Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dennis McKenna: Human-Plant Co-Evolution




Intro: 
I’m the attorney who represented the Peyote Church is here to introduce McKenna: 
we need visionaries who can stretch and even shatter the outer limits of our imaginal reality. 
no account of the universe is complete without considering entheogenic reality
this gentleman is wearing a very natty suit and tie!
McKenna is a founder of HEFFTER research institute: therapeutic uses of psychoactive substances derived from nature

I want to share with you today a series of speculative ideas that have to do with palnt-human coevolution, which has been going on for millions of years. 
Plants are all around us. We don’t pay much attention to them, even though we depend on them. They are very different from us. But when you think about them they are really weird
They don’t move around, they don’t respond to their environment through behavior. They have strange reproductive habits. They require another species, often, to complete their cycle. Plants just do it, even though it would be a little kinky if humans did it! They don’t look like people but people can look like plants. 
But plants have mastered a little trick: photosynthesis. Sunlight and water >> organic compounds starting with simple sugars. The byproduct is oxygen which we breathe. 

>> myriad of pathways >> simple sugars >> all the molecules of life
those compounds are universal, found in all life, because they are what life runs on

But besides these, plants (which have a sort of chemical exuberance) have elaborated a vast array of secondary compounds: phenolics, alkaloids, turpenoids, strange sugar derivatives: these aren’t universal, not required for life, but they serve plants in useful ways
because plants substitute biosynthesis for behavior: secondary metabolites are messenger molecules
plants can’t run away; they respond to threats through biosynthesis

they use messenger molecules to mediate their relations with other organisms, including other plants, bacteria, fungi, insects, herbivores (including us)
plants use this chemical language to mediate their situation in the environment

Three purposes: defense; semiosis (sending a signal); symbiosis (come closer)
the close association of different species for mutual benefit (symbiosis)
>> quite elaborate when it comes to insects; millions of years of coevolution
fragrances: small molecule turpenoids; pigments, color
UV light: plants look like targets
>> nectar, pollen 

humans are also symbiotic with plants: medicine, fiber, construction materials, dyes
usually to the mutual benefit of both: domestication >> easy street: protected from the vicissitudes of natural selection
agriculture: what makes civilized humans possible
we are still sorting out its consequences. Transition from hunter gatherer nomadic to sedentary settled lifestyle
cultivation of plants
we can grow plants and modify them to our needs
rooted human societies; villages; division of labor; invention of law, science, art specialisms etc
agriculture is the foundation of culture!
culture is another huge game changer, not anticipated by biological evolution
culture works on a much faster timescale than biological evolution
culture depends on language: the vehicle on which culture rides
we impact plants as much as they impact us
Brussels sprouts are genetically modified, a monstrosity! a technological artifact as much as a computer
same with medicines: cannabis sativa (one of the oldest we know of), cultivated 12 000 years ago
there is no wild cannabis sativa: they are all a form of cultivar

secondary compounds in plants >> naturally occurring toxins >> human dietary exposure >> recognition and avoidance mechanisms, repulsion (emetic etc); behavioral detoxification (such as peeling); activation of physiological detox mechanisms involving the GI system and endocrine metabolism

also >> alterations in DNA and DNA/RNA processes; molecular changes in specific gene products such as enzymes in the liver, hormones (>> feedback on DNA, modulating gene expression)

both of these >> initiated variations in diverse metabolic processes >> modifications in disease susceptibility 

Now McKenna shows a timeline of neural evolution. The line is anomalous. Size and complexity of human brain took place in an explosively short span (within two million years, it increased about 3 times, and complexity increased)
The neurologically modern brain evolved between 2m and 100 000 years ago. 

Might have this been affected by the chemical ecology that the plants lived in?

Suddenly we are language using, spiritual, tool using, etc etc; we are like nothing else on the planet...
Other animals have language and culture but not really, nothing that comes up to that level
we are blessed or burdened with this extraordinarily complex brain
The brain is one of the most complex structures in the known universe: 100-500 trillion synapsis; Milky Way 100bn stars. “The three-pound universe”
We have this three pound piece of jelly...where all our creativity is...

This organ also works through messenger molecules, the neurotransmitters

Dali: I do not take drugs, I AM drugs. If you think about that it is true! Most drugs function by affective synthesis, storage, release, degradation or reuptake of neurotransmitters, or by mimicking or blocking their effects at synaptic receptors

So this is not crazy but reasonable speculation
we are an anomaly: complex language, complex technology; storage of information outside of ourselves and transmit it non-genetically to future generations (that’s a big one)
symbols can be experienced as real > foundation of human culture: the edifice of all human artifacts << complex brain

how old is consciousness? when did it first emerge, this world of abstractions--when did it become real for us?

oldest intimations are Venus of Tan-Tan, Morocco (300-500kya) and Venus of Berekhat Ram, Golan Heights (~230kya)
they look crude; they were not made by homo sapiens but rather homo erectus

Blombos cave, S. Africa (70-80kya); ochre plaques engraved with abstract designs and shell beads
between 70 000 and 2000 bp there was an explosion of art (bp = before the present)
Venus of Hole Fels; Bhimbetka Rock; Bradshaw Painting Western Australia; Aurochs at Lasceaux; Cueva Manos Argentina; Drakesberg S. Africa

Consciousness had permeated the world. What triggered this? 

Kubrick’s 2001. The Monolith erupts into history. An irresistible force. Terrifying, fascinating, incomprehensible. Haunts pivotal events in human history. It exists in nature: in psychedelics. They provide the trigger. 

They are quite common and as mysterious and impactful today as they were to our ancestors 15 000 years ago. We know more about how they work but we don’t understand consciousness....

True psychedelics work on serotonin: 5-hydroxytryptamine (5HT). Also dopamine and norepinephrine. All << amino acids which << plants (we have to get them from plants or animals that ate plants!)

the serotonin neurons <> conscious experience
classical psychedelics interact with 5HT2a receptors (a particular subtype of serotonin receptors)
visual effects: abundantly reflected in shamanic art (such as Jaguar masks)
psilocybin is easy to get (in fungi)

12 000bp and modern times: psychedelic culture showed up everywhere
Algerian plateau, Peru, Guatemala; Selva Pascuala Cave, Spain; fossilized peyote buttons from Pecos River TX (3780BC)

language: meaningless sounds <> meaningful symbols
this amounts to synesthesia: translating one sensory modality into another
psychedelics readily induce synesthesia
thus they are neurocognitive programming tools: how to use the brain--the hallucinaton of consensual reality in which we are all immersed

and “portentousness”: a sense of seeing more than you can tell; Daniel Freedman “On the Use and Abuse of LSD” (1968)
psychedelics reliably do this
gazing at something intently for hours

>> religion
psychedelics activate religious sensibilities

Roland Griffiths: “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance”; Psychopharmacology 187: 268-283
20% said it was the most meaningful experience of life; 40% top five

Franz Vollenweider (director of Heffter Zurich)
lots of overlap between psilocybin users and spiritual practitioners

>> shamanism: spirits play important role in human life; shaman can cooperate with spirits; spirits can be good or bad; series of techniques to enter trance; role of animals; shaman spirit leaves body and enters into supernatural world; healing
And poet, bard: master of language

Henry Munn: “language is an ecstatic activity of signification” (”The Mushrooms of Language” in ed. Harner, Hallucinogens and Shamanism)

having a history; anticipating death



1 comment:

Henry Warwick said...

You need to go do some DMT and report back on what you find.