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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.


  1. You seriously wrote “war hero” there?! Oh my god…I wouldn’t have expected that from you.

    What do you think of someone who rapes?
    What do you think of someone who rapes for money?
    What do you think of someone who kills for money?
    What’s the freely chosen business of a soldier? To kill.
    And this includes the whole baggage who repairs weapons,
    designs and constructs them,
    or gives medical attention to whose wounded at the front,
    for the sole reason of all this is to kill even more people they do not even know,
    steal their natural ressources,
    or rape their wives.
    For profit.

    If there are war heros at all, they’re people like Gandhi or the monks of Tibet,
    people who’d surely prefer being called peace hero.
    Or why is it that there’s no Nobel prize for war?

    What exactly makes them heros to sit in airplanes carrying atomic bombs civil cities of the already defeated nation of Japan, or to remote control drones bombing Iraq or other nations they cannot even pronounce properly?!
    And the same goes for anyone who, no matter how indirectly, supports those monsters.

    Comment by Daniel — January 1, 2010 @ 11:11 am

  2. Hits the spot again. Love to feel the interplay of your heart and mind.

    Comment by Kasvoi — January 2, 2010 @ 8:42 am

  3. In response to all of your articles so far, and all yet to come:

    Teafaerie, beautiful soul, each post you write is a treasure, for me. Your thoughts inspire me, fascinate me, comfort me, and make me think profoundly about it All.

    One of my favorite things in life, is taking in all the many different ways we humans believe, live, perceive, and allowing this eternal flow of ideas to shift my own consciousness. Regardless of whether that means something rings true for me and changes my own perception of my experiences, or not, I am offered a growing understanding of and empathy for our collective being. It is valuable – and delightful – beyond description.

    A lot of what you share does ring true for me, in ways sometimes small and sometimes large. You have more life experience than I, and sometimes it feels as if with your words you give form to some of my own thoughts and feelings that have yet to crystallize.

    I appreciate the maturity, humility, and openness with which you explore the world and present your thoughts – ever acknowledging the validity of other ways of living and believing, recognizing that in all the wonder and mystery of life and the universe, none of us really knows anything for sure.

    But oh, the beautiful adventure it is to explore and contemplate it all anyways! And what pleasure for mind and soul, to share what we stumble upon along the way.

    From the depths of my heart, thank you, thank you, for sharing yourself with us.



    Comment by WildWillow — January 2, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

  4. I have this discussion/argument with friends, associates and random people at festivals all the time! You spell it out clearer than I’ve ever been able to.

    Your writing has more to teach me than any trip I’ve taken, and less of a time commitment, too!

    Comment by de Fro — January 4, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

  5. we gotta stay strong, optimism is always the healthiest choice, we’re interwoven with everything we speak of and do, if we vibe we the good thoughts, and take action when we need too, great things can happen, and the spirit of helping. i mean the spirits want to help a lot, I think this is a great time for the earth, this year, there are so many signs, it seems, like the Blue Moon New Year, that things are going to be very full and bountiful for the planet, among these things, health and a return to the old ways, that maybe we find newly?
    I think some people just choose to take only certain kinds of medicines because thats how it vibes for them, some people say certain things, because thats a true expression of their nature at that point, but everything always changes, it is true.

    Comment by 9 — January 4, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

  6. Good read on a slow morning, thanks!

    Comment by oliver — January 6, 2010 @ 3:32 am

  7. Excellent article! I’ve made similar points myself elsewhere:

    Now days, people generally don’t toil in the field every day that Newton sends – we have more free time and money to spend than ever before. We can now afford to use large quantities of kratom every day, as well as other entheogens from around the world, but we don’t have any information about this level of exposure to kratom itself or in combination with other stuff. For all we know, taking a mixture of kratom and Salvia divinorum daily could make your eyeballs explode after day 300, or chronic kratom use might give you some kind of evil superpower. Looking at paracetamol as a rather boring example, if you take the odd one every now and then, you’ll be fine, but if you take 8 pills a day every day for a year, you’ll likely end up with some serious condition. There’s also the fact that modern chemistry can create powerful extracts of these entheogens. Who’s to say they’re safe, just because they come from a plant? And what about any other drugs we might be on? Being on a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor like Prozac for depression isn’t uncommon in today’s society – combine them with the “perfectly safe” Banisteriopsis caapi vine, itself a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, and you have a potentially fatal combination of drugs in your system. I bet there are many more contraindications we haven’t even considered.

