McKenna's "Stoned Ape" theory of human evolution

Excerpts from on-line documents in which McKenna discusses his theory


From an interview with Terence McKenna in High Times magazine:

HT: From your writings I have gleaned that you subscribe to the notion that psilocybin mushrooms are a species of high intelligence -- that they arrived on this planet as spores that migrated through outer space, and are attempting to establish a symbiotic relationship with human beings. In a more holistic perspective, how do you see this notion fitting into the context of Francis Crick's theory of directed panspermia, the hypothesis that all life on this planet and its directed evolution has been seeded, or perhaps fertilized, by spores designed by a higher intelligence?

TM: As I understand the Crick theory of panspermia, it's a theory of how life spread through the universe. What I was suggesting -- and I don't believe it as strongly as you imply -- is that intelligence, not life, but intelligence may have come here in this spore-bearing life form. This is a more radical version of the panspermia theory of Crick and Ponampurama. In fact I think that theory will probably be vindicated. I think in a hundred years if people do biology they will think it quite silly that people once thought that spores could not be blown from one star system to another by cosmic radiation pressure. As far as the role of the psilocybin mushroom, or its relationship to us and to intelligence, this is something that we need to consider. It really isn't important that I claim that it's an extraterrestrial, what we need is a body of people claiming this, or a body of people denying it, because what we're talking about is the experience of the mushroom. Few people are in a position to judge its extraterrestrial potential, because few people in the orthodox sciences have ever experienced the full spectrum of psychedelic effects that are unleashed. One cannot find out whether or not there's an extraterrestrial intelligence inside the mushroom unless one is willing to take the mushroom.

HT: You have a unique theory about the role that psilocybin mushrooms play in the process of human evolution. Can you tell us about this?

TM: Whether the mushrooms came from outer space or not, the presence of psychedelic substances in the diet of early human beings created a number of changes in our evolutionary situation. When a person takes small amounts of psilocybin visual acuity improves. They can actually see slightly better, and this means that animals allowing psilocybin into their food chain would have increased hunting success, which means increased food supply, which means increased reproductive success, which is the name of the game in evolution. It is the organism that manages to propagate itself numerically that is successful. The presence of psilocybin in the diet of early pack-hunting primates caused the individuals that were ingesting the psilocybin to have increased visual acuity. At slightly higher doses of psilocybin there is sexual arousal, erection, and everything that goes under the term arousal of the central nervous system. Again, a factor which would increase reproductive success is reinforced.

HT: Isn't it true that psilocybin inhibits orgasm?

TM: Not at the doses I'm talking about. At a psychedelic dose it might, but at just slightly above the "you can feel it" dose, it acts as a stimulant. Sexual arousal means paying attention, it means jumpiness, it indicates a certain energy level in the organism. And then, of course, at still higher doses psilocybin triggers this activity in the language-forming capacity of the brain that manifests as song and vision. It is as though it is an enzyme which stimulates eyesight, sexual interest, and imagination. And the three of these going together produce language-using primates. Psilocybin may have synergized the emergence of higher forms of psychic organization out of primitive protohuman animals. It can be seen as a kind of evolutionary enzyme, or evolutionary catalyst.

HT: There is a lot of current interest in the ancient art of sound technology. In a recent article you said that in certain states of consciousness you're able to create a kind of visual resonance and manipulate a "topological manifold" using sound vibrations. Can you tell us more about this technique, its ethnic origins, and potential applications?

TM: Yes, it has to do with shamanism that is based on the use of DMT in plants. DMT is a near- or pseudo-neurotransmitter, that when ingested and allowed to come to rest in the synapses of the brain, allows one to see sound, so that one can use the voice to produce, not musical compositions, but pictoral and visual compositions. This, to my mind, indicates that we're on the cusp of some kind of evolutionary transition in the language-forming area, we are going to go from a language that is heard, to a language that is seen, through a shift in interior processing. The language will still be made of sound, but it will be processed as the carrier of the visual impression. This is actually being done by shamans in the Amazon. The songs they sing sound as they do in order to look a certain way. They are not musical compositions as we're used to thinking of them. They are pictoral art created by audio signals.


From "Alien Dreamtime," a multimedia event

History is ending, because the dominator culture has led the human species into a blind alley. And as the inevitable chaostrophe approaches, people look for metaphors and answers. Every time a culture gets into trouble, it casts itself back into the past looking for the last sane moment it ever knew. And the last sane moment we ever knew was on the plains of Africa, 15,000 years ago, rocked in cradle of the great horned mushroom goddess before history. Before standing armies, before slavery and property, before warfare and phonetic alphabets and monotheism. Before, before, before. And this is where the future is taking us. Because the secret faith of the 20th century is not modernism. The secret faith of the 20th century is nostalgia for the archaic, nostalgia for the Paleolithic, and that gives us body piercing, abstract expressionism, surrealism, jazz, rock and roll, and Catastrophe Theory. The 20th century mind is nostalgic for the paradise that once existed on the mushroom-dotted plains of Africa, where the plant-human symbiosis occurred that pulled us out of the animal body and into the tool-using, culture-making, imagination-exploring creature that we are.

And why does this matter? It matters because it shows that the way out is back, and that the future is a forward escape into the past. This is what the psychedelic experience means. It's a doorway out of history and into the wiring under the board in eternity. And I tell you this because if the community understands what it is that holds it together, the community will be better able to streamline itself for flight into hyperspace. Because what we need is a new myth. What we need is a new true story that tells us where were going in the universe. And that true story is that the ego is a product of pathology and that when psilocybin is regularly part of the human experience, the ego is suppressed. And the suppression of the ego means the defeat of the dominators, the materialists, the product peddlers. Psychedelics return us to the inner worth of the self, to the importance of feeling immediate experience. And nobody can sell that to you and nobody can buy it from you, so the dominator culture is not interested in the felt presence of immediate experience. But that's what holds the community together. And as we break out of the silly myths of science and the infantile obsessions of the marketplace, what we discover through the psychedelic experience is that in the body -- in the body -- there are Niagaras of beauty, alien beauty, alien dimensions that are part of the self, the richest part of life.


