BOOKS: The Cosmic Serpent

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2002:

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge by Jeremy Narby
Translated from the original French by the author, with assistance
from Jon Christensen
Tarcher/Putnam (c/o Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson St., New York,
NY 10014), 1998. 257 pages, hardcover. $22.95.

The Cosmic Serpent is not a quick, easy read. It is
thought-provoking, and bound to bring to light surprising facts for
readers, no matter what their area of expertise. That does not mean
that the facts will convince most readers to agree with all the
conclusions painstakingly drawn by anthropologist Jeremy Narby. Any
book which begins as this one does, with a description of the
author’s hallucinogenic trip under the guidance of a shaman, is
bound to stir some controversy.

Many ANIMAL PEOPLE subscribers will agree with one of Narby’s
conclusions: “In my hallucinations, I had learned important
things–that I am just a human being, for example, and am
intimately linked to other life forms, and that true reality is more
complex than our eyes lead us to believe.”
The author notes, “I did not talk about these things,
because I was afraid people would not take me seriously.”
He is talking about “these things” now. He says, “As I
patrolled the texts of biology, I discovered that the natural world
was teeming with examples of behaviors that seem to require
forethought.” After noting examples in the avian and mammalian
world, he writes, “Some species of ants, with brains the size of a
grain of sugar, raise herds of aphids which they milk for their sweet
secretions and which they keep in barns…It is difficult to
understand how these insects could do this without a form of
Narby leads us through his journey from prejudices about
shamanism, skepticism about plant remedies, and nonbelief in
spirits, to his arrival at a rather startling hypothesis based on
“the idea that DNA in particular and nature in general are minded.
This contravenes the founding principle of the molecular biology that
is the current orthodoxy.”
Narby states, “I began my investigation with the enigma of
‘plant communication.’ [i.e., Shamans stating that their extensive
medical knowledge…greedily sought by pharmaceutical
companies…comes from plant-induced hallucinations.] I went on to
accept that hallucinations could be a source of verifiable
information. And I ended up with a hypothesis suggesting that a
human mind can communicate in defocalized consciousness with the
global network of DNA-based life. All this contradicts principles of
Western knowledge.”
Specifically, Narby’s working hypothesis is this: “In their
visions, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular
level and gain access to information related to DNA, which they call
‘animate essences’ or ‘spirits.’ This is where they see double
helixes, twisted ladders and chromosome shapes [widely reported
throughout time, Narby claims]. This is how shamanic cultures have
known for millennia that the vital principle is the same for all
living beings and is shaped like two entwined serpents (or a vine, a
rope, a ladder…). DNA is the source of their astonishing
botanical and medicinal knowledge, which can be attained only in
defocalized and ‘nonrational’ states of consciousness, though its
results are empirically verifiable.”
Narby goes on to explain that scientists have discovered that
DNA emits photons corresponding exactly to the narrow band of visible
light, and from that fact, he then arrives at a neurological
mechanism for his hypothesis.
Again, not an easy read, but fascinating, as the author
reveals the discoveries he makes upon his journey: “Inside my body
sitting there in the garden sun were 125 billion miles of DNA. I was
wired to the hilt with DNA threads and until recently had known
nothing about it.”
He also refreshingly refers to leaves of trees as “true solar
panels,” marveling at the sophisticated technology that they
represent, while also leading us to reconcile that with the Shaman’s
point of view: “A plant may not talk, but there is a spirit in it
that is conscious, that sees everything, which is the soul of the
plant, its essence, what makes it alive.”
And somehow, as you travel his road step-by-step, very
heavily footnoted and containing an extensive bibliography, it all
seems very openly honest, fairly scientific and logical, but the
Western brain shouts no and is not easily quieted–perhaps with good
reason, perhaps not.
It would be helpful when reading this book to have on hand
experts in several disciplines, including molecular biology and
anthropology. One thing is for sure: You will never again look at
snakes in quite the same way after reading The Cosmic Serpent.
-Patty Finch
[Finch, a former classroom teacher and later director of the
National Association for Humane and Environmental Education, is now a
teacher trainer in the greater Phoenix area, focusing on inner city
educators, through a U.S. Dept. of Education grant.]

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