The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origin of Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby

Jeremy Narby was doing anthropology field work with a community in the Peruvian Amazon called the Quirishari in the mid-1980s. It was there he had his first experiences with a hallucinogen called ayahuasca. His experiences with the substance, and his talks with others in the community about their experiences, were a major source of many of the speculations found in the latter part of the book.

From Narby’s interviews he realized that there were coincidences in the experience of many of the users of the plant, that these further coincided with what he was taught about native medicine among Amazon people and his further study into DNA.

Narby seems to realize as much as anyone that coincidences do not a medical revolution make, but he hopes his ideas inspire deeper scientific investigations.

Among his observations:

Those who drink the brew made from the ayahuasca experience several visual hallucinations that give them what they believe are deeper understandings of plants for medication found throughout the rainforest. They and users of other plant-based hallucinogens frequently have visions about serpents intertwined. Those he was studying believe that the serpent is the ultimate life principal. Narby also points to several coincidental religious icons featuring similar symbols, down to the medical caduceus which originated with the Greeks. Ayahuasca, by the way, also grows in a serpentine shape.

The Quirishari believe that the plants they harvest often have symbolic shapes to help identify their uses, such as a plant used to counteract snake bites having fang-like structures on the leaves.

DNA is very similar visually to the intertwined serpents. He wonders if this, in some way, is what is being represented in these mystical visions. He then goes on to list some of the more amazing facts about DNA. Each strand of DNA is made up of just four molecules in various regular combinations. A strand is only 10 atoms wide but the strands in a single cell would stretch out to about 3 meters (6 feet) in length. If you could glue these tiny strings end to end from all the cells in your body they would stretch 744 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers).

Narby then extends this idea out further. Every cell and every living organism has DNA, and human cells have some of the same markers found in yeast, one of the oldest organisms. This means somewhere in the seas these four nucleobases were formed, linked together in a way that encoded information, found a way into cells, found a handy enzyme to split the coils into identical halves once in a while to reproduce, and gradually came to inhabit the earth with living descendants.

This leads to other speculations on the source of DNA … chance or an otherworldly hand? But beyond these speculations Narby hopes for deeper research into the hallucinogens at a chemical level as well as the interactions with other living beings, and also hopes that these speculations will also lead to greater advances in pharmacology and medicine.

This is the kind of book almost designed to start arguments among scientists, and I’m sure those have happened over the past 18 years since the first publication. Many of the questions about DNA had already been asked, though not always answered. In some ways a new speculation in science gets an immediate dismissal from some but will sometimes gain a foothold for overall acceptance. Pangea made sense to every school child who’d studied a globe but took most of a century to become accepted science. It was a similar process when a Catholic priest first suggested the “big bang” as first cause of the universe. ┬áIn Narby’s case Materialism may be the ultimate winner, but that doesn’t keep it from getting a challenge now and then. When it is challenged it’s fun to watch and ponder.