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Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness
by Giorgio Samorini
Park Street Press 
2002 English-language edition 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Lux, 11/1/2007

A very good book with some flaws. Four out of five stars.

Animals and Psychedelics by ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini is a tantalizing tour of recorded cases of apparently-intentional self-intoxication in animals ranging from moths to porcupines. Despite the title, most of the cases that Samorini recounts do not involve psychedelics, though he does describe some greedy goats refusing to share Psilocybe mushrooms. The book also chronicles belligerent cows going cuckoo for loco grass, elephants with a taste for liquor, felines with an affinity for catnip, khat-craving goats, and datura-drunk moths, among many other entheophiles of the four-footed variety.

This brief book (97 pages) describes what little is known about animal intoxication in short, breezy chapters. The accounts are short and anecdotal, relying mostly on chance field observations. Samorini sometimes bolsters the scarce available facts with speculation, as in his second-hand account of mandrills eating the roots of the Tabernanthe iboga bush:

When a male mandrill must engage in combat with another, either to establish his claim to a female or to climb a rung of the hierarchical ladder, he does not begin the fight without forethought. Instead, he first finds and digs up an iboga bush, eating its root; next, he waits for its effects to hit him full force (which can take from one to two hours); and only then does he approach and attack the other male he wants to engage in battle. The fact that the mandrill waits like this to feel the full effect of the drug before attacking demonstrates a high level of premeditation and awareness of what he is doing. (pp. 57)

Nothing in this description clearly indicates premeditation on the part of the animal. It is just as possible that the mandrill did not plan to challenge the other male in advance, but was driven to do so when the full disinhibiting effects of iboga came on.

Many of Samorini’s descriptions are similarly theory-laden. He begins the book with the hypothesis that animals intentionally seek intoxication and treats each case as evidence for this belief. When speculating about the inner lives of animals, Samorini might have more closely followed his own admonition to “humbly acknowledge our ignorance and seek to be as open as possible and as free from the moral dogmas and presumptions that afflict our species as we can” (pg. 83).

Samorini argues that intoxication-seeking behavior often contradicts basic survival needs. Birds and mammals eat non-nutritious-but-intoxicating foods in lieu of readily-available, more nourishing alternatives. Some animals place themselves or their offspring at risk by consuming psychoactive plant material, such as the reindeer who wander away from their young while under the spell of Amanita muscaria mushrooms, or the moth that flutters helplessly on its back after drinking the nectar of the datura flower.

In Samorini’s view, this willingness to risk health and safety is evidence that the pursuit of intoxication is a deep biological drive on the same level as hunger or the drive to reproduce. Like Jonathan Ott in Pharmacophilia, Samorini contends that intoxication is natural. It is an instinctual drive commonly found in many animal species, and not the debased artifact of corrupt human society that it is commonly believed to be.

Drawing from the work of psychologist Edward de Bono (father of the concept of “lateral thinking”), Samorini argues the drive toward intoxication has an evolutionary advantage. It facilitates what Samorini calls “depatterning” by temporarily disrupting habitual patterns of perception and interpretation. This opens new conceptual and behavioral possibilities by disembedding animals from routinized patterns of behavior. Quoting de Bono, Samorini argues that intoxication is an example of “a liberating device that frees [the mind] of the rigidity of established ideas, schemes, divisions, categories and classifications. [It] is an instrument for insight” (pg. 85, quoting De Bono E. The Mechanism of Mind. Penguin. 1969.).

His arguments that intoxication is a natural drive and that it facilitates higher processes are individually persuasive, but they do not synergize well. It is hard to believe that moths drinking datura nectar or cows eating intoxicating grasses are seeking to liberate themselves from the tyranny of pre-established conceptual paradigms. I have lived with cats that regularly went into catnip frenzies, and I am quite certain that no existential imperative was at work in their behavior.

This book is particularly memorable for its many wonderful accounts of animal intoxication. The image of 150 elephants bursting into a malt liquor distillery in Bengal, drinking hundreds of gallons of brew, and rampaging through the town will remain etched in my mind long after I have forgotten Samorini’s evolutionary arguments. However, a great many of the stories that form the core of the book are drawn from Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise. Samorini gives credit where credit is due, observing that “I would have made little headway in my research without Ronald K. Siegel’s brilliant text” (pg. 17). But in a book this short, it is distracting to see so many references to one other text. It is also questionable if Samorini’s theory cogently ties them together. In the final analysis, Animals and Psychedelics is a fun and interesting read, but it breaks little new ground.

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