From an interview with Terence McKenna in Mondo 2000:

TM: I think we should look at the impact of diet and realize that what you eat changes the parameters of the environment that is selecting you. I found no discussion of the impact of diet on human evolution, and yet at the very moment that the great [primate] evolutionary leaps were being made, there was a transformation of the diet towards omnivorousness-meat-eating, predation-away from the fructarian original state.

I'm not saying that civilization fucked up what was otherwise a naturally-occurring politically correct situation. There was a period when, because of the presence of psilocybin in the diet, the natural tendency to male dominance hierarchies was interrupted. It was in that moment that community values, altruism, language, long-term planning, awareness of cause and effect, all the things that distinguish us were established. Then, as the mushroom became less available due to climatological factors, after 15,000 years of this human-mushroom quasi-symbiosis, the old dominance hierarchy hard-wiring re-asserted itself in the ancient Middle East with the invention of agriculture, the need to become sedentary in order to carry out agriculture, the need to defend surplus, the establishment of kingship. These are a re-assertion of an older pattern that had been interrupted by a factor in the diet which basically made people mellow.

M2: Did that interruption occur throughout the entire human genome, or are there areas which would have been outside the mushroom Garden?

TM: People have been migrating out of Africa during each interglacial. I think the mushroom was having an effect in Africa over the last three million years, but what really kicked the process into high gear was that during the last interglacial, true pastoralism evolved. All previous migrations out of Africa were the migrations of hunter/gatherers. The migration that began at the melting of the last glaciation about 18,000 years ago, were the first herders out of Africa. It's the cattle/human/mushroom triad that reinforces the partnership, non-dominant, orgiastic style.

I talk in the book about how apparently at a certain point in the evolution of human cognition, cause removed from effect became something that people noticed. At the very moment that men were realizing that the consequences of sex were children 9 months later, women were realizing that the consequences of tossing trash onto middens was food availability in those very spots 12 months later. This ability to correlate a cause with a delayed effect indicates a certain level of neurological processing that sets the stage for the suppression of orgy. Because the suppression of orgy is linked to a concern for male paternity. Before you know that sex leads to children, all children are the tribe's children. Women know who their children are, but for men, children are group resources. Once you put the male paternity thing together, the notion of ownership soon follows. The idea is that psilocybin is an egolytic compound, that orgies every new and full moon, everybody screwing in a heap, makes it impossible to form these notions of my women, my children, my weapons, my food, and so forth.

M2: What do you mean by the term ego?

TM: I'm assuming a Jungian vocabulary. The ego is not the self. The ego is a nexus of strategies for short-term gain at the expense of group values and even long-term personal gain.

M2: If for the North African herders the primate hierarchical programs were broken down by mushrooms, would it be correct to say that the European Paleolithic hunters on the edge of the ice sheet ~20,000 B.C. would still have the primate hierarchical programs because they had no access to mushrooms?

TM: Right. Basically, this mellowness was an African style, and it could only sustain itself as long as there was a plentiful supply of mushrooms and a religious institution that insisted on it being used.

Here's the scenario: You have this climax Edenic partnership society based on orgies and mushrooms and herding, and the drying continues. The mushroom becomes less plentiful. It becomes localized. It becomes seasonal. The mushroom festivals become further and further apart. Eventually this is recognized; there is an anxiety to preserve the mushroom. The obvious strategy then is to put it into honey. But honey itself has the capacity to turn into a psychoactive substance, mead, a crude alcohol. So what begins as a mushroom cult, through a sincere effort to preserve the mushroom cult, turns into a mead cult a few thousand years later. Because the mushrooms are spread thinner and thinner, and the honey is more and more the focus. But look at the consequences of an alcohol cult. Alcohol lowers sensitivity to social cueing while it increases a false sense of verbal facility. So, it sets the stage for boorish behavior. From that comes the suppression of women as part of this bronze-tipped spear/grain surplus/city-building kingship/standing armies/turf-defending mentality that we find in the so-called proto-civilizations.

M2: OK, we've had first-hand experience with the tryptamine linguistic phenomena, so your language acquisition hypothesis is certainly as plausible as any other theory, more so, since it can point to a mechanism. Otherwise you have to take on faith that some miracle happened to create self-reflection and linguistic capabilities.

What evidence is there for the orgiastic, cooperator model? Certainly the ecological catastrophe when the last glaciers retreated made war a survival skill. In Northern Europe when all the game was hunted out, the skilled hunters started hunting the people on the other side of the hill. In the Middle East it was agriculture and grain surplus, as you say. So why hierarchy and violence become successful strategies is very clear. What is the evidence for the Edenic partnership model, and is such an extreme position necessary for your theory?

TM: Well, the evidence is two-fold: first of all, the kind of attitudes you find in African nomadic herders today; for instance, the only time anybody ever offered me his wife was when when I stayed with the Masai. Good hospitality dictates that the youngest wife spend the night with the guest.

M2: But these are wives owned by a particular husband.

TM: That's right. But still there is clearly a different attitude toward these women. They are not exclusively accessed by the husband. [no, he can hand them around to other men -- is this a partnership mode of behavior? -G]

The other thing is the great horned Goddess, found throughout Paleolithic history -- why horned? Cattle are the key, because cattle establish the presence of the mushroom. Cattle-based nomadism and horse-mounted nomadism are absolutely antithetical, because horse-mounted nomadism is based on an economy of plunder. Cattle-based nomadism is based on establishing a stable environment that is moving over a large area.

M2: Does that necessitate a partnership society as opposed to any other kind of social organization? It's the black and white dichotomy we're having trouble with.

TM: Well, it probably was not as black and white as I paint it because there must have been residual carry-over from this early level of primate programming. That's why I think a key feature is the mushroom religion and the frequency of these practices. Because I think the ego will begin to form in the personality very quickly in the absence of psilocybin. You have to keep re-inoculating yourself against what is essentially an anti-social idea in those contexts. It's amazing to me that the male love of nookie would stand aside for the male love of property and dominance. That orgies were ever suppressed shows how strongly that must have been felt. They said, "A good time is fine, but the really important thing is to control women and property."

