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The Cosmic Serpent
This nOde last updated July 1st, 2003 and is permanently morphing...
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"All things considered, wisdom requires
not only the investigation
of many things, but contemplation of the mystery." ~~~~Jeremy Narby,
_The Cosmic Serpent_
_The Cosmic Serpent : DNA and the Origins of Knowledge_
by Jeremy Narby (Stanford University anthropologist)
Hardcover - 257 pages 1st jeremy edition (April 1998)
J P Tarcher; ISBN: 0874779111
The Cosmic Serpent is a great personal adventure story, a fascinating study of anthropology and ethnopharmacology, and, most important, a truly revolutionary look at how knowledge and consciousness may come into being. For ten years, Jeremy Narby explored Amazonian rain forests, the libraries of Europe, and some of the world's most arcane scientific journals, following strange clues, unsuppressible intuitions, and extraordinary coincidences. He collected evidence and researched the seemingly impossible possibility that specific knowledge might somehow be transferred through DNA, the genetic information at the heart of each cell of all living beings, to a drug-prepared consciousness. The beginning of Narby's explorations lay with the Peruvian Indians, who claim that their knowledge of chemical interactions-now scientifically confirmed-has its origins in plant-induced hallucinations and that during these experiences they gain information that could not be acquired by methods of trial and error. Narby demonstrates that indigenous and ancient peoples have known for millennia-and even have drawn-the double helix structure, something conventional science discovered only in 1953. He also suggests that DNA, and the life it codes for at the cellular level, are "minded." In a first-person narrative of scientific discovery that opens new perspectives on biology, the knowledge of indigenous peoples, anthropology, and the limits of rationalism, _The Cosmic Serpent_ reveals how startlingly different the world around us appears when we open our minds to it.
One of the most important books
this century. Rarely does a book or discovery of any kind touch on so
many of the critical issues in both the developement of the individual and evolution
of human society. With his intelligent and refreshingly honest study of
a classified 'primitive' culture along with the latest discoveries made by molecular
biology, Dr. Narby bridges the gap between what we perceive
and the collective
unconscious of every living thing known in existance. His book defines the
purpose, and incredible power of DNA.
Extraordinary insights into mystical knowledge. Author, Jeremy Narby leaps between science and mysticism on his quest to explain how several millennia ago Stone-Age hunters living in the Peruvian rainforest learned the botanical properties and the chemistry of plants. Dr. Narby, a Canadian-born scientist, lived two years with the Ashaninca people in the jungles of the Pichis Valley in Peru. Early in his work with the Ashaninca, Dr. Narby perceived an enigma. He writes, "These extremely practical and frank people, living almost autonomously in the Amazonian forest, insisted that their extensive botanical knowledge came from plant-induced hallucinations." For Dr. Narby, the hallucinatory origin of botany contradicts two fundamental principles of Western knowledge. First hallucinations cannot be the source of real information, because to consider them as such is the definition of psychosis.
Western knowledge considers hallucinations
to be at best illusions, at worst morbid phenomena.Second plants do not communicate
like human beings. Scientific theories of communication
consider that only human beings use abstract symbols like words and pictures
and that plants do not relay information in
the form of mental images. Dr. Narby said that he often asked Carlos
(interpreter) to explain the origin of place names, and Carlos would invariably
reply that nature itself had communicated
them to the shaman
during their hallucinations. Throughout Western
Amazonia people drink ayahuasca. (hallucinogenic
drug) Carlos said, "That is how nature talks,
because in nature, there is God, and God talks to us in our visions. When a
shaman drinks his plant brew, the spirits
present themselves to him and explain everything." Narby observes that in
the jungles of Peru are people without electron microscopes who seem to know
about the molecular properties of plants and
the art of combining them, and when one asks them how they
know these things, they say their knowledge comes directly from hallucinogenic
plants, themselves. He says, "I was staggered
by their familiarity with a reality that turned me upside
down and of which I was totally ignorant." For example, hunters in the Amazonian
rainforests developed a muscle-paralyzing
substance, curare, as a blow-gun poison. He explains that in the
case of curare, a chance discovery seems improbable because... "there are forty
types of curares in the Amazon, made from
seventy plant species. The kind used in modern medicine comes from
the Western Amazon. To produce it, it is necessary to combine several plants
and boil them for seventy-two hours, while
avoiding the fragrant but deadly vapors emitted by the broth. The final
product is a paste that is inactive unless injected under the skin. If swallowed,
it has no effect." Narby experienced two drug-induced
hallucinations the memories
of which motivated him ten years later (when
the hot-topic, ethno-biology, was highlighted at the Rio Earth Conference),
to develop the hypotheses explored in _The Cosmic Serpent_: Plants reveal their
own properties, Indians get molecularly verifiable information from drug-induced
hallucinations. His research propels him along a most intricate and twisted
path, and one that will fascinate readers who appreciate science as well as
those of us who read about spirituality and the occult. Dr. Narby finds that
shamans insist with disarming consistency the world over on the existence of
animate essences (or spirits,) which are common to all life forms. The interpreter,
Carlos, referred to invisible beings, called maninkari, who are found in animals,
plants, mountains, streams, lakes, and certain crystals, and who are sources
of knowledge. The spirits materialize when the shaman ingests tobacco and ayahuasca.
