Plants, Consciousness, and Transformation

8-9 April 1995


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Okay, well, welcome to plant consciousness and transformation. uh I'm terence mckenna. I know many of you, uh we will meet here today and tomorrow 10 to noon, 130 to 5 and uh basically this is uh, uh, workshop to discuss the interaction between plants and human beings. h specifically the pscyhological and mental interpenetration would be to very different kinds of lifeforms and uh, those of you who are right and who are concerned about a paper that you may write relative to this class, I'll say a few words about that before the afternoon session, so don't fret about it, it will all come clear in time. uh, I think of this uh course as plants and mind" and, uh, the way I like to teach is to just begin to lay out the basic pieces of what is a very complex interdisciplinary puzzle, and hopefully at some point uh your specialties, your passions your interests will ignite the whole thing and it will have then a dynamic of its own. We could discuss these matters for 2 days 5 days, 10 days, or as I've done 40 years 35 years. there is no end to it and very few areas of human endeavor dissolve the disciplinary boundaries of western acedemia as thuroughly as uh the study of human and psychoactive plant interactions do. there are important issues here in biology and botany. in biogeography, in ethnography and ethnology, in psychology and neurophysiology, in the study of symbols, uh uh, the number of disciplines that have top be brought to bare on thsi subject is ... to how important it si to uh understanding our our humannes and I represent, uh, a radical point of view on these matters and I don't imagine I was invited here to dumb it down, so, you know if you had darwin, you'd get natural selection, if you had freud so you get sexual attraction. so you got mckenna so you're gonna get psychoactive kitalysis opf consciousness... but betfore we get to that let me just lay out some of the, the field. uh. Human beings began uh there career. well, we can trace it back to the primordial slime I suppose, but uh, our our animal career was a career of insectivouruous vegetarian and fruititarianism, lived out in the arborial canopies of tropical rain forests. And all uh all animal species, indeed all life tends to iuh occupy and evolutionary niche and then stabilize itself in that niche. uh termites cockroaches these sorts of organisms found their niche hundreds of millions years ago and have ... generally nature is not progressive in it's particulars. overall nature is progressive, but it's particulars seek equalibrium. and so it would have been in the case of our primate anscestors. They acheived a dynamical balance with our... a canopy habitat uh uh uh language pack signaling designed to convey danger and information about food sources and so forth and so on. and there they would ahve remained uh had it not been for the larger ecodynamics of the planet. Ecodynamics which are still shaping, uh uh human habitat in Africa,. because what has been going on in africa for at least 5 million years is a slow drying of the continent. and it disrupted this uh rainforest ecology so that about 2 to 4 million years ago, ... the rainforest began to island itself and to be restricted to the wetter areas of africa and into the new environment, the more virifitic or arid environment that was coming into being, a very diminished plant community took hold. A community of opportunistic grasses, annuals, heavy seeders, this sort of thing. Npw we know that the rainforest was primary becaause the raindforest, just to givbe you a broad notion, might consist of uh over 100000 plant species. The grassland ecosystem might well consist of under 500 species and all 500 grassland species can be found as rare members of the flora of the rainforest. So clearly what we have are the survivors of a process of clearing and there is argument among botonasts about this. Karl Sauer who was a great geographer and thinker on these matters held that there is no such thing as a natural grassland. That grasslands are the earliest artifacts of human impact on the planet. Grasslands are created by burning. uih uh tey promote the growth of cereals uh and and so play feed in to this human uh uh food chain. So. our uh primate ancestors ecological adaptation to arborial life was interrupted by this process. uh, and key to ym thinking about all this, and those of you who aer gonna have careers in all this will take it up and adembrate it. I think the great overlooked factor in any model of human evolution and indeed in evolutionary models in ... emphasis to diet when we talk about natural selection of an animal species we tend to think, uh, that the genome expresses physical types and the phenotype is then subject to selection by natural environments. Some biologists and seen the thinness of this understanding. LL White wrote a book called internal factors in evolution in whic he pointed out that the womb is,.. before an organism is ever born into the theater of darwinian selection, so it isn't a tabula rasa that your born into the theater of natural selection you have been subject to natural selection from the very easrliest moments of exist... but what I have emphasized si diet, diet is uh an input of potentially mutigenic factors into the body that can have eormous consiquences on the health of the individual... of a population