M2: There are two things that I would disagree with there. You assume that men make all the sexual decisions, not taking into account how much women choose their mates, even in a hierarchical society. And I'm not sure I see the direct connection between psilocybin use and orgiastic sexuality.

TM: Psilocybin creates arousal. So in a society exempt of Christian paranoia this group arousal would just naturally turn into orgy. If you're getting people together at every new and full moon and getting them loaded, they're going to fuck.

M2: OK, but why in orgies?

TM: Basically, because it's a boundary-dissolving stimulant. It would be interesting to give chimpanzees mushrooms and see whether they go into the corner of their cage and turn their faces away or whether they all jump each other.

M2: Is there a dosage issue here also?

TM: Well, there's a series of ascending doses. At very low doses you get measurable increases in visual acuity. This is the foot in the door from which all other consequences flow. Because that will select against non-psilocybin using members of the population, because they are less successful at hunting, less successful at feeding their offspring and bringing them to reproductive age. So on the next level you get arousal and sexual activity: a second factor selecting against non-using members of the population because they are fucking less, presumably.

M2: But at visionary doses you don't want to do anything but watch.

TM: At visionary doses you become subject to glossolalia and language-forming activities. It's possible to imagine all three of these things happening to a single individual in a single afternoon. You take it at 4:00pm. In the first hour, you kill an antelope that you have keenly observed; in the next hour you eat it with your mate and have great sex; and following that you're swept away by a psychedelic experience. That's a little extreme, but you can see how this could be happening on all levels.

M2: There's still a leap of faith in your description of the cultural complex. As psychedelic pagans in a long-term, sexually open, partnership relationship, we're close to your audience in many respects. But the discussion about dominator and partnership cultures reads like dogmatic preaching about good vs. bad cultures.

TM: Well, not good cultures and bad, but adaptive and mal-adaptive. Pastoral nomadism is clearly a viable, open-ended strategy. [until you overgraze the grasslands and the desert advances -G.] The dominator thing can't be run for more than 3 or 4,000 years before you are where we are: with limited resources, aggression carried beyond any reasonable level -- It may be dogmatic --

M2: What is the dominator thing? Why not use existing terminology: authoritarianism, uptightness, sexual repression, totalitarianism, violence, etc. I guess that reading the book it's very hard for me to understand how I distinguish between Joe Stalin and John Kennedy.

TM: I think by this theory these guys are comrades-in-arms.

M2: That's where I have a problem. What have we done right in the last 10,000 years, as opposed to what is wrong and should be thrown away?

TM: Well, the answer is very little, consciously. It's almost as though we have designed culture as a suicide machine of some sort.

M2: Would you include Galileo, Locke, Voltaire and Jefferson in that?

TM: Yes and no. It depends on the frame. In the European Enlightenment, these are the heroes. But the Enlightenment is a necessary response to medievalism and the Christian eschaton. So there has been progress, but always within the terms of the dominator culture. There's always been a fifth column, or a critical community or an underground. But notice how hard it is to push this agenda forward. You couldn't get people to sign on to the Bill of Rights right now.

M2: You couldn't get people to sign on to the Bill of Rights the first time. It was pushed through by an intellectual elite.

TM: Who were probably homosexuals, and therefore infected with this unconscious feminizing element.

M2: So the Bill of Rights is not an artifact of dominator culture but a resistance to it?

TM: Freeing slaves, the universal rights of man are feminist attitudes. So is anything that erodes the idea that the king at the center of the mandala city is the absolute arbiter of what should happen.

The fall away from the Edenic state in Africa didn't end at Sumer or Greece or Rome or Paris in the 1760's. It's still going on. So we're still losing touch even as we're reaching out to gain touch again. I think that the endpoint of male dominance is not even fascism but Naziism, where there's a racial element as well. Fascism, the only authentic political philosophy adumbrated in the 20th Century, is the greatest distance from what we're trying to get to. I think society will definitely embrace fascism if it feels threatened by a return to Gaianic style.

M2: You're talking in terms of we and it and society. What happens to the individual? There is a difference between Napoleon and John Stuart Mill. But your book bashes Western Civilization without making clear which concepts are the "ideals of a democratic society going forward into the future," and which are characteristic of a dominator culture.

TM: I guess the difference that we're uncovering here is that it sounds like you think it's 50/50, and I'm saying 95% of it was bunk. [We think 99% of human history was horrifying, but that key ideas and concepts were developed that are absolutely necessary to bail us out, including the scientific empirical foundation for Terence's ideas -G&Z] I think that anything that went on under the aegis of monotheism is horseshit.

M2: Most definitely. However, you point out that the polytheistic Hindus have a more feminist religion, yet in terms of the individual behavior of individual people towards women in that society -- I sure won't sign up for that gig.

TM: Well, their problem is not monotheism. There's more than one way to fuck yourself up. Their problem is essentially a phonetic alphabet. The phonetic alphabet empowers a distancing and an abstracting from natural phenomena that is probably equal in power to what happens in monotheism. It's just that in the case of the West, we got a full dose of both. There are non-phonetic ways to create sophisticated data bases -- the Chinese --

M2: Is the high Chinese culture a partnership society?

TM: More so than the West. If you look at the structure of Chinese marriage in the Tang dynasty, there's definitely male dominance, but on the other hand, shadow institutions were created to mitigate that dominance that we would never tolerate in the West. For instance, concubinage was tolerated in China, but the price paid for it was the right of inheritance of the primary wife and her control of the household. So there were trade-offs.

M2: Would it be fair to say that the biochemical matrix in which any human culture swims is shiftable by ideas, by ingestibles -- food or drugs -- and that there is a shifting center?

TM: Yeah, and it's not randomly driven. A lot of this stuff is dictated by the vicissitudes of botany. The fact that the European continent was so poor in boundary-dissolving hallucinogens allowed the phonetic alphabet and the city-building kingship style to never really be challenged [except in 1600, 1789, 1848, 1918, 1991?-Z].

