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Interview of Jeremy Narby, author of 'The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins of Knowledge'

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Interviewed by Todd Stewart of Ascent Magazine

" The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins of Knowledge "

  Todd Stewart of Ascent Magazine (Canada) interviews Jeremy Narby
1.  Could you sum up your book "The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins
of Knowledge"?
Research indicates that shamans access an intelligence, which they
say is nature's, and which gives them information that has stunning
correspondences with molecular biology.
2.  Your hypothesis of a hidden intelligence contained within the
DNA of all living things is interesting. What is this intelligence?
Intelligence comes from the Latin inter-legere, to choose between.
There seems to be a capacity to make choices operating inside each cell
in our body, down to the level of individual proteins and enzymes. DNA
itself is a kind of "text" that functions through a coding system called
'genetic code', which is strikingly similar to codes used by human
beings.  Some enzymes edit the RNA transcript of the DNA text and add
new letters to it; any error made during this editing can be fatal to
the entire organism; so these enzymes are consistently making the right
choices; if they don't, something often goes wrong leading to cancer
and  other diseases.  Cells  send one another signals, in the form of
proteins and molecules. These signals mean: divide, or don't divide,
move, or don't move, kill yourself, or stay alive. Any one cell is
listening to hundreds of  signals at the same time, and has to
integrate  them and decide what to do. How this intelligence operates
is the  question.
3.  DNA has essentially maintained its structure for 3.5 billion
 years.  What role does DNA play in our evolution?
 DNA is a single molecule with a  double helix structure; it is two
complementary versions of the same "text" wrapped around each other;
this allows it to unwind and make copies of itself: twins! This
twinning  mechanism is at the heart of life since it began. Without it,
one cell  could not become two, and life would not exist. And, from one
generation  to the next, the DNA text can also be modified, so it
allows both  constancy and transformation. This means that  beings  can be the
same  and not the same. One of the mysteries is what drives the changes
in the  DNA text in evolution. DNA has apparently been around for
billions of  years in its current form in virtually all forms of life.
The old theory  -- random accumulation of errors combined with
natural selection  -- does not fully explain the data currently
generated by genome sequencing. The  question is  wide open.
4.  The structure of DNA as we know it is made up of letters and thus
has  a specific text and language. You could say our bodies are made
up of  language, yet we assume that speech arises from the mind. How do
we access this hidden language?
 By studying it. There are several roads to knowledge, including
 science and shamanism.
5.  The symbol of the Cosmic Serpent, the snake, is a central theme in
your story, and in your research you discover that the snake forms a
major part of the symbology across most of the world’s traditions and
religions. Why is there such a consistent system of natural symbols
in the world? Is the world inherently symbolic?
This is the observation that led me to investigate the cosmic
serpent. I found the symbol in shamanism all over the world. Why?
That's a good question. My hypothesis is that it is connected to the
double helix of DNA inside virtually all living beings. And DNA itself
is a symbolic Saussurian code. So, yes, in at least one important way,
the living world is inherently symbolic. We are made of living
6.  You write of how the ideology of “rational” science,
deterministic   thought, is and has been quite limiting in its approach
to new and  alternative scientific theories; it is assumed that
“mystery is the  enemy”. In your book you describe how you had to suspend your
judgement,  to “defocalize”, and in this way gain a deeper insight.
Why do you think  we are often limited in our rational, linear thought and
why are so few willing and able to cross these boundaries?
I don't believe we are. People spend hours each day thinking
non-rationally. Our emotional brain treats all the information we
receive before our neo-cortex does. Scientists are forever making
discoveries as they daydream, take a bath, go for a run, lay in bed,
and  so on.
7. What are the correspondences between the Peruvian shamans’ findings
and microbiology?

 Both shamans and molecular biologists agree that there is a hidden
unity under the surface of life's diversity; both associate this
unity with the  double helix shape (or two entwined serpents, a
twisted ladder, a spiral staircase, two vines wrapped around each
other); both consider that one must deal with this level of reality
in order to heal. One can  fill a book with  correspondences
between shamanism and molecular biology.
8.  Do you think there is not only an intelligence based in our DNA but
a consciousness as well?

I think we should attend to the words we use. "Consciousness"
carries different baggage than "intelligence." Many would define
human consciousness as different from, say, animal consciousness,
because humans are conscious of being conscious. But how do we know
that dolphins don't think about  being dolphins? I do not know
whether there is a "consciousness" inside our cells; for now, the
question seems out of reach; we have a hard enough time
understanding our own consciousness  -- though we use it most of
the time. I propose the concept of "intelligence" to describe what
proteins and  cells do, simply because it makes the data more
comprehensible. This concept will require  at least a decade or two
for biologists to consider and  test. Then, we might be able to
move along and consider the idea of a "cellular consciousness."
9. The implications of some of your findings in The Cosmic Serpent
 could be quite large.  How do you feel about the book and what it
says?  Why did you write the book?

 I wrote the book because I felt that certain things needed saying.
Writing a book is like sending out a message in a bottle: sometimes
one gets replies. Judging from the responses, a surprising number
of people have got the message loud and clear.

10. How can shamanism complement  modern science?

 Most definitions of "science" revolve around the testing of
hypotheses. Claude Levi-Strauss showed in his book "The savage mind"
that human beings have been carefully observing nature and endlessly
testing hypotheses for at least 10'000 years. This is how  animals and
plants were domesticated. Civilization rests on millennia of Neolithic
science. I think the science of shamans can complement modern science
by helping  make sense of the data it generates. Shamanism is like a
reverse camera relative to modern science.

11. The shamans were very spiritual people. Has any of this affected
you?  What is spiritual in your life?

 I don't use the word "spiritual"  to think about my life. I spend
my time promoting land titling projects and bilingual education for
indigenous people, and thinking about how to move knowledge forward
and how to open up understanding between people; I also spend time
with my children, and with children in my community (as a soccer
coach); and I look after the plants in my garden, without using
pesticides and so on. But I do this because I think it needs doing,
and because it's all I can do, but not because it's "spiritual."
The message I got from shamans was: do what you can for those
around you (including plants and animals), but don't make a big
deal of it.

Created 9/5/2001 18:54:00
Modified 9/5/2001 18:54:00
Leda version 1.4.3