Decoding the Cosmic Serpent:
An with Jeremy Narby Interview
By David Jay Brown
Anthropologist Jeremy Narby, Ph.D. is the author of The Cosmic Serpent, Intelligence in Nature, and is the coeditor of Shamans Through Time. He received his doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University, and spent several years living with the Ashaninca in the Peruvian Amazon, cataloging indigenous uses of rainforest resources to help combat ecological destruction. Narby sponsored an expedition to the rainforest for biologists and other scientists to examine indigenous knowledge systems, and the utility of (the hallucinogenic jungle brew) ayahuasca in gaining knowledge. Narby has said that the information that shamans access “has a stunning correspondence with molecular biology,” and that one might be able to gain biomolecular information in ayahuasca visions.
Since 1989, Narby has been working as the Amazonian projects director for the Swiss NGO, Nouvelle Planète. Narby’s bookThe Cosmic Serpent is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s a revelation-after-revelation, “aha!”-filled scientific adventure/detective story about why the image of the serpent appears so commonly in shamanic traditions around the world, and why this relates to the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. I interviewed Jeremy on December 18, 2008. Narby is unusually articulate, and he maintains a good balance of open-mindedness and skepticism. He has a quick analytical mind and appears to enjoy debating intellectual ideas. We spoke about the relationship between ecology and ayahuasca use by indigenous peoples in the Amazon, intelligence in nature, and what he has learned from his experience with ayahuasca.
David: What originally inspired your interest in anthropology?
Jeremy: I suppose the real answer is a psychoanalytical one. I grew up in a family with a culturally-mixed background–with Irish, Egyptian, English blood–in the suburbs of Montreal, in a French-speaking neighborhood, but with an English-speaking family. Then, when I was ten, we moved to Switzerland, to another bilingual town. I became a foreigner at that point, and have been since. I grew up as a English-speaking Quebecer in French-speaking Switzerland, right on the frontier with German-speaking Switzerland. By the time I got to be eighteen I could feel a lot of cultural diversity inside me, and I suppose that I was drawn to anthropology, which studies cultural diversity, first and foremost to understand myself and how I stood in the world. In other words–Was I Canadian, Swiss, Irish or Egyptian? So that’s what I think drove me toward studying anthropology.
David: Can you talk a little about what originally drew you to the Amazon as a doctoral student, and about your anthropological work and ecological projects there?
Jeremy: Thank you for asking that, because it allows me to add the political dimension to the psychoanalytical. It’s true that by the time I became a doctoral student in anthropology I was interested in one overarching question, which is–Why are there rich people and poor people in the world? There seems to be enough material wealth to go around for everybody. So that lead me to be interested in what was called “Third World development,” and a professor at anthropology at Stanford pointed out that indigenous peoples were the Achilles’ heel of all the different theories of development–be they capitalist, socialist, or communist.
This was back in the 1980s, when there still was communism. So, in other words, if one really wanted to understand Third World development, and understand the relations between rich and poor countries, it was important to look at a case where development was being carried out in territories of indigenous peoples, because this is where the contradictions would be greatest. So it was for theoretical reasons, and also for a desire to critique Western theories of development. World bank-financed visions of development in those days–in the Seventies and Eighties, in places like the Amazon, for example–consisted of building roads into the rainforests, which they called “jungle” at that point.
They confiscated the territories of the indigenous people that had lived there for a long time, saying that they didn’t know how to use their resources rationally, and then gave the land to individuals with a market mentality, so that they could cut down the trees and do cattle ranching. This was actually deforestation, but they called it “development.” Not only was it not socially appropriate, and grossly violated the rights of the indigenous people who were there, but it was even ecologically and economically inappropriate. Cutting the rainforest down on that scale was simply a recipe for creating sterile savannas. So there was enough there that called for a politically-engaged anthropology, and that’s what took me to the Peruvian Amazon in 1984.
David: What type of relationship do you see between psychedelics and ecology, and do you see psychedelics playing a role to help increase ecological awareness?
Jeremy: In the spirit of dialogue, I would quibble with the question a little bit, because I think that in as much as psychedelics have a relation with ecology, its via people. So people are lacking in the question. Then, I think that psychedelics have different effects on different people. So the short answer to your question is that it depends, and if you could make your question more precise, I could advance with it. I don’t just think that psychedelics–as a group of substances–are any sort of instant ecology-awareness pills.
David: Perhaps you could talk a little about the relationship between ayahuasca use in the Amazon and how this effects the ecological relationships there?
