Terence McKenna & psychedelic drug culture: biography

Apr 11, 2012

In the annals of psychedelic research and culture, a few figures reign supreme: Aldous Huxley, Albert Hoffman, Ram Dass, Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna. Of those five, Huxley and McKenna are the most critical to the understanding of hallucinogens. Leary was very often irresponsible and megalomaniacal in his hallucinogenic proselytizing, whereas Ram Dass, who was no less controversial, decamped to create a synthesis of Eastern and Western religious beatitude. This left Huxley’s early experiments with and writings on hallucinogenic drugs, as well as McKenna’s wide-ranging studies in ethnobotany and shamanism, to form the intellectual foundations of psychedelic drug culture.

Indeed, McKenna was introduced to his lifelong intellectual pursuit by way of Huxley’s books “The Doors of Perception” and “Heaven & Hell,” which were vital texts for the ’60s counter-culture and beyond. However, it wasn’t hallucinogenic drugs that initially attracted McKenna, but the study of shamanism and folk religions while at the University of California-Berkeley.

As detailed in the book “True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise,” co-written with his brother Dennis, McKenna traveled to Nepal spurred by his interest in “Tibetan art and hallucinogenic shamanism.” After some time in Tokyo and a return to Berkeley, McKenna, along with his brother (who was pursuing a PhD in plant biochemistry at the time) and three friends, soon found themselves in the Amazon basin of Colombia in search of oo-koo-hé, a plant preparation of Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which has more recently been the subject of the curiosity of Daniel Pinchbeck, as well as Gaspar Noe in the film “Enter the Void.” It was on this trip that McKenna’s preoccupation with hallucinogens, especially  the psychedelic mushroom Psilocybe cubensis, begins.

McKenna’s early experiments with DMT, psilocybin, LSD and other hallucinogens, led to the creation of his Novelty Theory and the book “The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching,” co-written with brother Dennis. McKenna’s Novelty Theory states that nature preserves novelty, or complexity, as witnessed by a universal timeline that begins with relatively simpler atomic and sub-atomic arrangements hurdling through time and space into more and more complex forms (elements, micro-organisms, plants, human beings, etc.).

It really wasn’t until the early ’90s, however, when McKenna published two books, “Food of the Gods” and “The Archaic Revival,” that he reached his full potential with respect to psychedelic cultural, ethnobotany and the evolution of the human mind. “The Archaic Revival” is more a collage of ideas triggered by McKenna’s hallucinogenic experiences, with digressions into subjects such as virtual reality, UFOs and mysticism. Interesting and thought-provoking, it is not as focused as “Food of the Gods,” which shapes McKenna’s accumulated knowledge and experience, as the subtitle states, into “a radical history of plants, drugs, and human evolution.”

In “Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge,” McKenna writes, “[M]ost of us are unaware of the effects of plants on ourselves and our reality, partly because we have forgotten that plants have always mediated the human cultural relationship to the world at large.” In other words, plants, whether it be for food or a hallucino-shamanic experience, have filtered our reality in much the same way as language.

It is in this book that McKenna proposes what has become known as the “Stoned Ape Theory”; that is, the idea that our primate ancestors munched on magic mushrooms, which in turn triggered our ability to process information, think creatively, and construct languages and other forms of communication.

McKenna suggests that “the real missing link” is psilocybin:

My contention is that the mutation-causing, psychoactive chemical compounds in the early human diet directly influenced the rapid reorganization of the brain’s information-processing capacities. Alkaloids in plants, specifically the hallucinogenic compounds such as psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and harmaline, could be the chemical factors in the protohuman diet that catalyzed the emergence of human self-reflection. The action of hallucinogens present in many common plants enhanced our information-processing activity, or environmental sensitivity, and thus contributed to the sudden expansion of the human brain size. At a later stage in this same process, hallucinogens acted as catalysts in the development of imagination, fueling the creation of internal stratagems and hopes that may well have synergized the emergence of language and religion.

Shamanism is McKenna’s evidence for hallucinogens’ role in religion, while its influence on the development of the mind is conjecture,; though he does invoke scientific studies as evidence, such as Roland Fischer’s experiment in which psilocybin was administered to graduate students, and their ability to “detect the moment when previously parallel lines became skewed” measured. Fischer found that after small dose of psilocybin subjects were better able to detect that moment.

What’s really interesting about McKenna’s thoughts on mushrooms and humanity, as detailed in “Food of the Gods,” is that the ingestion of psilocybin is probably as old as pastoralism (the raising of livestock) and perhaps older. McKenna seemed to relish the fact that psilocybin grows readily in fields fertilized with cow poop, especially the varieties Psilocybe semilanceata (the most common and potent mushroom) and Psilocybe fimetaria. McKenna postulates that humans tending cattle, for instance, would have noticed the mushrooms growing in livestock fields and experimented with it first as a food source, then as a means of triggering an altered state.

One point to consider is that if pastoralism—which is the product of human evolution and can be dated to 10200 BCE by scientists—is the point at which ingestion of mushroom use became a human trait, it would seem to contradict McKenna’s theory that psilocybin helped trigger human information processing, creativity, etc., in the first place. McKenna, however, doesn’t believe that humans started tripping simultaneous to pastoralism (which he believes began around 100,000 years ago), but have instead been doing so for a least a million years.

In this brief Terence McKenna primer, one can see that he wasn’t particularly interested in the popular effects of hallucinogens as typified by the 1960s counterculture (psychedelic art, funny dances, glossolalia, etc.), but in their scientific implications, vis-à-vis the evolution of human brain mass, consciousness, creativity, etc.

As Duncan Trussell’s Comedy Central Pilot “Thunderbrain” (video below) so hilariously and brilliantly demonstrates, however, if we accept McKenna’s theory that mushrooms and other hallucinogens ultimately gave rise to the greatest achievements of human intelligence, we also have to reckon with the reality that they also helped give us government, reality TV, the free market and capitalist delusions, skanks, dicks, greed, self-destruction, bad novels, hack filmmakers, Ayn Rand, Brett Ratner, the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), conquest, environmental destruction, the Catholic Church, the “be fruitful and multiply” insanity, torture, depression, simulated reality, advertising, agribusiness (Monsanto), ADD, and the fact that any idiot with a computer can become an instant internet celebrity without adding any value at all to humanity and the ecosystem in which we are embedded.

McKenna, naturally, argues that the foregoing is largely the byproduct of humanity forgetting the knowledge and the beauty of psilocybin—a point-of-view that I share. Indeed, McKenna said it best:

[W]hen, after long centuries of slow forgetting, migration, and climatic change, the knowledge of the mystery was finally lost, we in our anguish traded partnership for dominance, traded harmony with nature for rape of nature, traded poetry for the sophistry of science. In short, we traded our birthright as partners in the drama of the living mind of the planet for the broken shards of history, warfare, neurosis, and—if we do not quickly awaken to our predicament—planetary catastrophe.


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