and.I've used the the toolbox of ideas that I'm going to put forward here today and tomorrow to try and address what seems to me one of the sensibly interesting questions to be asked of this world and that is, what is human consciousness. where did it come from, and why does it exist at all? uh, and I believe that we can by thinking about psychoactive plants, diet, and the early human evoltionary situation we can make a lot of progress on this question, and we can illuminate some of our political dillemas to that eprsist to this day. The gender friction that typifies human society the heirarchy structers and the tension they creat... ... and then we can talk about the larger uh uhm materia medica of, of uh psychoactive change relative to to plants. as the rainforest retreated. our remote primate ancestors came under nutritional pressure. obviously because their area for gathering food was being physically diminished. now when a as you probably know or as obsserverd, most animal species are very partyicular about their food intake and if you've ever tried to raise butterflies or something for your childre, uh you know that if you capture a catapillar in the wild but don't play close attention to the plant you find it on, you can't just ut grass in a peanut butter jar with a catapillar to great success. Animals are highly specialized in their choice of food. why is this? well, as near as we can tell evening all kinds of food from an evolutionary point of view is a very reckless move indeed, because plants represent, um , uyh chemical smorgasborg of various types that have accumulated over time in the genome of a particular organism,. if you have a very broad based diet you are exposing yourself to many different kinds of mutigenic influences as a strategy for survival of a species this is not good! uh much better to specialize, to evolve special enzymatic pathways to deal with toxins, so for instance we know certain animals can eat things./.. an all animal species tend to evolve towards these very bland uh monodiets. now, what happens, when uh there is an upheaval in an environment, uh, geomatical magnetic reversal a volcanic erruption a drought something like that, and ordinary sources of nutrition become restricted, then an organism has basically 2 choices. It can go extinct, starve itself out of existance or if it has more flexible behaviour it can begin to experiment with previously rejected potential foods in the environment. Rejected probably because of uh strong taste, or something likethat whcih are clues to the presence of marginally acceptable chemical compounds of some sort. our remote canopy living ancestors, have I mentions... expand their repetoir of foods. they also begane to explore the grassland environment, and I mentioned that the grassland environment is much poorer in in total number of plant species then the rainforest thus and logically the potential number of food sources is also limited. babboons and chimpansis will dig with sticks for the corms the swollen root of grasses so as our rmote ancestors began to explore this new environment of the grassland they also began to explore new dietary items. uh and one of the items that they would surely have observer are coprophitic mushrooms... many of these species of coprofitic mushrooms elaborate psylicibin which I assume you know is one of the major psychoactive alkoloids. psylicibin occurs in many species of mushrooms its unknown outside of the fungi and but I maintain in a sense psylocibin is the uh is the best model for human interactions with the psychedelics or that all other psychoactive plant useges are an effort to duplicate return to or somehow evoke the original human relationship to psylocibin and here is this and and it is not simply its psychoactive properties that make psylocibin a potential catalyst for human consciousness it is its psychoactive properties in combination with certain other properties which make it uniquely suited to carry out the role of catalysis of consciousness in a higher animal... first of all, uh in very low doses psylocibin increases visual accuity. if you want to go back into the literature, rowland fisher in the middle 60's took graduate students and gave them small amounts of psylocibin or placebo, and he built an apparatus where two parallell stripsd of metal could be deformed by winding a crank, and he asked people to push a button when the two stripps seemed to them to cease to be parallel and he demonstrated that edge detection is enhanced by small amounts of psylocibin. well you dont have to be a rocket scientist to realize that edge detection is at a very high premium ion any grassland situations where predation is taking place. the lion moving in the grass 300 yards away as ot klreeps upon your camp, or the gazelle tring to slip away in the tall grass from your hunting party. edfge detection is the key to your success or failure in hunting in that kind of a situation. It's extraordinary that./.. what it would have done, you see, is the proto... a slightly enhanced success in hunting that slightly enhanced hunting success would mean more nutritional resources available for them and their offspring. offspring presumibly inculcted into the habit of also eating the mushroom. so what we have here is a slight favoring, then, of those animals in the population that would accept psylocibin into the diet. um, at slightly higher levels psylocibin is, uh, like all CNS stmulants