The Maya, for example, are a different situation. They clearly had to accommodate to living in tropical rain forests replete with hallucinogenic drugs. They were still able to organize slave labor and have kingship and warfare. But the very baroque, ritual nature of it -- the way that Venus regulated their warfare up until the collapse of the Proto-Classic phase -- meant that other factors were mitigating these tendencies. And I'm sure that it was probably the dependency of the elite on hallucinogens. The level of adornment in these vase paintings indicates to me that the elite was probably homosexual in style and thereby feminized. And there are many powerful women in the lineage of the Mayan royalty.

All of these societies that have arisen in the context of what we call civilization are not models for what we want to do. It's an incredibly radical rejection to say everything from Sumer, essentially all of history, is a mistake. History itself is a mistake. The archaic revival, if carried out to any degree at all, would mark the most radical reconstruction of civilization that's ever taken place.

M2: Do you propose giving up science and technology and the few accomplishments of history? Would you would be happiest going back to being a Paleolithic pastoralist?

TM: No, I think it's a forward escape. With 3-5 billion people on the earth we are not going to return to pastoral herding on the plains of anywhere. What can we take from that model and preserve?

My idea of the perfect future is: The scene opens on a world that appears totally primitive. People are naked, people are orgiastic, people are nomadic. But when they close their eyes there are menus hanging in space. Culture has been internalized. Culture is supposed to be internalized. All this talk about virtual reality -- people don't seem to notice -- this is a virtual reality. These are all ideas -- ideas that have been forced into matter so that we could live in a reconstruction of our imagination. And de-constructing these virtual realities in which we live is the only way to get back to some sort of baseline of what it is to be human. And then you can carry culture with you. Culture was never meant to be materially realized. Culture is an intellectual object like a philosophy or a belief system.

M2: The ultimate Platonistic statement there.

TM: Well, it's an attractor around which we orbit.


From "Timewave Zero and Language:"

....Everybody's chattering, screeching, crawling over each other, clamoring for your attention, and under sufficiently hyped-up conditions, you are able to reply in a kind of spontaneous glossolalia. There's a bit of art in making this peculiar pseudo-linguistic stream of syllables, and when you're stoned, it's an incredibly pleasurable experience.

I think that this glossolalia is probably mixed up with the generation of language itself. In other words, we probably invented language long before meaning, and it was some very practical person who got the idea that the words could have meaning. Before that, language was primarily verbal amusement. After all, the most readily at hand musical instrument is the human voice. Sound is an incredibly powerful transducer of energy that we haven't really come to terms with. When we put a test tube in which a chemical reaction is going on, into a square wave generator and bombard it with very high amplitude sounds, we find that these sounds drive the chemical reaction faster, as if sound were an enzyme. When people are loaded to the gills on ayahuasca, they do the same thing. They sing for hours and sonically drive these states, navigating through a world of vocal landscapes that come forth from sound.


From a transcript of a talk given in New York:

We are like creatures caught in a interrupted embryogenesis: halfway to angelhood, the worst among us somehow got control of the social agenda, and we've been hammering on each other with monotheism, racism, sexism, materialism, for the past 10,000 years. We betrayed the aboriginal intellect, the aboriginal intelligence, that existed for probably a hundred thousand years with drama, with poetry, with altruism, with courage, with self-sacrifice -- with all the higher values that we think of as human -- but without the devastatingly toxifying habits of Western Man: slavery, city-building, kingship, and, the three M's -- monogamy, monotony, and monotheism...

No, see, here's the thing: back when mushrooms and nomadism ruled the world, monogamy was traded in for an orgiastic social style. And what's interesting about orgy -- besides that -- is that in an orgiastic situation, men cannot trace lines of male paternity. And consequently, loyalty goes to the children of the group. It's a tremendous force for group cohesion that the men collectively transfer their loyalty to the children as a collective group. And it creates a very tightly-knit social unit....

Here's the problem, as I see it. For a very long time, as we evolved out of the animal nature, perhaps a hundred thousand years, psilocybin was part of our diet and our rituals and our religion. And though those individuals taking the psilocybin didn't know it, it was having a very profound effect upon them. What it was doing was it was suppressing a primate behavior that is so basic to primates that it goes clear back to squirrel monkeys. And what that behavior is is a tendency to form what are called male-dominance hierarchies. And we all know what this is, because it bedevils our own political situation, and our own effort to create a reasonable society. But there was a great long period in the human past when this tendency was pharmacologically suppressed, in the same way that you would give Prozac to somebody to suppress a tendency to manic-depression. In other words, what the shamans of the High Paleolithic figured out was how to medicate people so that they would live together in harmony, decency, and dignity.

The problem is, that that strategy depended upon the simultaneity of psilocybin intoxication and the orgiastic sexual style that I talked about earlier. And when the mushrooms ceased to be available, men and women were simultaneously becoming able to coordinate cause and effect, to the point that women were realizing that when they returned in their yearly wanderings to old camps, there would be food growing in the discard piles. And at the same time, men were realizing that the consequences of the sex act was the birth of a child. In other words, there came a certain point in human intellectual maturity when a distant cause and its effect were finally connected, and at that moment, agriculture was born. And agriculture was born as a response to the drying of the African continent. And we -- literally -- we fell into history.

You've heard me talk about Genesis as the story of history's first drug bust. It was history's first drug bust. I mean, that story is the story of the suppression of an earlier, feminine-driven mushroom religion. And once we stopped taking psilocybin, that old, old primate behavior pattern -- male dominance -- reasserted itself. But now, not in an animal species, but in a species with language, technology, agriculture, strategic planning, memory, recall, so forth and so on. And we used the re-emergence of that tendency to establish cities, kingship, slavery, property -- the whole grab bag of pathologies that characterize Western civilization were born around the re-emergence of male dominance....

