Canadian-Swiss anthropologist JEREMY NARBY on what hallucinogens like LSD and the Amazonian drink ayahuasca have to teach us
Introduction by Erik Davis
Q & A by Jay Babcock
Illustration by Arik Roper
Originally published in Arthur No. 22/May 2006
by Erik Davis
The anthropologist and author Jeremy Narby hit the intellectual freak scene in 1998 when he published The Cosmic Serpent, an audacious, intriguing, and entertaining dose of righteous mind candy that grew out of his decades-long explorations—both personal and scholarly—of the ayahuasca-swilling tribes of the upper Amazon. A Canadian living in Switzerland—at least when he’s not researching in the jungle or working on indigenous rights—Narby is no bug-eyed hippie prophet of “the tea.” He is a grounded, sensible fellow with a dry wit, an unromantic but respectful view of shamanism, and an allergy to vaporous supernatural claims. (In Europe he also sometimes performs with the guys behind the Young Gods, a seminal Swiss industrial band that led the Wax Trax pack back in the day.) While Narby’s head has definitely been broken open, his book does not spend a lot of time on the “spiritual” import of the jungle brew. Instead, Narby focuses on one of the biggest claims made by the Amazonian shamans: that their ritual ingestion of the hallucinogenic brew not only brought them contact with the spirits of animals and healing forces, but actually gave them knowledge—actual data—about the workings of the jungle around them.
After all, some sort of weird data transfer is going on in the jungle (though its hard to say it reaches the increasing numbers of spiritual tourists who are now hustling down to the Amazon and transforming shamanic culture with first world dollars). The existence of ayahuasca itself may be one of the greatest mysteries. Ayahuasca is not one plant, but a relatively complex brew that requires a fair amount of preparation. How did the old ones know that, out of the 80,000 some species of plants in the jungle, only this vine, combined with that shrub, and then boiled down into black gook, can produce the mother of all trips (not to mention some grade-A karmic Drain-O)?
Narby takes the mystery one step further: could the shamans be right? Could the brew, which one informant calls “the television of the jungle,” facilitate the knowledge of the jungle? To approach this question, Narby attempts to “defocalize” his gaze so that he can perceive science and indigenous understandings at more or less the same time. This trippy conceptual exercise leads him to the central mindfuck of the book: that the serpents that commonly slip into the visual field during ayahuasca trips are a figurative expression of the ultimate source of ayahuasca’s visionary communiqués: the coils of DNA. Ayahuasca is not just a head trip – it is a communication with the “global network of DNA-based life.” Narby is no true believer, and he is somewhat startled by his own hypothesis, but that makes it all the more compelling, and the lengthy notes in the back of the book prove he is doing more than riffing.
After co-editing a powerful collection of first-hand reports of Western encounters with shamans, Narby came out with the book Intelligence in Nature. Rejecting the idea that plants and “lower” animals are mute mechanisms, Narby uncovers scientific evidence that impressive feats of cognition are going on outside the precious smartypants club of the higher primates. Narby looks at bees capable of abstract thought, and unicellular slime molds who are able to solve mazes. Perhaps inevitably, the book is not as wild a ride as The Cosmic Serpent, and Narby spends too much time describing his mundane journeys to research labs and too little time wrestling with how “intelligence” relates to choice, or awareness, or intention. Nonetheless, the book is a worthwhile example of Narby’s “defocalized” gaze – an undeniably scientific appreciation whose inspiration lies with the fundamental shamanic belief that other creatures, and even some plants, are, in their own world, “people” like us.
Cby Jay Babcock over the telephone in late January, 2006
Arthur: You attended the conference on LSD held in Basel this past January to coincide with the 100th birthday of the father of LSD, Dr. Albert Hoffman. What happened there?
Jeremy Narby: What didn’t happen? I think one needs metaphors to get at it, really. When LSD hit in the ‘60s, it was like a drop of mercury that went in all kinds of directions, broke into a lot of different shards. Because LSD affects consciousness and consciousness affects everything, LSD had an impact in art, in music, in thinking, in the personal computer industry, in biology, and so on. In Basel all the different little pieces came back together and arranged themselves in a kind of mosaic that was psychedelic, multi-faceted and beautiful. All the chickens came home to roost after 40 years, looking good. One of my favorite moments was when Christian Ratsch came on the big stage with Guru Guru, which is the original Krautrock band. He was walking around with amber incense and stuff, providing incantations and shamanistic energy during the set, and these sprightly gentlemen, who must be about 55, just rocked the house down. It was fantastic.
