Pubdate: Sat, 01 Jul 2006
Source: Walrus, The (Canada)
Copyright: 2006 The Walrus Magazine, Inc.
Author: Michael Posner
Note: Michael Posner is an arts reporter for the Globe and Mail and the 
author of The Last Honest Man: An Oral Biography of Mordecai Richler.


How A Mind-Bending Plant-based Drug Made Its Way From The Amazon Jungle To 
The Us Supreme Court

Every tree, every plant, has a spirit.

People may say that a plant has no mind. I tell them that a plant is alive 
and conscious.

A plant may not talk, but there is a spirit in it that is conscious, that 
sees everything, which is the soul of the plant, its essence, what makes it 

- Pablo Amaringo, Peruvian ayahuasquero

In 1984, a young Ph.D. student at Stanford University named Jeremy Narby 
travelled to the Peruvian Amazon to conduct field research for his thesis 
in anthropology. Raised in Canada and Switzerland, Narby lived for two 
years with Peru's Ashaninca tribes, and had read accounts of the remarkable 
healing abilities of their shamans.

When he told the shamans about his chronic back problem, they offered him a 
plant-based cure, a sanango tea consumed when the moon was new. It would, 
they cautioned, leave him debilitated for two days, at first chilled and 
then unable to walk; afterward, he would be fine. Their forecast proved 
accurate; Narby drank the tea and felt chilled to the bone. When the cold 
abated, he found he could not stand.

By the third day, the pain in his back was gone. Twenty years later, it has 
not returned.

Curious to learn more, Narby questioned the shamans about the source of 
their knowledge.

They told him something that he--trained in the materialist, rationalist 
ethos of Western science--could scarcely comprehend: that their wisdom 
derived from spirits within the plants themselves. In other words, they 
said, the plants of the Amazonian rainforest spoke to them, giving precise 
instructions in the art of healing and a great deal more. Narby initially 
thought this claim was a kind of shamanic joke. He quickly learned otherwise.

For millennia, the indigenous peoples of South America have used 
plant-based potions to enter altered states of consciousness that confer 
medicinal and spiritual powers.

The Ashaninca and dozens of other tribes derive their information via a 
foul-tasting tea known as ayahuasca (eye-yah-wah-skah), a Quechua word 
meaning "vine of the souls." Others in the region know it as yage or caapi.

According to the shamans, the visions often induced by the drug--of coiled 
fluorescent serpents, prowling jaguars, and brilliant multicoloured 
tableaux of gardens, palaces, and lush forests--are not projections of the 
human imagination; rather, they are an alternate reality to which the 
brain's receivers become attuned.

Ayahuasca, they explained to Narby, is like "television of the forest." 
When they turn it on, it is as though they are dialing up channels and 
communicating with spirits, possibly from other dimensions. The plant 
spirits, known as doctorcitos (little doctors) or abuelos (grandfathers), 
teach shamans how to diagnose illness, what plants to use for treatment, 
and what diet to follow.

They also teach icaros, shamanic hymns that are sung to help summon the 
presence of the spirits. Indeed, music is an indispensable part of 
tea-drinking ceremonies.

Narby was fascinated. As he notes in his book The Cosmic Serpent, dna and 
the Origins of Knowledge, there are some 80,000 varieties of plants in the 
Amazon. To make ayahuasca, it is necessary to combine precisely two of 
them, a vine and a leaf that, morphologically, have nothing in common.

The leaf (Psychotria viridis) contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine (dmt), a 
hallucinogen. Ingested by itself, the drug has no effect; a stomach enzyme, 
monoamine oxidase (mao), renders it impotent.

The vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), however, contains three alkaloids that 
effectively turn off the mao, allowing the psychoactive ingredient of dmt 
unfettered access to the brain. In chemical composition then, ayahuasca is 
related to, but more complex than, psilocybin (derived from mushrooms) and, 
to a lesser extent, lsd (lysergic acid diethylamide, a synthetic).