Jeremy: Okay, that’s getting a bit more precise. But, once again, I think that by asking the question that way it does omit who is taking the ayahuasca, what ayahuasca it is, and where they are taking it. I think that the ayahuasca experience is also a function of who’s doing it, where they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it–beyond set and setting, which is just obvious. So, in other words, who are we talking about? For example, the indigenous people of the Amazon and what we know about them historically? Or how ayahuasca has impacted on their eco-cosmologies? That could be a subject of a whole book, but it’s certainly a precise question. You want me to talk about that precise question?
David: Yes, and maybe you could also talk a bit about the worldwide ecology movement, and whether you think that’s in any way related to people who have used psychedelics? A lot of people think that psychedelic experiences have been an important part of the inspiration for the ecology movement.
Jeremy: Yes, it’s true that one runs into quite a few people in the broad ecology movement who say that their engagement has been souped up by ayahuasca, and I guess I would include myself in that bunch.
David: So maybe you could also address a little bit about the use of ayahuasca by indigenous people in the Amazon, and how that effected their relationship with their environment?
Jeremy: I think the way that they look at it is like this. There is a level of reality that is parallel to our own, but that we don’t see with our, let’s say, “normal eyes,” but in certain states of mind you can see it. Ayahuasca is known by the people who use it to make the invisible visible, and first and foremost you take ayahuasca to see, and to see what you normally don’t see. So, in their view, one could say that ayahuasca is an important tool for knowing the world, as microscopes have been for biologists. It’s an absolutely central tool in approaching an otherwise invisible level of nature.
So, in their view, ayahuasca–but also other plant teachers like tobacco–have enabled them to have an ongoing conversation with the powers in nature, entities or essences corresponding to the different species. For them, ayahuasca is the telephone, but the person on the other end is the whole assembly of nature. So what’s important is not the telephone; it’s the conversation that you have with the other species. It would seem that these indigenous societies have been dialoguing–at least in the visions of their shamans–with the essences of plants, animals, and ecosystems for millennia. And they view of nature not as an object—but as a subject, or a series of subjects, with whom you negotiate if you want game and health.
So yes, ayahuasca is central to the eco-cosmology of many indigenous Amazonian peoples. It is that which enables communication, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be worshipped. Once again, the importance of the conversation, in their view, is because nature really is a bunch of subjectivities, and it really is important to communicate with them, because we’re on the same planet as them. So, how the human community negotiates its relation with other species is precisely what shamans negotiate traditionally in their visions attained using these plants. That’s why these plants are central to their eco-cosmology.
But I guess the reason why I object to the general nature of the question about psychedelics and ecology is that it’s like the question about psychedelics and creativity. If only it sufficed to take psychedelics and everybody could play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix–but it doesn’t happen that way. Some people have taken psychedelics and have done terrible things. Likewise, there are a lot of people in the ayahuasca movement, and they may talk about this and that, but some of them lead pretty un-ecological lifestyles, it seems to me. Unfortunately, there are Westerners that are demonstrating that it’s possible to turn ayahuasca into a kind of a drug, really. So if only everyone who was guzzling ayahuasca became an ecological activist, at least it would be easy to answer the question.
David: I was just wondering whether you’ve seen a pattern of any kind. It seems to me like psychedelics, in general, are basically boundary-dissolving, nonspecific brain amplifiers.
Jeremy: Exactly. So if somebody’s got an ecological sensitivity, then it will amplify it. But if they’re power-hungry, then it will amplify that too. So depicting ayahuasca as this magical thing that draws people to understand nature better, and then to become healing-oriented, would actually be misleading. It’s way more complicated than that. One of the loops that’s missing is that it depends entirely on the individuals, and there’s a lot of variation in the individuals out there.
Another thing that I would like to say about this is that the more I’ve been able to get into the ayahuasca realm with indigenous Amazonian shamans guiding me, the deeper my respect for their knowledge has gotten. So, obviously, the more you really respect people, and actually look up to them, the more it enhances, well, at least my desire to be useful to them. In other words, it galvanizes me as an activist.
David: Is what you’re describing, what you think is the most important thing that Western civilization can learn from indigenous shamanism?
Jeremy: Well, that’s speculative. I’m enjoying arguing with your questions; that’s what I think questions are for. I don’t know what Western society can learn. I mean, for the moment, it’s had a hooligan, vampire-like behavior, and it’s sucked out what it wanted to suck out–mainly for material benefit–and just spat out the rest. Look at what it did to the Inca temples. It just melted them into gold. And look at how it’s treated shamanism for the last five centuries. It said it was the devil’s work, or balderdash, and then went on to label shamans as psychotics. We’ve taken the shamanic plants like tobacco, and look at what we do with them, we turn them into “drugs” that cause harm to health and create addiction. Look at what we’ve done to coca: turned it into a nasty drug.
