Book Review #001 – Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge

It’s about time we started reviewing a few interesting books about our brains on drugs. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have time to review any ourselves and it’s a slow process to recruit willing contributors (volunteers, drop me a line). So in the meantime I am going to let the mighty Amazon ecosystem take the strain and start by sharing a fun reader review of a somewhat bonkers psychonautical book about mystical properties of DNA and ancient Amazonian wisdom (that’s the other Amazon).

All credit for this review goes to C. E. Pearce “Liz Pearce” (Newcastle, United Kingdom). We have edited it somewhat and added emphasis to the funniest bits. [MY COMMENTS IN RED]

In The Cosmic Serpent anthropologist Jeremy Narby sets himself the enormous undertaking of attempting to provide a rational, scientific explanation for the realm of the non-rational and the spiritual – how Amazonian shamans (known as ayahuasqueros) obtain their valuable knowledge of plants. Narby’s central thesis in the book is as follows:

  1. .Snakes are important in shamanic work in many indigenous cultures and especially appear regularly in hallucinations caused by the powerful plant-based drug ayahuasca.
  2. Snakes and DNA look very similar.
  3. Therefore what the ayahuasqueros call ‘maninkari’ or spirits is actually DNA. By using ayahuasca, ayahuasqueros are in fact able to connect their consciousness to the biomolecular level of their DNA and use it to communicate with ‘the global network of DNA-based life’ (p.111) so accessing the knowledge that is stored in the DNA double-helix of all life-forms throughout the planet.


Narby’s first person narrative and enormous enthusiasm for his subject is accessible and engaging, and I found the first four chapters of the book compelling as he analyses how unlikely it is that the sophisticated botanical knowledge of the indigenous Amazonian peoples could have been discovered simply by chance. [NO, BUT IT COULD BE CHANCE + TRIAL AND ERROR + A LONG ORAL HISTORY]

He argues convincingly that plant-based substances such as curare and ayahuasca [ACTIVE INGREDIENT DMT] are so extremely complex to produce that the knowledge of how to create them cannot have been derived from simple trial and error but must have come from somewhere beyond everyday human consciousness.[YES, THE PLANTS WERE CREATED BY EVOLUTION, WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH THE PRICE OF DREAM FISH?]

The rest of the book is spent outlining and exploring his working hypothesis concerning the relationship between shamanically derived knowledge, snakes and DNA. However, at times it seems he is too obsessed with his own theories to be able to step back and take a wider and more balanced perspective. Firstly, he fails to seriously engage with the importance of animal spirits other than snakes in shamanic practices around the world – spirits such as deer, horse and different species of birds – merely dismissing these as the result of DNA being a ‘master of transformation’ (p.116). [YES, I MEAN SERIOUSLY WHAT WAS HE THINKING??]

He also chooses to ignore alternative reasons for the importance of snakes in many indigenous cultures, such as their connection with life, sexuality and birth because of their phallic appearance, their connection with the Underworld and re-birth as they shed their skin, or their connection with the lines of energy that run through the land, known as ‘ley lines’ or ‘song lines’. [GOOD POINT]

Throughout the book Narby concentrates only on one element of an Amazonian shaman’s work, that of obtaining knowledge of plant healing, but ignores the many other roles they would routinely carry out such as hunting down and return missing or stolen fragments of people’s souls, or psychopomping – guiding the soul of a person who has recently died safely to the afterlife. [YOU SEEM JAMES CAMERON IS MORE LIKE OSCAR WILDE THAN YOU REALISED]

How can the biomolecular realm of DNA provide knowledge and power in activities such as these? In addition, Narby doesn’t explore how if DNA is the source of all shamanically derived knowledge then in what ways do shamans from other cultures that do not use plant-based hallucinogens communicate with DNA to obtain the knowledge and power to heal people? Taken to its logical conclusion, Narby’s hypothesis is an attack on the essence of shamanic practice, that of working with the sacred. If the shaman’s knowledge comes not from the sacred – from the spirits – but from his or her own DNA communicating with the DNA of plants, trees, animals etc then that knowledge can be said to ‘belong’ to him or her rather than being a gift from the spiritual realm for the good of all.

As such, the shaman’s knowledge becomes a commodity to be sold on the open market – something that Narby even goes to the extent of suggesting: “If the hypothesis presented in this book is correct, it means that they [indigenous people] have not only a precious understanding of specific plants and remedies, but an unsuspected source of biomolecular knowledge, which is financially invaluable … ” (p.146). [JUST ASK JAMES CAMERON]

The Cosmic Serpent is an important book in that it has brought an awareness of the validity of shamanic practices to a potentially new and large audience: readers of ‘Popular Science’ publications rather than the usual ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ folk. [BUT I BET THIS MADE IT VERY UNPOPULAR WITH REAL SCIENTISTS] There is a sense of compromise throughout it though, as if Narby may not always be letting us in on what he really thinks about the true source of shamanically derived knowledge, mindful of the need to position his argument so that mainstream readers may take it with at least some degree of seriousness. In the conclusion he says that he has chosen not to describe in detail the impact that working on the book has had on his spirituality. I would have very much liked him to have written about that and I hope that one day he will.

In summary, Jeremy Narby went to the Amazon and saw some amazing things and took some amazing drugs which, no doubt, made them seem even more amazing and since he couldn’t quite get his head around it. He decided to empty his head and fill it with sky-pixies instead. I can quite sympathize, I have taken DMT and it is pretty mind-blowing stuff. Largely in a very good way but I feel that Narby took a few trips and then took off back to his western libraries in a rush to judge what he thought he had seen. I could be wrong but he certainly seems guilty of the crimes that Wade Davis warns against.

Of course, it might not have been the DMT, it might have been the DNA. It’s another spooky

By Richard Wheeler (Zephyris) 2007. Lambda rep...
This image isn’t strictly relevant but it is pretty.
Image via Wikipedia

molecule which makes people believe weird things. Just ask Nobel prize winner Luc Montagnier. He shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 2008 for helping establish that HIV causes AIDS. Just recently he’s posted a paper online not yet peer-reviewed but covered by New Scientist, claiming he has evidence that DNA can send spooky electromagnetic imprints of itself into distant cells and fluids. He also suggests that “enzymes can mistake the ghostly imprints for real DNA, and faithfully copy them to produce the real thing. In effect this would amount to a kind of quantum teleportation of the DNA.”

They both sound crazy yes? I tend to think they are. But let’s wait and see. The think about snakes in the grass is that they are not to be trusted.

UPDATE – Friday 14th Jan

Oh dear, a post by my friends at the New Humanist has alerted me to a potentially bonkers extra set of signs to add to this constellation of cosmic nonsense. you may have read about the new 13th symbol of the modern zodiac, Ophiuchus? It ought to be introduced because the earth’s tilt has precessed a fair bit since ancient times. The new sign applies to everyone born between Nov. 29-Dec. 17 and all the other signs get shuffled up to make space. So you better check what you’ve got now. (I wasn’t so lucky, I got Cancer) Why might this appeal to Jeremy NArby? Take a look up in the skies. Ophiuchus is depicted as a skull consuming a snake!!!!

Ophichuseans like consuming drugs and communicating with the dead.

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About Caspar

Caspar Addyman has a BA in mathematics, a BSc in psychology and PhD in developmental psychology. He works at the CBCD at Birkbeck, University of London. Before becoming an infantologist he spent eight years writing trading systems in the City. He lives in Brixton, Berlin and Dijon. He never drinks the same drink twice in a night and dances without spilling a drop. Twitter: @BrainStraining
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