How did ancient Amazonian tribes discover what is effectively a designer 
drug Surely not, Narby suggests, by trial and error; there are roughly 6.4 
billion possible combinations of flora.

Moreover, brewing ayahuasca tea is a laborious process during which the 
plant stems must first be pounded for days, then immersed in hot water with 
the leaves, then boiled for up to fifteen hours, and finally filtered.

Even if the Ashaninca or another tribe simply intuited the potency of this 
specific leaf-vine arrangement, how would they have happened upon the 
complex recipe that must be used to make the tea There is no satisfactory 

Similarly, forty types of curare, the paralytic agent derived from seventy 
different plant species, are available in the Amazon. Making it requires 
collecting a precise combination of several plants, boiling them for 
several hours, and injecting the resultant paste under the skin. Could that 
have been discovered by trial and error

The shamans of the Amazon basin insist that plant gods, appearing during 
periods of extended trance induced by ayahuasca, taught them the secret 
medicinal properties of the plants that cured Narby's aching back. These 
gods also taught them about curare and hundreds of other healers hidden in 
the botanical world.

Their knowledge and its efficacy appear to be beyond dispute; it has, in 
myriad ways, been adapted and profitably exploited by the global 
pharmaceutical industry.

But for the empirical West, Narby observes, two fundamental problems arise. 
First, we regard hallucinations as illusions-projections of the mind that 
have no basis in reality.

But if that precept is correct, and these visions are simply culturally 
specific phantasms of the brain, then how is it that Peruvian Indians, 
American businesspeople, Israeli scientists, Swiss anthropologists, and 
Canadian journalists tend to see exactly the same kinds of visions after 
drinking the tea

Second, the notion that under any circumstances plants might speak is 
anathema to Western science.

Indeed, anyone who declares that plants communicate, let alone that they 
are capable of offering detailed tutorials in pharmacology, is likely to be 
treated for a psychological disorder.

But if plants do not speak, then where does the verifiable knowledge of 
Amerindian shamans come from The universe of ayahuasca therefore poses a 
profound intellectual dilemma.

Jeremy Narby wasnt at all sure that he could resolve the paradox, but he 
was determined to try.

In May 1999, US customs agents searched property belonging to Jeffrey 
Bronfman in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Bronfman is the leader of the American 
branch of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (the United 
Beneficent Spiritual Union of the Plants). The udv, as it is known, is a 
Brazil-based syncretic church--part Roman Catholic, part animist--that uses 
hoasca (the Portuguese transliteration of ayahuasca) as a sacrament in lieu 
of the traditional wafer and wine. Founded in 1961 and now boasting a 
worldwide membership of some 7,000, the udv is one of three 
well-established ayahuasca churches in Brazil; the others are Santo Daime 
and Barquinha.

Bronfman had imported the tea used in the twice-monthly ceremonies of his 
130-member New Mexico congregation. The agents seized some thirty gallons 
of hoasca, possession of which is illegal under Schedule I of the US 
Controlled Substances Act, but laid no charges.

The following year, Bronfman sued the Drug Enforcement Administration, 
alleging a First Amendment violation of the constitutional guarantee of 
freedom of religion. Hoasca, his lawyers maintained, was an essential 
sacrament--used exactly as peyote is now used, legally, in rituals of the 
Native American Church.

There was more than a little irony in all of this. Bronfman, forty, is a 
second cousin of Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music Group chairman and scion 
of the famous Montreal family and its once-great liquor empire.

In the 1920s and early '30s, Edgar's grandfather, Sam, built a vast fortune 
eluding federal agents and running alcohol from Canada into the US, where 
its sale and consumption were banned under the Eighteenth Amendment to the 
Constitution. Now, seventy-five years later, another Bronfman was using 
part of his inherited wealth to take on the US government in a landmark 
case involving another banned drug.

At the first hearing in 2001, a US district judge sided with Bronfman's 
group and instructed the federal government not to confiscate the tea. The 
Department of Justice appealed the ruling, but the US Tenth Circuit Court 
in Denver upheld the injunction, twice.

