Psychedelic icon Terence McKenna proposed a bizarre answer to the mystery of humanity's intellectual abilities.
Science provides a lot of answers: how our body works, how it came to be this way through the intricate process of evolution and natural selection, how to protect it from most diseases, and keep it alive for a while. But science answers, mostly, practical questions that make technological advancements possible, instead of the ones that come in the middle of an existential crisis at three in the morning.
If you wonder, for example, what happened before the Big Bang, you're going to get a lot of "We don't know," "Nothing," "Another Big Bang in the universe that's part of the multiverse that gave birth to ours?" or "Ask something else!" from scientists. If you wonder what is the exact definition of life, you're going to get a few different answers as well. That question will always take you to the murky topic of consciousness, which some people define as the result of electrical activity in our brain, while others tend to look for more satisfactory answers in philosophy or spirituality. So, yes, scientists are working to fill those mysterious holes. While they do it, other people, not necessarily scientists, try to fill them too. Without the basis of scientific knowledge that humanity has gathered over the years, those non-scientific answers tend to be a little silly. Fortunately, sometimes an interesting one appears.
You've probably heard of Terence McKenna. He was an important figure of the counterculture in the 1980s. An ethnobotanist and public speaker, he advocated for the use of psychedelic drugs in a responsible, mindful manner, as a spiritual journey instead of a merely recreational activity. He's one of the eccentric characters that have tried to answer life's mysteries, in this case, the specific point in evolution in which humans developed our most powerful intellectual and creative abilities. If McKenna's "Stoned Ape" theory from his book Food of the Gods is correct, the catalyst of this step in evolution was the consumption of psilocybin mushrooms, a drug trip so intense that it rapidly pushed us forward through the slow process of evolution. This was a change in humanity’s diet that turned Homo erectus into Homo sapiens.
Of course, scientists don't love McKenna's hypothesis. Science often shows that anything we can think of, any insane ideas we can have in the middle of the night, is always more complicated than that. The oversimplification of this phenomenon isn't scientifically helpful, but it's a good thought experiment. All kinds of mind-altering plants have been used and consumed throughout history for different purposes, including rituals and spiritual quests. Drawings that depict the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, for example, have been found on cave walls in the Italian Alps. Psychedelic drugs were probably just one of the many factors that influenced how our minds and bodies changed in millions of years.
McKenna was right about one thing: psilocybin alters consciousness and changes the structure of our brains. Don't expect to turn into a more evolved human after your next trip. However, the therapeutic benefits of consuming psychedelic drugs in a safe environment could become a common form of treating diseases. While McKenna didn't solve the mystery, he pushed the conversation and the curiosity towards new reaches.
Images by Larry Carlson.
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