Entheogens and the Development of Culture by John A. Rush [Ed.]

Entheogens and the Development of CultureOriginally published in 2013 ‘Entheogens and the Development of Culture: The Anthropology and Neurobiology of Ecstatic Experience’ is a collection of essays edited by John A. Rush. Rush has previously authored the books ‘The Mushroom in Christian Art: The Identity of Jesus in the Development of Christianity’, ‘Failed God: Fractured Myth in a Fragile World’ and ‘The Twelve Gates: A Spiritual Passage through the Egyptian Books of the Dead’. This work has been published by North Atlantic Books.

As a collection, Entheogens and the Development of Culture: The Anthropology and Neurobiology of Ecstatic Experience proposes that psychoactive substances have been key components in the development of both human culture and the human brain. The fourteen essays that are included in the collection are written by a number of researchers from across various disciplines, including anthropology, mycology, classics, cultural historians, psychology and biology. While, academically and perspectively, the writers often appear to be coming from altogether totally different theoretical places, with a myriad of intentions laced within them, they do share the common goal of examining the role of psychoactive substances in the history of human culture. And, as such, provides an interesting argument when taken in its totality.

The question regarding the entheogenic effect on the development of the human brain, while bolstered to some degree by the cultural chapters, is largely formulated in Michael Winkelman’s essay Altered Consciousness and Drugs in Human Evolution. Holding the position that our brains have evolved alongside, and as a result of certain plants and altered states, by way of the serotonergic and dopaminergic systems that can be stimulated by exogenous neurotransmitters—such as those found in Psilocybe mushrooms. Winkleman writes:

“The role of drugs in the evolution of human consciousness must be understood in relationship to effects on the serotonergic system and its roles in overall brain functioning. The alterations of consciousness enhance paleomammilian brain functions and their coordination and integration with the entire brain. Enhanced serotonergic mechanisms contributed to experiences of altered consciousness in humans, embodied in visionary experiences” (Rush 45)

So, the theory goes, the evolution of human consciousness has been, in part, mediated by the exogenous neurotransmitters that humans have sought out and consumed, thereby taking a hand in their own evolution. Taking the theory at face value, for the moment, this leads Winkleman to postulate that, “this expanded associational area improved the brain’s capacity to interface with a variety of other neural mechanisms, including those involved in learning, problem-solving, and memory function” (ibid.). Here, therefore, is the window into culture. From these improved brain functions, art, society and, indeed, organization generally, could develop. However, as we shall see, the remainder of the essays are less about the role of entheogens generating the capability for culture-creation in humans, but more about the role of entheogens within culture itself. Indeed, if entheogens created the capacity for culture, culture itself embarked on a process of reintegrating entheogens from the newly evolved perspective.

Entheogen discourse is primarily driven by historical analysis, and particularly the religious use of mushrooms within human culture, and while this is also very true of this collection, a number of other substances are discussed, which are worth mentioning first. Chris Bennett and Neil McQueen, both having written extensively on drugs and the bible, offer a chapter entitled Cannabis and the Hebrew Bible, which makes use of Sula Benet’s identification of kaneh bosm—an anointing oil used as an initiatory rite—with cannabis. Alan Piper, writing The Milk of the Goat Heidrun: An Investigation into the Sacramental Use of Psychoactive Milk and Meat,  examines ethnographic, scriptural, and mythographic records for evidence of human’s observing plant effects in animals, and their subsequent use of un-metabolized chemicals through the consumption of the animals and their products. However, while these connections serve to embed the narrative of a sacramental connection between human culture and psychoactive substances, it is to the specific case of mushrooms that the majority of the book turns.

The interpretation of mythological text takes an important role in two essays: Kevin Feeney’s The Significance of Pharmacological and Biological Indicators in Identifying Historical Uses of Amanita muscaria, and Edzard Klapp’s Ravens’ Bread and Other Manifestations of Fly Agaric in Classical and Biblical Literature. Both follow in the footsteps of the Godfather of entheogens R. Gordon Wasson, so far as centralizing the role of the Amanita muscaria mushroom, and understanding its textual place as being embedded through metaphor and stylized textual ritual. This is a particularly difficult task as it does involve certain suppositions, such as a standard efficacy of the mushroom, and it does take a leap of faith on the readers behalf—especially in regard to the Celtic and Germanic myths. Although, it does make for fascinating reading, and it’s an area I look forward to reading more of in the future. Wasson’s work as a scholar is held in high regard in the book. Feeney writes:

“Wasson’s 1968 opus [Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality] remains unparalleled in terms of breadth and sophistication. One of the fundamental contributions of Wasson’s work was the proposition that soma was an entheogen, a point driven home through detailed comparisons of the known effects of entheogenic substances and descriptions of soma inebriation in the Rig Veda” (Rush 280).

