Hallucinogens in Religion and Science

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Visionaries aren’t always well-received in science. They’re tolerated if they solve some outstanding problem without upsetting one of the basic attitudes of many scientists–unless they have such stature that no one is quick to criticize them.
Francis Crick was the man who visualized the double-helix structure of DNA and deciphered its code, so his accomplishments were unassailable. Maybe they would have been assailed anyway if scientists had known he was using LSD at the time he was thinking about DNA. Whether that’s so or not, he said some things later on that many scientists may not have received gladly.
He was thinking about evolution and the age of the earth, and said that, statistically, enough time had not yet passed on earth for a protein molecule to have been randomly constructed–let alone a VERY complex protein molecule like DNA.
Protein molecules are very large, very complex, and constructed in a very precise way to give very specific results. This is especially true of DNA, which Graham Hancock, in Supernatural, characterizes as the most efficient data-storage system imaginable. In each cell nucleus (much smaller than the cell itself) is stored two interwound strands of DNA 10 atoms wide and two meters long. This means that in each human being (as perhaps the most complex organism on earth) there are BILLIONS of miles of DNA.
Evolution is unimaginable without DNA. Every organism on earth contains it, so we humans are related to absolutely every living thing on this planet. But if the random evolution of a protein molecule is impossible, how could DNA have come into existence?
This question worried Crick, and led him (since he was a committed atheist) to the hypothesis of “panspermia”, meaning that DNA was designed by an extremely advanced alien race a very long time ago, and sent to this planet, and maybe to many other planets as well.
Perhaps this is a plausible solution to the problem. It may also indicate a solution that many scientists (to say nothing of atheists) would reject out of hand.
Curiously, the Yagua Indians of the Peruvian Amazon, who use the hallucinogen Ayahuasca, told ‘French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Chaumeil: “At the very beginning, before the birth of the earth, this earth here, our most distant ancestors lived on another earth…”‘
Where would they get this idea?
When asked about such questions, like (on a more pedestrian level) how did they know what plants to mix together, and how to treat them to produce the drug Curare, the answer is that Ayahuasca told them (Ayahuasca is a potent psychedelic used by many groups in South America). Graham Hancock remarks that since there are some 80,000 plant species in the Amazon area, this answer (weird as it may seem) looks a lot more probable than any trial-and-error method. Not only does Curare kill monkeys, for example, without leaving toxins in their bodies, but it makes their “hands” relax instead of clench, which is much more convenient for hunters who shoot monkeys in trees.
There are a lot of dots to connect here. One is the experiments of Clive Backster in the 1960s, who hooked electric pickups to plants, and got responses to various stimuli, which he thought meant plants were intelligent in much the same way as we. But there was a problem with his findings: legitimate scientists weren’t able to replicate them, which made many of them reject the whole idea. In The Intelligent Plant, an article in the New Yorker, Michael Pollan cites recent research that suggests the rejection of plant intelligence was premature, and that plants do indeed have intelligence, though of a sort much different from ours.
It seems that plants are able to alter the taste of their leaves, for instance, to discourage predators, and to send out a chemical signal that signals an insect predator that a plant-eating insect is eating them. The predators show up, and defend the plants. There are more examples of this, but the problem with plant intelligence is that it doesn’t work on the same basis as ours, is much slower, and almost undetectable to human perception. Suppose, though that plants ARE intelligent. We could speculate that some are more intelligent than others, and possibly much more sophisticated in the way they affect humans. Like plants that carry psychoactive chemicals.
That leads to a question: why SHOULD plants have psychoactive effects on humans (as well as some animals)? And why should such plants be distributed over most of the world? Coincidence? There are other coincidences to be considered as well.
Another dot concerns cave paintings, which appeared between 30-40,000 years ago. This is curious, because the oldest remains of a modern human being (according to Hancock) has been dated to about 196,000 years ago. He states that there is little indication of religion or art between that time and the advent of the cave paintings (paintings were also rendered on rocks in the open in various places). From that time, he says, we find religion to be universal all over the world, and throughout the millenia since. Atheism is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Why should religion have been so popular? If there is no validity to it, it should have died out well before the beginning of recorded history. Since it did not, it must have evolutionary value. Colin Wilson, in Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals, tells of a the famous anthropologist Leo Frobenius traveling with a small group of pygmies in southern Africa. When he asked them about killing an antelope to eat, he was told that it was too late in the day to make necessary preparations, but they would do so in the morning. He watched them draw a picture of an antelope on the ground next morning, and “wound” it with an arrow. When the pygmies came back with an antelope, its death wound was precisely in the same place as in the picture on the ground. Wilson reflects that such methods of hunting go back some 40,000 years, and if they hadn’t worked, would have been given up long ago.
