The Cosmic Serpent
DNA and the Origins of Knowledge
by Jeremy Narby, Peguin Putman, 1998
Jeremy Narby is a western educated anthropologist who entered the Amazon with the desire to protect indigenous rights. His goal was to facilitate a sort of materializing of a non-material culture, so that their knowledge of the plants was being monetized in their favor rather than for the sole benefit of giant chemical companies. And, in doing so, protect the rain forest and the human cultures it supports.
In his first interactions with the Ashaninca peoples from the Pichis Valley in the Peruvian Amazon he would ask, “How did you learn all this?” in reference to plants they use for their concoctions. They would say ‘the plants told us.’ He could not accept this simple answer at face value. It had to be a metaphor. Plants don’t speak.
What he found out, however, was that it was not a metaphor. The Ashaninca were being literal. As Narby tried to understand what they were telling him, he kept running into aspects of their knowledge base that simply did not make sense through his lens, that of an academic. It was, he says, “almost despite myself” that he began to study with shamans to understand how they acquire knowledge.
At first he listens and observes how they learn. “I was continually struck by their profound practicality. They did not talk of doing things; they did them.” “People were suspicious of abstract concepts. When an idea seemed really bad, they would say dismissively, “Es pura teoría” [“That’s pure theory”]. The two words that cropped up over and over in conversations were práctica and táctica, “practices” and “tactics” – no doubt because they are requirements for living in the rain forest.”
These observations and discussions weren’t enough. To more completely open to what he was attempting to absorb, he tried the ayahuasca, the powerful psychedelic brew made from of a combination of various plants known to the natives. This was met with mixed results. While he did have visions associated with this type of activity, what his journey really requires is to disengage from the intellect to understand. The book is, in large part, a story of his being unable to do this.
But it’s a fascinating read as he explains the process of having to adjust his focus from a purely rational point of view to what he calls a de-focalized gaze, which allows one to truly see what has been there all along. In Yoga we use the dṛṣṭi, a focus on one point, as a means for developing concentration. But I find when I am truly focused I see much more, my awareness becomes exponential. In those states, I would suggest, it is indeed a de-focalized gaze we experience.
Narby calls this subtle play between a highly focused and de-focalized gaze a paradox. And his examination of this paradox leads him to question the ways we learn and turns his sense of understanding upside down. He states, “It’s almost as if we have to suspend belief, to really see.”
Though he did not intend to set out on a Yogic journey, his story unfolds as one.
The more he hears their explanations the more he doubts what they are saying. And yet, using modern science, he can identify over 30 chemical compounds in one particular mix. As he explains how the various plants offset the properties of others to facilitate the hallucinations, he effectively debunks the notion that it would be possible to arrive at the concoction through simple trial and error. So, the notion that the plants told them of their properties becomes more viable.
Zeus defeating Typhon
Typhon representing DNA
Outside of the hallucinogenic properties of the ayahuasca, particularly mind blowing is when Narby compares cultures across continents and across the ages, finding countless references to the double helix of DNA. The commonalities between the representations he finds over and over again suggests that “primitive” cultures have long known of these basic build blocks. But we have dismissed their stories as mythology.
Though he finds this supporting evidence, Narby still can’t believe it. Even though he has learned to de-focalize his gaze (in Yoga we might call this pure awareness,) he appears to return to the highly focalized gaze of the academic, searching for answers through facts he can verify, rather than experience.
In short, this is a story of a western man seeking to understand the nuance of an experiential culture. He succeeds! But it’s a familiar theme, the explorer gains understanding of the indigenous culture he came to study, yet succumbs to the curse of the western man; the inability to surrender the ego, and the need for the intellect to be engaged over what pure awareness can offer.