However, this attitude toward Wasson is not consistent throughout the collection and, in the final weightily titled essay R. Gordon Wasson: The Man, the Legend, the Myth – Beginning a New History of Magic Mushrooms, Ethnomycology, and the Psychedelic Revolution, by Jan Irvin, there is something of a character assassination. In a nut-shell Irvin claims that Wasson was part of a mind control and propaganda campaign regarding mushrooms and ethnomycology that reached to top levels of government. The conspiracy theory, if true, would put Wasson’s scholarly work under a damning light and, in some respects, pulls the rug out from some of the other researchers’ work included in this collection. One passage from the piece particularly stood out for me: “Those who twist the facts of reality to their own selfish agendas, sacrificing truth and humanity in the process, bring the whole of the world down with them” (Rush 611).

On the other end of the scholarly scale, Mike Jay’s chapter Enter the Jaguar is an excellent examination of the ruins at Chavin de Huanter in the Peruvian Andes, with its evidential symbolic art and its complex temple structure. Jay tentatively, but convincingly, argues that the ruined complex could be understood as a “visionary technology, designed to externalize and intensify these intoxications and to focus them into a particular inner journey” (Rush 331). If so, it demonstrates a highly evolved culture that utilized psychoactive substances in highly respectful manner in a period analogous to the Mysteries of Eleusis. Such feats occurring simultaneously across the globe appear to underline the importance of psychoactive plants in the emergence of human culture.

There are numerous other essays in this collection, too many for this review to fully explicate them all, suffice to say that such learned contributors as the classicist Carl Ruck and mycologist Gastón Guzmán lend a great deal of credibility and insightful analysis, which really helps underpin the collections premise. Personally speaking, I also found Gerrit J. Keizer’s Hildegard of Bingen: Unveiling the Secrets of a Medieval High Priestess and Visionary very interesting as I’d never come across Hildegard before. In conclusion, however, there is much interesting work to get to grips with in Entheogens and the Development of Culture, not least the need for a wider contextual analysis on the development of culture itself (for instance, what role did the development of technology and the rise of leisure time play in conjunction with psychoactives.) But, overall, an engaging and thought-provoking collection.

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5 Responses

  1. psychicdeli says:

    Rob, when you say about Irvin’s conspiracy theory piece that – One passage from the piece particularly stood out for me: “Those who twist the facts of reality to their own selfish agendas, sacrificing truth and humanity in the process, bring the whole of the world down with them” – is that because it is ironic?

  2. Brian Akers says:

    Rush’s new anthology is no doubt of interest, especially its overall emphasis on psychedelics and culture – ground of many good questions. Alas, the supposed role of psychedelics in human evolution is among the hokiest carny exhibits in psychedelia’s post-Terence pretences. And for its audacious biologizing pseudoscience (as I can only conclude), the chap by Winkelman detracts. The review above might have called less attention to that senseless farrago, and given more coverage to other chapters of more compelling interest – not to mention readability.

    No use crying over spilled milk though. At least the psypressuk spotlight, as thus directed, poses opportunity to address this particular 24 carat sample of pseudotheorizing psychedelia.

    One cannot emphasize enough that the entire trippy evolutionary pseudoscience enterprise merely follows the post-Terence subculture’s illicit adoption of evolution as a ‘concept of interest’ – for ‘Trojan horse’ purposes. On rare occasion, in carefully qualified settings – “around friends and fringies, it doesn’t trouble me to confess …” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuhrhT8Z5QA) Tmack was shamelessly clear about the deceptive intent of such schmeorizing.

    The rationale, the moral ‘logic’ – is unpleasantly familiar: ‘the ends justify the means.’ As TM put it: “I felt if I could … convince people that drugs were responsible for large brain size … get drugs insinuated into a scenario of human origins, I would cast doubt on the whole paradigm of Western Civilization. So, it was consciously propaganda …” (http://deoxy.org/t_mondo2.htm).

    For production quality in this wing of operations, Winkelman’s foray exemplies the ‘high’ end (as psypressuk’s recent “Mushroom Evolution Symphony” fiasco does the low, I suggest). Indeed elsewhere I’ve had recent occasion to cite it as ‘state of the art’ for this glorious tradition, as founded by the late grate shambard (1992, FOOD OF THE GODS). No doubt Tmack would be smiling to see his ‘stoned apes’ honored with air of expert authority, newly attired in fanciest most obscuring verbiage with amp on ten (or eleven, maybe). In essence, Winkelman’s ‘furthuring’ of this tradition simply represents a present under the psychedelia’s tree, targeting the ‘special interest’ of general reader-enthusiasts. I doubt it could be considered by any peer-reviewed journal. I hardly expect it will be submitted to one (I’d give a tuppence to read anonymous peer reviews if it were).