Aboriginal shamans of Australia
reach conclusions similar to those of Amazonian
shamans, without the use of psychoactive plants, by working mainly with their dreams.
Dr. Narby doggedly pursues the facts although the research takes him into areas
that science hesitates to explore. Areas, he calls "blind spots." He gathers
evidence to conclude that shamans know about
the hidden unity of nature precisely because they have access to the
reality of molecular biology. I hope to tweak your curiosity with the following
intriguing phraseslifted from the text of _The Cosmic Serpent_: I know that
any living soul, or any dead one, is like
flying around in the air. That means that you do not see them, but they are
there, like radio waves. Once you turn on
the radio, you can pick them up.. The Shaman is simply a guide,
who conducts the initiate to the spirits. The initiate picks up the information
revealed by the spirits and does what he or
she wants with it. Rationalism separates things to understand them. But its
fragmented disciplines have limited perspectives and blind spots. And as any
driver knows, it is important to pay attention
to blind spots, because they can contain vital information. To reach a
fuller understanding of reality, science will have to shift its gaze. Could
shamanism help science to focus
differently? True reality is more complex than our eyes lead us to believe.
This is perhaps one of the most important things I learned during this investigation:
We see what we believe, and not just the contrary;
and to change what we see, it is sometimes necessary to change what we believe.
Shamans every where speak a secret language,
the language of all nature which allows them
to communicate with the spirits.
Excellent description of symbolic patterns of the universe.
The use of cosmic serpent symbolism is an extremely old
method of portraying scientific relationships that describe the universe. The
ancient Minoans of the Mediterranean, American Indians, East Indian cultures,
the early Druids
of Europe, the Jews, Egyptians,
and others, all used portrayals of the Serpent and/on
the Tree of Life (the Caduceus),
or the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, to represent a macro-micro cosmic
image and understanding of the universe. The ancient
universality of this symbolic image, and later disuse following the rise of
Christianity, leads to a contemplation of the meaning behind the story of St.
Patrick when he apparently "drove the Snakes
out of Ireland" (an unlikely occurance if taken literally and without
a context or reason). Modern science is sadly lacking in the methodology to
understand criteria based upon qualities that go beyond the abilities of quantitative
analysis. An avaluation of this book based upon the limited views of scientific
verification are not apt to do it justice. DNA is just one application that
the image of the cosmic serpent can be applied to. Extrapolations of this concept
hold vast understandings for scientists able to transplant the pattern of this
image into other contexts.
"The spirits one sees in hallucinations are three-dimensional, sound-emitting images, and they speak a language made of three-dimensional, sound-emitting images. In other words, they are made of their own language, like DNA." . ............."discusses the "visual music" projected by the spirits in front of the shaman’s eyes: It is made up of three-dimensional images that coalesce into sound and that the shaman imitates by emitting corresponding melodies. "....... "According to my hypothesis, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to biomolecular information. "
- Jeremy Narby - _The Cosmic Serpent_
About fifteen years ago, Narby was studying the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon, and became fascinated by their astounding botanical knowledge, specifically their use of plants for medical and other purposes.What intrigued him most was how these supposedly primitive people had acquired this knowledge.
Since they have no science in the sense that we understand it, they must have learned how to make their medicines by trial and error. But there are some 80,000 species of plants growing in the Amazon rain forest, so todiscover an effective remedy using just two of them would theoretically require the testing of every possible combination - just under four billion.But many of their medicines involve not just two plants, but several. Ifthey had found their recipes by experimentation, it would have takenmillions of years to find just a few, and yet they have a vast range of medicines and other useful substances. Added to this, preparation of many of them involve long and complex processes with many stages.
The classic example is curare. This is a powerful poison whose ingredients come from several different plants, and which, Narby points out, fits a veryprecise set of requirements. The hunters needed something that, when smearedon the tips of blow-pipe darts, would not only kill an animal but alsoensure that it does not tighten its death-grip on a branch and die out ofreach (as often happens with animals killed by arrows). And the meat wouldhave to be safe to eat. It seems like a very tall order - but curare fitsall these requirements perfectly. It is a muscle relaxant, which kills byarresting the respiratory muscles. It is only effective when injected directly into the bloodstream, hence its delivery by blowpipe, and has noeffect when taken by mouth.