causes arousal, and arousal is simply a feeling of unfocused restlessness, it's that 2 esspresso feeling. sleep is implossible hands are busy at small tasks, one is aware of ones sphere of awareness extends out somewhat further, and in jhighly sexed animals like primates, arousal means errection in the male, and this is very important for this theory because we not only have to account for human consciousness, but we have to account for the peculiar dislocation that human consciousness seems to carry with it, that we are both of nature and yet not of nature, somehow creatures with one foot in nature and one foot in heaven, and how does this come about, uh, I believe, and I'm you know willing to argue it against all comers, that the key element to understanding our sociology and our sexual politics and all that, is to realize that psylocibin had 2 effects in the early human populations that were using it, 1 we're very familiar with if we're psychedelic sophisticates ourselves, it's the psychedelic experience, the bondary dissolving hullucinatory shamanic apotheosis that occurs... medicate the tendency to form dominance hierarchies, and this is very controversial, in otherwords, what I'm saying is that all primates form dominance hierarchies and what that means, to remind you, is that the hard bodied long fang males take control of the group, they ciontrol the children, the women, they order the old, the homosexual and the young, everybody is under their thumb and part of our dilemma as a global society is that though we claim great sophistication we still live under male dominance hierarchies: corporations, universities, family structures, you know long fanged males are still ordering around the elderly, the week, and the females among us... it creates great social dislocation and political unhappiness and tension in relationships and so forth and so on, I believe that our unique position in the animal world arose as a consequence of a chemical suppression of a natural behavior pattern, the pattern of male dominance, of forming dominance hierarchies was interrupted by an item in the diet, psylocibin, and into this chaos this egalitarian chaos, which resulted was uh a situation in which everything about us that we treasure and hold up as humans was put in place. in other words, theater, language, dance, story, altruism, ethics, uh, metaphysics, did I say poetry, everything that makes us human, came into being roughly 100,000 in the last well from a hundred thousand to about fifteen thousand years ago. people lived in balance with the earth, with the larger biome in which they were embedded, there was not product fetishism ushering into enormous toxic processes involving the smelting of metals or thwe extraction of rare elements from the earth. now you could object and say well they ust simply wwerent siophisticated enough to do those things I'll amintain our... comparing us and finding us favorably compared to the civilization of homer or catalhyuyuk or alta mira is is simply a form of culture chauvenism. okay but psilocybin had other effects besides this suppression of male dominance that I mentioned and this increased sexual thing whihc I did mention but I didn't draw the correct conclusion there you... then it is reasonable to expect that you will have more pregnancies and reasonable to expect that you will therefore have again a tendency to outbreed the non-psilocybin using members of the population. ... greater uh food gathering uh capacity, increase sexual activity which teds to outbreed uh the non psilocyubin imbibing members of the group,a nd then on top of al this you have this eccstatic internal state for which we with all our cultural and epistemic sophistication are still unable to come to terms. The mystery of the psychedelic experience. Now, these things taken together with other factors working in aprrallel created, I think, the dillemma and the glory and the opportunity of humanness. Once we began, under nutritional pressure, to expand our diet, we were delecately poised on the edge of omnivorousness. Because recall in the canopy... we were not simply vegetarians, we were insectivors. In the grassland environment we began, probably, to um, orgiinally, to uh, follow along behind lion kills and that sort of thing, and eat carrion. One evolutionary theory is that our suppressed olefactory apparata the fact that we have a very limited sense of smell is because there was a period in our evolution where we did a lot of rooting aruond in carcasses, this is not the noble image uih we might have wished, but uh there it is we need a countervailing theory because you don't likethat one is no we lost our sense of smell because when we stood upright we got our faces up off the ground and thats where the smells are anyway so it all sort of became seless... couple of years that is definitely not PC is that I'v noticed and my attention was called to it by philip devoshalay whose a friend of mine.... cows have very little interest in the habits of chip munks or birds or anything else all they do is munch grass. carnivores on the other hand have an acute interest in the behavior of other animals. in fact I'm on the bring of willing to argue that the earliest consciousness was not self consciousness it was consciousness of how dinner thought because if you can think like your dinner you can go out and plant yourself in its path of behavior and have dinner, you see,, and if you