    For sheer effort, Winkelman’s “improvement” of stoned apes recalls Intelligent Design – ‘Scientific’ Creationism with PhD aegis (Behe), and extensive re-working. For improved cover the ‘give-away’ word Creation was redacted. As such ID became a sort of test. Would scientists notice a wolf in their midst, if it were clad in sheepskin scientific garb to evade detection, pass as science? As history reflects – yes, they noticed. So did public school science teachers, when the ID insurgency with its demands and grim determination, made false moves on curriculum. In similar fashion, how transparent is “Altered Consciousness and Drugs in Human Evolution”? In its chosen context of presentation, will anyone even hold it up to the light to check and see? If they did, would they even mention any problem even if one were blindingly self-evident? Writing on the wall suggests no, a golden silence would be observed, per psychedelia’s tense “Us / Them” social milieu. An unhealthy pattern, I submit.

    Among the most striking features of Winkelman’s theorizing – is its sheer density of rhetorical fog. Again it seems a test. Like Sokal’s famous hoax, to see if ‘pomo theory’ journal editors could distinguish, in their own field (their own ‘discourse’) – between real and fake. Sokal wrote a bizarre absurdity rich in ‘post-structuralist’ vocab and lit style – devoid of meaning. Would editors recognize ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’ from a bona fide essay actually saying something; or at least trying to (if benefit of doubt be given)? Or would they accept Sokal’s artfully crafted (unbeknownst to them) Rorschach wordblot as a scholarly contribution, worthy of publication – simply for having key buzzwords, faithfully dropping of Foucault’s name, in fashionable genuflection to his ‘genius’ (i.e., moral of the story, “The Right Message”)?

    Whether Winkelman’s ‘theory’ is specifically about psychedelics per se, or just DRUGS, period – quickly becomes unclear. The blurry framework is matched by rampant syntactical and semantic confusion throughout. It starts by focusing on psychedelics as ‘drugs of abuse’ – hardly an intrinsic criterion, more like a legal definition (cf. police meaning of ‘narcotics’) rather than chemical, pharmacological. Such approach is not merely invalid, it is unintelligible, spawning exposition rich in muddled syntax and meaning; e.g.:

    “Drugs of abuse are thought to falsely trigger natural reward circuits and their sense of fitness – (does ‘their’ ref to drugs, or circuits?) – benefits (is that an active verb, or plural noun?) – by blocking or short-circuiting the painful feelings that provide the adaptive functions of stimulating avoidance behaviors.” (p 29)

    Are those last three words a noun phrase, or verb phrase? Does ‘stimulating’ function as a participle, or active verb? Such rodeo bull riding grammar permeates the exposition, wrecking syntactic and semantic havoc throughout. Simply detecting and confirming the substantive content of whatever assertion is beyond its pale.

    I find a startling confusion between psychedelics and poisons — toxicology conflated with pharmacology – as another conspicuous bull in this china shop:

    “A central problem is the paradox of this concept of drugs as sources of hedonistic rewards … because they have their role in ecological relations as toxins that inhibit consumption by poisoning those who consume them.” (p 29) When did psychedelics become toxins? Or has Winkelman’s subject of theorizing quietly changed? He goes on:

    “Since animals do not evolve genetic capacities to reward non-adaptive or fitness-reducing behaviors (rewarding the consumption of DANGEROUS NEUROTOXINS) Sullivan Hagen and Hammerstein conclude that HUMANS EVOLVED IN ORDER TO make use of these exogenous substances.”

    Is it just psychedelics, or ‘drugs of abuse’ in general now, that are – neurotoxins ?!? Is that because they act on the nervous system? (Ever hear the one – summer camp science – that being high is actually ’caused’ by being slightly poisoned?) But that’s nothing compared to the implicit sense of teleological-like undercurrent, to which biologists’ ears are attuned, by a suggestion the human species ‘evolved in order to make use of these …’ etc.

    After attributing such ‘logic’ to research he cites (rather than owning it as his own), Winkelman picks up the ball for extra yards of his own, alluding to another study (Pregenzer et al 1997), in order to claim: “This evidence is highly suggestive of the possibility that humans evolved to more efficiently process psychedelic drugs.” (p 36).

    Oh, really? Is that so? Whatever that means?

    Of course, the idiom of “possibility’ and ‘highly suggestive’ is precisely the style of slippery rhetoric TM specialized in. By example, he clearly demonstrated both its propagandistic utility and pop subcultural appeal. Nothing need be true, nor accessible to test as fact or fancy – only declared ‘possible.’ To establish belief in a ‘possibility’ is the objective, the destination of the journey. Inquiry ends their, stopped cold. At that point, safe harbor has been reached for the ‘idea’ (as it purports to be). Now its bulletproof against anyone disproving it, or being able to. Ideally thus, it can never be put to rest, perfect for its purpose – the subculture’s ambitions served.