Such methods are “magic”, which means “supernatural”, which many scientists and science lovers reject entirely. Wilson has a different take: “Magic” became science,which transformed the world. Shamanism, the earliest form of religion we know, contains many of the themes of the religions that followed them. Human figures in cave paintings are often pierced by what seem to be spears. This reflects the experience of shamans testified today in shamanistic societies, that shamans suffer horrifically to gain their powers of healing, attracting game, and foreseeing the future. They sacrifice their bodies (as it seems to them) to dismemberment, to piercing, to having organs removed, and being “rebuilt”. They also use hallucinogenic drugs.
David Lewis-Williams about 1980 theorized that shamanism, religion, and more than rudimentary art began between 30 and 40,000 years ago, and that the cause was the use of hallucinogenic plants, which appear in most parts of the world. Remarkably, the experiences expressed in cave art correspond with what contemporary shamans tell Westerners curious enough to ask–and in all parts of the world. Westerners who use the various psychedelic substances, if they use them often enough, experience very similar things to what shamans claim to experience. Why should this be, if the psychedelic experience is random, and in the words of Lewis-Williams, “silly illusions”?
Hallucinogenic substances can have effects in the material “real world”. Augustus Owsley Stanley, most famous for making a great deal of high-quality LSD (in an interview he says he made a great deal less than most people thought), later became a sound man for the Grateful Dead, and noticed an interesting phenomenon: when DMT (a powerful psychedelic, and one of the ingredients of Ayahusca) was smoked in the vicinity of the band when playing, the music became harsher and more strident. Not only that, but electronic parts of the sound system became red-hot and failed. Stanley said a girlfriend when he first got interested in LSD told him that what he experienced with it was real. In the above example, this was measurable: he tried turning one musician’s equipment all the way up, getting the musician to play as loudly as possible, and measuring the result in decibels. Doing the same with DMT being smoked in close proximity, the decibels went up, components got red-hot and failed. Somehow the practice facilitated the flow of more electricity through the circuits than the equipment could tolerate.
Westerners who take psychedelic drugs have much the same sort of experience as those reported by shamans of indigenous people. If people from very different parts of the world and very different cultures have similar experiences, does it follow that these experiences are silly nonsense?
One of these experiences is the impression of being taught. Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, took his share of psychedelic drugs in the sixties, and mentioned this impression in an interview. When the interviewer asked if the teaching was coming from the people he was tripping with, he said no, that he was with them, but they weren’t the ones doing the teaching.
More specifically, a biologist participating in experiments with a hallucinogen was shown a sort of bird’s-eye view of a section of DNA, in which we may presume she was particularly interested. That doesn’t sound like silly nonsense either.
Hancock’s view is that consciousness is not something we generate in our own heads, but something we tune into. There are different stations (or levels of reality) “broadcasting”, but our ordinary consciousness doesn’t pick them up. He says there is a minority, estimated at about 2% of the human race which naturally falls into trance states that other people have to reach through meditation, other “spiritual” techniques, or hallucinogens. Some of this two percent seem to be people who report having been abducted by aliens, often more than once. Some will dismiss the whole “alien abduction” phenomenon, but it is one that has been well-documented, and includes a large number of people. One scientist investigating this didn’t directly ask people if they had been abducted, but asked if they had experienced peripheral things that “abductees” commonly report. He also tested them extensively and found that they were psychologically normal, not predisposed to the kind of unreal hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics, for example.
So if there really are teachings coming through greatly altered states of consciousness, what is their source?
One of the peculiarities of DNA is that only an estimated 3%-10% is concerned with genes. What’s the rest of it for? This question is underlined by what is called Zipf’s law. The law is named for a man who studied language, and discovered that in a long enough piece of work (perhaps the size of a long article or a novel) there is a ratio to the words used. If the most common word appears 10,000 times, the tenth most common word will appear about 1,000 times, etc. This is common to all human languages.
