Some Speculative Issues

With the completion of the Hoasca Project, there now exists a solid foundation of basic data to serve as the underpinning of future scientific investigations as their focus moves from the field to the laboratory and the clinic. But outside the perimeter of the cold light of reason cast by scientific scrutiny, there remain a number of issues surrounding ayahuasca that are unlikely be resolved by science alone, at least not by scientific methods as they are now understood. Ayahuasca is a symbiotic ally of the human species; its association with our species can be traced at least as far back as New World prehistory. The lessons we have acquired from it, in the course of millennia of coevolution, may have profound implications for what it is to be human, and to be an intelligent, questioning species within the biospheric community of species.

Although we have no certain answers, the question of the nature and meaning of the relationship between humanity and this visionary vine, and by extension with the entire universe of plant teachers, persistently troubles us. Why should plants contain alkaloids that are close analogs of our own neurotransmitters, and that enable them to "talk" to us? What "message" are they trying to convey, if any? Was it purely happenstance, purely accident, that led some early, experiment-minded shaman to combine the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna leaf, to make the tea that raised the curtain on the "invisible landscape" for the first time? It seems unlikely, since neither of the key ingredients are particulary inviting as food, and yet what else could it have been? The ayahuasqueros themselves will simply tell you that "the vine calls." Others, trying to be more sophisticated and rational, but proffering no more satisfying explanation, will talk about plant alkaloids as interspecies pheromonal messengers and as carriers of sensoritropic cues that enabled early humans to select and utilize the biodynamic plants in their environment.

Still others, such as my brother Terence McKenna and I in our early work, and a more recent reformulation of a similar theory by anthropologist Jeremy Narby (McKenna and McKenna 1975; Narby 1998), argue that by some as yet obscure mechanism, the visionary experiences afforded by plants such as ayahuasca give us an insight—an intuitive understanding—of the molecular bedrock of biological being, and that this intuitive knowledge, only now being revealed to the scientific worldview by the crude methods of molecular biology, has always been available as direct experience to shamans and seers with the courage to forge symbiotic bonds with our mute but infinitely older and wiser plant allies.

Such notions are surely speculative and are certainly not science; but to an observer of the contemporary world, who has been involved both scientifically and personally with ayahuasca for many years now, I find it very interesting that such "wild" speculations keep reasserting themselves, no matter how much we try to desacralize the tea and render it down to a matter of chemistry and botany, receptor sites and pharmacology. All of those things are important, certainly; but none of them will ever explain the undeniable and profound mystery that is ayahuasca.


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