Food of the Gods
Terrence McKenna bravely proposed in his 1992 book, Fruit of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, that the psilocybin mushroom played an essential role in human evolution, aiding in the unprecedented rapid increase in the brain size of homo sapiens and the subsequent development of language, self-reflection, and imagination. It pains me to write that over 25 years after McKenna staked his bold claim, the prohibitive and irrational attitude toward psychedelic substances has prevented any possible research into its validity. Signs of change are eminent as evidenced by the recent decriminalization of psilocybin in Denver, Colorado; however, we have strayed so far from our roots, it will take an immense collective effort to rediscover our relationship to nature.
We humans have not changed very much biologically compared to 100,000 years ago, but during the three million years prior, the human brain roughly tripled in size. McKenna states, “My contention is that mutation-causing, psychoactive chemical compounds in the early human diet directly influenced the rapid reorganization of the brain’s information-processing capacities.” Why magic mushrooms? He details the characteristics required for a hypothetical “missing link”: the plant must be African, must be psychoactive in its natural state (in other words, no cooking or preparation is required to achieve its effects), and must be perpetually available and easily noticeable. A thorough process of elimination leaves us with psilocybe cubensis as the likely culprit. Psilocybin-containing mushrooms. The impetus of perception and consciousness. The catalyst for imagination and introspection. The Original Tree of Knowledge.
Even if you haven’t tried psilocybin mushrooms, or perhaps especially if you have, you’re probably wondering how a hallucinogen could have possibly had such an impact on human evolution. Psilocybin’s distinct properties explain its effects, which vary according to dosage. When taken in small enough doses, such that the psychoactive effect of the drug is virtually undetectable, psyilocybin generates an increase in visual acuity and sensory awareness. This method of ingestion is making a comeback, with individuals taking extremely small portions of LSD or psilocybin for its cognitive benefits, recently popularized by the term “microdosing”. McKenna posits that psilocybin-using hominids took advantage of these “chemical binoculars”, especially when hunting animals and foraging for plants. Increase the dosage slightly and psilocybin becomes an unrelenting stimulant of the central nervous system and can encourage social interaction and serve to increase sexual arousal. Lastly, when taken in larger quantities, psilocybin produces an indescribable experience of boundary-dissolving interconnectedness, both overwhelmingly euphoric and at times utterly terrifying. An entirely unique state of being that transcends language and consciousness.
You don’t have to be an evolutionary biologist to remain highly skeptical. How did one aspect of the human diet weave its way into the human genome? As humans integrated psilocybin-containing mushrooms into their diets, perhaps first unknowingly, its effects lasted much longer than the six to eight hour duration of the drug itself. McKenna explains, “The presence of psilocybin in the hominid diet changed the parameters of the process of natural selection by changing the behavioral patterns upon which that selection was operating.” He argues that non-psilocybin-using groups were therefore less efficient as hunter gatherers, less motivated to reproduce, and entirely lacking of the shared mystic or shamanistic cultural qualities of their peers. Thus, populations who consumed psilocybin endured and saw epigenetic modifications in behavior patterns and cultural environments which genetics ultimately reinforced over millennia.
Plant hallucinogens may be at least partially responsible for the birth of a characteristic that is above all else, most unique to us as humans: language. Yes, of course, other species have developed forms of communication, but the manner in which human beings can sustain coherent and meaningful dialogue is wholly unprecedented in nature. Also unprecedented is our capacity to retain said dialogue, not to mention incredibly vast amounts of data. Psilocybin specifically activates areas in the brain concerned with information-processing and the expansion of memory. It can also act as a catalyst for linguistic impulse. McKenna describes, “The structure of the soft palate in the human infant and timing of its descent is a recent adaptation that facilitates the acquisition of language.” We are the only primate to possess such a mutation, explained by selective pressure on genetic mutations from environmental factors. Knowing what we know now, it’s not hard to imagine the presence of psilocybin in the diet played a part.
“If the ego is not regularly and repeatedly dissolved in the unbounded hyperspace of the Transcendent Other, there will always be slow drift away from the sense of self as part of nature’s larger whole.”
It is impossible to feel true empathy and compassion for the plants and animals with which we share this planet without the learned practice of eliminating one’s ego. For three million years or so, civilizations prioritized community over self. However, since the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago, humans have abandoned the symbiotic relationship that bound us to nature in favor of an egocentric, dominator society; and in the process we’ve forgotten entirely our inherent responsibility to the planet and to each other. This abandonment has had devastating consequences: dominion replaced partnership, monotheism replaced animism, God replaced the Great Goddess, warfare replaced harmony, and so on. Hence, Mckenna argues, the only logical savior for the very existence of human civilization is a return to our roots, what he calls an Archaic Revival.
Our odds at achieving such Archaic Revival have been impeded greatly, both by the regressive attitudes toward plant hallucinogens and the many popular substitutes for them. Nostalgia for the Goddess-worshiping partnership societies that encouraged us to flourish for millennia led to an innate yearn for intoxication in the modern world. This yearn was satisfied, or worsened, depending on how you look at it, by numerous substances. Alcohol, described by McKenna as the single most destructive intoxicant in human history, is so deeply woven into today’s society it would seem impossible to be unlearned. Sugar, coffee, tea, opium and tobacco are highly addictive and, to varying degrees, detrimental to human health. These substances also gave way to slavery, corporate exploitation and domination, and the further obliteration of our ecosystem.
McKenna also outlines synthetic substances serving a similar, destructive purpose. Cocaine, heroin, pharmaceuticals and even television and technology, all of which encourage humans to stray further from nature and in turn, ourselves. The only intoxicant that comes remotely close to psilocybin, or any of the tryptamines for that matter, is cannabis. The subliminally psychedelic effects and even societal factors of cannabis use can diminish the power of ego, mitigate competitiveness, and promote the questioning of authority. The most promising sign in the reassessment of our attitude toward plant use is evidenced by the legalization of marijuana in some parts of the country.
The substances on Schedule 1 are not there because they are physically dangerous or harmful to our health. Otherwise, cyanide and arsenic would be strictly prohibited, and alcohol and cigarettes would certainly have heavier restrictions. This is far from reality. Only substances whose widespread use threatens the establishment and status quo are seen as dangerous, and thus made illegal. That we are denied the option to even possess, let alone consume potential agents of evolutionary change is likely to be a fatal disservice to human dignity, expediting our decline into abject loneliness and eventual totalitarianism.
“We have been too long asleep and shackled by the power we have ceded to the least noble parts of ourselves and the least noble among us. It is time that we stood up and faced the fact that we must and can change our minds.” The journey that is Food of the Gods concludes with McKenna’s plea for an Archaic Revival, centered on a drug policy aimed to educate the population and facilitate a relearning of our native past and our relationship to plants, the planet and each other. Only then can we remember that we are nature. Only then can we save us from ourselves.