The Bush administration, however, was not prepared to surrender.

Federal attorneys again appealed, this time to the US Supreme Court. It, 
too, sided with the udv on the narrow injunction issue, but later agreed to 
review the case. Thus, on November 1, 2005, did lawyers for both sides 
appear before America's highest court to contest Gonzales, Attorney General 
et al v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Unio do Vegetal et al. The question 
at issue: whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, "requires 
the government to permit the importation, distribution, possession, and use 
of a Schedule I hallucinogenic controlled substance." The battle had been 
joined: America's commitment to religious freedom versus the decades-long 
war on drugs.

Ayahuasca is not a trip, certainly not the hedonistic kind often associated 
with lsd, to which it is sometimes compared.

On the contrary, drinking the tea--Narby likens the taste to acrid 
grapefruit juice--is a challenging, often terrifying, and at times 
transcendent, life-altering experience. Physically, the brew commonly 
induces nausea, vomiting, farting, and diarrhea--humbling moments in a room 
full of other voyageurs.

It purges psychologically as well; the visions and emotions it conjures up 
can rattle one to the core, laying siege to the artfully arranged 
fortifications erected on behalf of the ego. It is for good reason that 
members of the oldest of Brazil's ayahuasca churches, Santo Daime, call 
ayahuasca ceremonies trabalhos (works). Spiritually, ayahuasca is often 
said to put users in touch with divinity, to connect them with the 
ineffable presence of God, or with the spirits of the dead, including 
family members. Ultimately, the drug--a word disciples of udv, Santo Daime, 
and the estimated seventy-two other ayahuasca-based Amazonian cultures 
firmly reject--seems to reveal the hidden, deeper, and essential meaning of 

Making post-facto notes of his first overwhelming ayahuasca session in 
1985, Narby wrote:

Images started pouring into my agouti [forest rodent] with bared 
teeth and a bloody mouth; very brilliant, shiny, and multi-coloured 
snakes.... I suddenly found myself surrounded by two gigantic boa 
constrictors that seemed fifty feet long. I was terrified.... [T]he snakes 
start talking to me without words.

They explain that I am just a human being. I feel my mind crack, and in the 
fissures, I see the bottomless arrogance of my presuppositions.... I find 
myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand at all...I feel 
like crying in view of the enormity of these revelations. Then it dawns on 
me that this self-pity is part of my arrogance.

My own single experience with ayahuasca was not dissimilar. Forty-five 
minutes after I drank about five ounces of the tea, a wave of panic swept 
over me, as if my life itself were slipping away. I was powerless to stop 
it. I was cold and sweaty at the same time. In fact, I thought I was dying. 
The leader of the group I was with approached and suggested that I lie 
down. When I did, my legs and knees started shaking, rhythmically but 
uncontrollably. Later my whole body--lying supine on the floor--rocked 
visibly from head to toe, like a metronome, but again I was not the agent 
of the rocking.

I had no ability to stop it. Like Narby, I was told--by thought--that I was 
nothing, a mere drop in the ocean.

Images flashed before me at absurd speed, wild and intricate geometric 

Snake heads rose in front of my closed eyes and seemed to examine me. 
Oddly, they seemed benign and I had no fear of them. I felt--indeed, I 
knew--that I had been conveyed into the hands of some extraordinary power, 
the kind of power that traditional Judeo-Christian prayer frequently 
ascribes to God. I had uttered prayers thousands of times before, but had 
never genuinely understood them. Now, I found myself thinking okay, I get 
it. But I had no sooner conceived the thought than another replaced it: You 
haven't begun to get it.

Are you God, I asked, phrasing the question as a thought.

God, Jesus, Mary, call me whatever you want.

How can you do these things, move my body like a puppet

The thought-answer came back instantly: I can do anything.