will if you will look at the difference between ... the intelligence level is striking, and I think that, that this attention to the behavior of other animals on the part of an emergin habit of carnivorous behavior is going to have to be taken into consideration. umm, its interesting that shamanism, which is in a sense the earliest intillectual persuit emerges in its early phase as a technique for identifying with animals. Hunting magic is what we're talking about here, and so I think that there is a very interesting mix of factors and players in the early human evolutionary situation. First of alla canopy dwelling primate with a pack signaling repetour is forced into a grassland environment uh where psilocuyvbin mushrooms occur were small or large aniomals are predating upon each other and where nutritional options are highly restrictive. as this animal makes its adaptive choices it moves deeper and deeper into the realm of mind. first the modeling of the behaviors of other animals, and the behanviors of plants because in a hunting and gathering situation when plants produce fruit what environments they prefer what other plants they grow in association with what soil types they prefer all of these things are cofactors feeding into an image of the world and this image of the world by its accuracy or falsity decrees life or death upon those uh uh who terry. uh.\ the omnivorousness forced us into an awareness of other animals, that made us, uh that put us on the level of intelligence of a hunting cat, or something like that, but the psilocybin experience, at higher doses and obviously at this time inculcated for suxual and ritual and hunting purposes into the society.... into a non-local invisible magical world that is to use a jungian term highly numinous, highly charged with the energy of the architype of the architypal world, and as I said to this day we are not able to come to terms with this no matter how much deruda or husseral or wittgenstein we imbibe it still is a very challenging thing to dissolve your ordinary state of concioussness... mind that we find ourselves embedded in. for a long time, therefore, up lets say a numbers are number, but lets say from fifty thousand years ago to twelve thousand years ago there was a kind of paradise on this planet. Poetry coexisted with uh a balanced ecosystem. uh, observational sciences, astronomy, botany, biology, taxonemy, the observational sciences, coexisted with the natural world. And then the same factors which created this edenic situation which remember what they were it was the drying of the african continent that caused the rain forest to retreat, that same process had been going on slowly inevitably endlessly and about between well after the last glacial melt which began tenty to seventeen thousand... a vast grassland dotted by sandstone pinicals cut by rushing streams and crowded with vast herds of game. that was the theater of human emergence but when ti began to go dry it when dry rather dramatically, these ice cores coming out of iceland make this clear. nevertheless... The breadbasket of rome, because they were growing wheat in vast amounts of north africas s recently as 2000 years ago in areas now where there was nothing. well, this this paridisicle ac...matriarchal, partnership psychedelic, shamanic archaic whatever you wannna call ti society was then pushed into crisis, and a number of things happened. first of all migrations of people out of africa, this happens everytime theres a glacial melt. Human populations were trapped durin... the last glacial period the glaciers came as far south as uh as northern isreal. so human populations get trapped and then in the interglacial and during the melt they radiate outward. people behan leavng the sahara settling in the nile valley, and the use, this shamanic use of psilocybnin was disrupted becasue... and when that happened and this I'm closing the loop here, for you feel my wrath the saying when that happened the patter of male dominance the pattern that was genetically never removed but which had been pharmocologically suppressed for over a hundred thousand years perhaps reasserted itself with avengence it was always there it had never been bred out... people were turning bad suddenly. we get a whole bunch fo things come at once, uh, an end to nomadism, the beginnings of sedentary agriculture. City building, standing armies, slavery, male kingship, dominance, all of these things appear almost over night they spring up and I maintain they are what a monkey would build as a civilization if suddenly all of its worst behavioral tendencies came to the forefront with avengeance and that's precisely what's happened. In the eriod where we were self medicating ourselves with psilicybin ... entity that we are. we elaborated observational techniques, theories of magic, language, but when the psilocybin was withdrawn, these tools which had been our glory became instead our curse, because instead of using them to produce theater and dance and eccstatic social interaction, we began to use them to support the new and older agenda of male dominance and its a frightening thing, you know, to think people following their cattle across the african plain, uh eaing the mushroom, seeing the mushrooms as aprt of the output of the cattle in the same way tyhat meat and milk and menuer were output of the cattle, a mother goddess religion a reli9gion,... conflict soforth and so on and. somehow