As promised, here is my paper on evolution, mushrooms and humanity. This paper took many forms – this one being the final one. Feel free to discuss it, share it or message me about it. To the people that may want to hate on it – ain’t nobody got time for that. I thank everyone who helped out on the survey, I am sorry I couldn’t have used more of it! Enjoy.
Understanding self-awareness through evolution
When I was seventeen, I ate psychedelic mushrooms four separate times. I was a glutton for understanding (I still am) and enjoyed the experience because it tapped into a world I never knew existed and opened my senses to something new. The final time I would take them that year, I had a bad trip – rooms became prison cells, stars morphed into faces that laughed sinister laughs, the ceilings had falling spider webs and the trees howled horrible howls. As I sobered up, returning from what had been a terrifying experience, I sat on my porch and felt different. I looked around my neighborhood and it all looked new in some way. It was the same place, of course, but it was different to me now. I was different – something in me had changed.
This new perception, this different feeling resonated to the core of my young being and flung me towards the idea that life as I knew it may no longer be what I thought it was. It reminded me of my freshman year, two years prior, in science class. I was awful at Science. I failed it and then failed biology, the following course, twice. Although I failed the classes, I did actually attend class and even though my teenage mind wandered, I picked up a few things. One fact, possibly the only fact, that stuck with me in those classes was that evolution is not the study of getting better, bigger, faster or stronger. That doesn’t mean these things don’t happen, it just means that the idea that
evolution inherently means bigger, better, faster, stronger is misleading. In Introduction to Physical Anthropology, it states, “evolution is an ongoing biological process with more than one outcome” (Jurmain et al 5). In other words, evolution is the study of change, not necessarily good, nor bad and with a multitude of different directions possible. “Simply stated,” it continues, “evolution is a change in the genetic makeup of a population from one generation to the next” (5). Meaning there is no end to evolution. A lineage can end – species go extinct – but the process of evolution will always continue.
At the time, I didn’t pour a great deal of significance into the statement; it just seemed like an interesting enough fact to be filed away for later consideration. And as I sat on that porch coming down from my fear-filled mushroom trip, it seemed that moment had arrived. I had changed, or I was changing, and I had no idea if it was for the better or for the worse but I wanted to make sense of it. Thinking back to my freshman science class, with this new perception, the definition of evolution not only gave me solace, it seemed to open my eyes to a life bigger than the one before my experience. I felt more awake, more aware of myself, and the life around me.
While my personal experience was profound, I never thought myself the lone transformed teen after a psychedelic mushroom trip. When I conducted a survey about evolution and asked, “Have you ever taken hallucinogenics – (magic) mushrooms, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, etc?” 38 percent responded, “Yes, it was amazing and changed my outlook on life” (Waller). Indeed, I am not alone! Now, of course not everyone’s life changes after they’ve done hallucinogenics, 10 percent said, “Yes, it was weird, I didn’t really feel anything, I didn’t see what the big deal was.” And finally, not everyone does hallucinogenics at all – 30 percent said, “No, never done it and don’t plan to” (Waller). Fair enough, but everyone goes through a transformation of thought at some point, regardless of the catalyst. Maybe it was moving out of your parent’s house for the first time or getting dumped by your true love, or finding your true love or just good ol’ organically grown existential-angst. In the same survey, I asked, “After a life-changing experience – near death, finding love, extreme (impactful) travel or other – did you feel that you had been changed on a physical and/or mental level, forever?” This time fifty percent of people replied yes. (Waller).
This new outlook wasn’t necessarily like believing my whole life that the sky was red and realizing it was blue. It was more like seeing the blue-sky overhead, stopping, and for the first time thinking to myself, “why is the sky blue?” Ram Dass, a Harvard professor turned LSD advocate turned Yogi, calls what I experienced “turning on”(Dass 6). In other words, becoming aware of the fact that I am aware and that there may be some sort of significance in that.
At the heart of my revelation was a cacophony of questions that flurried about my brain at a steadily increasing rate. A constant wondering of how things work and why things, including we as humans, are the way we are. Dass speaks of a similar experience in his memoir, Be Here Now, “I was in the same predicament. I was aware that I didn’t know enough to maintain this state of consciousness and nobody around me seemed to know either. I checked with everyone I thought might know and nobody seemed to know” (13). In short, he had turned-on and upon coming down, he wanted answers. Like Dass, I felt I needed some sort of resolution.
