Darwin’s Pharmacy by Richard M. Doyle
Published in 2011 by the University of Washington Press, ‘Darwin’s Pharmacy’ is written by Professor of English, science, technology and society, at Pennsylvania State University, Richard M. Doyle. It is an analysis of the bond between psychotropic literature and human evolution. It attempts to link how plants, animals and the environment are all interconnected by the concept of discourse, via the psychedelic experience, and how that might relate to human evolution. Doyle is also the author of ‘On Beyond Living’ and ‘Wetwares’.
Darwin’s Pharmacy is primarily a literary analysis of psychedelic literature, with the aim of furthering the case of a Terence McKenna inspired idea about the way natural psychedelic drugs may have influenced language, and subsequently affected human evolution – the ‘Stoned Ape theory ’. Evolution is represented by Charles Darwin’s theory of gradual change via sexual selection. Numerous sources are used but, unsurprisingly, the three main authors represented within its pages are; Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna. The book does claim to be a scientifically inspired work, mostly with the chemist Alex Shulgin and evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin as references in this department. However, any claim of an objective representation of science quickly evaporates after reading, most notably, the introduction and the first chapter.
In the introduction we are first presented with the notion that we have ecodelic (naturally occurring psychedelic chemicals) takers on one hand and the straw man of the militarised industrial complex on the other – a kind of ‘us versus them’ cliché that is the well trodden path of New Age sympathisers. So with this dichotomy in place one would expect at least the notion of scientific objectivity to be adhered to, as we all know how the military/industrial complex skew scientific observations and results to further their own progress within the technology and medical sector. However, the author is having not a bit of it. Doyle presents us with the conjecture of both the ‘Gaia hypothesis’ of James Lovelock, and the notion of endogenous DMT production within the mammalian body, not only as significant, but as scientific truth. With the latter, he completely ignores Rick Strassman, who has been at pains to point out that DMT production within the pineal gland is not only unproven, but crucially, even if this first point is given, of any necessary significance to biological anthropology at all. Alexander Shulgin, in TiHKAL (a much quoted source in Darwin’s Pharmacy), states that the ‘jury is still out’ when considering the endogenous production of DMT within the mammalian body as serving any psychoactive purpose. Finally, on the DMT issue, as any ayahuasca user will know, without the presence of monamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) the psychoactive abilities of DMT, if ingested, are nullified by the body’s metabolism. If one is to use DMT without the precursor of MAOIs, then the only route is to administer it parenterally, as Shulgin also points out in TiHKAL (1991 Chapter 6) .
A second mistake is present in chapter one when Doyle claims that flowering plants (angiosperms) are the only form of photosynthetic organism that contains ecodelic compounds. But also included in TiHKAL and other sources, are references to certain species of lichen, or Rock Blooms, which have been documented to contain hallucinogenic compounds, and so too certain species of gymnosperms, for example, in the Ephedra genus.
What this means is that any notion of objectivity is quickly dispelled and all we are left with are, for the foundations of this book, the bare bones of simple reinterpretation by the author. This is not to say that such reinterpretation is off-limits, but one must be sure that the reader is not being misled by what is being left out from the text, any more so than they are being influenced by what is being put in.
The book begins with what is essentially a study of Huxley’s Doors of Perception (1954). Doyle’s prose is leaden with full paragraph quotes from the book, which can cause a disjointed effect on the rhythm of the chapter, skipping back and forth from one book to the other, at times I felt as if it would be more worth my while just to read Huxley’s work instead. This style is repeated throughout the book and can make it difficult to ‘find one’s grasp’ of the analysis. Yet good points are found as Doyle comments on how Huxley’s flower can be seen as the “unconscious symbol of nature’s ‘consciousness’”. This is also linked to that avian flower, the Peacock. Such symbols of beauty are said to represent the ineffable core of a psychedelic experience, which is a worthwhile observation. But a lack of development does not allow for such things as electricity or fire that are equally hard to describe, even without the filter of ecodelics being present.
