I mean, you do not herd mastodons. So that the cattle, by being taken into the human family, then there is a reciprocal relationship. Human beings are no longer under such pressure to hunt, there is availability of abundant protein, the genetic race of the cattle are preserved, and all this is mediated by a mushroom whose continued existence is dependent on the continued existence and numerical expansion of the population of cattle. So this is a relationship where everyone wins, and consequently it is preserved through time.


We know that, in shamanic tradition throughout the world, human beings are using plants to gain knowledge and to cure disease. What has escaped our attention—because of our anthropocentric point of view—is that the plants which confer these abilities on human beings are therefore made cultivars and taken out of the stream of evolutionary selection, and instead they become objects of culture and are cultivated, and are preserved and even hybridized. And they, in a sense, become a kind of episome on the human genetic heritage.


This understanding about how nature works is what is absent in the modern world at the top of the pyramid and is what is making everything so lethal. Because we see nature—by “we” I mean the corporate elites, the dominant political ideologies—see nature as an enemy. And this is why drugs are taboo. Because these plant drugs are an immersion in this symbiotic field of information. They are a reaching out to this original situation, which is very unsettling. I mean, we build cities and we put a wall around them. The desacralizing of natural space is the process of cutting it into grids and erecting flat, planar surfaces along those grids; to cut out the influx of energy that is part of the natural world.


Now, you know from listening to me go on on this subject that I believe that this is all a plot of some sort. In other words, that it is no mere coincidence that this mushroom was there in those cowpies. But notice that it need not be a plot. It could simply be an extremely unlikely concatenation of events which leads to the production of self-reflecting, thinking human beings. However, the visual acuity, even the stimulation in the language center, these things do not address the informational content of the experience of the mushroom, which seems to be that of an other, an entelechy of some sort, which is either the overmind of the species, or a very unusual kind of extraterrestrial organism which drifted in here millions and millions of years ago and has somehow inculcated itself into the environment—or it is like the world soul: that there is actually a controlling governor of the planetary ecology that can address a species coherently in its own language. This is not something which orthodox anthropology has to take account of, and it certainly is not in a hurry to do so. Because this challenges the most basic assumptions about what is possible.


Nevertheless, I think that, as we peel away the onion of nature, things are going to get stranger and stranger and stranger. To the limits of our ability to conceive it, almost. And that because of, essentially, Christianity, our connection to the origins—to the goddess and to the planet and what we as moderns call the unconscious, but that ocean of depersonalized information that you access with these plant hallucinogens—because of Christianity we have been cut off from this. Whatever Christianity was, it was a historical episode where the most patriarchal rap extant on the planet was suddenly pumped full of so much energy that everything else was just shoved to the walls. And the submergence, the giving up of the ego that is represented by the worship of the goddess in the orgiastic and intoxicating rites that reached back to prehistory, was suppressed very definitely in favor of structure and order and paternalism and these sorts of things. And strive as we might, this is the legacy upon which we must restructure our world view. We can’t do anything about the historical momentum that Christianity has imparted to our expectations. All we can do about it is raise it to consciousness, examine it, and then try and think our way around it. But it gives rise—because it was the heir to the late Hellenistic tradition of dualism—it gives rise to these tremendous divisions between the natural and the human world, between self and world, between you and me, between life and death. You see, it’s a splitting apart, a conceptual syzygy, it’s almost a linguistic strategy of conceptual syzygy, which leaves you no room to touch your origins.


So I’m hopeful that lots of people have lots of questions about all this. Before I open it to questions I want to briefly say that what our response to all this personally is, and why you may be seeing less of me is: this lore, this understanding of human-plant interactions, is slipping through our fingers at a tremendous rate. The last time I was in the Amazon—I can’t remember; I guess it was 1983 or eighty-something—anyway, we were on the track of an orally active DMT drug called [akuhe ?], and it had only been used by two tribes of Indians, and it was way up this river. And we got there at the point where we could find people who said, “I think I know what you’re talking about. And I saw, as a child, my father prepare this thing. But I’ve never done it myself, but I’ll attempt it for you.” In other words, we were either too late or almost too late. And this situation is repeated over and over again. And it’s not only hallucinogens, believe me. Drugs of medicinal worth in all kinds of areas: antibiotics, antidepressants, drugs which control malaria, drugs which control intestinal parasites, and mend bones, and all of these things are in danger of being lost because the cultures are being so spectacularly disrupted by consumer capitalism. No one is taking care to preserve this folkloric medical information and the physical plants which it addresses.