We have an itch that we can't scratch, until we make our way back to the primary chemical mediator of our human-ness. And that was -- I'm convinced -- psilocybin. And that this is the missing link; this would allow us to understand the sudden doubling of the human brain in less than a million and a half years -- one of the great mysteries of evolutionary theory -- so forth and so on. And the fact that the society is so anxious on this subject is an indication that this is the real taboo. We have found it. This is it. And therefore, it has to be brought out of the closet. And it wouldn't hurt for us to come out of the closet. I mean, when we are secretive, when we deny it, we are carrying out the Man's work for him. They don't have to arrest us if we're willing to be our own guards and police. It's absurd. This is part of your birthright. It is part of our lives. We pay taxes; we're legitimate. And it should not be swept under the rug. Are we going to be the last minority on this planet to claim its civil rights? Why? When what we represent is an impulse back toward the aboriginal totality that gives life meaning....


From an interview published in New History magazine:

NH: Can you briefly explain the theory you put forth in Food of the Gods?

Terence McKenna: The primate tendency to form dominance heirarchies was temporarily interrupted for about 100,000 years by the psilocybin in the paleolithic diet. This behavioral style of male dominance was chemically interrupted by psilocybin in the diet, so it allowed the style of social organization called partnership to emerge, and that that occured during the period when language, altruism, planning, moral values, esthetics, music and so forth -- everything associated with humanness -- emerged during that period. About 12,000 years ago, the mushrooms left the human diet because they were no longer available, due to climatological change and the previous tendency to form dominance heirarchies re-emerged. So, this is what the historic dilemma is: we have all these qualities that were evolved during the suppression of male dominance that are now somewhat at loggerheads with the tendency of society in a situation of re-established male dominance. The paleolithic situation was orgiastic and this made it impossible for men to trace lines of male paternity, consequently there was no concept of 'my children' for men. It was 'our children' meaning 'we, the group.' This orgiastic style worked into the effects of higher doses of psilocybin to create a situation of frequent boundary dissolution. That's what sexuality is, on one level, about and it's what psychedelics, on another level, are about. With the termination of this orgiastic, mushroom using style of existence, a very neurotic and repressive social style emerged which is now worldwide and typical of western civilization.

NH: In what sense did the mushroom influence or create an orgiastic state?

Terence McKenna: All central nervous system stimulants create what's called 'arousal', which means restlessness. In highly sexed animals like primates, it also means sexual arousal. So, psilocybin was a stimulant to sexual activity. In an evolutionary context, the more sex you have, the more outbreeding you have of those members of the population that are not experiencing this stimulation. So, on one level, at the lowest dose, psilocybin increases visual acuity, which means better success at hunting. Then, at the middle dose level, it creates this hypersexual activity. Then, at still higher doses it creates the full-blown psychedelic experience, about which we are as uninformed and as easily amazed as our remote ancestors were. So, it was a 3 step process. It was basically a chemical that had been allowed into the diet that boosted us toward boundary dissolution, language acquisition, sexuality without boundaries, and so on. With those behaviors in place, humanness emerged. Then, as the mushroom faded from climatological reasons, in a sense we became schizophrenic. The bestial nature, the animal nature, that had been suppressed by the psilocybin in the diet, re-emerged, so you get male dominance, standing armies, kingship, walled cities, the whole bit that leads to western civilization.

NH: What is the place of set and setting in the arousal response?

Terence McKenna: In the primitive context, I think, probably, there were orgies which were regulated by the lunar phases. In other words, orgies at the new and full moon.

Basically, I think of the ego like a tumor or a calcarious growth in the psyche that will form unless there is the presence of psilocybin. For a hundred thousand years, nobody went longer than a month without having this boundary-dissolving experience. After the psilocybin faded, the ego was able to get hold and then eventually redefine the whole personality around it. It's a maladaptive response, I think, because it leads to the consequences we see all around us.

NH: At what age would the psilocybin be introduced to prevent the ego from forming?

Terence McKenna: We're just speculating here -- nobody knows -- but I imagine that it could well have an initiatory rite at puberty, or it could have come even earlier. Also, we're talking a long period of time, as much, perhaps, as half a million years, that this was happening. So it may have started out that psilocybin mushrooms were just edible mushrooms, an item in the diet, and only when you ate a lot did you discover that they were also stimulants and psychoactive. Then, as you approach more recent times, they were obviously institutionalized into a kind of goddess worshiping, cattle worshiping, orgiastic religion.

NH: Are you suggesting that paleolithic shrooms were less potent than those that present-day psychedelic users consume?

Terence McKenna: No, I'm just suggesting that as human intellectual capacities evolved, people went from unconsciously getting loaded and being stimulated by these things, to actually realizing that the mushroom was what was behind it, and then to consciously seek them out for those kinds of experiences.


From an interview published in Omni magazine:

MCKENNA: Psilocybin and DMT are chemically near relatives. My book is about the history of drugs; it tries to show drugs' cultural and personality-shaping impact. People have attempted - - unsuccessfully -- to answer the question of how our minds and consciousness evolved from the ape. They've tried all kinds of things to account for this evolution, but to my mind, the key unlocking this great mystery is the presence of psychoactive plants in the diet of early man.

OMNI: What led you to this startling conclusion?

MCKENNA: Orthodox evolutionary theory tells us that small adaptive advantages eventually become genetically scripted into a species. The species builds upon this minute change to further its adaptive advantage until ultimately it out breeds all of its competitors for a particular niche or environment.

OMNI: So prehistoric humans got a leg up on the apes by ingesting a drug?

MCKENNA: Yes. Lab work shows that psilocybin eaten in amounts so small that it can't be detected, as an experience, increases visual acuity. In the Sixties, Roland Fisher at the National Institute of Mental Health gave graduate students psilocybin and then a battery of eye tests. His results indicated that edges were visually detected more readily if a bit of psilocybin was present in the student's body. Well, edge detection is exactly what hunting animals in the grassland environments use to observe distant prey! So here you have this chemical factor; when added to the diet, it results in greater success in hunting. That, in turn, results in greater success in child rearing and so increases the size of the next generation.