    What about plants like cannabis and tobacco? They’ve also been used responsibly for thousands of years, but it’s only when so many people start to take these things that we realised “Actually, smoking is bad for us”. Besides, our current medical knowledge means we’ve only recently been able to diagnose these kind of things. I’m not sure I want to trust any data from a period when epilepsy might have been down to a demonic possession. How many adverse health effects could we identify in these ancient entheogen users based on what we know today?

    From JWH-018, Spice & Me.

    Also, good points about beaver dams etc being natural. I think you’d love The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins. Please give it a read!

    Comment by Synchronium — January 6, 2010 @ 5:09 am

  8. Another brilliant, thought-provoking rant, Teafaerie, thank you! How I love your column!

    If I may nitpick one thing to help your already powerful use of words: you use the word “synthetic” as opposed to “natural” in the sense of “naturally occurring” with regard to chemical compounds. This is a very common error. The correct opposite to “natural” in this sense is “artificial”. “Synthetic” means that a compound was synthetically made, i.e. synthesized in a lab. You can have synthetically made natural and artificial substances, i.e. if you synthesize a naturally occurring chemical in the lab, than it is both “synthetic” and “natural” in the sense of “occurring in nature”. You almost caught this yourself when you asked the following:

    “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?”

    So the above explains this apparent contradiction.



    Comment by zhah — January 6, 2010 @ 9:55 am

  9. Some of the comments: :)

    Comment by Waffa — January 6, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

  10. I hope it’s not to big of a problem to spread your posts also in FaceBook :)

    I personally like everything i have been reading so far, you have great thoughts and experiences.


    Comment by Waffa — January 6, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

  11. Perspective.

    Cobra Venom is all natural.

    LSD has not been found in nature (yet).

    Comment by funkspiel — January 7, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

  12. Great little read to stimulate and gather perspective. Thanks for sharing, keep it up!

    Comment to “Daniel” above: Yes – it would have been better to word it ‘war victim’ instead. Having said that – Get over it. Particularly as it is the tone that represents where YOU are at, boxing you in. May the fire burning in you find a peaceful, more helpful way of sharing. You’ll find that you get far more respect for your words. It is all in how you communicate that counts. Teafaerie had no disrespect and you would be wise to pick up on that.

    Comment by InsanelySane — January 8, 2010 @ 2:46 am

  13. I’ve always thought the same about people who thinks that plants are some kind of healthier or holier than synths.

    You gave me the words to debate them when then talk about it!
    It’s not like I do a lot of synths, but I look at them as marvelously processed materials. As you say, the lore of many years that now allow us to play more safely.

    It’s natural for us to study nature, understand it, and manipulate; because if we CAN do or move something in nature, it means it IS natural.
    Nothing unnatural can be done!

    I like reading you :)
    and I hope life will come with more ppl like you


    Comment by Sakyr — January 8, 2010 @ 7:43 am

  14. I think it is important to know what the plants own purpose/function/presence in Gaia is on the ring of evolution that we find that plant as well as harvest it or extract it in a synthetic or more synthetic drug.

    I think along the lines of Thomas Berry that we need to know what “laws” or perhaps higher information that plants possess with the variety of internal substances they possess and their purpose not just for humans but for life at all levels. Such as “maybe animals have a use for some euphoric plants and have a “high state” that’s as perfect for them as “high” is for us.