then this process which took a long time of domesticating cattle, because I'ms ure you see you cans ee how it all works, how these factors were disperate and then they flowed together.,.. uh, kills of lions. uh, you follow the cattle in the same way that the jackals follow the cattle to deal with the lion kills made by large predeters well then in the course of this you encounter weakened animals or abandoned infant animals, and you care for them and over twenty thousand years this turns into domestication of animals, husbandry of cattle, but uh you take away the psilocybin and I think this isa frightening thing to contemplate, the earliest cities, I will argue, were pens for human beings,. that's what a city is, it's a pen for human beings. some of these dominant males said woiah ... in the same way, why shouldn't a king order his people in with the same impunity that he orders the slaughter and the movement of herds of goat and cattle, and all of the institutions that we labored under came into being at this moemnt of transition from the late neolithic, er from the paleolithic to the neolithic, to the agricultural situation. The reason for thsi, I believe can be traced to ev, to the evolution of consciousness, I mean consciousness is a double edged sword, uh at the very, one of the factors I think that contributed to the reemergence of male dominance was that at some point jhuman intillectual capacity... could be connected to an effect, and the effect and cause that were being observed was the ... and women who that men must have understood that an act of copulation if carried out successfully and in the right rhythm to the moon will result ina child 9 months later. If you don't have that understanding you have no sense of male paternity so you have a very tight social bond because for men the children are our children, the children of the group. Once you ahve a sense of male paternity then you have ownership and this becomes very prolematic. ... that in the yearly round of following the cattle, when they would return to the kitchen middens and fire puts abandoned a year previously, tha there would be food in those areas, an abundance of food plants from cast off kernals of cereal and so forth and so on... if we bury food for ... food will come out of the ground. The problem with agriculture in the early phase is that it's hideously efficient, and what it does is it immediately creates such a surplus that you have to stop moving, nomadism has to be abandoned.... and then you must store and defend your overproduction against less fortunate human groups in the area. The most advanced building on this planet in tenshousand eight thousand BC was uh the grain tower at Jericho, and what was it, it was a grain storage tower, and ti had a staicase so you... heads of enemies who were tring to batter their way into your grain tower, so I've I've spent some time on this ebcause, um, this could be taught this course without any reference to our contemporary dilemma which is uh and by that dilemma ... male dominance, underutilization of females in society, under utilization of feminine points of view in society, but obviously there is a lot of tension in our society around the issue of psychedelic intoxication, around the issue of these shamanic plants, though there is a growing awareness among sophisticated people that the case is almost entirely emotional... toxic drus,alcohol, tobacco, uh we're willing to make a trade off of seventy thousand deaths a year in this country for the privilidge of driving the automobile... supportive of the agenda being handed down from the top, psychedelics are not, and they are seen as tremendously disruptive, and yet as the ethnographic and pharmocological data comes in they are among the most benign uh uh substances in the world and uh their history of human usage is almsot universal, and then the question is do these intoxications limit the spectrum of consciousness and allow heirarchical models to be handed down and brainwashed into the doubters, or do these states of consciousness disolve cultural assumptions and cast the individual into uh an ocean of existential complexity out of which they have to build their own model of how the world workds. well, uh I beleive the reason for this tension in our society and anxiety and suppression, furious suppression, of these things is because we sense that this addresses origins, in the same way that it took a long time to overcome our our.... there's something about the origins subject that make us very very nervous. clears throat, okay so that's a very linear discussion of the role of one psychoactive plant in human history, psilocybin, and as I say I think it was uniquely, chemically, botanically positioned to play that role in human consciousness, uh, now the contemporary situation, worldwide, is that we find uh many forms of shamanism, from the arctic to the rainforest tropucs, and shamanism always depends for its uh efficacy, on a dislocation or a transformation, of ordinary consciousness, and we see this acheived in many different ways. uh, through fasting, through ordeals meaning abandonment in the wilderness or or flagilation, uh through uh elaborate theatrical effects, special effects, uh through the use of substances in plants, and there has been a controversy in anthropology never resolved over the past 40 years, what is the authentic shamanism, and those of you ... mersie eliad who was [46:00}