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Spiritual Sources of Knowledge

How Hallucinogens, DNA and Rainforests Are Linked

(Editor's Note: Anthropologist Jeremy Narby has discovered that the rainforests function as the primary springs from which all knowledge about life is acquired. In his book, The Cosmic Serpent, DNA, and the Origins of Knowledge, Narby asserts that the vast knowledge of plants in the rainforest, held by indigenous people, is acquired not as much through experimentation as it is through shamanism. The shamans' wisdom is contained within DNA, the ultimate source of all knowledge about life processes. Narby further contends that this knowledge can be extracted by means of hallucination. The essential setting for this experience is the rainforest, he says, and the hallucinogens are essentially rainforest-derived.

Following are excerpts from a summary of Narby's book, originally published in French in 1995:)

I am an anthropologist and have been working on questions of indigenous land rights and land use in the Amazon for the last 11 years. I came to DNA on a back road, by investigating a seemingly unrelated mystery-namely, the indigenous people of Western Amazonia say that their remarkable botanical knowledge comes directly from the plants themselves, and that shamans, by drinking a hallucinogenic brew, can converse with the "animate essences," or spirits, which are present in all living beings and which are sources of verifiable information.

For years, I ignored this enigma, because I was trying to demonstrate that Amazonian Indians use their land rationally, and therefore deserve the right to own it. From a rational point of view, it is by definition impossible for hallucinations to be the source of true knowledge, and to consider them as such is the very definition of psychosis.

It was at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 that I decided to start investigating this paradox. Everybody in Rio, from pharmaceutical companies to governments, was suddenly talking about taking indigenous peoples' botanical knowledge seriously. Frequently citing the example of curare, they pointed out that Amazonian Indians had already provided science with useful molecules decades ago. But nobody was talking about the hallucinatory origin of part of indigenous people's knowledge, as discussed by the indigenous people themselves.

In the middle of the 1980s, I spent two years living with the Ashaninca Indians in the Peruvian Amazon, studying their ways of using the forest. With their plants, they rid me of a chronic back pain that Western medicine had failed to cure. Whenever I would ask these extremely practical people about the origin of their knowledge, they would answer: "Our shamans take their ayahuasca or their tobacco, and in their visions they see spirits, who explain all these things to them."

After Rio, I started to delve into this mystery, systematically and rationally. The picture that emerged was that most Western researchers believed that these Indians were speaking in metaphors, and that their knowledge was basically due to experimentation and chance.

Science says DNA is an inert substance, a 'deoxyribonucleic acid.' However, I have just completed an investigation that suggests that DNA is minded and conscious. It is the living language substance of life, and it lives inside all the cells of all life forms on Earth. As your eyes scan these words, there are two meters of DNA in every single cell in your eyeballs, winding and unwinding like a snake.

Biologists discovered DNA in a laboratory 43 years ago. But one of biology's basic axioms is that nature has no goal, no intelligence, no consciousness, and that life is merely a phenomenon of inanimate molecules, chance and necessity, which physics and chemistry suffice to explain.

So scientists have been looking at DNA for almost half a century now, and seeing all its amazing feats, not the least of which is that it codes for the construction of beings such as ourselves capable of analyzing it. However, they do not seem to have considered that this self-replicating molecule might be something more than just an inert chemical.

The Ashaninca people with whom I lived also said that some true relations are revealed by similarity in form. Look at the shape, they said, nature talks in signs, in hallucinations and in dreams. It speaks a visual language.

The DNA double helix is shaped like two snakes wrapped around each other. Its whole essence consists in being both single and double: it can only duplicate itself thanks to its doubleness, and this twinning is the basis of life. At the beginning of our life, we are one cell, and then the DNA in this cell duplicates itself, and we gradually unfold into beings of 100,000 billion cells, each containing an exact copy of the original genetic message, which is twinned each time a cell divides.

In shamanic traditions around the world, it is said that knowledge is acquired by reaching, in one's visions, the axis mundi, the axis of the world, which is shaped like a ladder, a twisted rope ladder, a pair of entwined vines or a spiral staircase. These are the very words biologists use to describe the shape of the DNA molecule.

The parallels are endless, once one has understood that shamanic and mythological knowledge is complementary to molecular biology.

There is a long series of analogous connections between what shamans say about spirits and what biologists say about DNA. These analogies prove nothing, however.

Yet there are ways of testing the hypothesis advanced here; and if it is exact, it means that indigenous people hold, in their shamanism, an unsuspected source of biomolecular knowledge.

Currently, scientists seem content treating DNA as an inert chemical, splicing it, cataloging it, and sequencing it without further ado.

So, until our science learns to conduct a dialogue with these other cultures and ways of knowing, the best we can do is make sure they survive a while longer. This means upholding land rights for indigenous people and providing bilingual, intercultural education for their children, who are currently being fed a stream of exclusively Western concepts as soon as they set foot in school. With sufficient land and appropriate education, indigenous people will be ready to engage the rational world on a proper footing.

To sum up: these indigenous people are not liars, they really do talk to spirits, and the spirits are inside us; they are the spirits of life, the same spirits science has labeled inanimate chemicals created by chance. Scientists and shamans are saying the same thing, but scientists cannot see it, because they do not believe it. By letting market-oriented rationalism provide the only parameters to our conceptions, we are not only letting the rainforests dwindle, but we are, without even realizing it, burning down the great universities of nonrational knowledge about life.

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