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The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of…

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (original 1998; edition 1999)

by Jeremy Narby (Author)

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5981730,472 (4.01)17
This adventure in science and imagination, which the Medical Tribune said might herald "a Copernican revolution for the life sciences," leads the listener through unexplored jungles and uncharted aspects of mind to the heart of knowledge. In a first-person narrative of scientific discovery that opens new perspectives on biology, anthropology, and the limits of rationalism, The Cosmic Serpent reveals how startlingly different the world around us appears when we open our minds to it.… (more)
Title:The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge
Authors:Jeremy Narby (Author)
Info:Orion Pub Co (1999), Edition: New Ed, 272 pages
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The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby (1998)


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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
An interesting dive into the shamanistic traditions of indigenous tribes, and how they use psychedelics to access information about their surroundings. Though I loved the first half, I felt that the second half strayed a little too much into paranormal / alt-science presuppositions. Regardless, a fascinating read. ( )
1 vote eliason | Sep 28, 2021 |
Narby's book doesn't perhaps have the most compelling narrative - he traces quite a 'serpentine' path through science, anthropology, evolutionary biology, etc, and whilst these observations are frequently fascinating and thought provoking, they don't especially make for a coherent 'story'.

But it's Narby's overall hypothesis which is most intriguing. The shamans of the Amazon - along with other native cultures - profess a detailed knowledge of botany and the effects of various psychotropic substances that is difficult to account for rationally. This, of course, is a disputable claim, but if true it demands an answer: How did they come by such knowledge? But it is an answer that, Narby argues, traditional anthropology and science are not in a position to provide.

Narby's proposed solution is that we should take the claims of the shamans seriously: they say that 'the spirits tell them', so why not believe them? But 'spirits', in Narby's interpretation, are not the traditional immaterial entities of myth and religion, but the mechanism of life itself - specifically, DNA. Highlighting the prevalence of serpent symbolism in shamanic cultures (especially in the Amazon), Narby argues that shamans have found a means to 'interrogate' the information held in DNA (the snake-like double helix), and in fact to 'converse' with it. In his words, the biosphere which is controlled and moulded by DNA is 'minded' - it is conscious and intelligent.

It is to Narby's credit that, whilst endeavouring to make his case in robust scientific terms, he recognises that his argument will do nothing to convince the harder-headed type of scientist and rational sceptic, considering their world view to be inherently opposed to his hypothesis. Here, he makes some good observations, I think, concerning how the method and principles of modern scientific materialism (of which Darwinism is an expression) necessarily exclude a number of intriguing possibilities: that nature is conscious and purposive; that - even if we are not talking of divine design - there may be other principles at work in evolution than the mechanistic theory of natural selection (which he considers woefully inadequate to account for biological complexity and intentionality).

This is, obviously, an unpopular view (the majority of evolutionary biologists being firmly in the mechanistic/materialistic Darwinian camp). Add to this Narby's openness to the meaningfulness of shamanic-type hallucinogenic experiences, and it is easy to see how the book will be summarily dismissed or ignored by those who would be best placed to consider his arguments (biologists, anthropologists, scientists in general). However, this would be a great shame. This is far from a 'quack' book. Narby is personally and passionately invested in the issues he raises - he talks hallucinogens himself, under supervision of a native shaman, and through his involvement in the indigenous culture he comes to realise the threats and dangers they face from Westernisation and the exploitation of big business. Furthermore, his sincere and thoughtful appraisal of the topics raised, always seeking to phrase his ideas in the terms of science and rational discourse, make this a valuable contribution not only to literature on shamanism and hallucinogenics, but also to those seeking to appraise the biases of science and the Western perspective.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator.
1 vote Gareth.Southwell | May 23, 2020 |
This is the kind of book that can be an eye-opener. Maybe one can find in it more juice if one has already some inkling about psychedelic experiences and studies, or if you have had some experience with hallucinatory substances, especially ayahuasca, which is central to the thesis of the book.

At times Narby seems to get too carried away with his part of the argument, but that also makes this book a very humane one, as it carries us through a simplified stream of consciousness as an idea evolves throughout the author's investigative effort.

In the end, what one takes from it depends on how open-minded one might be to face the world around us under different conceptual assumptions than those we (westerners, particularly) are mostly used. In any case, it's a good book to show how thinking outside-the-box can be achieved and how defocalizing (using Narby's word) one's attention while trying to solve a problem can lead to very interesting results. If for nothing else, this book would already be worth a reading. ( )
  adsicuidade | Sep 8, 2018 |
I'd wanted to read this when it first came out but never got around to it. And I'm glad I waited, because it clarified my thinking about aspects of my own writing that needed some clarity. But beyond that I found it a fascinating examination of mythological imagery, shamanism, hallucinogenic substances, and DNA.

What's that? How do all those things relate to each other? To give it to you in the proverbial nutshell, Narby believes that DNA speaks to people, specifically shamans, and specifically while they are under the influence of drugs. "Oh sure," you say. "Pull the other one, it's got bells." But Narby has done a pretty good job documenting the medical uses of plant material discovered by these same shamans, and used by their tribes for centuries, plants which western pharma companies are only now beginning to exploit, even though they still don't actually know why the plants work the way they do. He's also traced a lot of ancient imagery and mythology which feature helical structures, entwined serpents, twisting ladders and stairwells; in short he feels they're symbols of the double helix of DNA.

Because I'm not trying to convince anyone, and because in order to fully understand and appreciate Narby's thesis, you really do have to read the book, I don't have any real stake in anyone's belief or disbelief. I found the book fascinating, the more so because it has some professional importance to me. I actually find it far more interesting and even convincing than the conclusions drawn by Yuval Harari's Sapiens. YMMV. ( )
3 vote Tracy_Rowan | Aug 25, 2017 |
Fascinating book that explores the possible link between shamanism and molecular biology. Do plants have souls that speak to us about how they can be used to heal us? Even if you disagree with Narby, this will provide you with a window into another world. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jeremy Narbyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Christensen, JonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gutermuth, StefanCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kerner, DeborahDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The first time an Ashaninca man told me that he had learned the medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew, I thought he was joking.
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This adventure in science and imagination, which the Medical Tribune said might herald "a Copernican revolution for the life sciences," leads the listener through unexplored jungles and uncharted aspects of mind to the heart of knowledge. In a first-person narrative of scientific discovery that opens new perspectives on biology, anthropology, and the limits of rationalism, The Cosmic Serpent reveals how startlingly different the world around us appears when we open our minds to it.

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