As we descended from the trees and into the grasslands, began to experiment with bipedal gait and omnivorous diet, we encountered mushrooms. At low does, they increase visual acuity; at midrange, they cause general central-nervous system arousal, which in a highly sexed primate means a lot of horsing around, which means there is more pregnancy among females associated with psilocybin-using behavior. Higher dosages of psilocybin leads to group sexuality and dissolved boundaries between ecstasy. We can assume that as the level of ingestion became high enough, egoless states were quite common.

The way I analyze the modern predicament -- pollution, male dominance, there are a million ways to say it -- the overriding problems are brought on by the existence of the ego, a maladaptive behavioral complex in the psyche that gets going like a tumor. If it's not treated -- if there's not pharmacological intervention -- it becomes the dominant constellation of the personality.

OMNI: How did all this play out?

MCKENNA: From 75,000 to about 15,000 years ago, there was a kind of human paradise on Earth. People danced, sang, had poetry, jokes, riddles, intrigue, and weapons, but they didn't possess the notion of ego as we've allowed it to crystallize in Western societies. The reason for this lack of ego was a social style of mushroom taking and an orgiastic sexual style that was probably lunar in its timing. Nobody went more than three or four weeks before they were redissolved into pure feeling and boundary dissolution. Community, loyalty, altruism, self-sacrifice -- all these values that we take to be the basis of humanness -- arose at the time in a situation in which the ego was absent.

OMNI: If this was all so wonderful, why did it end?

MCKENNA: The most elegant explanation is that the very force that created the original breakthrough swept away its conditions. The climatological drying of Africa forced us out of the forest canopy, onto the grasslands, and into bipedalism and omnivorous diets. We lived in that paradisiacal grasslands situation, but the climate was slowly getting drier. Mushrooms began to be less available. There could've been many strategies for obtaining mushrooms, all detrimental. The first would be to do it only at great holidays, and only a certain class of people -- shamans, for example.

Eventually the mushroom only existed around water holes in the rain shadows of certain mountains; finally, the mushroom was gone. At that moment, under great pressure from the drying climate, agriculture was invented. Agriculture represents an intellectual understanding of how cause and effect can be separated in time. You return to last year's camp, look where you discarded the trash, and there all in one place are the food planets you so carefully gathered. Women, the gatherers, put this together: Wow! Bury food, come back a year later, and it's there. This was a watershed in the development of abstract thought.

At the same time, men were understanding that the sex act, previously associated with this group orgiastic stuff, was the equivalent of burying food and coming back a year later! Male paternity is recognized as a phenomenon. The road to hell is paved -- eight lanes! -- from that point on. The man thinks my - - my children, not our children -- and therefore, animals I kill are food for my woman and my children. Woman are seen as property. The ego is rampant and in full force.

OMNI: How does data on psilocybin support your theory?

MCKENNA: Well, here's the problem: Psilocybin, discovered in 1953, not chemically characterized until 1957, became illegal in 1966. The window of opportunity to study this drug in humans was only nine years. People working with psilocybin never dreamed they'd be forbidden by law to work in this area. When LSD was first released into the psychotherapeutic community, it swept through the physics community. People thought, "Ah-ha! Now we're going to understand mental illness, trauma, and obsession, this being only the first of a family of drugs that will lead to an operational understanding of the genesis and curing of neuroses!"

When the scientific establishment was informed that there would be no government-grant support for psychedelic research, they just bowed their fuzzy heads and went along with it. The consequences of their failure to stand up to that decision is a mangled society and a science that hasn't fulfilled it's agenda. In no other instance has science laid down so gutlessly and allowed the state to tell it how to do its business.

I'm not trying to make a revolution in primate archaeology or theories of human emergence. My scenario, if true, has enormous implications. For 10,000 years, with the language and social skills of angels, we've pursued an agenda of beasts and demons. Human beings created an altruistic communal society; then, by withdrawing the psilocybin or having it become unavailable, we've had nothing to fall back upon except old primate behaviors, all tooth-and-claw dominance.


From a transcript of a talk given in New York:

Q: This is not a culture question, it's a drug question. What do think is the evolutionary advantage that led to addiction, and why does it still persist? What's the purpose of addiction? I have my answers, but I'd like to hear from you.

TM: This touches a big subject for me, and some of you are familiar with my position on this. I think that psilocybin in the earlier human diet interfered with the ordinary primate tendency to form gender-based hierarchies, and that we actually medicated male dominance out of our behavioral repertoire during the period in which we were evolving language and culture and humor and theater and that sort of thing. Then later, when the psilocybin came unstuck from the human enterprise because of climatological change, this kind of abuse syndrome arose, because there was a sense of having had a relationship that was interrupted. And this is why human beings addict to countless substances, and behaviors, and each other, and political ideologies. In a way ideologies are drug fixes, because they fix some certain kind of mental disequilibrium. You just give yourself a shot of Marxism or Hegelian idealism and say, "Oh, that makes the pain go away!" [laughter]

But that's what it is: it's disequilibrium brought on by being torn from the Gaian matrix, by having an early pseudo-symbiotic relationship with mushrooms interrupted. How about that?


From a transcript of a talk given at the Esalen Institute:

....There is something going on with these compounds that is not part of the normal presentational spectrum of hallucinogenic drug experience. When one begins to experiment with one's voice, unanticipated phenomena become possible. One experiences glossolalia, although unlike classical glossolalia, which has been studied. Students of classical glossolalia have measured pools of saliva eighteen inches across on the floors of South American churches where people have been kneeling. After classical glossolalia has occurred, the glossolaliasts often turn to ask the people nearby, "Did I do it? Did I speak in tongues?" This hallucinogen-induced phenomenon isn't like that; it's simply a brain state that allows the expression of the assembly language that lies behind language, or a primal language of the sort that Robert Graves discussed in The White Goddess, or a Kabbalistic language of the sort that is described in the Zohar, a primal "ur sprach" that comes out of oneself. One discovers one can make the extradimensional objects -- the feeling-toned, meaning-toned, three-dimensional rotating complexes of transforming light and color. To know this is to feel like a child. One is playing with colored balls; one has become the Aeon....