Arthur: So, where does it go from here?
Jeremy Narby: One of the aims of the symposium was a kind of explicit political aim at getting psychedelic research back on the scientific map, and I think the point’s well taken. But you know, I’ve been working as an activist to get recognition for the knowledge systems of indigenous peoples and essentially despite a couple of decades of work and a lot of clear data (it seems to me), there’s really a fundamental resistance coming out of rationalism, coming out of Western cultures, coming out of the political systems. So I have the feeling of having led the horse to water but it didn’t want to drink. Sure, we can talk to the horse nicely and try and get it to drink the water some more, but finally I feel like more drastic tactics are needed. Like kicking the horse in the butt, or telling it to go and take a hike, or turning your back on it.
So I applaud these efforts to legalize psychedelic research, but… There are those among us who have wanted to use hallucinogens how indigenous people use them—in a serious way to understand the world. And we’ve been doing it, underground, for the last bunch of decades, and getting results that are richer and more interesting than what the Western rationalists are producing. So, I’d say that I’d rather take hallucinogens and then write stunning books than make speeches about hallucinogens.
Arthur: What was the response of Western rationalists to your hypothesis in The Comsic Serpent—that Amazonian shamans were actually receiving information at the molecular level via the ayahusaca trance?
Jeremy Narby: Scientists said that I hadn’t tested my hypothesis. Well, okay : I was just happy to have it considered testable! [chuckles] So how do we test it? Well, you try to falsify your hypothesis. You come up with a test to try to demonstrate that it’s wrong. That’s the scientific method. So, I thought, let’s send three Western molecular biologists with questions in their labwork down to the Amazon and put them into ayahuasca-induced trances. If they didn’t come up with any information then my hypothesis would start to look falsified. Now, it is a heavy thing to ask people who have never taken mindbending hallucinogens before to submit themselves to the experience in the name of science. These people are making their psyches available to you and then you distort them with these powerful hallucinogenic plants. In terms of ethics, this is even worse than experimenting on animals. It’s experimenting on humans. They were consulting subjects and all, but sheesh, this is serious business. I mean, the first thing that ayahuasca does, before it answers whatever questions you might put to it, is it tells you about yourself. It puts its finger on your weak spots, fast. It encourages you to clean up your act. This makes it a hard path to knowledge for somebody who’s into ‘being objective’ in the lab. As a scientist, you’re not supposed to pay attention to your subjectivity—you’re supposed to jettison it. But when you end up in an ayahuasca experience, it’s your little subjective self that is the hot point. Your subjective self comes to the forefront in your acquisition of knowledge. For a scientist, that’s a rough one.
Arthur: You were able to find volunteers, nonetheless. I gather they were colleagues… ?
Jeremy Narby: Actually, no. Fishing for molecular biologists is a kind of special sport. One of these molecular biologists runs a lab at a federal research institute here that specializes in modifying plant genomes. After a talk I gave in Lausanne in 1997 where I said that I was looking for molecular biologists to test the hypothesis, she raised her hand and said, ‘I am a molecular biologist.’ This other French molecular biologist, who was 64 and about to retire, had written to me, saying how impressed he was with The Cosmic Serpent and so on. I corresponded with him and cultivated the relation. Finally there was this Californian woman molecular biologist who runs a genome sequencing lab with 60 people under her responsibility, and she showed up at the book launch of The Cosmic Serpent in San Francisco and introduced herself. It’s no light thing getting people to do this. But, as scientists, they agreed, they found it too interesting to pass up.