    But I enjoyed your piece immensely because you have the stamp of such an open mind which I suspect is the source of much of your own happiness at this point on this strange trip we’re on.

    thank you tea faerie!

    Oaktown Fairy.

    Comment by Oaktown Fairy — January 8, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

  15. “Sugar doesn’t seem like a plant at all. ”

    that made me laugh out loud!
    so true,,,

    look forward to your great column every month!!

    Comment by david a — January 13, 2010 @ 3:29 am

  16. So, I’ve got a slogan for the future:

    Something beautiful will happen, whether we like it or not

    Good memes, n’ such

    Comment by zeus — January 13, 2010 @ 4:51 am

  17. As for sorting out what to take and what not to, I’ve overtime learned to put these substances on a balance, what are the benefits of the high, is there anything to be learned or gained from the experience? vs. Are there setbacks from usage or impairments of any sort on the long run? In my teens I took a lot of Clonazepam to put me to sleep from my heavy weight environment, but what I’ve always looked for in the usage of substances were levels of insight and synchronizing brainwaves in nature’s fine flow. Expansion of consciousness and a creative undertone being juggled in a streamline of combinations provides an unfiltered or facilitated access to knowledge each time. This I found in psychedelics. Coz’ it’s not really about a transitory rush or a clocktimed sense of pleasure, if anything the rush and the pleasure are a consequence of perceiving the vastness of psychic realms, and that’s a ride with all sorts of d-turns till’ one is better aligned in one’s own navigational compass.

    Comment by Gilson — January 14, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

  18. I liked this one. Good mention of dams, and calling the entire question of ‘man-made (or woman-made)’ vs naturally occurring out into the mix. Technology is not going anywhere, it lives on as long as we use it. Here’s a great talk on evolution of technology

    Synthetics are just an extension of US. We really just need to advance the rituals for their usage to get the highest returns… spiritual technologies. There is a simple answer I have for this: synthetics are most useful connecting to one another, as ‘man-made’ humans in our human ‘tuning’ (psychochemically speaking). Naturally occuring compounds are better at connecting to everything not man-made i,e the natural world. There is a lot of overlap here, but the man-made psychochemicals seem more pleasant in social settings than the natural ones. It’s like we are just focusing on a few chance sparkles in the refraction of some naturally occurring spirits. Our range of observation is pretty narrow in any one dimension and even our of psychochemistry speaks to that fact. We only sense one tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum ( with our eyes, just as our bodies can only detect a small range of sounds which have evolved into all the spoken languages. Our nervous system are only using a range of the possible chemicals to transmit messages around itself in order to manifest this thing called ‘consciousness’, which works primarily to replicate its sourcecode (and all its baggage). But just like a night-vision camera that intensifies infared rays, we can use these special chemicals to see into our darkside. Let’s compare our visions with plant-allies to those that are modified in the lab. We have got to realize that the plant allies offer the chemicals as insights into their essence, the chemicals that we make in the lab are useful tools for intensifying the transmission of our spirit into communion with other members of our own species. The broader library of experience we have available, the more detailed our understanding of our neuroprocesses we will have to experience etc etc ad infinitum

    Comment by gaiaflux — January 25, 2010 @ 1:36 am

  19. As always beautifully thought through and beautifully written. And I’d like to repeat what gaiaflux said so eloquently:” Let’s compare our visions with plant-allies to those that are modified in the lab. We have got to realize that the plant allies offer the chemicals as insights into their essence, the chemicals that we make in the lab are useful tools for intensifying the transmission of our spirit into communion with other members of our own species.” There IS a difference between natural and artificial compounds, and I feel better with the natural ones (that said, LSD is somehow the great big exception; definitely not harmful, just an amazing tool.)

    Comment by Martin — April 2, 2010 @ 6:02 am

  20. Are you saying that everything is okay in it’s evolutionary journey?

    Comment by Amy — October 11, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

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