The most common type of curare requires a complicated method of preparation in which the extracts of several plants are boiled together for three days,during which lethal fumes are given off. And the final result needs a specific piece of technology - the blow-pipe - to deliver it. How was allthis discovered?
The problem becomes even more baffling, because no fewer
than forty different types of curare are used in
the Amazon rain forest. All do the same job but
use slightly different ingredients, because the same plants donot grow in every
region. Therefore, in effect, curare was invented forty
After puzzling about such questions for a long time, Narby realised that the best way to find an answer was to ask the Amazonians themselves. So how dothey claim to have discovered curare - and all the other plants-derivedsubstances that they use? In fact, they take no credit for them. They claimthat all were given to them by the spirits through their shamans.
Shamans have existed throughout the world, especially in tribal societies. They are what used to be called witch doctors, especially talented andhighly trained trance psychics, who use their gifts to heal, locate the besthunting and find water in times of drought. In short, they help to solve theproblems of the tribe, and help it survive.
The shaman does this by going into trance, which can be
induced in a variety of ways, from whirling, drumming
to taking psychoactive drugs derived from plants
Those studied by Narby in Peru achieve their trance
by ingesting a plant mixture called ayahuasca, which mimics asubstance found
naturally in the human brain and which, in large doses, is apowerful hallucinogen.
When in trance, the shaman's spirit goes on a journey to another realm, in which he faces horrible dangers. But once he has overcome his adversaries hecommunicates with superior intelligences, who often appear in the form of animals, who answer his questions.
As in fairy tales, the spirits only answer the questions they are asked - they seldom, if ever, volunteer extra information. So, if the shaman asks them how to cure a little village girl's meningitis, they will give him that information - but they will not also tell him how to cure her mother's cancer unless he specifically asks. And that may involve another trip.
This is what the Amazonians told Jeremy Narby about how they know the properties of plants and how to combine them. But they also claim that this is how they learned of specific techniques, such as woodworking andweaving - in fact, all the arts and crafts necessary for survival.
We must stress that the Amazonians'
knowledge of pharmacology (plant-derived drugs and
their potential and actual uses) is not just surprising for whatare considered
primitive peoples, but actually exceeds that of modernWestern science. Many
modern medicines were taken from those used in theAmazon - curare, for example,
is used in heart surgery. Even the giant drugcompanies do not have the ability
to develop products to meet specific requirements
as quickly, easily - and naturally - as the Amazonian shamans can.
It occurred to Narby from that statement that those common images of twin serpents and twisted ladders are descriptions of the DNA double helix. Infact, if straightened out the strands of DNA would look exactly like a rope ladder.
What Narby suggests is that the shaman is, in some way, communicating with his own DNA, and this is where he is getting the information from. This may sound bizarre, but it must be remembered that we do not know the function of97% of DNA, which science terms 'junk DNA', but which Narby suggests we call'mystery DNA'. All the diversity of life is accounted for by just 3% of DNA, so it seems inconceivable that the other 97% has no function. But what couldit do?
Narby goes further. He points out that it is known that DNA in one cell actually exchanges signals with the DNA in other cells. He suggests that,once someone taps into their own DNA, it can then communicate acrossorganisms, across species - even across the boundary between animal and plant - and that the totality of all the DNA in the world forms a kind ofmatrix. Perhaps this could explain phenomena such as telepathy and ESP.
The DNA in one cell transmits and receives signals from DNA in other cells. This is done by emitting photons - that is, they actually exchange signals in the form of light, oddly at a wavelength that is visible to humans. Perhaps this is where we get the concept of being 'enlightened' from, and itcould be a literal description of the 'Light' of Gnosticism.
It is early days for the DNA theory, but, in our view,
it has a lot going for it. What is certain is that
shamans acquire knowledge direct from some source
without any process of trial and error. It is knowledge that theydidn't have
before, useful knowledge which we cannot explain - and which is often more advanced
than ours. This is something that is happening rightnow, and there is no suggestion
of visitors from lost continents or spaceships landing.
Interviewed by Todd Stewart of _Ascent Magazine_
1. Could you sum up your book _The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins of Knowledge_?
Research indicates that shamans access an intelligence, which they say is nature's, and which gives them information that has stunning correspondences with molecular biology.
2. Your hypothesis of a hidden intelligence contained within the DNA of all living things is interesting. What is this intelligence?
Intelligence comes from the Latin inter-legere, to choose between. There seems to be a capacity to make choices operating inside each cell in our body, down to the level of individual proteins and enzymes. DNA itself is a kind of "text" that functions through a coding system called 'genetic code', which is strikingly similar to codes used by human beings. Some enzymes edit the RNA transcript of the DNA text and add new letters to it; any error made during this editing can be fatal to the entire organism; so these enzymes are consistently making the right choices; if they don't, something often goes wrong leading to cancer and other diseases. Cells send one another signals, in the form of proteins and molecules. These signals mean: divide, or don't divide, move, or don't move, kill yourself, or stay alive. Any one cell is listening to hundreds of signals at the same time, and has to integrate them and decide what to do. How this intelligence operates is the question.