This does not apply to coded DNA, but DOES apply to UNCODED DNA. Does DNA include a language just like human language which potentially could be translated? If it does, surely a case could be made that DNA is itself independently intelligent, or else “programmed” in a very sophisticated way. It would then follow that at least some of the “stations” it is possible for the human mind to tune into when consciousness is altered come directly from our own DNA.
And if plants in general are conscious (Michael Pollan says that plants seem to make decisions on directions in which to grow, as well as finding ways to defend themselves), some plants may be more powerfully intelligent than others. And why should there even BE plants that have psychoactive effects on human beings?
Some religious people would probably say that such plants were created by the devil. Some scientists would simply dismiss the whole phenomenon. Each group would be united in fear, despite their different viewpoints. Humans like to hang on to the paradigm they’re used to, regardless of how well or poorly it works. Robert Pirsig, in his novel, Lila comments that when we perceive something that contradicts the “map” we’re familiar with, most of us reject the perception, not the map. All of us exclude aspects of reality from our consciousness. Extremists exclude a LOT.
But surely the cause of evolution is served by learning. Dr. Rick Strassman, in an interview with Graham Hancock notes that various other organisms are affected by hallucinogens: spiders, for instance, weave strange-looking webs when having ingested hallucinogens. Of course we don’t know what they experience, but the difference is that once the effect of the drug wears off, animals return to their instinctive behavior. Humans sometimes do not. That may mean that hallucinogens can sometimes be an evolutionary tool. Not the only one, of course, but outright banning them and research on them doesn’t seem to have been a particularly brilliant move.
It would be foolish to regard religion as merely the product of the use of hallucinogens. There are other ways to induce visions or “hallucinations” without the use of drugs. We may speculate that these visions can come from similar places and have some validity. If they didn’t, why would religion be almost universal? Foolish beliefs don’t usually promote survival. Evolution is about survival, so religion, depending on definition, must have survival value.
I would differentiate between religion based on dogma and religion based on experience. For a long time the Catholic church conducted its services in Latin, and didn’t produce Bibles in the vernacular. Why wouldn’t they want their members to understand the words on which their faith was founded? Probably because they were more concerned with the retention of the power of their institution than the truth of their belief. Institutions are not often friends of the truth.
Many people who believe in evolution have as an article of faith that evolution is random. Francis Crick’s observations about protein molecules on which all life that we know is based can NOT be random, because enough time hasn’t passed to randomly produce such large and precise structures–at least not on THIS planet.
Extending this above microscopic structures, why should there be psychoactive plants, or plants that heal humans, for that matter? And with psychoactive plants, why should they appear in most parts of the world, and why should humans from different cultures from different parts of the world have similar experiences to indigenous peoples who largely base their social structures on what they say the plants tell them? There seem to be a lot of coincidences in this field, which suggests meaningful patterns that may NOT be coincidental.
In his interview with Graham Hancock, Dr. Strassman spoke of his experiments providing subjects with DMT, the powerful psychedelic which is one of the ingredients of the Ayahuasca used by many cultures in the Amazon area. He said he tried to explain his subjects experiences to them in terms of the Freudian subconscious and the Jungian collective unconscious, but that his subjects rejected those explanations. They believed that what they experienced was real, and Dr. Strassman found it more productive to change his hypothesis.
If what people using hallucinogens see is real, what does this mean? It at least suggests that there is more to our world than we commonly perceive, and that psychedelics may project humans into worlds coexistent with our own. Some of Dr. Strassman’s experimental subjects experienced “alien abductions” though their bodies were lying in hospital beds. That suggests that the “aliens” may not travel in literal space ships that we can see, but exist on a different level of reality (a different “radio station”, if you like) that we’re capable of “tuning into”, but usually don’t.
We return, then, to the question of what all this means. Hancock is convinced that religion, which began as the kind of magic shamans practiced, eventually became science and technology, which transformed humans from mediums-sized mammals little different from other animals to a force that transformed the world. Religion, like other sources of power, has been corrupted and made to serve ignoble purposes, fomenting conflicts of all sizes, including war and genocide. But if Hancock is correct, religion is also a source of knowledge that is valuable for survival, as suggested by its long history and prehistory. Science could learn more about just how this works, if they were willing, and the experiments by Dr. Strassman and others suggest one approach. There are certainly others.
It’s unfortunate that adherents of both religion and science seem to have complementary blind spots, so that many deny the validity of each other. Neither system is perfect, especially in isolation. Put them together in a rigorous way, and who knows what might be discovered?