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The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge
by Jeremy Narby
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Forte, 7/24/2006

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge is a major breakthrough for not only the field of entheogens but for all science and perhaps religion too. Originally published in French as Serpent Cosmique, this book presents the journey of a western scientist who ventures past the primitive superstitions of modern anthropology and takes part in a millennia-long scientific research program of Amazonian shamanism; wherein he learns of their seers’ profound communication with other species via experiential access to DNA.

In 1985 Jeremy Narby, a Stanford-trained anthropologist, was doing fieldwork for his dissertation in the Amazon Pichis Valley among the Ashaninca people. Inquiring how their extensive botanical-medicinal knowledge was derived he heard from a shaman that “one learns these things by drinking ayahuasca.” Narby thought the shaman was joking, and he had intended to leave that finding out of his report: “For me, in 1985, the ayahuasqueros’ world represented a gray area that was taboo for the research I was conducting.” But an “unexpected setback” caused Narby to move to the neighboring community of Cajonari where he was invited to partake of ayahuasca himself. Like a modern Adam he writes:

Deep hallucinations submerged me. I suddenly found myself surrounded by two gigantic boa constrictors that seemed fifty feet long… I see a spectacular world of brilliant lights, and in the middle of these hazy thoughts, the snakes start talking to me without words. They explain to me that I am just a human being. I feel my mind crack, and in the fissures, I see the bottomless arrogance of my presuppositions. It is profoundly true that I am just a human being, and, most of the time, I have the impression of understanding everything, whereas here I find myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand at all and that, in my arrogance, I did not even suspect existed. I feel like crying in view of the enormity of these revelations. Then it dawns on me that this self pity is a part of my arrogance. I feel so ashamed that I no longer dare feel ashamed. Nevertheless, I have to throw up again… I have never felt so completely humble as I did in that moment.

From here Dr. Narby soars past the methodological limitations of modern anthropology and deciphers “the main enigma:” “the Ashaninca’s extensive botanical knowledge comes from plant induced hallucinations” via a sophisticated interdisciplinary study that includes direct personal experience of ancient shamanic mysteries, extensive comparative structural analysis of cross-cultural symbolism, and molecular biology. The result is the testable hypothesis “that the human mind can communicate in a defocalized consciousness with the global network of DNA based life.”

Deftly written, one hopes this book will cause quite a stir. It has already been reviewed in The New York Times. It is a major step toward western science’s reconsideration of the validity of shamanic states. The book’s neutral tone transcends the reactionary politics that infect entheogens within medical research, while avoiding tiresome theological questions. Here is pure exploratory science. Entheogens as heuristic.

Let us note that direct communication with DNA is not groundbreaking news in the psychedelic literature and it is remarkable that Narby, in his extensive scholarship, missed this. “To my knowledge,” he writes, “the only other mention of a link between hallucinogens and DNA is by Lamb (1985) who suggests in passing: ‘perhaps on some unknown unconscious level the genetic encoder DNA provides a bridge to biological memories of all living things…’.” Narby has completely missed Dr. Timothy Leary’s Info-Psychology wherein the subject is first presented:

When the seventh circuit of the nervous system is activated, the signals from DNA become conscious. This experience is chaotic and confusing to the unprepared person—thousands of genetic memories flash by, the molecular family-picture-album of species consciousness and evolution. This experience provides glimpses and samples of the broad design of the multi-billion year old genetic panorama. …genetic engineers will use as their basic instrument their own brains, open to and conscious of neurogenetic signals. Only the DNA neuron link up can produce the immortality and symbiotic linkage with other species… The key to higher intelligence is direct DNA-RNA neural communication among species.

And although the ayahusaca art of Pablo Amaringo is a frequent guide in Narby’s proof, he misses where Jonathan Ott presents Amaringo’s painting of the double helix of DNA on the cover of Pharmacotheon:

The serpentine phantasmagoria of the visionary realm is dominated by the universal archetype of the Tree of Life… as well as the universal chemical liana of life on this planet—the double helix of DNA. The magical phlegm, azure essence of logos, the magical song or icaro of the yachaj made manifest, flows forth… like the serpents of creation from the woman’s womb; like the spermatozoa, human serpents of fecundity rising.

Narby’s efforts expand and clarify Leary’s assertions and Ott’s poetic insight in such a way that should reach many skeptical readers outside the entheogen community. The example has been set for how entheogenic visions can elucidate other mysteries of creation: the appearance of matter, the incarnation of the soul, the destiny of our planet…

Sewn-and-glued hardcover, 257 pp; 2 page index, 5 page bibliographic index; 23 page bibliography, plus 58 pages of notes. This book is also available in paperback.

[Robert Forte is the editor of Entheogens and the Future of Religion and Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In.]

Originally Published In : The Entheogen Review, 1998
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  1. I read this book 3 years ago and I can say it is one of the most amazing book I encountered in my life….especially if you explore the realms of Ayahuasca here and there…
    Read this one AND Benny Shannon’s THE ANTIPODES OF THE MIND and you will understand A LOT about Ayahuasca, the sacred tea of amazonia.

    Comment by Jocelyn Blais — 7/26/2006 @ 4:29 pm

  2. I read this book a few years back and it was a wonderful read. I have since read “The Cosmic Serpent” again because it reads like a complex mystery where it is impossible to pick up on everything that is happening the first time around. I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in discovery and the possibility of alternate explanation to this life mystery.

    Comment by Chris — 4/9/2008 @ 3:46 pm

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