Ram Dass would go to India in search of answers, I however, thought it only seemed fitting that I look for clues to my wonderment where this had all began – in the field of evolution. So, when I was told of a book called Food of the Gods in which a hypothesis is put forth that the link between self-aware humans and our non-aware primate cousins is psychedelic mushrooms – I pounced. American philosopher and ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna boldly asserts, “My contention is that mutation-causing, psychoactive chemical compounds in the early hominen diet influenced the rapid reorganization of the brains information processing capacities” (McKenna 24). He is postulating that not only do mushrooms have an effect on a persons life experience but also that the chemical that causes hallucinations is the gap between non-aware primates and early self-aware hominen populations. As a person who has had positive and life-altering experiences with psychoactive drugs, McKenna’s hypothesis charms the egotistical side of me that wants to say, “I have done this and thus, I am more evolved!” However, it is not so simple. The evolutionary school of thought is still growing and scholars like Rick Potts have other ideas.
Dr. Potts believes that our human nature comes from our ancestors surviving Mother Nature. Potts uses geology to make sense of early hominen brain growth over the course of evolutionary history. From about “six until two million years ago”, our primate relatives’ brains grew a tiny fraction, if at all. Then suddenly, from “two million years ago up until 200 thousand years ago” there was extreme brain growth like never before (Human Origins). Dr. Potts claims that rapid bursts of climate change in Southeast Africa where the environment went through massive fluctuations of “climate instability” were the impetus for said brain growth (“First Steps”). Think of Mother Nature in this time period as having a severe personality disorder like bi-polar. She went from varying degrees of fury to relative contentment over and over and over again. The weather, and thus, the geography of the region were unpredictable. It went from wet lake-lands with forests to dry savannah plains and desert, back to wet lake-lands with forest, to volcanically active, back to wet, lake-lands and so on and so forth at a rate like never before. It must have been excruciating to navigate these conditions for the inhabitants of the region. Only the rapidly adaptable and most intelligent would survive.
This is the perfect example of Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection theory in action, the idea that as he puts it is the, “preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I have called Natural Selection or the ‘survival of the fittest’” (Darwin 94). Meaning, the best suited and most adaptable to the environment will live and spread. The less suited and less adaptable will most likely die off. In this scenario, brain growth and the intelligence that follows is the favorable variation Darwin speaks of. However, he never thought this process would be a speedy one and Dr. Potts is hypothesizing that while Darwin’s theory is spot on, it happened at an evolutionary hyperactive pace. These primates would have to out think, out hunt, out swim, out climb and simply out live any other species in that region in only a few generations (possibly even ONE generation?) time. They would not only have to adapt, but adapt very, very quickly, and only the smartest individuals with the most adaptable brains would see it through to spawn a new generation.
The competitive nature of this can’t be overlooked. It is no coincidence that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” term resonates with us when speaking of evolution. So it stands to reason that competition was the catalyst for transforming humans into self-aware beings. The thought only extends so far though. Edward O. Wilson of The New York Times writes in The Riddle of the Human Species, “The existence of competition and conflict… has been a hallmark of societies as far back as archaeological evidence is able to offer. These and other traits we call human nature are so deeply resident in our emotions and habits of thought as to seem just part of some greater nature, like the air we all breathe, and the molecular machinery that drives all of life” (Wilson). Wilson’s point is that competition is embedded in everything we do as far back as we existed. Not just in humans, in everything. With that in mind, the thought that we humans are the only self-aware creatures on the planet because of our competitive nature seems unlikely. Wilson proposes an alternative idea: Eusociality.
Eusociality as he states it, is when “[the] group cooperatively rear the young across multiple generations… divide labor through the surrender by some members of at least some of their personal reproduction in a way that increases the “reproductive success” (lifetime reproduction) of other members” (Wilson). This theory speaks to our humanity, the antithesis of competition – raising offspring that isn’t our own genetics, sometimes even at detriment to the individual. Frans De Waal, a professor at Emory University studies altruism and empathy and had this to say in the abstract of his research, “…altruistic behavior evolved for the return-beneﬁts it bears the performer. For return-beneﬁts to play a motivational role, however, they need to be experienced by the organism” (De Waal). It is a complicated behavior that when done repetitiously, and in a group setting means some level of understanding must be had. Why make a sacrifice unless you know it is good for you? His answer is empathy, “With increasing cognition, state-matching evolved into more complex forms, including concern for the other and perspective-taking. Empathy-induced altruism derives its strength from the emotional stake it offers the self in the other’s welfare” (De Waal). In short, as we began to be aware of ourselves, we understood the necessity and advantage of group welfare.
Complex interpersonal relationships in a group dynamic or “eusocial environment” is a supposed evolutionary pressure that creates rapid change in the brain. It makes sense. If you are living alone with your one or two children, only caring for their needs, there are a limited amount of things you need to express and/or communicate to them. But what if you are living in a eusocial community with multiple families and individuals that have constant needs and things that demand complicated expression? Richard Dawkins explains it beautifully; “brains were naturally selected to increase in capacity and power for utilitarian reasons, until those higher faculties of intellect and spirit emerged as a by-product, and blossomed in the cultural environment provided by group living and language” (Dawkins 402). Simply put, the necessity for communication and expression becomes greater in a group setting. Thus, a eusocial setting would create human awareness.
