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Full Review
The Cosmic Serpent: DNA & the Origins of Knowledge
by Jeremy Narby
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Rendi Case, 3/13/2007

The Cosmic Serpent is doubly themed. One theme is that of the symbol of the creator serpent (or twin serpents) as the source of knowledge and of all life itself. The other theme is that of DNA which in our modern western world-view is the source of all life and all organic information. These two threads are wound about in a spiraling narrative like the double helix of the DNA molecule or the twin serpents found in the timeless myths of cultures the world over.

The myths involving the serpent or twin serpents as the source of life and knowledge emerge from the ancient past with their tails hidden in the mists of prehistory. At the head of modern knowledge we have molecular biology and genetics; the study of that most serpentine of molecules – DNA. Like the Ouroboros, the cosmic snake of time and eternity that encircles the world swallowing its tail in a symbol of both unity and infinity, this book is an attempt to merge this cutting edge of scientific knowledge with the ancient source of wisdom steeped deeply in the shadows of our past.

The author, Jeremy Narby, holds a PhD in anthropology from Stanford University. In 1985 he began his fieldwork of two years in the Peruvian Amazon to earn his doctorate in anthropology. He wanted to show the Western world that the indigenous people of the Amazon basin knew best how to use their own land because international “development” agencies typically assert that indigenous people do not know how to use their own land “rationally” and use this rationalization to justify the “confiscation” (theft) of these people’s lands to use and exploit for their own greed and in the process destroy crucial ecosystems forever. Narby’s agenda was to establish protection of the territories of these Amazonian people by demonstrating that only they know how to best use their own land because they had intimate, sophisticated and pragmatic knowledge of their land. To appeal to Western civilization for support of his efforts, Narby had to emphasize the practical nature of these people’s knowledge of their land.

However, it was inevitable that in the course of his study with these people Narby would come up against the enigma of ayahuasca, the plant-based entheogenic brew par excellence of the Western Amazon rain forest. Commonly, the various ayahuasca using people of the Amazon tell us that they gain their knowledge of the many properties and uses of their local plants by consulting ayahuasca. In the visionary state induced by this brew, they are told many practical things; which plants to combine and use as a tranquilizer in which to dip their hunting darts, which plants to use to cure a given disease and how to use them, what plant to use to treat poisonous snake bites and so on. Narby felt that he had to avoid mentioning the fundamentally irrational origins of these people’s pragmatic knowledge because it would undermine his basic assertion that these people were perfectly rational and practical people.

As Narby points out, these people are very practical. But from our modern materialist perspectives, the source of their pharmacological knowledge is not at all rational because this knowledge is derived from what we would call hallucinations.

The modern Western view would deny that hallucinations could provide reliable and practical information, but if the knowledge these people gain from ayahuasca is merely delusional then how is it that this knowledge is so practical? Why does it work? If pharmaceutical companies make millions from the pharmacological knowledge gained from these people can we really dismiss their botanical knowledge as irrational or superstitious? Yet lawmakers in Europe and the United States assure us that ayahuasca is a dangerous drug with no medical or spiritual value.

While conducting his fieldwork, Narby stayed with the Ashaninca and Quirishari people of the Peruvian Amazon. When he questioned them about how they learned all they knew about their local plants they would tell him that they learned what they knew from ayahuasca. Of course, Narby could not believe that a hallucinogen could impart real knowledge.

In the book Narby says, “After about a year in Quirishari, I had come to see that my hosts’ practical sense was much more reliable in their environment than my academically informed understanding of reality. Their empirical knowledge was undeniable. However, their explanations concerning the origins of their knowledge was unbelievable to me.”

One day while inquiring about these matters he was told that if he wanted to know the true answers to his questions he would simply have to take ayahuasca with them and see for himself. Narby accepted this offer and had a life changing experience. After drinking ayahuasca, Narby had a profound life changing experience. His view on himself and reality shifted from an intellectually superior know-it-all to a mere human being that has no real understanding of reality at all. In his experience, these thoughts were telepathically imparted to him by two giant snakes. There was more to his ayahuasca experience, but these are the elements that had the important impact on him.

In 1986 Narby returned to civilization to write his dissertation and two years later he became a doctor of anthropology. Following this he traveled around the Amazon working with indigenous organizations to earn them official governmental recognition of their territories. To these ends he also did fund-raising work in Europe. To appeal to benefactors Narby emphasized the practical knowledge of these Amazonian people, deliberately omitting the enigma of ayahuasca.

After some years of this kind of work, Narby set back to reflect upon and write about the mystery of ayahuasca. Much of this book is the story of how we came to write the book; a sort of boot-strapping process. Months of research and note-taking led Narby to many different topics including shamanism, ethnopharmacology, serpent myths, DNA, quantum physics and more.

As anyone who studies mythology, mysticism and occult traditions knows, the symbol of the serpent of the twin serpents as the creator of life is astoundingly ever-present as is what has been called the axis mundi or axis of the world. This latter concept has been symbolized as the world tree, the pillar of the worlds, the ladder connecting the earth to the upper and lower realms and so on. Often we see this central axis of the macrocosm mirrored in the central axis of the microcosm of the self in the form of the twin serpents. Consider the kundalini snakes that spiral up the spine in eastern mysticism or the spiraling snakes of the ancient Greek caduceus that is still used as the symbol of the medical profession. These symbols are found in ancient Egypt, in Sumerian and Babylonian frescos, among Siberian shamans who have never seen real snakes in their lives; consider Quetzalcoatl, the serpent-god of the Aztecs, the rainbow serpent and creator god of Australian aborigines, the Midgard serpent of Nordic myths wound about the world tree, the serpent and the Tree of Knowledge in the Judeo-Christian mythology and so on.