....What the mushroom says about itself is this: that it is an extraterrestrial organism, that spores can survive the conditions of interstellar space. They are deep, deep purple -- the color that they would have to be to absorb the deep ultraviolet end of the spectrum. The casing of a spore is one of the hardest organic substances known. The electron density approaches that of a metal.

Is it possible that these mushrooms never evolved on earth? That is what the Stropharia cubensis itself suggests. Global currents may form on the outside of the spore. The spores are very light and by Brownian motion are capable of percolation to the edge if the planet's atmosphere. Then, through interaction with energetic particles, some small number could actually escape into space. Understand that this is an evolutionary strategy where only one in many billions of spores actually makes the transition between the stars -- a biological strategy for radiating throughout the galaxy without a technology. Of course this happens over very long periods of time. But if you think that the galaxy is roughly 100,000 light-years from edge to edge, if something were moving only one one-hundredth the speed of light -- now that's not a tremendous speed that presents problems to any advanced technology -- it could cross the galaxy in one hundred million years. There's life on this planet 1.8 billion years old; that's eighteen times longer than one hundred million years. So, looking at the galaxy on those time scales, one sees that the percolation of spores between the stars is a perfectly viable strategy for biology. It might take millions of years, but it's the same principle by which plants migrate into a desert or across an ocean.

There are no fungi in the fossil record older than forty million years. The orthodox explaination is that fungi are soft-bodied and do not fossilize well, but on the other hand we have fossilized soft-bodied worms and other benthic marine invertebrates from South African gunflint chert that is dated to over a billion years....


From a transcript of a lecture given at the Camden Centre:

....I think we can make some sense out of the human condition if we're willing to look at psychedelic plants not as simply tools for individual spiritual transformation, but actually as tools and forces which transformed us as a species in the distant past, and I'll just give it to you very briefly.

As you may or may not know, all primates -- and we certainly are primates -- have what are called 'male dominance hierarchies'. This means that the longest-fanged, meanest s.o.b. in a monkey tribe takes control of the group resources, the females, the weaker males, and this character runs the show, and this is pretty much how we do it today. But my belief, based on 25 years of working with and taking psychedelic plants and substances, has led me to -- well, certainly to the brink of hubris -- to make an adjustment to evolutionary theory and suggest that these psychedelic substances are not private, peripheral, ancillary, cultish, esoteric, meaningless, self-indulgent, narcissistic, or obscure; they are in fact central to understanding how what we call 'human-ness' actually came to be in the first place. I really believe that the reason we have language and notions like community, altruism, loyalty, brotherhood, hope -- the reason we have these qualities, which are the qualities that we embrace as most human and most ennobling to us, is because for a period of roughly a hundred thousand years we self-medicated ourselves and suppressed the poisonous presence of the calcareous tumour of ego. Ego is the psychological structure which is propelling us to hell in a handbasket. The problems which beset the modern world and which continue to go unaddressed and unresolved can all be traced to ego, to our inability to emotionally connect with the consequences of what we are doing to ourselves, to each other, to the world. Our newspapers are filled with data on dissolving ozone holes, planktonic life in the ocean is endangered, toxic wastes are accumulating -- you all know the litany. But in trying to trace it to a root problem, I see it as ego -- the inability of the individual to get with the programme of group values. And I believe that we have this problem because we have fallen into an historical and cultural style that suppresses, denies and ignores the powerful potential of psychedelic plants to transform personalities, to erase boundaries, and to fuse people into a single thinking organism. This is what the nomadic tribalism of the past was all about....

....language can become, under certain radical situations of neurological perturbation, visible, that literally the word condenses into visible space, and they were urging me to do this. They were urging me to experiment with my voice and I discovered years later, taking ayahuasca in the Amazon jungles, tribes of Indians that have actually mastered this art, and that saturate their bodies with DMT and harmaline, and then sing. But for them this singing is not a musical exercise, it's a pictorial exercise. They see what they intend. This is a kind of telepathy.

Well, it's humbling, it's transformative, it's astonishing to realise that shamans all over the world for time uncountable have been accessing this appalling, complex, ontologically challenging, scientifically impossible, reality. This means that culturally we are living out some kind of schizophrenic delusion, because we live our lives totally ignorant of these possibilities, or perhaps only glimpsing them at the edge of anesthesia, or something like that, unless, of course, we have the courage to be counter-cultural heads. But even then many people confine themselves in the private world of their own reflection because social pressure and, indeed, social legislation make it very touchy to talk about these things. But I say to you, this is part of the human birthright. This is as much a part of the game as birth, sex and dying....

....You see, minded human beings existed for a hundred thousand years before what we call history. I believe that in the Saharan plains of Africa, through the use of psilocybin mushrooms -- at first unconsciously and then with conscious intent -- boundaries were erased. The previous several million years of primate hierarchy and male dominance were chemically medicated out of existence and men and women lived in relationships of respect and balance with each other, with their children, with the earth, with other human groups, and that this is the memory of paradise that accounts for our deep nostalgia for the past. It isn't a psychological mirage, it's real, there was a great mystery and it was lost, and we are the impoverished children who have inherited this situation of loss and abandonment, because you see the very forces which created the mushroom paradise in the grasslands of Africa, that same force which was the climatological drying out of the African continent and much of the rest of the planet, eventually turned those grasslands to desert and at that point, under nutritional pressure and with mushrooms a fading memory, agriculture was invented, male paternity was discovered. And once male paternity is discovered there is tremendous anxiety on the part of males to control the behaviour of females and, as you know, this is not easy, and so consequently social discord arises. You see, what happened was for perhaps as long as two hundred thousand years, the presence of psilocybin in the diet and the environment suppressed ego and so a human relationship to the earth and to other people was possible, and during that time religion, altruism, sense of community, loyalty, all these things I mentioned, came to be. When the mushroom faded, those suppressed atavistic animal behaviours returned, men became territorial, women became property, children became chattel, and the unifying mushroom celebrations and the great lunar orgiastic ceremonies that accompanied the worship of the Goddess -- that all was suppressed and we marched off into history, a nightmare journey, that carries us to today....