So in response to this, Kat, and I, and Ralph Metzner, and Rupert Sheldrake, and Ralph Abraham, and Dennis McKenna—and I think that’s about it—have formed a nonprofit tax-exempt corporation to create a botanical garden in Hawai’i, which is a kind of balance between tropical and temperate zones (you can get it going both ways if you get it right) to bring in these plants, and build databases that keep track of what they were used for and who used them and where, and propagate all of these plants. To make them available for research to chemists and phytochemists and psychiatrists and biophysicists; the various sciences that need to be brought to bear on this.


One of the things which has held back the exploration of folk medicine is the fact that each institution or person who became involved in it had to reinvent the wheel, had to fund and send expeditions to New Guinea or the Amazon, and make collections and return with the plants. Our hope is that, by establishing a garden that is specifically directed toward ethnomedicine, that it will be made financially attractive to research institutions to investigate these things. They will be able to simply order them from us and have it come in the mail, rather than send five graduates to Peru for three months. So I’m going to pass out a flyer on this. You remember at the end of Faust—or maybe you don’t remember because people tend to have it drop out—but you remember that what happens at the end of Faust is that he decides to clear swamps and build housing developments for poor people. So this is sort of my response to that. At the end of the flying saucer flight you pick up your hoe and go get the weeds out of the garden.


But the garden is a reasonable archetype, I think, to place in front of us as we move into the future. We can never return to the state of primal innocence that prevailed on this planet 10,000 years ago. The best we can hope for is to cover our tracks, and turn the planet into a garden, and build machines that will pull all the plastic and metal and glass out of the soil, and restore, conserve, and treasure. And this applies to the folk knowledge of these aboriginal and preliterate people who, as we penetrate the implications of the psychedelic experience, will be seen to be (in some areas) in advance of us in their mapping of what all this means. We are not the most advanced culture on the planet, we are merely the most silicone technology advanced culture on the planet. But there’s a great deal that we have to learn. However, we are the most destructive and corrosive culture on the planet. It is we who are destroying the Witoto and the Aguaruna Jivaro and the Kikuyu and all of these coherent human traditions that existed in equilibrium for 20–30–50,000 years, until the advent of colonial imperialism a couple hundred years ago.


So I always try to argue from these extreme—people say I’m an escapist or that it’s just fluff; you can say anything. But really, my goal is to change people’s minds, and to show that the real situation supports the notion that we should change our minds, that we should revision these things, and that we should try to come to grips with all of the opportunities and all of the resources that humanity has amassed in its journey from the trees to the starship. So this garden is our response to it. I’ll hand this about, and I’ll entertain questions.

Q & A Session


This man has been very patient.



Yeah, I was first going to ask you if you’ve taken any effort to link up with other similar projects, like Andrew Wiles’ Beneficial Plant Research association, or the Cultural Survival Project?



I don’t know about the Cultural Survival Project. I’ve discussed the Beneficial Plant Research society with Andy. It was not financially a success. [audio cut] and out of 50-dollar memberships to create a financial base for doing these things. This did not seem to be a good strategy. The other thing was: they became very fixated on the notion that coca could be the plant. Erythroxylon coca had medicinal acuity of effects, which I certainly agree with them, but it does, and it has a very central and healthy place in South American native culture. But they became fixated on the project of bringing coca into American culture in the form of a chewing gum. And I think they were ahead of their time.



[???] response to the [???] trying to do that as some sort of solution.



