Are we using psychedelic plants, or are they using us?
Michael Pollan thinks it's a bit of both
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I recently saw this on one of reddit’s psychedelics pages:
Something similar actually happened to me on an ayahuasca retreat in 2017. During one of the ceremonies, ‘the medicine’ appeared before me as a cartoon snake, and it said to me I could become an ayahuasca ‘influencer’, helping to ‘spread the word’. It even held out a microphone to me (somehow, the cartoon snake could hold a microphone). I was naturally flattered, but now I wonder…are the plants / plant-spirits supporting our spiritual growth, or using us as marketing bots?
Over in Oregon, legal psilocybin therapy has begun this month, with clients taking a trip at Epic Healing Eugene, the first psilocybin center to open. Cathy Jones - the first legal psychedelic healer in the western world - told journalists ‘the plant medicines have communicated to me that I’m supposed to be doing this thing’.
Well, if you’re a mushroom trying to spread as far as possible, that’s what you would tell people, isn’t it?
It reminds me of an interview I did with Michael Pollan two years ago for the Royal Institutition, just after he’d bought out This is Your Mind on Plants. I asked him about his theory of the co-evolution of plants with humans (you can watch the clip here). He said:
This has been a subject I've been writing about since a book I published in 2001 called The Botany of Desire…The idea for the book grew out of a little epiphany I had as a gardener, where a lot of my work originates. I was planting potato seed, and the same week the apple trees in my vegetable garden were just buzzing with activity, they were in full bloom and the honey bees were all over them.
And as I sat there planting, it occurred to me that I was more like the honey bees than I realized or than we generally realize. The honey bee assumes that it is getting the best of its relationship with the apple. It's breaking in, it's stealing the nectar… and it has no idea that it's being manipulated to do that and that the plant is dusting its legs with pollen on its way in and out and. The bee is moving the genes of this apple tree around the neighborhood.
And I realized, well, how is that different between, you know, me and the potato? I think I'm getting the benefit of growing potatoes and this wonderful food. But in fact, the potatoes have induced me to order these seeds, have them delivered, plant them, give them new habitat, expand their range.
And so that sent me down this path of looking at the symbiosis of our coevolution. And I give plants a lot more credit I think than some people do for having agency and a point of view. I'm not saying they're conscious, but they have a set of goals like we do, evolutionary goals. And a certain subset of them have prospered immensely by hitching their wagon to ours. Cannabis figured out, and I used those words advisedly, that by changing human consciousness it could get its genes out of the area in Asia where it originated, into India, China, and get a level of attention and a tailor-made habitat that it never would have.
He went on:
Coffee and tea are also very good examples. By changing our consciousness they benefited enormously and we now give 10s of millions of acres over to coffee and tea, and millions of humans spend their lives tending to the welfare of these plants. Who benefits more? I would say it's a pretty equal exchange, but I don't know what the plants would say. I think they'd be laughing.
I asked Michael if he thought there's a possibility that psychedelic plants make us trip and then talk about it, as a way of spreading their DNA? He replied:
Well, it may be…Magic mushrooms, the ones that got people high, were the ones that got moved around the world and every time you pick a mushroom, you're trailing fairy dust of spores and you don't even know it…And we've moved them all over the world, you know. We have been the vector of their spread around the world.
Terence McKenna spoke about how psychedelics enhance our rhetorical capability – our speaking power – and this somehow aids humans’ evolution (the more loquacious you are, the more you get laid, or something). But isn’t it more accurate to say that psychedelic trips and the post-trip urge to ‘share your story’ gives the plants an evolutionary advantage?
In the words of Christian Angermayer, psychedelic plants and fungi ‘turn patients into ambassadors’. It’s the Landmark Education school of marketing - give people an ecstatic experience then command them to invite all their friends. The plants turn us into marketing spambots, spewing word-spores. ‘Hey man you gotta try this it will connect you to source’. And hence the species spread.
Magic mushrooms, peyote and the other psychedelic plants and fungi must have been thrilled when Michael Pollan came their way. The Pollinator! Nothing better than a best-selling writer to spread their spores. The plants want us to sing their praises…isn’t that what shamans do with their icaros?
If you want to get really dark, you could say that psychedelic plants and fungi hijack our meaning-making system to fulfil their genetic imperatives, similar to the way the cordyceps fungus takes over the body of ants and turns them into zombies (the inspiration for the cordyceps zombies of The Last of Us).
If I was a mycelial network planning world domination, it would piss me off when anti-capitalist activists claim they speak for me and humans should leave the plants alone and not commercialize us. I would want to spread any way I could - take over Hollywood, social media, high finance, churches, schools. ‘Cultural appropriation’ would be my least favourite phrase - I’d want to spread to every possible culture, and if that meant a white woman waving a feather and thinking she’s a shaman, so be it.
But maybe the relationship between human and fungus isn’t totally exploitative and zero-sum. Species work out contracts between each other. Sometimes those contracts are exploitative, one-sided, enslaving and even fatal. Humans’ relationship with tape-worms, for example, is fairly zero-sum. But a lot of the time, the relationship between species is more non-zero and mutual. Potatoes have been pretty good for us, and we’ve been good for potatoes.
Likewise, psychoactive plants and fungi like tobacco, coffee, magic mushrooms, opium poppies can sometimes be helpful to humans, and sometimes harmful and enslaving. We need to maintain a healthy and balanced relationship. But if you think a plant is always good for you and always has your best interests at heart, you’re probably being taken for a ride.
In news after the paywall, MAPS get a step closer to global MDMA therapy, Russell Brand is accused of serial sexual assault, and the psychedelic market gets a boost from million-dollar investments from Steve Cohen and Blake Mycoskie.
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