Well, what I discovered -- and I certainly wasn't the first to discover it -- in the Amazon in the early '70s, was the people in these tribal groups get together and they take Ayahuasca and their habit is to sing to make music, vocal music. They have no drums because in the Amazon the humidity is so high that no drum head could remain stretched more than a few hours. So the people use rattles and leaf shakers and vocal sound to produce what we would think of as beautiful tribal music. But what's interesting about this beautiful tribal music is after each performance, when you sit and listen to the people criticise the performance, they don't say that it sounded very good, they will inevitably make comments like 'I like the part with the silver bars and the blue dots, but I thought that the yellow could have been more intense, especially where it faded into the polka dot brown and grey section'. In other words, when you listen to these people in these native contexts criticise these performances, you realise that for them it's a visual performance, it's sound which, under the influence of these plants, is actually beheld, actually seen by the people within this culture.

Well, this was very exciting to me because, you see if you can see a situation from another person's point of view, in a sense you have become that other person; to stand in the other guy's shoes is to see the world from that person's point of view. It's a very different way of relating to language than the way we ordinarily do it. You see, the ordinary way in which human beings communicate is one person makes small mouth noises, the small mouth noises move across through the air as acoustical pressure waves, they then enter the mind brain system of another person and that person consults a culturally validated dictionary to see if their definitions overlap with the definitions of the person who created the sounds in the first place. Now, if there's sufficient overlapping, then we say that communication is taking place, that understanding is occurring, but it's always a very provisional and shaky kind of understanding. And as concepts become more complex, dictionaries become more incomplete and more divergent, and eventually two people of the same culture, they're discussing a highly technical question, may have no understanding of each other at all. Well, this is very different from the situation that arises if we could literally see what the other person means. It's not without implication for this argument that when we talk about perfecting communication, we unconsciously reach for visual metaphors, so someone will say 'I see what you mean', or 'She painted a picture', or 'his prose was luminous'. This means that we instinctively and unconsciously believe that meaning is something most clearly apprehended when seen, and one of the things that has excited me so much about the aboriginal use of psychedelic plants is they seem to be on the brink of evolving forms of communication which move out of the realm of acoustical neurological processing and into the realm of visual acoustical processing....

...You see, I believe that the whole fall into history, the whole rise of male dominance and patriarchy really can be traced to a broken connection with the living world of the Gaian mind, and there's nothing airy-fairy about this notion; the living world of the Gaian mind is what shamans access through psychoactive plants, and without psychoactive plants that access comes as an unconfirmable rumour.

I believe that the social style of human beings 15 to 20 thousand years ago was very very different from the social styles of today. In the first place, people were nomadic pastoralists, they didn't stay in one fixed area, but rather they followed around behind their flocks. And there, in the manure of these ungulate animals that had evolved with the primates on the grasslands of Africa, was the mushroom, and the mushroom was acting as a tremendous force for directing the evolution of human beings away from that of the rest of the anthropoid apes and toward the unique adaptation that we see as special to human beings today. It was doing this through a series of self-reinforcing tendencies that are easily enough understood. First of all, when you take small amounts of psilocybin, such small amounts that no psychological experience is apparent at all, there is a measurable increase in visual acuity. Well, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realise that if a hunting animal is in a situation of high competition for resources and there is an object, a food item in the food chain, which imparts increased visual acuity, then those animals which admit that item into their diet are going to outbreak the non-mushroom-using population and gain a significant advantage by this means. Well, it doesn't stop there. If slightly larger doses of psilocybin are taken, still sub-psychedelic doses, you get what is called CNS arousal, central nervous system arousal. Now all this means is a sense of restlessness, an inability to sit still, a sense of energy and -- the classical meaning of arousal -- sexual arousal. What this means then is that those animals in the population that were more successful at hunting and at obtaining food because they were taking small amounts of psilocybin are now going to act out what primatologists call 'more successful instances of copulation'. This means a lot more sexual activity is going on and wherever you have sexual activity, it stands to reason you're going to have increased instances of impregnation and successful birthing. So, the second factor which builds on the first factor is the mushroom-using population will tend to outbreed the non-mushroom population, and it will tend, then, to survive into adulthood in greater numbers because of the greater increased success in hunting. The third and final factor, then, which pushed these mushroom-using primates into a position of ascendancy, is [that] psilocybin at the psychedelic dose level actually stimulates the areas of the brain that are concerned with the production of language, so you get spontaneous glossolalia, spontaneous bursts of modulated syntactically structured sound, and I believe probably that language was invented long before meaning as a kind of abstract exercise around the camp fire, that these homonoids and protohomonoids were doing for each other's amusement. So there you have a three-step process -- increased visual acuity means increased success at getting food, further doses of psilocybin mean more sexual activity with more instances of successful impregnation and birthing of offspring and, finally, contact with the language-catalysing psychedelic tremendum that even for people as sophisticated as ourselves looms as the most tremendous, shocking and challenging mystery in our world....

...The styles that have evolved within history, the styles of male dominance, concern for tracing male lines of paternity, private property, control of females, so forth and so on, all this has arisen as a result of the establishing and maintaining of the ego. The ego is the function of the personality that is most at home and at ease within the context of history, but really this is not a situation of mental health, the ego is like a calcareous tumour that arises within the dynamics of the psyche and lodges like a cancer or a tumour in the structures of the psyche. And the only cure or the only treatment that I am aware of for the calcareous tumour of ego is frequent repeated exposure to psychedelic plants. This is the essence of their boundary-dissolving function, and 12 to 20 thousand years ago the ordinary style of human society was, as I said, nomadic pastoralism and psychedelic intoxication on a schedule that was very probably lunar, so reclaiming that orgiastic boundaryless style of sexual relating is part of what the archaic revival is about....


Holes in the theory

There are many areas in which McKenna's theory needs to be tested against current understanding of human evolution. I've included some examples below:

Lycaeum Psychedelic Database Lycaeum Forum