Well, I’m not saying it wasn’t a good idea. I just think that you will have to be cognizant of the political context in which you make your proposals. See, this Botanical Dimensions idea appeals to professionals. Let’s make it easy for chemists, psychiatrists, doctors, and botanists to get their hands on these things, and to find out what it’s about. Leary and the whole episode in the 1960s proved it can’t succeed if it’s waged as a mass movement. It’s a hell of a party, but it doesn’t—in the end you have to get science… you have to subvert it in some way. I assume the front door is locked. You have to subvert science in some way. And I have studied science from the point of view of a man with a catapult searching the walls of a great keep for its point of weakness. And I think, dear friends, that psychology is the place to put the pressure on.


You see, around the turn of the century science was really erecting its tent, and you had the phrenologists—those were the people who felt the bumps on your head and said whether you had criminal tendencies or not—you had palmistry, you had a number of—homeopathy is a good example—you had a number—and psychology. Psychologists, recall, were called alienists in the pre-Freudian period. And all of these theories about human types were in furious competition to get themselves declared a science, because they sensed that otherwise you were reduced to quackery. Well, the phrenologists couldn’t bring it off. My impression is the homeopathists only convinced themselves. The palmists convinced not a great number of people. But the psychologists actually brought it off. And around the mumbo-jumbo of Freudian analysis they were able to claim that they had a science that described what was going on with human beings.


The truth is, I believe, that psychology, though well meaning—I mean, I don’t cast dispersions on their intentions—but I think its effectiveness is close to zero. It depends entirely on the personality of the therapist. Reichian, Freudian, Jungian, you name it. Thirty percent get better, thirty percent get worse, thirty percent stay the same. What this means is that the theories are no good. It’s just the people are either good, bad, or indifferent; one in three, you see? So psychology needs tools. Psychology needs ways into the psyche beyond what it has previously had available. And I think most psychologists, psychiatrists who’ve thought about this understand that drugs are the way to do it. That the way you study the atom is: you smash it, and then you pick up the pieces and weigh them and calculate their trajectories and all this. The way you study the psyche should be by perturbing it, you know? You cannot figure out what’s going on with a pond of still water unless you drop a rock into it, and then you see waves move out and you say, “Oh my gosh, it’s a fluid medium! It has a shifting refractive index. It has all these properties.” This is a reasonable strategy for understanding anything.


And the fascination with shamanism is, I think, the sign that psychology is willing to own up to the fact that it is desperate for new insights into human dynamics. So I am hopeful that we can arrest the attention of psychologists and get them looking at shamanism—all of shamanism, even the parts which are perhaps less effective than the intoxicating and hallucinogenic plants—but studying how sound drives imagery, and how certain kinds of linguistic expectations lead to certain kinds of results. And so this garden in Hawai’i—which will appeal, as I say, to chemists and taxonomists and botanists—but these are established sciences with established methods which will simply inculcate us into their triumphal forward march.


But there is actually a possibility of revisioning psychology; of changing it. One of the great things, I think, about the recent flap about [???] was that unnoticed in all the filly-shallying that went back was a new paradigm actually was introduced into the practice of psychotherapy, a paradigm that has been absent for thousands of years. It was the notion that the doctor takes the drug in some cases, you know? That has been absent. There is no concept of that in Western medicine. That really is a new paradigm. So what a garden such as I’m describing would do in Hawai’i is, it would simply lower the energy barriers, make it easier for these professionals to explore these areas which otherwise might be closed to them for institutional or financial reasons.



You haven’t heard of the Cultural Survival Project?


No, I haven’t heard of them.


It’s an attempt to save a lot of these preliterate cultures in situation. Their present project is to try to keep [???] culture alive. They’re being exploited for this cheap labor and so they’re being taken off the reservation.



Well, see, I’m ambivalent about that. I think it’s a very strange kind of cultural chauvinism which goes to somebody and says, “You know, you’re a museum piece. We’re going to give you a 500,000 acre reserve and we’re not going to let anybody bring metal or transistor radios. So that your wonderful culture can be preserved.” I think what has to be preserved is the knowledge, you know? Because it’s impossible to stop the forward march of information. It is—even today, when you go to the Amazon, you go miles and miles and miles up these rivers, and the people are hardly wearing any clothes, and there’s only one motorboat on the river, and they’ve never seen an automobile, but everybody’s carrying transistor radios and can get the London fix on gold at the flip of a switch, you know? And how do you stop it? It permeates everything. So rather than try to halt the inevitable globalization of electronic culture, I think we should furiously try to preserve the information and interview everybody, and then do what we can with it. Otherwise, it becomes a kind of cultural providence.



