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The Children of Prometheus

teafaerie | Musings | Friday, January 1st, 2010

When I hear people say that they only take “natural” drugs, I always wonder what they mean. It’s usually said with a sort of holier-than-thou attitude; and at least when it’s said to me, it’s often loaded with subtle undertones of disapproval masked as concern for my well-being. The complexity of the topic may be obscured by prejudice, but nevertheless the natural versus synthetic discussion brings up a number of interesting issues surrounding drugs and drug culture, biology, technology, and the evolution of the species.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing to take only natural drugs, obviously. There’s nothing wrong with choosing not to take any drugs at all. I think that many people haven’t thoroughly thought their own reasoning through, though, relying instead on knee-jerk biases to guide their decision-making and to rationalize their actions.

Plants are awesome. Plants are great. Hooray for plants and all that they imply. Most of my favorite drugs are plants or relatively simple plant-based preparations. Potent and mysterious are the natural allies; rich, deep, subtle, and strong. Some of them appear to have enjoyed a long history of human use without ever having been definitively linked to serious problems like cancer or dementia, which I find mildly reassuring. Some of them seem to have personalities or at least unique content signatures, which fascinates the hell out of me. Many plants are relatively simple to grow, and it’s usually easier to identify a fake plant than it is to identify, say, a fake white powder insofar as knowing what you’re getting goes. Plants can contain numerous alkaloids and other chemicals that may play a supporting role in manifesting their specific effects, in addition to their so-called “active ingredients”, so it’s super hard to make a perfect analog. Thousands of years’ worth of lore has built up around techniques for making the best use of certain traditional medicines, whereas with synthetics you kind of have to wing it. Also, some people have a spiritual connection to or emotional affinity for plants. I know that I do. I eat them to stay alive for one thing, and you can’t get much more deeply connected than that. In some places, certain psychedelic plants are even legal.

Plants don’t necessarily make better drugs just by virtue of having sprung fully formed from the fertile womb of Mother Gaia, though. Take it from a girl who used to have a Datura plant growing right outside of her little hut in Thailand. Take it from someone who almost pisses her pants laughing every time she hears her friend Robin tell “The Nutmeg Story”. Belladonna, henbane, mandrake, and some of the sketchier mushrooms might get you high, but they’re notoriously hard to control and it’s easy to make yourself sick if you don’t know what you’re doing. Proper dosage can vary from plant to plant as well as from person to person, and once in a while a plant will surprise you. Some people don’t really get along all that well with the plants on a personal level, when it comes right down to it. Mescalito can be a tricksy bastard. Mushrooms have a funny sense of humor. Salvia is all coy with some people at first and then she comes on too strong once she has them in her clutches. Or whatever. Some plant psychedelics make me nauseous every time I take them. Cyanides come from plants. Nature has recklessly created a stunning variety of compounds over the course of millions of years of competitive evolution, and a tiny fraction of those compounds just happen to be compatible with the human organism to such a degree that reliable psychedelic effects can be produced in most of us without incurring a whole lot of risk. Whoo hoo! Yet a great many more plants turn out to be deadly, or sickening, or inert.

Synthetics, likewise, have their downsides. It’s hard to be sure how street drugs are being made, and the purity of the supply is often compromised to maximize profit. Some synthetic drugs are easily abused or addictive or deleterious to the system. And make no mistake, big pharma is just as guilty of pushing that kind of crap as the clowns who blow up trailer parks with their edgy science projects. Many of my least favorite drugs are synthetic, and the synthetic drugs that I like the most are so new that long-term impact studies have not been possible. Of course, the same thing could be said about cellular phones. Perhaps we’ll find out that we have a problem on our hands when all the little raver kids start getting Alzheimer’s disease in their 50s or something. There’s no reliable way to know yet. Secondary effects of some kinds of substance use, such as dancing all night and not eating right or getting enough sleep can also engender health problems. There are plenty of good reasons to be cautious about taking any drug.