So there’s been this sort of, I don’t know, ghoulish mercantile touch to what Western cultures have done to indigenous cultures. Yes, it’s about time it changed, but let’s see some action. I don’t want to sit here speculating on the sidelines as to what we could learn. I want to incarnate learning. I want to see more people learning, and I don’t want to be there saying, oh, if only we could do this, then maybe we could all change, and so forth. Enough already of this telling Western people what they could benefit even more from! Let’s start thinking about reciprocity. Let’s become lucid about the last five hundred years of history, and what we’ve imposed. Let’s break with it, denounce our own behavior, and show something different.
David: What are some of the primary things that you think people should be focusing on to help restore ecological balance on our planet?
Jeremy: I’m not any kind of expert on how to re-equilibrate Western lifestyles; there’s a whole bunch of people who talk about that. But I think that the more that we can move away from using hydrocarbons, and the smaller our personal imprints can be, the better. The less light bulbs and everything else that we use, the better. But, nevertheless, here we are having a conversation over a telephone, using tape recorders. The very existence of this conversation in text is the fruit of the electric world. Because our world seems irremediably electric, there aren’t any easy solutions.
But I think that the more of us that can sit with, let’s say, both forms of knowledge, the better. In other words, technological knowledge, and let’s call the other shamanic knowledge, for telegraphic sake. We’re not going to be throwing out the baby with the bath water. We’re not going to get rid of science and technology. On the contrary, it’s too good to throw out. But, obviously, it needs complementing. It needs critiquing and controlling, let’s say.
I think that, for example, one thing that’s also really clear for me–but it’s also a matter of opinion–is the view that nature is just an object, or a bunch of commodities that we can just exploit it as we wish, has led us to the ecological situation that we’re in. I think that it’s been a powerful way of coming to dominate nature, treating all those different beings as if they were objects. One can hold that gaze for 2,300 years, and that’s what we’ve just done, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right. You can treat beings like objects, because, actually, beings are objects–but they’re more than just objects, and treating them like just objects is nixing a whole important part of their existence.
So I think that getting away from the objective view of nature, and moving toward a deeper understanding of the other beings with whom we share the planet, would probably be a good move. And that would precisely be a combination of knowledges, using science and shamanism. I mean, in as much as you accept that shamans have some kind of dialogue in their visions with entities that represent other species on this planet, one could consider including them on bioethics committees.
David: Why do you think that nature is intelligent, and do you see any teleology in the evolutionary process?
Jeremy: That’s two questions.
David: You don’t think there’s a link between the two? This is in contrast to the blind-chance view of evolution as a random process, which most evolutionary biologists adhere to.
Jeremy: One question at a time. Why do I feel that nature is intelligent? Well, by asking the question, it implies that you may feel that nature is not intelligent, right? I’ve written a whole book about this particular subject. [Intelligence in Nature, Tarcher, 2006.] You’ve got to examine or unpack the concept of intelligence. It turns out that most of the definitions of intelligence have been given in exclusively human terms, and so–by definition–you can’t apply the terms to other species. So “intelligence in nature” is actually a contradiction in terms, if you’re strict with words, because nature is defined in opposition to the human, and intelligence is defined as exclusively human.
But that just shows that we have concepts that separate us from nature, and it’s not so much nature that lacks intelligence, but our own concepts. So you say, okay, there are so many different definitions, because Western cultures have been obsessed with putting a line between human beings and other species, and one of the properties that was supposed to separate us from other species was intelligence. It was supposed to be one of the exclusively human traits, along with tool-making, abstraction, and so forth. And so, as such, it was supposed to be one of the human treasures. It became this very political thing, and that’s why there are so many definitions–because people fought for decades over how to define this human treasure called “intelligence.”
So here we are. But now, through recent biology, we are beginning to realize just how stunningly similar we are–at least on a physical-chemical level, down to the gene sequences, down to how the brains are constructed–to all these other species, and that it’s really true that we have a kinship with bacteria, amoebas, and so forth. When you look into a blade of glass–which is what we’ve been able to do for the last ten to twenty years–we see that, as it goes about its business being a blade of grass–it integrates information from the outside world. It transduces this external information into electrochemical information, and there are signaled conversations between the cells, as the plant integrates the information, makes decisions, and then enacts them.
Then, if you intercept these molecular signals that go between vegetal cells in the blade of glass, you see that many of them are identical to the molecular signals used by our own neurons. So a plant may not have a brain, but it acts like one. If you look at the etymology of the word “intelligence” you find that it comes from “inter” and “legere,” which means to “choose between,” and this implies the capacity to make decisions. Well, it turns out that if you look at how biologists describe how individual cells behave, they are forever integrating information, making decisions, communicating, and acting according to the information received.