As individuals began to realize their own self-awareness, you have to wonder what they would do with this new perspective? Well, many believe that it is quite obvious; they would begin to make art. Martin Meredith explains in his work, Born in Africa, “[There were] engravings and sculptures of animals and humans and painted the walls of subterranean caves with vivid images of deer, horses, mammoths, wild cattle and other contemporary beasts” (Meredith 176). They began to express themselves. No longer living simply to survive but living to also articulate thought through art. Meredith continues, “All this was taken as evidence of ‘human evolution’, a flowering of consciousness which marked the emergence of human beings” (176). The assumption being that with awareness comes expression. That seems valid but still, I can’t help but think of the question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” I wonder if it was the art that came before the awareness or the awareness that sparked the art.
All of these theories seem to strike a chord of truth with me, at least a little, so the question must be asked, why can’t all of these be true? It may have been the first time a half-human, half hominen ate a psychedelic mushrooms in the African plains. It may have been as an early hominen struggled mightily to save herself and her young and inspiration struck or it may have been an accumulation of moments between a group of individuals struggling to create the direction of a new group dynamic. We may never know.
Trying to reconcile human consciousness with science is a unique dilemma that we are far from understanding. Consciousness, an abstract idea seems counter-intuitive to the rigid rules of science but I think that’s why I find it so fascinating. Using logic to account for the illogical. I like science and I like existentialism but they don’t necessarily mix well. Rupert Sheldrake, on the other hand, believes they do indeed mix well but thatthe scientific community places too many unwritten restrictions on what can and can’t be investigated and that there are assumptions made that simply aren’t necessarily so. “[The assumption is] Matter is unconscious… atoms, electrons, solar systems, galaxies – it’s all unconscious” (To the best of our knowledge). Meaning, an automated universe, as science supposes, is incapable of consciousness. In essence saying, if we humans are composed of matter, and science presumes matter is unconscious, then, we must not be conscious. Sheldrake continues on the rigid presumptions of the science community, “nature is mechanical, the universe is a machine, animals and plants are machines, the human body is a machine.” This is stating that because the nature of science is so rigid, we are in a nutshell, as Sheldrake quoted Richard Dawkins, “all lumbering robots”(To the best of our knowledge). I don’t know if I agree with that and like Sheldrake, I hope that the world of science and the science of consciousness collide soon.
I will let Darwin, the original co-inspirer of my life changing thought processes speak for my feelings on the subject. “Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life (Darwin 93).” Darwin is poetically stating that there is a vast grandeur to all things of genetic make that are inextricably linked through being alive. Or as Lauryn Hill sang in one of my favorite songs, “everything is everything” (Hill) and even more simply, as Muhammad Ali elegantly put it, “Me, We.” (When). We are an amalgamation of events that led us to now. The moment in a person’s life when they look up at the sky and think, “I wonder why the sky is blue?” is an evolution of all earthly history. It may sound like a hippy proverb but I feel like any evolutionary biologist would agree with that. Most likely, we will never know the exact moment that the human light of self-awareness first flickered on – and that’s okay. It’s okay to not know, but digging for the answers is at the root of being human… Right?
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. New York: PF Collier & Son, 1909. Print.
Dass, Ram. Be Here Now. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 1978. Print.
Dawkins, Richard. The Greatest Show on Earth. Great Britain: Free Press, 2009. Print.
De Waal, Frans. “Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy.” The Annual Review Psychology. 5 June 2007. Abstract. Web. http://www.life.umd.edu/faculty/wilkinson/BIOL608W/deWaalAnnRevPsych2008.pdf
“First Steps.” Becoming human. Narr. Lance Lewman. PBS. 31 August 2011.
Hill, Lauryn. Everything is Everything. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Columbia Records, 1998.
Human Origins. Smithsonian: National Museum of National History. Web. 11 April. 2013. http://humanorigins.si.edu/human-characteristics/brains
Jurmain, Robert, et al. Introduction to Physical Anthropology. Cengage Learning, edition 13, 2011. Print.
Mckenna, Terrence. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. Print.
Meredith, Martin. Born in Africa. Great Britain: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
To the best of our knowledge. “Rupert Sheldrake on Set science free”. National Public Radio. KUOW, Seattle. 21 April. 2013. Radio.
Waller, Ian. “Evolution, Humanity and Hallucinogens Survey.” Surveymonkey.org. 2013. Web. http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/L5SSFTD
When We Were Kings. Dir. Leon Gast. Perf. Muhammed Ali, George Foreman and George Plimpton. Polygram, 1997. DVD.
Wilson, Edward O. “The Riddle of the human species.” New York Times. 24 February2013. Web. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/the-riddle-of-the-human-species/