3. DNA has essentially maintained its structure for 3.5 billion years. What role does DNA play in our evolution?
DNA is a single molecule with a double helix structure; it is two complementary versions of the same "text" wrapped around each other; this allows it to unwind and make copies of itself: twins! This twinning mechanism is at the heart of life since it began. Without it, one cell could not become two, and life would not exist. And, from one generation to the next, the DNA text can also be modified, so it allows both constancy and transformation. This means that beings can be the same and not the same. One of the mysteries is what drives the changes in the DNA text in evolution. DNA has apparently been around for billions of years in its current form in virtually all forms of life. The old theory -- random accumulation of errors combined with natural selection -- does not fully explain the data currently generated by genome sequencing. The question is wide open.
4. The structure of DNA as we know it is made up of letters and thus has a specific text and language. You could say our bodies are made up of language, yet we assume that speech arises from the mind. How do we access this hidden language?
By studying it. There are several roads to knowledge, including science and shamanism.
5. The symbol of the Cosmic Serpent, the snake, is a central theme in your story, and in your research you discover that the snake forms a major part of the symbology across most of the world's traditions and religions. Why is there such a consistent system of natural symbols in the world? Is the world inherently symbolic?
This is the observation that led me to investigate the cosmic serpent. I found the symbol in shamanism all over the world. Why? That's a good question. My hypothesis is that it is connected to the double helix of DNA inside virtually all living beings. And DNA itself is a symbolic Saussurian code. So, yes, in at least one important way, the living world is inherently symbolic. We are made of living language.
6. You write of how the ideology of "rational" science, deterministic thought, is and has been quite limiting in its approach to new and alternative scientific theories; it is assumed that "mystery is the enemy". In your book you describe how you had to suspend your judgement, to "defocalize", and in this way gain a deeper insight. Why do you think we are often limited in our rational, linear thought and why are so few willing and able to cross these boundaries?
I don't believe we are. People spend hours each day thinking non-rationally. Our emotional brain treats all the information we receive before our neo-cortex does. Scientists are forever making discoveries as they daydream, take a bath, go for a run, lay in bed, and so on.
7. What are the correspondences between the Peruvian shamans' findings and microbiology?
Both shamans and molecular biologists agree that there is a hidden unity under the surface of life's diversity; both associate this unity with the double helix shape (or two entwined serpents, a twisted ladder, a spiral staircase, two vines wrapped around each other); both consider that one must deal with this level of reality in order to heal. One can fill a book with correspondences between shamanism and molecular biology.
8. Do you think there is not only an intelligence based in our DNA but a consciousness as well?
I think we should attend to the words we use. "Consciousness" carries different baggage than "intelligence." Many would define human consciousness as different from, say, animal consciousness, because humans are conscious of being conscious. But how do we know that dolphins don't think about being dolphins? I do not know whether there is a "consciousness" inside our cells; for now, the question seems out of reach; we have a hard enough time understanding our own consciousness -- though we use it most of the time. I propose the concept of "intelligence" to describe what proteins and cells do, simply because it makes the data more comprehensible. This concept will require at least a decade or two for biologists to consider and test. Then, we might be able to move along and consider the idea of a "cellular consciousness."
9. The implications of some of your findings in The Cosmic Serpent could be quite large. How do you feel about the book and what it says? Why did you write the book?
I wrote the book because I felt that certain things needed saying. Writing a book is like sending out a message in a bottle: sometimes one gets replies. Judging from the responses, a surprising number of people have got the message loud and clear.
10. How can shamanism complement modern science?
Most definitions of "science" revolve around the testing of hypotheses. Claude Levi-Strauss showed in his book "The savage mind" that human beings have been carefully observing nature and endlessly testing hypotheses for at least 10'000 years. This is how animals and plants were domesticated. Civilization rests on millennia of Neolithic science. I think the science of shamans can complement modern science by helping make sense of the data it generates. Shamanism is like a reverse camera relative to modern science.
11. The shamans were very spiritual people. Has any of this affected you? What is spiritual in your life?
I don't use the word "spiritual" to think about
my life. I spend my time promoting land titling projects and bilingual education
for indigenous people, and thinking about how to move knowledge forward and
how to open up understanding between people; I also spend time with my children,
and with children in my community (as a soccer coach); and I look after the
plants in my garden, without using pesticides and so on. But I do this because
I think it needs doing, and because it's all I can do, but not because it's
"spiritual." The message I got from shamans was: do what you can for those around
you (including plants and animals), but don't make a big
deal of it.