Well, I’m not sure if all cultures want to be assimilated, really.



Well, but what culture ever got to vote in the past? You know? It’s a problem, I agree, because I am not enamored of this culture. I think it’s tremendously dynamic. I think it is a transitional to a culture of starflight and psychological death. But this is the chaos at the end of history. This is the accumulation of 10,000 years of muddling through with progressively—you know, we’re deep in the woods at this point. And the proof of that is the fact that our religion—which is science—has bequeathed to us our arsenal of hydrogen weapons. I mean, our religion has betrayed us into the valley of dry bones that T. S. Eliot anticipated in The Waste Land. The well has gone dry. And what we do about this, I’m not sure. But I have said, sitting in this chair, that what the twentieth century is about is an effort to recover our origins. That in the same way that the Renaissance steadied itself in the face of the inevitability of modern times was by harking back to Grecian Rome, and translating Plato and the dramatists, and trying to realize the ideals of Greek aesthetics and Roman law. What we are trying to do in the twentieth century is realize the meaning of a—because our culture crisis is so much deeper—where we are casting back to is 20–30,000 years into the past. This is why Freud and Auschwitz and modern art and rock’n’roll and sexual permissiveness and drug-taking and all of these things—we are trying to understand and culturally revivify in a modern context that time of origins. And it’s real rocky. We don’t know how all this is going to come out, because there’s so much we don’t know about the constraints on the situation.




I wonder: do you know, or anyone here may know, what Mary and [???] referred to as [???]? It’s a common plant or something—



No, no, that’s an entirely synthetic compound that is an anesthetic in ordinary medical usage, but that in sub-anesthetic doses is a mind-altering drug. I’m not sure I would call it a psychedelic, but, you know, one man’s psychedelic is another man’s—


Do you know what it is, or what…?


It’s ketamine. I mean, ketamine. It’s related to PCP. It’s an anesthetic.


Oh. Oh. They take that?



Different strokes for different folks! Yeah?



Terence, trivializing it—it sounds to me what you’ve got is a real big [???] for the big, black thing in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But what problem I had, though, is that, as you said, you’re taking off from orthodox evolutionary biology. And I may be wrong with this, but one of my impressions of that viewpoint is, one of the assumptions of that viewpoint is a denial of the phenomenon of consciousness in non-human species. So I’m not sure how your theory would relate to, for example, dolphin intelligence or speculating tree consciousness or any [???].



Well, let’s see if I understand you right. Consciousness is a very difficult thing to recognize. And dolphin consciousness, tree consciousness—these things are for dolphins and trees. It’s very, very hard to bridge the gap between the species. I mean, I think the task of finding the extraterrestrial is not so much—it’s a task of recognizing it when you find it, you know? I’m not suggesting that it’s necessary that the mushroom be an extraterrestrial intelligence for all of this to have happened. If psilocybin only increases visual acuity, it could’ve given sufficient dominance to this pack-hunting primate adaptation as opposed to the root-eating gorilla type adaptation to give it dominance. And then I think a plus for the theory and the kicker is this weird thing which it does to language, and the fact that another pressure on developing language is this pack-hunting lifestyle. So to my mind it all falls together so neatly that it has a certain kind of logical momentum. But you’re very right, and it’s important when talking about evolution to remember that the cardinal dictum of Darwinian mechanics is that there is no teleology. That means: evolution is not moving toward something. All notion of purpose has to be given up. It isn’t that thing evolve or move toward higher forms, it’s just that things complexify. And this complexification gives rise to what we define as higher forms.