Through chance, synchronicity or some other cause Narby encountered many uncanny connections between this symbol complex and DNA without really knowing what it all meant. Here is the main thrust of Narby’s book, fueled by his own powerful experience with the two serpents he encountered in his ayahuasca experience years earlier.

Narby developed the hypothesis that somehow, through what Eliade called “archaic techniques of ecstasy” shamans receive information from DNA in the form of visions. Indeed, it is almost a universal truism that shamans gain their unique view on things by traveling up and down the axis mundi of the macrocosm or the microcosmic axis of the self.

Through his studies, Narby became engrossed in the molecular biology of DNA and he gives us many correlations between DNA and the shamanic world view. Close minded readers may find these to be mere circumstantial coincidences and gullible readers may find these to be proof that Narby’s hypothesis is correct. These correlations are truly astounding but far from conclusive. Narby does not pretend to have final answers but he definitely forces the reader to take these questions seriously as correlation after correlation pile up. These correlations or coincidences seemingly never end but Narby actually misses a few; that the ancient Chinese system of divination known as the I Ching there are 64 different symbols to cover the totality of possible phenomena in the universe and that there are 64 different codons or strands in DNA, or that DNA is made from 22 different amino acids and that in the ancient Greco-Egyptian system of the Tarot there are 22 cards in the major arcane sequence to cover the totality of possible phenomena in the universe but I digress or that the final card in this series uses the serpent as a symbol of the macrocosm of the world and eternity.

As many a student of the occult, mysticism and mythology has found, once you start unraveling these uncanny correlations and connections, it just gets deeper and deeper and that the more one looks for answers, the more questions arise without answers. There seems to be no end to this sort of inquiry. Indeed, as exhaustive as Narby seems to be in the exploration of his hypothesis, his book really only scratches the surface of the seemingly endless mystery we encounter in the shamanic realms.

The following passages sum up Narby’s hypothesis and position:

I began my investigation with the enigma of “plant communication.” I went on to accept the idea that hallucinations could be the source of verifiable information. And I ended up with a hypothesis suggesting that a human mind can communicate in defocalized consciousness with the global network of DNA-based life. All this contradicts principles of Western knowledge.

Nevertheless, my hypothesis is testable. A test would consist of seeing whether institutionally respected biologists could find biomolecular information in the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros… My hypothesis suggests that what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all life forms. Modern biology, however, is founded on the notion that nature is not animated by an intelligence and therefore cannot communicate. (page 132)

To sum up: My hypothesis is based on the idea that DNA in particular and nature in general are minded. (page 145)

Along the way, we are given a dizzying dose of the mysterious nature of molecular biology. It is easy for the non-biologist to assume that this science is all tedious details of well-understood mechanisms but as Narby shows us, this science is just now tapping into the truly miraculous, bizarre and still fundamentally puzzling inner workings of the core of life.

It can not go unmentioned here that René Descartes became the “founder of modern philosophy” and the “father of modern mathematics” (as he is generally considered) after being inspired by a dream revelation in which an angel came to him and told him that “the conquest of nature is to be achieved through measure and number” and that this angelic revelation is the basis for the modern scientific method. Also, we should note that Kekulé discovered the benzene ring after dreaming about the Ouroboric serpent in the shape of a circle, swallowing its own tail. The idea that dreams could be a verifiable source of important scientific knowledge seems contradictory to science itself, yet many scientists have gained important knowledge this way. Here’s an even more startling example that brings us closer to the dual theme of Narby’s book; towards the end of his life, Francis Crick, the nobel-prize winning father of modern genetics confided a secret he kept for almost 50 years – that he hit upon the double helix structure of DNA while on LSD (see reference below). With this example of scientific knowledge derived from a hallucinogen, we see the snake swallowing its tail.

The Cosmic Serpent is similar to Terence McKenna’s True Hallucinations to the extent that both books give us accounts of Amazon excursions and experiences with plant hallucinogens imparting visions and ideas fecund with profound hypotheses involving the molecular biology of DNA. The Cosmic Serpent is similar to The Invisible Landscape by Terence and Dennis McKenna in that both of these books extrapolate upon such hypotheses in dizzying detail.

It should be noted that The Cosmic Serpent contains little in the way of descriptions of the ayahuasca experience. Readers looking for good trip stories would do better to look elsewhere.

This book is by no means light reading. Though not nearly as dense with complex details and wild extrapolations as the McKenna brother’s The Invisible Landscape, The Cosmic Serpent may contain far too detailed a discussion of molecular biology for many readers, though one certainly does not need a background in biology to understand Narby’s book, only an appreciation for the fascinating mysteries this science is just scratching the surface of.

Also, this book contains many long footnotes that some readers may find distracting or tedious while others may appreciate these details. Personally I found these details interesting but distracting. Many pages had multiple footnotes and sometimes the footnotes for a given page were longer than the page itself.

Overall, however, it is my opinion that this is a fascinating book. It brings up correlations or coincidences, raises questions and suggests ramifications that are too profound and challenging to go unexamined. The intelligent, discerning, but open-minded reader with a passion for the deepest mysteries of life and with an interest in both shamanism and science would be likely to find this book to be both important and amazing.

It is perhaps fitting to close this review with a quote from the book, “All things considered, wisdom requires not only the investigation of many things, but contemplation of the mystery.”

Rees A. “Nobel Prize genius Crick was high on LSD when he discovered the secret of life” August 8, 2004 Associated Newspapers Ltd. (London)

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