Doyle’s central hypothesis is stated, in chapter 2, as such: “ecodelics enter human evolution via their role as adjuncts to eloquence”. He qualifies this statement thusly: “….they take language to its limits and encourage its innovation”. This is obviously taken from McKenna’s ‘Stoned Ape theory’, but Doyle uses a plethora of other sources to back up the hypothesis—all quoted in paragraphs that incessantly break up Doyle’s prose and therefore detract from the style of the work, yet one can only admire Doyle’s zest in presenting his case. He goes on to suggest that the Bardic tradition of shamanism is of great importance to human history, and present times, as words are still the best way of influencing large numbers of people. This can be seen in everything from Shakespeare to television advertising and through to ecodelic-induced shamanism. It is also here that Vladamir Vernadsky’s concept of a ‘Noosphere’ is introduced to help the Bardic principle affect human evolution. I do feel that within this section Doyle has missed a trick by not introducing epigenetics to help further his case. Epigenetics is most pertinent as a vector if we try to consider how we get from language to sexual selection within large populations of humans, and not just small, self-contained groups of ‘stoned apes’. Doyle’s suggestion that gifted orators are akin to the Peacock’s tail in showing biological fitness to female suitors seems incomplete. He never seems to make the final leap from this to Darwin’s idea of gradual change through sexual selection, via the stimulus of culture – an idea which is achieved if one considers epigenetics as a possible cause.
Another interesting idea put forward is that of montage. The montage, used by writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, can be seen to represent how a psychedelic trip can jumble up predefined neural pathways to allow for new connections of thought to occur, and it is also well thought out. But, alas, a lack of critical analysis upon this idea leaves gaps in Doyle’s thought processes, as he seems to think that any randomisation of thought will lead to useful insight. In reality, however, it could lead to one of three things; banality, babble or deep insight. A notable Terence McKenna quote, left out of Doyle’s book, can also be used to reflect on the bigger picture of psychedelic experience. The three brain seizures that McKenna experienced in rapid succession one evening close to his death were described by him as “the most psychedelic experiences I ever had”. This tautology from McKenna is evidence lacking from Doyle’s book, that even without the muse of ecodelics, the human brain is quite capable of experiences one could describe as deeply psychedelic. Merely by a disturbance within the temporoparietal area of the limbic system, certain atypical experiences can be embarked upon. Fluctuations in blood flow to the limbic system (1) and/or to the ratios of the different neurotransmitters located at neural synapses can produce abnormal feelings and events to occur to one’s subjective experience of reality. Such events can be the result of pathology within the brain due to illness or disease, as well as be attributed to psychotropic-induced states.
Such thoughts highlight the central problem with this book and with psychotropic experiences as a whole: Are subjective experiences brought about by ‘ecodelics’ real in any objective sense, or are they merely hallucinations born out of atypical brain chemistry and conditions? Doyle’s answer is clear as he suggests that such experiences are subjectively ‘objective’, and help ‘Gaia’ or ecodelics interact with humans as creatures that have lost touch with nature. A moment’s pause and refection on this idea could bring forth a simple idea to help here. If one does not subscribe to a monotheistic shibboleth of humankind being set apart from nature due to some kind of divine interjection, then where else would one see humans existing, if it is not within nature? One does not need Leary, McKenna, Darwin, and the teachings of Buddha or the Tao Te Ch’ing to tell us that everything is interconnected to everything else. We all inhabit one planet and it is round. How could it possibly be any other way? There are no real fences in the natural world, only a succession of slowly evolving variables within each snapshot of time and place. Each succession will contain a little from what went before and a little from what proceeds, yet still uniquely exist in its own ‘place’. All the resonance of a psychedelic trip could be said to be telling us is what we already know. The only difference between humans is whether one wishes to pay attention to this caveat or not.
In conclusion, Doyle’s book did generate a lot of heat. Most of this energy was in the form of me frantically flicking through my thesaurus as I attempted to decipher his garrulous rhetoric. Somewhere within this book is an excellent pamphlet desperately trying to get out and make itself clearly understood. However, it could be that I am the one missing the point and Poe’s Law is being invoked on purpose, so that the text reflects the confusing and obscure experience of ecodelic experiences. Maybe the vacuity of the verbose syntax is exactly what is meant by Doyle? Either that or Darwin’s Pharmacy is literally the Emperor’s New Clothes when compared to Terence McKenna’s Food of the Gods.
1) Nelson, Kevin. The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain. (2011). Dutton Publishers.