Arthur: They each had questions from their individual researches…
Jeremy Narby: The French fellow was studying how sperm cells become fertile. When a sperm cell comes into the sperm duct out of the testicles it isn’t capable of fertilizing an ovum. But by the time it gets to the end of the sperm duct, it can fertilize an ovum. There’s something like 50 different proteins that work on it in that duct, somewhat like automobile workers working on a car as it goes through the chain. So the question that he was working on is, Which of the 50 proteins is responsible for making sperm fertile? He was working on this at the French National Center for Scientific Research because he was looking for a male contraceptive. He had two other questions: Why is it that we’ve been looking for so many years without being able to find the answer, is it because this is ‘forbidden’ knowledge? (That was a kind of Catholic question.) And, Is the mouse the appropriate model for us to be studying this, because what interests us is humans, of course.
He got some fairly clear answers. In his third ayahuasca session, fairly early into the session a voice explained to him, he later stated, that the answer to Question Number One was that it wasn’t one protein, but the combination of all 50 that was doing it. The answer to the second question was, See my first answer. In other words, you’ve been not finding it for so many years because you’ve been concentrating on one protein rather than how the 50 interact. And the answer to the third question was, ‘This question is too small for me to consider. Ask me something else.’ You know, you figure out for yourself whether the mouse is an appropriate model for humans. He later stated that he did not have the impression of accessing independent or outside information. The two women, on the other hand, had definite impressions of encounters with independent intelligences in the form of plant mothers: the mother of tobacco, and the mother of chacruna. We actually had to negotiate over words. I asked them whether they thought these were ‘outside’ intelligences and both of them preferred the word ‘independent.’ So the jury is still out on just where the information may be coming from…
Arthur: At a minimum, though, the ayahuasca was an activating agent.
Jeremy Narby: That, and the singing of the shamans. I was surprised by the extent to which they did come up with ideas and hypotheses in their visions. But when I reported this [at a 2000 symposium, later published as the final chapter in 2001’s Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge anthology], nothing happened. It never got reviewed. Like I said, the world doesn’t seem to be ready for this stuff.
Arthur: Your work seems to complement that of Benny Shannon, the professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Jeremy Narby: That guy is a heavyweight. To me his book [The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience, Oxford University Press, 2002] seems to demonstrate beyond argument that knowledge can be gained in altered states of consciousness attained by ayahuasca. He’s interviewed hundreds of people who are experienced ayahuasca users and he’s made sense out of their answers. So yeah… It’s very complementary. Benny Shannon pointed out to me when we first met, it might’ve been in ’97 or ’98 that he thought that my hypothesis was rather narrow. He was one of the few people that said that. He said, ‘All you talk about is molecular biology, but there does not seem to be a limit to the domains that are pertinent to ayahuasca, where people can learn things about these domains via ayahuasca. You can have insights into all kinds of domains, not just molecular biology.’
What I like about Benny’s work there is that he places us like the early European explorers in the 16th century, arriving on this new continent, without maps: the first thing they had to do was to get in those canoes and go upriver and make maps. So Benny took ten years to map the ayahuasca continent, to provide a preliminary map of these altered states of consciousness induced by ayahuasca from a scientific point of view. That hadn’t been done before. I don’t know if he’s the Christopher Columbus or the Amerigo Vespucci of consciousness, but what that means is we’re in kindergarten, or the 16th century, when it comes to understanding this stuff. More research is certainly needed. Benny himself is working on the philosophical implications of what he’s found.
Arthur: Where is your own work headed from here ?
Jeremy Narby: If we are part of nature, as science indicates, and if nature is intelligent, as science and shamanism also indicate, then is there anything special about human intelligence? In other words, I’m looking at human specificity, reconsidered from a point of view that presupposes no separation between humans and nature, and appreciates the presence of intelligence in nature. So it comes down to the question: What are human beings? How do they fit into the scheme of things? What are we doing here, in other words. If Nature has got intelligence, what does it have in mind coming up with us?
Arthur: Western thinkers like Terence McKenna, Richard Tarnas and Grant Morrison have suggested that humans are what happens when the universe becomes self-aware.
Jeremy Narby: Well, there have been many things that have seemed to be uniquely human but when we looked at it closely we found out it wasn’t so uniquely human. Shamans are telling us that the other species are human just like us in fact. We usually say that humans are the “symbolic species” but it turns out that DNA molecules are symbols, and that all of nature is shot through with symbols. We used to think we were the only humans, now indigenous Amazonians tell us “humanity” is a condition that applies to all the beings in the world. We first think, What does that mean? But if you think that being able to symbolize is specifically human, and then you understand that there are symbols in every cell in the world, you can see the whole thing more clearly. [Humanity] as the symbolic species remain a quintessentially natural product. But admittedly a peculiar one. We do all kinds of things that other species don’t do. This is true of other species, also, but we are a pretty surprising bunch. So just what is going on with these human beings?