No. The voice of the mushroom—the question of the mushroom as an entelechy—grows, to my mind, murkier every day. I mean, I used to firmly believe it was simply an extraterrestrial, and that we were going to have to come to terms with the fact that in the ecology of this planet there was another minded species, but that it was just so different from us that the task was to cognize it, and that it in fact had probably been intelligent and on this planet longer than we have. And then I was willing at one time to entertain a sort of Jungian—you know, it’s the oversoul, the collective unconscious personified as a psycho-pompic archetype which teaches. But, you know, this is like conjuring. This doesn’t explain anything. It’s just some kind of stream of gobbledygook. Jung talks about autonomous psychic complexes which have escaped the control of the ego. That’s what he means by an elf, you see? But when you call it an autonomous psychic complex, then it’s somehow… oh, of course! How pedestrian! It’s not pedestrian at all.



I was being playful with the 2001 reference, but the actual question is that dolphins, as an example, in my view, have demonstrable intelligence and have something approaching culture. Do you think they had their own mushroom, or is that in fact not necessary to development of that type of intelligence?



No, I don’t think it is necessary. First of all, I’m not sure they’re intelligent. If they are, there’s ample spans of time. I mean, they were land animals and then they went back to the sea, and it’s really hard to realize how much time there has been for these changes to go on. As to culture, culture is sort of a shockwave which follows behind language. Or culture is fossilized language. And one of the reasons that I think these psychedelic compounds still are important is because they catalyze the evolution of language. And that very directly issues into a catalysis of culture. I see the whole world we’re living in as basically the legacy of LSD. What it did to language in the 1960s is now visible as culture in the 1980s. You see, we don’t realize that when you don’t have language, you have instead reality. And that when you take a piece of reality and put a word to it, this is like a process of fossilization. The original thing is completely dissolved away, and mimicking it and left in its place is a template of it, a pseudomorph of the original thing. Well, first you have a word for one thing, and then you have a word for another thing, and pretty soon, like a coral creature, you have completely erected a symbolic reality. It stretches from the moment of the big bang to the heat death of the universe. You can explain everything. But this explanation has somehow precluded any kind of involvement with it. And we’re living inside this. What is real is not the walls, the streets, the buildings, and the electrical wiring. What is real are the linguistic structures which allow such things to come into existence.


And I think that these psychedelic compounds, these psychedelic plants, catalyze language. This is why, before history or before modern history, the shaman was always connected with the notion of poetics. It was realized that what real shamanism is—in the aesthetic expression of it, not the curing expression of it—what shamanism was was language work. Stretching the envelope, isn’t that what engineers call it when they design a plane which can go a certain speed, and then they go one mile faster? This is what the shaman tries to do. He tries to stretch the envelope of the linguistic context. And over thousands and thousands of years of doing this you arrive where we are. You know, we have the legacy. And science is certainly an expression of the shamanic thing. I mean, the dreams of the alchemists of the sixteenth century have been entirely realized in the technical accomplishments of the twentieth century. I mean, we do convert base metals to gold, we do create diamonds out of ashes, and all of these things. But it turns out it wasn’t the literalizing of these things that was so illuminating and inspiring to our humanness, it was the creation of the linguistic models. Then it became trivial and someone actually did it. That’s like a misunderstanding, you know?



One more—what’s the time frame on this? There’s a couple million years between the first upright walking [???]



Yes, right. You have the original aridity three million years ago, and then you have the growth of the grasslands. Really, you don’t have a lot happening until 10,000 years ago. That’s where we begin to see that all the elements are in place, and that this has been probably been going on for a long, long time.


This is post-Neanderthal, basically.



Yes, very recent. Did I mention that in the Tassili plateau of southern Algeria there are cave paintings—which have never been commented upon, so far as I’m aware, by any orthodox anthropologist—which clearly show human beings dancing, holding mushrooms in their hand, racing in a kind of round dance in one case, and then in another instance a single human figure wearing a bone apron with mushrooms sprouting out of the body and with mushrooms clutched in the hands. And this is the earliest and only evidence of mushroom use that we have from Africa, but it’s very conclusive.