I had been instructed to concentrate on breathing--deeply and slowly; when 
I did, the shaking would instantly stop and, bathed in a light I had never 
seen before, I felt a sense of benevolence and well-being. I wanted to get 
up and hug the people around me, most of them strangers.

Suddenly, the chasm between the human sense of self-importance and our true 
impotence struck me as wonderfully amusing, and I started to laugh.

Later, still on the floor, I used my hands like a choir conductor to direct 
the singing of hymns that was going on constantly around me. My 
interpretation of the entire six-hour session--the lesson I felt I was 
being taught--was that it was time for me to wake up, get my act together, 
and show more love for those closest to me. Despite the initial terror, I 
concluded that I had been treated mercifully and regarded the experience as 

These accounts are typical.

All of it--exotic, wondrous imagery, fear, utter annihilation of the ego, 
the forced encounter with personal issues one would rather not confront, 
some compelling apprehension of the sacred and the mystical, and the 
conviction that everything encountered is more real than the floor one 
stands upon--are commonly reported.

But no two drinking experiences are ever exactly the same.

In the growing body of literature about ayahuasca, by far the most 
comprehensive and illuminating text is Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the 
Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience, by Benny Shanon, a professor of 
cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "An entire 
continent resides inside our mind and Shanon has provided the map," Narby 
explains. "His book gives the sense that Western man is still living in the 
sixteenth century, and the Americas have just been discovered. Westerners 
have thought that objective knowledge was the only way to know the world 
seriously. That's all very well until what you want to deal with is 
subjective human consciousness. It's impossible to be objective about the 
subjective. Consciousness is a first-person experience. It's like 
swimming--you've got to be wet."

During the almost six years it took him to write the book, Shanon, an 
otherwise traditional, Western-trained cognitive scientist now in his 
sixties, drank the sacred tea more than 100 times and interviewed 178 other 
users. Many of those interviewed by Shanon told him that taking ayahuasca 
was the most important event of their lives.

His own experiences affected him profoundly. Gradually, he became aware 
that "what I was actually entering was a school.... The teacher was the 
brew." His sessions of intoxication--his word--forced upon him a rigorous 
self-analysis. "One finds oneself having no other option but to address 
issues that are often neither easy nor pleasant." When he started going to 
Peru and Brazil, Shanon confesses, he was "a "devout atheist.' When I left 
South America, I was no longer one." Ultimately, he writes, scientific 
investigation cannot unravel the mysteries of ayahuasca: "I am inclined to 
say that [it] brings us to the boundaries not only of science but also of 
the entire Western world-view and its philosophies."

It was a measure of the importance attached to Gonzales v. udv that, 
marginal though ayahuasca culture is in the United States, the Supreme 
Court hearing drew the attention of every major and many minor religious 
and human-rights groups.

Among those filing amicus curiae briefs in udv's defence were the American 
Civil Liberties Union and organizations representing Baptists, 
Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Roman Catholic bishops, Jews, Muslims, Sikh 
Americans, and various independent scholars.

The insuperable hurdle confronting Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler 
was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It effectively gives objectors a 
presumptive exemption from laws that violate their religious beliefs.

In the language of the act itself, no federal law shall "substantially 
burden a person's exercise of religion" unless a "compelling governmental 
interest" is proven; even then, the law must be implemented in a way that 
is "least restrictive" to religious practice.

Kneedler mounted a tripartite argument: first, that the active ingredient 
in ayahuasca, dmt, posed a genuine danger to human health, leading to 
anxiety, dissociative states, and psychosis; second, that if udv were 
allowed to import the brew, some portion of it might be diverted and used 
for recreation outside of controlled spiritual settings; and finally, that 
importation would violate both the US Controlled Substances Act and the 
1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, to which the US 
is a signatory.

Allowing lower-court rulings to stand, Kneedler maintained, would undermine 
US drug policy.

Open that door, he said, and who knows what groups might claim a religious 
use for drug activity--for example, Rastafarians with marijuana.