What bothers me is when people actually think that drugs are “bad” on some level, and that plants constitute some kind of a loophole because they come pre-packaged by the pure matrix of being, rather than having been cooked up in the dark retorts of imperfect and unworthy humankind. This is the Frankenstein myth. We are fundamentally fallen beings and whatever we create will inherit our original sin. In Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley wrote about the dream that inspired one of the most important myths of the Industrial Age:

I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the creator of the world.

Thou shalt not play God! Even today, I think that message still resonates. It’s easy to see why. We’ve already more or less botched the planet up, and we have no idea how to fix it. We fear that our output will be perverted by our flaws, or that we will prove too stupid for the task, or perhaps we’ll outsmart ourselves and mess things up even worse. We look around and see many of yesterday’s brilliant solutions become today’s poorly anticipated problems. We wonder if the presumptuous audacity of messing with the human genome, building hyper-intelligent machines and stealing fire from the heart of matter won’t inevitably be punished, if not by a jealous creator or a vengeful ecosystem, then by the blind justice of cause and effect. We all know the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice who played with forces beyond his ken and ended up in way over his head. We know good and well that mistakes will continue to be made at great human cost. It’s tragic. And it’s just how it goes. It’s how it’s always gone. Progress advances funeral by funeral. It sucks. It would suck worse to turn back now, though, when the stakes are so high and so many groundbreaking wins seem nearly within our grasp.

We can’t get out backward. We’ve got to go forward, and I know, it’s tough. Sometimes I just want to say to hell with all this malarkey and go back to the short, brutish unexamined life of our forebears. (Right up until I get a toothache or something, then I’m hightailing it back to the future.) I do understand a sort of poetic nostalgia for the “natural” or primal state. One might be tempted to regret the decision to leave the garden of pre-sentience in which we had only to rely upon our instincts. We might feel that we have made a devil’s bargain by sacrificing harmony with our womb environment in favor of intelligence. The problem with that logic is that we never really had a choice. Any being with a mind capable of making a conscious decision to outgrow its evolutionary niche can rest assured that it descends from a long line of apple lovers. That boulder was barreling towards the valley long before its momentum produced an observer capable of irrelevant conjecture about life up on the hill. By the time we were sophisticated enough to call the virtues of progress into question, the game had been on for a very long time indeed, and the exponential acceleration of technology was already inevitable.

We must bear in mind that our intelligence has also arisen from nature and is not apart from it. We don’t come into this world, we come out of it. We’re part of what it’s doing. Beehives and beaver dams are considered natural, so what does that make my apartment? Some kind of an abomination? The line that separates natural and synthetic artifacts can be blurry, and nowhere moreso than in the realm of psychoactive materials. Many lab drugs are essentially replicas of compounds that exist in nature, just built from the bottom up rather than extracted from a more chemically complex biological source. Does extraction make a compound officially un-natural? How about combination and concentration? How much is too much? I suspect that most people would think of coca leaves as natural, but that once they had been processed into cocaine they would lose their status as a sacred plant and become a dirty old drug. The same could be said of nature’s lovely poppies. Interestingly, I don’t imagine that most people would consider ayahuasca un-natural, even though it has to be processed, combined and cooked down in a series of complex steps that takes all day to complete. Why is that? Where on the spectrum does fermented grape juice lie? Tobacco leaves are natural but cigarettes are nasty. Sugar doesn’t seem like a plant at all. Salvia divinorum is mostly a cultogen. And do you think that the pot these kids are smoking today bears any resemblance in presentation and potency to strains that evolved in the wild?