    And as the quote excerpted in the review above reflects – the conclusion intones sermon-like idiom of exhortation not exposition – adamant admonishment, insistent pulpit-pounding “we must” style Tmac popularized (‘must come to terms with the fact that those apes were stoned apes’):

    “The role of drugs in the evolution of human consciousness must be understood in relationship to effects on the serotonergic system and its roles in overall brain functioning… Human evolution was stimulated by interactions among exogenous …” (not ‘catalyzed’?). As if there is some role of drugs, or any shred of evidence for such (as methodically adduced by rigorous research, theoretically integrated etc).

    Amid a swirling rhetorical fog of tangled technical vocabulary – would anyone have the wherewithal to notice anything amiss? And if they did, would they even mention, considering the pattern of pandering discourse in the subculture? Writing on the wall suggests no, a golden silence would be observed, per psychedelia’s tense “Us / Them” social milieu. An unhealthy pattern, I submit.

    In pondering such verbal machination, what really gives pause – in rare moments Mr ‘Stoned Apes’ was candid about his counterfeit science. He was explicit, his intent was exploitive, deliberate deception his Modus Operandi. McKenna made it clear that truth, integrity of fact or information – don’t matter, against such motive. The purpose of psychedelia’s evolutionary pseudoscience is to sway and persuade, fool and dupe.

    In no way shape or form is this brand of psychedelic evolutionary pseudoscience – Terence’s or Winkelman’s 2.0 version – actually about evolution. For all its theater, that’s merely its excuse or pretence. Underneath its sheep skin costumery – it proves to be in essence, bizarrely coded promotion of a ‘special interest’ issue under contention in a culture war over drugs. A la Terence. Indeed in a live presentation of his Stoned Apes 2.0 – not to a scientific audience, but for a psychedelic tentshow powwow (where it faces little risk of any critical interest or even competence in the audience) – Winkelman makes his purport clear – only at the very beginning of his talk:*

    “I want to dedicate this paper … to the spirit of Terence McKenna. He really came up with these ideas twenty years ago before we had good scientific evidence to back them up. My short paper … is to support what he contended about the role of psychedelics in human evolution. (outburst of cheering applause)

    Suddenly it all makes sense. The method of the madness, vividly articulated noise masquerading as signal. The sustained deep incoherence. The completeness of muddle, as if rigorously uncritical – from substantive content to fidelity and clarity of exposition. The carefree defiance of meaning itself, as if oppositional denial of any such – even as a value or principle. No wonder.

    Decoded, Winkleman’s obtuse pseudotheorizing and sciencey staging – proves to be yet another dreary genuflection to Terence. Its liturgy, carrying the torch of Terence, lighting the way further for psychedelia’s credulous and ethically challenged agenda as an ideological movement in society – with dogged determination and fervent loyalty. Faithfully taking TM’s means and motive to a higher game level than Terence could reach – who had no scientific education whatsoever, no qualifications, nor remote deuce of clue what he was talking about, evolution-wise.

    On the whole one is left with a sense of the fallout of TM’s mesmeric pied piping, spearheading a pattern of ideological aggression, that uses psilocybin etc not only to trip, but as a bone of personal contention – by posing as spokesmen for issues and questions attending. And only in prefatory remarks on rare occasion, does the interest pursued by stealth unmask itself.

    This entire brand of ‘pseudotheory’ is in essence rhetorical ‘covert ops.’ Its a type of stealth maneuver TM deployed for seizing the offensive in an ideological power struggle. He was explicit on this – but only in rare moments. Mostly he was executing, in character, performance – putting it over. And its the diversion, his show, i.e. his ‘ideas’ – not the agenda (and bag of tricks) – to which his followers excitedly direct attention in his name.

    (*Orson Wells announced his WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast was fictional; but only at the start. From there for dramatic effect it unfolded in the form of simulated news reports `interrupting this broadcast’ – staged so vividly listeners were apparently fooled, despite the opening note. That the public could react with not just credulity but anxiety, even alarm to reports of ET arrival came as a sobering realization; even an omen of sorts perhaps. For example, it was less than a decade later journalists coined the phrase ‘flying saucer.’)

    • John Hoopes says:

      “In similar fashion, how transparent is ‘Altered Consciousness and Drugs in Human Evolution’? In its chosen context of presentation, will anyone even hold it up to the light to check and see? If they did, would they even mention any problem even if one were blindingly self-evident? Writing on the wall suggests no, a golden silence would be observed, per psychedelia’s tense ‘Us / Them’ social milieu. An unhealthy pattern, I submit.”

      An unhealthy pattern, indeed. It’s hard to believe any self-respecting evolutionary biologist would take the “stoned ape” theory seriously, Not so hard to believe its appeal to wishful thinkers.

      Thanks, Brian, for pointing out that this “emperor” is stark naked.

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