In response, Nancy Hollander, the lawyer representing udv, argued that in 
Brazil, where hoasca is legal and where the udv has been active for 
decades, and in New Mexico, sacramental consumption of the tea has caused 
no significant adverse health consequences and has not been diverted to 
illicit use. Nor has there been any evidence that peyote--used by the much 
larger (250,000 members) Native American Church--has been diverted to 
non-religious uses. As for the 1971 UN convention, the lower courts had 
already found that it does not apply to plants or to infusions, 
concoctions, or teas made from them. Moreover, the convention expressly 
permits religious-use exemptions, such as for peyote.

The Supreme Court largely agreed with Hollander. Justice Stephen Breyer 
noted "a rather rough problem under the First Amendment" and argued that if 
it was permissible for Congress to make an exception to the Controlled 
Substances Act for peyote, why not for hoasca Chief Justice John Roberts 
objected to the government's "totally categorical" approach, saying it 
would apply even if a single member of a single udv group consumed a single 
drop of the tea once a year. Even Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative 
who might have been expected to support the federal side, seemed skeptical. 
It was Scalia who wrote the 1990 opinion that had allowed states to ban 
tribal use of peyote.

That decision was effectively overturned by the Religious Freedom 
Restoration Act--and the results of the reversal, he suggested, were a 
demonstration that "you can make an exception without the sky falling." 
When Kneedler protested that making such an exception would effectively 
turn decisions about federal drug laws over to 700 district court judges, 
Justice David Souter observed, "Isn't that exactly what the act does"

The Supreme Court rendered its verdict in February, voting unanimously in 
favour of udv's position, with one abstention. In his written ruling, Chief 
Justice Roberts noted, "Everything the Government says about the dmt in 
hoasca--that, as a Schedule I substance, Congress has determined that it 
"has a high potential for abuse,' "has no currently accepted medical use,' 
and has "a lack of accepted safety for use...under medical supervision,' 
applies in equal measure to the mescaline in peyote, yet both the Executive 
and Congress itself have decreed an exception from the Controlled 
Substances Act for Native American religious use of peyote."

What impact the US decision will have on other jurisdictions remains to be 
seen. In Canada, the use of ayahuasca remains, at least for now, illegal.

After completing his Ph.D., Jeremy Narby returned home to Switzerland and 
joined Nouvelle Planete, a Swiss ngo dedicated to promoting bilingual 
education and securing property rights for South American Indians. At the 
same time, he started writing a book, seeking to reconcile shamanic wisdom 
with scientific knowledge, and to explain how plants might, in fact, 
communicate. He read dozens of books and scholarly articles, made copious 
notes, and went for long ruminative hikes, but after some months felt no 
closer to postulating a theory.

It was a footnote in an article by another anthropologist, Michael Harner, 
that finally provided the spark.

Harner had taken ayahuasca with the Conibo Indians in the Amazon in 1961 
and, like many others, had been transformed. In his vision, he had seen 
giant dragon-like creatures, which spoke to him in a kind of thought language.

They showed the earth as it had existed before life had formed.

Then, thousands of black specks with wings and whale-like bodies descended 
from outer space.

He was told they were embedded within all forms of life, including humans.

Harners footnote said, "In retrospect, one could say they were almost like 
dna, though at the time I had no knowledge of dna."

dna (deoxyribonucleic acid) is, of course, the language of life itself. 
Informing every living thing on the planet, every microbe, plant, and 
animal, it is a miniature coded text that has survived, virtually 
unchanged, for at least 3.5 billion years.

The only difference between a bacterium and a human being, with respect to 
dna, is the amount of genetic information carried and its sequencing. In an 
average human being, there are enough strands of dna to cover 125 billion 
miles--enough to wrap around the planet five million times.

Moreover, dna contains coding for an unfathomable amount of genetic data. 
Think of the largest, most sophisticated data-storage device: dna contains 
100 trillion times as much information. A single cell contains more data 
than all the volumes of the Encyclopdia Britannica put together, yet weighs 
less than a few thousand millionths of a gram.