We must claim the power of self-determination and the greater sense of both accountability and pride that comes with it. In more and more arenas it’s becoming painfully clear that our primary impulses are no longer sufficient or even entirely appropriate with respect to the tasks at hand. What served us in good stead in our ancestral jungles is often letting us down in the bedrooms and boardrooms of our modern surround. The past fifty thousand years have witnessed a fundamental shift in the course of evolution. The runaway success of epigenetic strategies like language acquisition have radically changed the nature of the survival game. It’s all about the software now, the exponential development of which far outpaces that of the poor, slow-changing hardware. Perhaps we will soon be possessed of the technology and temerity to take the genetic process to hand for good or for ill. For the nonce we are constrained to try to run these snappy competitive new programs on the same ancient operating systems we’ve been stuck with all along. We’re just not designed for this shit! But here we jolly well are, and we’ve got to do the best we can with what we’ve got. We’re all in it together now, you know. We are going to have to reinvent ourselves. We’re going to have to adapt. We can no longer behave in inappropriate ways and chock it up to “human nature”. Our meteoric rise to sentience and technological domination has left the ecosystem teetering on the brink of catastrophe, and a failure to act decisively would be a choice for which we would have to answer to future generations, if any. We’re going to have to use every tool at our disposal and a few that we haven’t even thought of yet, I imagine. The survival of the entire species, and all species, hinges on our successful synthesis of instinct and intentional design. No pressure or anything. That’s why I think this conversation is so important. If we fear and distrust our own handiwork, if deep down we feel that we can’t create something greater than ourselves, I think it’s going to make it a lot harder to act with the clear, sure, swift strokes that the current cusp seems to call for.

And if we can make it better, why not? It seems obvious to me that this is what’s supposed to happen, or anyway it’s the only aesthetically viable version of events that I can come up with. When the software is sophisticated enough, and it’s getting there, maybe it can somehow be used to get the hardware up to speed. In fact this is happening. Millions of people are prescribed medicines every day for both mental and physical illnesses. Some of the medicines are natural, but in the west the vast majority of them are children of the lab. Many are intended to treat life-threatening diseases, and some are designed to address quality-of-life issues, like impotence and anxiety. Do I think that drugs like Prozac and Ritalin are over-prescribed? For sure. Some people really benefit, though, and we’re only going to get better at making drugs that do what we want them to. Who’s to say what quality-of-life issues should or should not be addressed with pharmacological intervention? Leaving aside the possibility of improving upon the current vision of the healthy state, there is good and growing evidence that when conditions are right, otherwise intractable cases of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic substance abuse, and end-of-life anxiety can be effectively treated with certain psychedelics and empathogens. It seems kind of cold to deny potential relief to war heroes, rape victims, addicts who want to reform, and terrified people who are about to die, doesn’t it? And think of the much more subtle and sophisticated medicines of the future! All of this stuff is eventually going to get discovered or created anyway. It’s really inevitable. Might as well stop trying to suppress research and start trying to figure out what it is that we want to be when we grow up.

We are the children of God, or so we are told. The child of a sheep grows up to be a sheep, though. The child of a human being grows up to be a human being. We must learn, individually and collectively, to be good and wise creators. We must use our snazzy new intelligence to fashion a new stable niche for ourselves and to fashion ourselves for it. We must play God as children play at being grown-ups, learning first by imitation and then by trial and error. Our intent is not to mock the stupendous mechanism of creation, but to study it and participate in its elaboration. Through what hands might we imagine that the Organizing Principle could complete its Great Work if not our own? We must strive to be worthy of this greatest honor. The moral of the Frankenstein story is true in that if we fail to create from the heart, then our creations will surely run amok and cause more trouble than they’re worth. We must have faith in ourselves, which is the hardest, and in each other, and in the future. Every generation that comes after us will inherit the power to destroy everything that everyone has ever worked for. They will also be heir to creative potential that we cannot yet begin to imagine. It’s natural to want to slow it all down. We’ve got to keep moving, though. We’re off balance right now, like someone who has taken a committed step, and now we have get the other foot down in front of us fast or we’ll fall on our collective face.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we all need to be chemically adjusted or anything. I’m distrustful of panaceas; and when it comes right down to it, I have a certain perverse affection for the cowardly old world. I just think we ought to keep all of our options open, and learn to assess them without prejudice, shame or fear. There is nothing more natural than human curiosity. I, for one, can’t wait to see what we come up with next.