The massive growth in brain size has occurred over the past 30,000 years. In other words, within the time frame when all of these elements would’ve been present on the African veld. And I’ve sketched this very quickly because, first of all, you’re not professionally interested in the details of evolution of ecosystems, but for instance Carl Sauer has argued that there is no such thing as a natural grassland. That grasslands are the earliest artifact of human existence on this planet, and that we created them with fire and repeated yearly burning. Because yearly fires promoted the growth and rapid evolutionary selection of grasses which promoted the production of cereals. And the proof of this contention is pretty easy to understand and hard to overthrow, and it is simply this: if you have a grassland which abuts a virgin forest, you go into the forest and you find that none of the newly evolved grassland species are present in the forest. But in the grassland many of the forest species are found to have adapted forms which are living in the grassland. Well, that’s a very, very clear proof that the grasslands are recent and were successive upon the forest. So this is another context. Perhaps humans were the agency which created this entire environment where this evolution of ungulate animals and pack-hunting and all of this could have evolved.


The impact of human beings on the planet—there was just a conference about six months ago in Boston in which mammalian paleontologists gathered together, and pretty much concluded that the major force promoting the extinction of large mammals all over the world was man. And up to that, the Irish elk, the [???], the huge pigs which were seven feet high at the shoulder, the giant armadillo, the fourteen-foot high ground sloth—all of these creatures disappeared because of human agency. It wasn’t, as had previously been thought, that their size placed such constraints on their food-gathering ability that they became extinct. No, it was that they were hunted out of existence.




[???] talking to your brother about the [???] Middle East [???] recent experiments. The one thing that I think should be added is: throughout the Middle East there are [???]-containing plants and beta-carboline-containing plants. The beta-carboline-containing plants will make [???] much more stronger than a mushroom or the tryptamine. These are found in ancient agricultural sites and [???]



Yes. I simplified the story and I concentrated on Africa because Africa is thought to be the point of origin where all this hominid speciation went on. But you’re correct. The other plants which could synergize this, or in the new world you have a completely different situation where different plants—banisteriopsis caapi, or morning glories, or peyote, or the other psilocybin-containing mushrooms—would have worked the same kinds of effects on culture. But you don’t have quite the coincidence of events or of factors necessary for the kind of scenario I’ve sketched out. You need the grasslands, you need the pack-hunting style of life, and these other psychedelic plants are not subject to being associated with the domestication situation. For instance, banisteriopsis caapi is a rare, wild, woody vine. And the [???] plants are similar. Only in the case of the ergot—well, no, there are three cases. The ergot, the coprophitic mushrooms, and then of course hemp is another one. There’s no telling how long hemp, cannabis, has been under domestication, because we find hemp mats that are 45,000 years old. That it was being twisted into skeins and the seeds are found in fire pits. So again, this is an example of one of these things being brought in.

Yeah? Somebody back there? Yes.



Regarding hallucinogens and how people use them. [???] between a hallucinogen stimulates something in the brain and the brain actually evolving and it stimulating something in people that manifests through the culture. And I wonder if, in the last twenty years or so, since at least a few million people started taking hallucinogens, any real evidence has come out that there is a measurable increase in intelligence, or any other [???] besides this visual acuity in human beings who have taken a number of hallucinogens or mind-altering drugs?



Well, an evolutionary biologist would say there just hasn’t been time, and that’s a reasonable answer. But if you go down to Silicon Valley to these software-writing places, or anywhere where technology is on the cutting edge, all these guys have ponytails down to their ass, and it’s very clear that they are heads. That heads are in charge of designing the cutting edge of culture. I don’t know whether that means there’s been an evolution in intelligence or not. But you’ve got to take seriously—and it’s too bad that it wasn’t taken seriously—the notion that what these things do is: they are consciousness-expanding compounds. Well, we’ve got to have more consciousness. That’s what we’re short of at every level, especially the managerial and control level. So if these things actually expand consciousness, then we should be going full bore to find out what this is all about. Because it is our stupidity which is holding us back. We are amazingly lumpen, and humanity is just unbelievably, perversely locked in closed loops of behavior patterns and self-deception and all of this. And, in fact, where you have an outbreak of mass psychedelia such as LSD, there you get people abandoning fixed behavior patterns, and the stock broker sells his house, and this sort of thing. They decondition.