Arthur: If Western rationalism is simply catching up to the shamanic understanding of reality, why not just go native? Rather than spending time and energy translating these truths into words that Western rationalists can understand and maybe even accept, why not just embrace the shamanic worldview?
Jeremy Narby: Well, I’m a Canadian, with blue eyes, and I like ice hockey, y’know? So I can put on feathers and start smoking pipes, but it’d be a bit of a fraud. Not that I don’t smoke a pipe or anything, but… I think that [going native] would be a mistake. Part of my dayjob, as the Amazonian Projects Coordinator for Nouvelle Planete, a small Swiss NGO, is to live in the Western world, to be an outsider here, to explain to the Westerners indigenous reality in the Amazon, why it should be interesting to us, and to back the survival of indigenous people there. And these are very concrete projects: right now I am trying to get funding for people in Peru who are running programs to benefit Aguaruna Jivaro women and their knowledge about nutritional and medicinal plants, or to help fund the Cacataibo people’s efforts to demarcate an area for non-contacted Cacataibo people in the central forest area. My role is to find funds for them here, in the West. I go to Peru once a year, I am in constant contact with the people there, but the money is here. So I’ve got to speak the language of these Westerners, I’ve got to know what motivates them. But I want to have a distance from it.
Arthur: So you’re constantly crossing between the Amazonian shamanic worldview and the materialist, rationalist worldview that you were raised with and are embedded in. There must be moments of jarring culture shock, right?
Jeremy Narby: I used to have that problem closer to 15 or 20 years ago, just getting back from the Amazon and stuff. I went through a couple of years of, I dunno, cultural schizophrenia. For example… I’m not Catholic myself, but in this part of Switzerland people are. All you gotta do is read the last chapter of the Bible and you’ll know who the cosmic serpent is associated with. So on the one hand I’m walking around with serpents and DNA molecules in my head, and outside there’s the Judeo-Christian rational world. Probably when you go to the supermarket you don’t want to get into the ‘I am transforming into a jaguar’ mode! [laughter]
But that’s the profession of the professional anthropologist: to know how to feel at home abroad and how to feel abroad at home. So, okay: bi-cognitivism. Bilinguals have more fun! It’s fun to have two languages, because there are things that you can say in another language that you can’t in your own, so being able to go back and forth between a kind of rational view and a shamanic view, I think it’s beneficial. To be able to know how to juggle points of view; to be able to look at your own presuppositions, it’s something that your average citizen would gain from being able to do. The world that’s currently unfolding in front of us where Pakistan and Denmark are linked and the same news bulletins about what’s going on in Iraq are read on television in Japan, Switzerland and Venezuela [is one in which radically different points of view need to be better understood.] In other words: everybody’s gotta become a kind of anthropologist at this point. And to those of us in the West, this can be painful. It was shocking to me as a rationalist to discover that my way of looking at the world actually was pretty arrogant in its presuppositions, and that I had excluded a priori shamanism as being a ‘real’ way of knowing, and that the only real way of knowing I presupposed with most rationalists, is Rationalism. Opening one’s mind to that I found rather painful.
Arthur: Some basic presuppositions need to fall away, or at least be put up for debate. Which brings us back to LSD: a deconditioning tool that challenges what you know, and even how you know.
Jeremy Narby: It’s not for nothing that they call it a trip. You can go traveling and physically take your body to different countries and learn that people in different places do things differently. And that forces you to look at your own presuppositions. Or you can stay home and if you work with these psychoactive plants correctly, you can examine your own presuppositions in your living room. And I’d say, if you do both, it’s even better.
I get a lot of strength from being specific—in working from particular cases and then generalizing from there. My beat has been the Western Amazon for the last 20 years. But I’m sure that one could make similar gains by going to Siberia or China or India or Lebanon or Africa. The whole world is interesting.