Poring over his notes, Narby suddenly had an epiphany: the shape of the dna 
molecule, discovered by Watson and Crick in 1953, is the double helix, a 
serpentine form that twists endlessly upon itself as it replicates. It's 
like a sinuous ladder, consisting of four chemicals--adenine (A), guanine 
(G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T)--that bond repeatedly in pairs (A always 
with T, C always with G). That same shape, he realized, is precisely the 
form described by shamans the world over to explain the origins of life on 
earth. On every continent, from ancient Sumer to Scandinavia, from Amazonia 
to Australia, creation myths speak of twinned serpents, twirling ladders, 
twisting ropes, spiralling staircases, intertwined vines, or trees that 
stretch from heaven to earth, the so-called axis mundi.

Even the Old Testament's patriarch Jacob dreams of a ladder touching heaven 
"with the angels of God ascending and descending on it." In Amerindian 
terms, ladders, ropes, vines, and trees are the means by which shamans 
ascend to the heavens or descend to earth to communicate with spirits.

Narby was staggered. "It seemed that no one had noticed the possible links 
between the "myths' of "primitive peoples' and molecular biology," he says. 
On the contrary, the wisdom of indigenous peoples was typically discounted 
and their knowledge of pharmacology deemed an accident.

But the parallels were striking.

Like the serpents of myth, dna is both incredibly long and infinitely 
small, lives in salt water, is both single and double, and capable of 
complete transformation while remaining the same.

The ancient Egyptians, Narby notes, used the phrase "provider of 
attributes" to describe their cosmic serpent.

They depicted it as a two-headed snake accompanied by hieroglyphs, which 
variously signified the concept of one, several, spirit, double vital 
force, place, wick of twisted flax, and water.

They also added an ankh, symbol of the key of life. Similarly, Ashaninca 
cosmology speaks of the "Great Transformer," Avreri, who created life on 
earth, lives in the underworld (the cellular level), in sea water, and 
adopts the form of a cord or strangler vine. For the Shipibo-Conibo of the 
Amazon, the earth is embraced by Ronn, a cosmic, amphibious anaconda, which 
is half-submerged but surrounds all of life. What else could the Egyptians, 
the Ashaninca, the Shipibo-Conibo, and others have meant by these metaphors 
if not dna

Slowly, Narby enunciated a thesis--speculative, to be sure, but 
compelling--that integrated shamanism and microbiology: ayahuasca enables 
shamans to bring their vision down to cellular levels.

The spirits they "see" in altered states of consciousness are photonic 
resonances or electromagnetic images of dna. Scientists have confirmed that 
dna does emit light and have compared these emissions to a weak but 
discernible laser, brightly coloured and three-dimensional. Virtually all 
research into biophotons, moreover, involves quartz, a stable crystal known 
for its ability to send and receive electromagnetic waves. dna, too, of 
course is a crystal. Perhaps, Narby theorized, that's what shamanic spirits 
are--light signals, amplified by ayahuasca or other psychoactive 
substances--that can be read or interpreted for specific information. 
Perhaps we are, in essence, as mystics have always maintained, beings of light.

To test his hypothesis, in 1999 Narby took three molecular biologists to 
the Amazon to drink ayahuasca.

None had previously consumed a psychoactive plant. Afterward, all said they 
had been dramatically affected by the experience, that it had altered their 
way of perceiving themselves and the world. During the sessions, each posed 
questions about their work and received answers.

One involved a new way of thinking about aspects of the human genome.

Another related to the proteins that make sperm cells fertile. A third 
dealt with the ethics of modifying plant genomes.

All said they planned to return--and drink again.

It is not easy to challenge the orthodoxies of Western science.

One can publish books but they are apt not to be celebrated, reviewed in 
major newspapers, or discussed on Oprah. Narby's The Cosmic Serpent and its 
sequel, Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry Into Knowledge (published last 
year), have attracted a cult following but have been otherwise ignored.

Still, the problems Narby articulates remain.