And this is a precondition for consciousness. How can you evolve your consciousness if you do not decondition yourself from the mold into which it has been pored and ossified? They liquefy. It’s almost like the alchemical metaphor of the solucio, you know? Everything is dissolved. And then everything is re-crystallized in a new form. But consciousness expansion must loom large in the history of the species. I see all of history as a psychedelic trip—if by “psychedelic trip” we mean an experience of consciousness expansion that ascends through successive levels. I mean, we have become—this is a trip which has lasted 15,000 generations. And we are not the same people who began it. They were all sitting around, scratching and picking fleas. We have carried through the legacy because of the ability to epigenetically encode information, so that the experience of each generation could be saved and passed on in the form of records of some sort to the next generation. We have amassed a vast amount of consciously expressed material.


The problem is: we’re not making good use of it. I mean, in a microcosm I think it was William James who said it’s fine that we line our rooms with books, but if we don’t read those books we’re no better off than our cats and dogs. And this is sort of what the psychedelic experience is an invitation to. It’s an invitation to read the Akashic records. The real books. The books that have accumulated in hyperspace out of the blood, sweat, and tears of 1,500 generations of explorers. We are the inheritors of that legacy. They have carried us from monkeyhood to within 15 or 20 years of starflight, machine intelligence, genetic immortality, so forth and so on. It would be a great pity if we were to drop the ball. And I think that blame would accrue rather directly upon us. We owe a debt to those people.


The only way that the conquests, the pillaging, the dispersions of people, the pogroms, the only way the horror of history can be redeemed is by giving history a meaning, you know? And the meaning has to somehow be commiserate with the toil and the suffering that was required to produce the situation where that meaning could be generated. So every successive generation of human beings has had this incrementally increasing responsibility, and an incrementally increasing set of tools for righteously shouldering that responsibility. And this is our situation. It’s simply that we are either the penultimate or the ultimate generation. You know, there’s an Irish prayer: “May you be alive at the end of the world.” Meaning: may you be a part of the transformation of transformations which gives everything meaning. And I really believe it isn’t going to go on for centuries, people. We aren’t going to put standard stations on planets around Alpha Centauri, and we aren’t going to export Tylenol to the stars. It isn’t like that. It is accelerating at so rapid a rate that we are going to become unrecognizable to ourselves within the lifetimes of most people living in this room.


So how do you come to terms with that, and how do you help everybody else come to terms with that? This is, I think, the dilemma of all of our lives. And I’ve chosen to respond to it by centering in on the hallucinogenic, ecstatic experience. I couldn’t have done otherwise. It seems to me obvious as, I suppose, to Hitler national socialism seemed the obvious solution. So I’m not saying follow me, I’m saying we all have to respond in some way to this legacy, this responsibility, and this challenge. And if there is anything on this Earth which expands consciousness, it should be fully and exhaustively explored without cultural bias, without fear or prejudice. And talks like this, people like yourselves, we are a small, thin voice in the wind. But it has to be said because it seems to be right.




Then why are you going to do this under the reach of American jurisdiction?



You mean: why not do it in another country? Well, why not do it under American jurisdiction?




Well, yes. I mean, we’re not discussing anything illegal, are we? What are we discussing, precisely? I’m advocating that all these ethnomedically significant plants need to be preserved so that professionals will have an opportunity to sort through them. The issue of consciousness expansion is just like the issue of your sexual conduct. It’s nobody’s business. Surely, your mind must be the most private part of your body, and it should be treated as such. So on one level I’m talking about almost political and societal programs. Let’s preserve plants. Let’s preserve folklore. For professionals. But there are no professionals in the field of self-exploration. That’s everybody’s job. You all are PhDs in consciousness exploration—or, if you’re not, you should be. Because what else have you got going, you know?




I thought about the legality of people who [???] mushrooms that are not legal to have or give or sell—



Yes. No, I’m not really—we wrote a book years ago on the cultivation of mushrooms, and I consider that work pretty much finished. And I’m much more concerned about these very obscure plants. Higher plants, you know? Not fungi, but higher—


But they haven’t been made illegal yet?


