Life, Consciousness, and Hallucinations


The Cosmic Serpent – DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby
Despite being some 17 years removed from an engineering career, I still find myself caught up occasionally in the delightful mental snares of reason, science, and technology. One of the issues that keeps cropping up when I rhapsodize with reason is the enigma of DNA. We know all life is constructed from DNA, that it’s prolific, intelligent, and indestructible. But something in the pit of my stomach kept telling me that DNA is something else again, something so special as to be set apart from the creations it’s able to make of itself. One night, surfing the subject on my iPhone turned up part of a paper on the subject by Jeremy Narby, an anthropologist. There was enough there to cause a text exchange between a friend and me, and the friend quickly presented the paper to me in book form. The Cosmic Serpent, etc.

What had jarred Narby’s tree loose, as it had mine while reading this book, is the experience of Amazonian shamans who are able to – and here I skip ahead – actually perceive life down to the level of DNA. This experience allows them to select plants and processes that can heal, can discriminate between specific uses, with no trial and error experimentation. How? The so-called hallucinations these shamans experience talk to them, teach them things. Incredulous? Darby certainly thought so in the beginning.


And so the book is a chronology of Narby’s attempts to piece together shamanic experiences with what science knows and is in the process of discovering about the sub-molecular world of life itself. I’m going quickly here, but Narby’s extrapolations are downright fascinating. In the end he was able to make connections between consciousness and DNA and the phenomenon of life.

Is his story complete? No. Darby has his theories, which do border on the incredulous, but he’s able to make tentative connections between DNA and knowledge. Has he been able to define and identify consciousness? No. Has he been able to identify the true spark of life? Not yet. But this work has taken him tantalizingly close to all these ultimate answers.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars



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