If dna is fundamentally a text, can "one presuppose that no intelligence 
wrote it," as he asks If humankind is merely the result of eons of random 
natural selection, what adaptive advantage was gained by embedding the 
capacity for transcendent hallucination within the brain Do all of us have 
centres in the brain that respond to mind-altering teas by repeatedly 
spewing forth visions of jaguars and serpents Or is the brain as much a 
receiver as a transmitter, tuning in, as the shamans say, to parallel 
planes of reality, to "television of the forest," or, alternatively, dna tv 
Even Benny Shanon, clinging to familiar scientific modalities, writes that 
"perhaps we have no choice but...[to] consider the possibility that these 
commonalities reflect patterns exhibited on another, extra-human realm."

Shanon is not alone in thinking this. During the 1990s, American 
psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted the first federally authorized, 
peer-reviewed research into human hallucinogens in more than two decades, 
injecting pure dmt into 400 healthy volunteers in a clinical setting.

In his subsequent book about the project, dmt: The Spirit Molecule, 
Strassman acknowledged that the visions his subjects encountered--among 
them, insect-like intelligences, aliens, angels, demons, imps, elves, 
dwarves--could not be logically explained by prevalent theories of 
hallucination, the Freudian unconscious, or Jungian archetypes. In daily 
life, Strassman concluded, our brains are "tuned to Channel Normal. dmt 
provides regular and reliable access to other channels.

The other planes of existence are always there...transmitting all the time 
but we cannot perceive them because we are not designed to do so." Such 
views, Strassman concedes, are hard to reconcile with the current 
scientific model, premised on objective reality.

The idea that dna might have been "written" is not, it should be said, 
creationism by another name. Jeremy Narby is a secular agnostic.

His anthropology has more in common with Marx than anything else. When he 
is not writing books, he is waging battle against the World Bank and big 
ranchers and land developers in Peru. "Whether out in the cosmos there is 
one God or many gods--anything is possible," he says. "The universe is a 
fabulously complex and weird place and I dont know enough about it." At the 
same time, he acknowledges doubts about Darwinian theory and the 
circularity of its argument--namely, that its conclusion (certain 
characteristics develop because they are selected by nature) is assured by 
its premise (nature selects those traits that promote species survival). 
"Nature is an edifice shot full of intelligence, which most probably did 
not occur by chance," Narby says. "I'd sign up for that. Random collision 
of molecules is not part of my belief system. dna itself seems to be the 
result of some kind of intelligence--the most miniature language possible 
but more complex than anything we know. You could not make a more 
sophisticated language.

The entity that came up with it is way beyond something I can understand."

Considered across the span of human history, mechanistic rationalism, of 
course, is the new kid on philosophy's block.

As Narby notes, 99 percent of the religious history of Homo sapiens sapiens 
is animist. "And then along comes rationality and monotheism and it takes 
2,000 years, 100 generations, to get chemistry, control of matter, 
technology, electricity, etc. The price we paid was cutting ourselves off 
from quite a few things--nature, the feminine, our own visions, dreams.

Suddenly we're surrounded by all these objects and we've lost the sacred 
and connections to other species. But we know it. So we correct."

Well, perhaps.

As the US Justice Departments case against Uniao de Vegetal illustrates, 
governments are prepared to go to great expense and length to enforce 
blanket prohibitions on the use of psychotropic drugs.

They cite the risks of use and make authorization to conduct new research 
difficult to arrange.

The scientific community remains utterly dismissive of such notions as 
intelligent dna or alternate channels of reality.

But how can science assume dna is a mere chemical when, as Narby notes, it 
does not even understand the brain, the seat of our own consciousness, 
built according to the instructions laid out in our dna "How could nature 
not be conscious if our own consciousness is produced by nature" he writes.

The profound mysteries of human life--our consciousness, our origins, why 
we're here at all--remain.

Michael Posner is an arts reporter for the Globe and Mail and the author of 
The Last Honest Man: An Oral Biography of Mordecai Richler.