No, they’re not illegal. They’re virtually unknown to science. I mean, what we’re talking about is tracking down rumors and that sort of thing. No, it’s not necessary to break any laws to explore the fringes of psychobotany. Laws only are passed against drugs in response to epidemic outbreaks of usage. The compounds I’m interested in are totally unavailable and no one’s ever heard of them anyway. And that’s where the interest lies. I mean, I certainly wish that it were legally possible for professionals to do research on the effects of all psychedelic drugs in a context of medical research. But apparently this is not to be. And so this is, then, a different approach. Saying: okay, we are not asking that something which is illegal be declared legal or that something which is illegal, exceptions be made for researchers. I think this is fruitless. I think the [???] thing proved that. I think [???] was extremely efficacious for therapy. I think the case for its use in therapy was brilliantly made. I think the people who made the case were extremely sincere. And I think that they just got kicked all over the board. Because they didn’t realize that sincerity doesn’t count, and it’s not about making a reasonable case to reasonable people. You’re going up against a much more draconian kind of thing. So no, I’m advocating an exploration of the botanical and ethnomedical fringes, and it doesn’t involve any kind of legal issues at all in the present context. It’s perfectly reasonable to go forward. And I think this is the way to do it, you know?

Any other points? Yes?



Yeah, I thought you’d—briefly relating to your last point—I thought you were doing some experimentation with iboga root, containing ibogaine. Happens to be illegal.



No, I’ve never experience ibogaine. I’m very interested in it. Of course, if I ever did it I would go to Gabon, where it’s not only legal, but a tradition. But that wasn’t one of the plants I have in mind. It would certainly be interesting. I know it’s being used in studies of inhibiting heroin addiction and this kind of thing. But there are a number—my focus of interest over the years has been the Amazon basin. And I think that that’s probably where the focus will be just sort of by default.


Yes, one of the interesting things when Wasson tried to show that soma was amanita muscaria—he ignored this very rich set of associations that Hindus have to cattle. I think that probably soma was not amanita muscaria, but it was stropharia cubensis. The interesting thing about soma, the god—because it was also a god as well as an intoxicant—was that it was a male lunar deity. And throughout the world, the moon is almost universally associated with the feminine. I believe there’s a North American Indian tradition that associates the moon with masculinity. But in this soma tradition you get a masculine lunar figure, and then in Mesopotamia, in the god Nannar, or Sin, there is also a male lunar deity. The lunar goddess [Cybele ?] is actually his daughter. He represents an earlier stratum of mythological material.


So yes, one of the unsolved mysteries of ethnomedicine—which, if anybody’s looking for a project—is to go to India and try and find out exactly what the status of mushrooms is in India, now and in prehistory. Hinduism was reformed quite radically a few centuries ago by the introduction of the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata specifically forbids eating mushrooms to high-caste brahmins. There is, in other words, a mycophobia there. And one of the puzzles of Wasson’s theory of soma, or anybody’s theory of soma for that matter, is: if it was so wonderful—and when you read the ninth mandala of the Rigveda it is clearly wonderful—if it was so wonderful, then how could they have ever lost it? And I think the answer is probably: it occurred through a series of stages. Originally, it was the orgiastic intoxicant of a general tribal group. Then, over time, it became the secret property of a priest class. And knowledge of it was much more restricted. And then there was a popular rebellion against the priestly hierarchy, and the priests and everything associated with them was swept away, and the mushroom went with it. This is the only scenario I can imagine where a psychedelic drug could actually be lost to a culture other than massive disruption in contact with another culture.


But it’s very interesting. There are aboriginal people in India, people not of the Indo-Aryan stock, or even of the Dravidian stock, the tribal people in Orissa and Bengal called the Santal. And they have, unlike the orthodox Hindus, a tremendously rich mushroom vocabulary. They have hundreds of words for mushrooms. They recognize 50 species with common names. They eat 12 species. In other words, they appear to represent a mycophilic culture that was extant in India before the Indo-Aryan invasions. And their relationship to psychedelic mushrooms has never been fully explored. They have a very interesting language where everything is designated male or female. Everything is given this designation, except one thing in the entire universe, and it happens to be a mushroom.

Terence McKenna

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