So if you use a simple definition of intelligence, you can find intelligence all the way down to the behavior of individual proteins, and this is what scientists have been discovering in their labs over the last ten or twenty years. We’re even talking about single-celled organisms, like slime molds and amoebas, but also simple invertebrates like bees. Bees are capable of abstraction. They have small brains of about one million neurons, but it’s been demonstrated that they can handle abstract concepts. I mean, it just goes on and on. The list of characteristics that are supposed to be exclusive to humans have more or less melted like snow in the sun. So, meanwhile, we know that we’ve evolved and are part of nature. So how could nature just be a bunch of stupid objects, or machines, if we ourselves are intelligent? On the contrary, it would seem that the whole edifice of biological life here in the biosphere is infused with intelligence–and we’re part of it.
So, now, do you want me to move on to teleology from there?
David: Yes, I’m curious how you view the evolutionary process from this perspective.
Jeremy: See, you may have noted that in this whole discourse I’m trying to stick to the facts that have been established. So what’s going on inside of a blade of grass is what researchers have discovered and published in peer-reviewed journals over the last ten to fifteen years. The fact that we have many genetic sequences that are identical to those found in the bacterium or the banana has been known for ten years.
So there’s no teleology in my discourse about intelligence in nature; I’m just sticking to what science is generating, as far as data. You can put a single-celled slime mold in a maze and it can solve it. That’s a fact. We don’t know how it does that. It doesn’t have a brain; it only has one cell. But we can see through its behavior that it can figure out a maze. Now let’s say that we are detecting intelligence in nature, depending on how we define the world “intelligence,” but we’re detecting more than a mechanical thermostat-like behavior, we are detecting plasticity and foresight. Well, okay, so does that mean there’s a goal in nature? Well that’s another question. That’s why I want to separate these two questions.
David: I see.
Jeremy: Doing teleology is doing theology. I think there are parts of the neo-Darwinian approach that are actually quite theological. Some people, without realizing it, go on to theological terrain.
David: I don’t think that teleology implies theology.
Jeremy: Well, teleology implies a goal–and so as soon as you start talking about a goal, I think that you are a crossing a line and are stepping onto theological territory. That’s why I don’t go there. I’m an agnostic, and I am interested in dealing what can be known. So, for example, take the question of the origin of life. There are at least a hundred thousand scenarios possible, none of them testable. Any certitude about how life started is a belief. You can talk about Stanley Miller and his test tubes, or any of the different RNA worlds, or whatever. All of that, for the moment, is of the order of belief. It’s not of the order of demonstrable knowledge. But they are a lot of people in the scientific world who don’t seem to be aware of this. This is actually an epistemological question.
If somebody says “I believe that life began on Earth by chance, in a spark collision, in a wet pool 3.5 billion years ago,” that’s fine, but that’s a belief. You’re welcome to believe it, like you’re also welcome to believe that a guy with a grey beard did it. But as an agnostic I know that I don’t know, so I don’t even go there. There’s a lot of other business at hand in the, let’s say, verifiable world.
David: Can you talk a little about biophoton emissions from the DNA molecule and how you think this might relate to our experience of consciousness?
Jeremy: I’ve written about that, and I don’t really have too much to add to what I’ve already written. It’s not like I’m a biophoton specialist. I follow, as I can, the research on the subject, but it moves slowly and remains marginal, unfortunately. I would like to know a lot more about biophotons in our brains, and just what relationship they might have with the consciousness we actually perceive.
David: What are some of the most important lessons that you’ve personally learned from your ayahuasca experiences?
Jeremy: Well, heck, the whole thing! I guess the first thing was that when I was a twenty-five year old whippersnapper from the suburbs, who had studied chemistry in high school, and thought I knew what reality was, the ayahuasca experience opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole level of reality that one didn’t normally see, that there was something that seemed associated with plants, animals, and the forest world–that had a mind-boggling, well intelligence about it. It taught me things, and showed me how stupid I was. It showed me how anthropocentric I was. In French, one says to “deniaisé,” which means that it made me less stupid–fast.
It also made me see that there was something there that the materialist-rationalist perspective, which thinks it’s so smart, actually didn’t get and couldn’t get. That kind of defined it, and that made me listen to the indigenous people even more. I just knew there was something there that flew in the face of our categories, and that needed more investigating. And by investigating ayahuasca one was clearly investigating the indigenous approach to knowledge–but also plants and animals themselves, or nature. In other words, thinking about what it is to be a human being, and what it is to be a human being in the rainforest is to be immersed in this breathing, hooting, scratching environment that’s clearly alive. I mean, if you think nature is stupid, all you got do is go into the rainforest at night and listen. It sounds like a bunch of loud electronic musicians.
David: What do you think happens to consciousness after death?
Jeremy: In brief, I don’t know, but I hope to see you at the bar.
David: What are you currently working on?
Jeremy: I’m continuing to study the world and it’s not getting any less crazy.