[THS] Interview with Wade Davis: Human Nature and Altered States
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ths at psalience.org
Tue Mar 22 10:35:22 CET 2011
Interview with Wade Davis: Part I altered states
Anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis recently gave a talk at Medellíns fantastic
science museum Parque Explorer and myself and science journalist Ana María
Jaramillo managed to grab some of his time to discuss altered states of consciousness
and cultural diversity.
If youre not familiar with Davis work, his TED talk on Cultures at the far edge of the
world is a great place to start.
It was a particular pleasure to talk to Davis in Medellín, because he has had a long
connection with the city, previously holding a post at the Botanic Garden, and has
extensive experience of Colombia.
His book, One River, discusses his time in Colombia as a student of the legendary
botanist and explorer Richard Evans Schultes who was the first to scientifically
describe numerous psychoactive plants and substances including the famous
psychedelic of the Amazon peoples yagé or ayuhuasca.
Our interview is in two parts, and this first part will cover how mind-altering
substances integrate with culture and Davis own experience with psychedelics.
Tomorrow, well discuss diversity of human cultures across the world.
Ana María: Id like to know how cultural context transforms the effect of a mind-
altering substance. For example, is there a difference in experience between
someone who takes yagé in a traditional context and someone who takes it outside
the ritual, for recreation.
I think it makes a profound difference. Just speaking of psychotropic plants and
preparations, everybody who has seriously studied them has always looked at whats
called set and setting. The set is the mental set that you bring to the experience
and the setting is the physical ambience in which you experience the explosion of
consciousness. Part of the set is your own cultural predispositions to the experience
I remember noticing this very much so in Haiti when I studied voodoo. It was just
astonishing to witness voodoo acolytes in a state of trance, possessed by the spirit as
they saw themselves, handling burning embers with impunity. And when I say that
Im not indulging in some kind of New Age mysticism, I just saw people walking
around with burning coals in their mouths, and I can assure you that I would have
burnt my tongue terribly whatever the circumstance.
People often ask me, when you were studying voodoo did you become possessed?
But the idea was ridiculous to me. If you listened to what I was saying about it, or
anyone else was saying about the really unique richness of the cultural experience,
its just not something you can just try on like a cloak. You cant just go down to Haiti,
put down your money, or put down your soul, and suddenly become a voodooist.
It just has to be something in the very fibre of your being when growing up.
Similarly, I think that the set and the setting in which indigenous people in the
Amazon experience these substances is probably very unique and its also not
uniform in any one culture. I remember once when I was with the Cofán and we had
taken yagé in a very traditional context and afterwards I turned to the people I had
been up all night with and said I dont know about you guys but that stuff scares
the hell out of me and they said scares us too!
So I think the experiences are idiosyncratic but also culturally specific, thats my
sense of it. But I dont pretend to be any kind of authority. Its mainly just based on
my own experience, other people might disagree.
Its interesting how these things change though. I find it fascinating that there is this
ayahuasca phenomenon, its literally sweeping Europe and sweeping the United
States. I meet young people who take ayahuasca and they speak so positively about
the experience whereas I remember the whole point of ayahuasca was facing down
the jaguar, being ripped away from the tit of jaguar woman. That was sort of what
its point was.
I think our reaction to these substances can change over time too, almost as age
cohorts move though. Im someone whos very happy to say that not only did I used
psychedelics and enjoyed them but that they changed my life. I dont think I would
speak the way I speak, write the way I write, synthesise information the way I do,
understand those notions of cultural relativism as reflexively as I do, if I hadnt taken
I often think its interesting that if we look at the social changes of the last 30 years
everything from new attitudes towards the environment, new sense of the holistic
integration of the Earth, women going from the kitchen to the board room, people of
colour from the woodshed to the Whitehouse, gay people from the closet to the alter,
that we always leave out of the recipe of social change that millions of people all
around the world lay prostrate before the gates of awe after having taken some
We came out of a place with profound alienation of our cultures, experimenting with
psychedelics in a very fresh way there was not a lot of expectation. We
rediscovered lots of new drugs and just tried them on ourselves so there were a
number of things we could say we were the first to take. Not that I want to dwell on
that, but the idea that were trying to find some idea of what it means to be human.
And also cultural relativism and just the idea that other peoples of the world arent
failed attempts at being you, that comes powerfully from the psychedelic experience.
I one point I remember I took some big heroic dose of some drug, I cant remember
exactly, San Pedro I think, and I was stopped by my friend just before I could send a
telegram to my professor at Harvard that was going to say Eureka! Were all
ambulatory plants! I dont think that would have really got me too far.
That said, I found that psychedelics were extremely useful to me when I was young,
when I was trying to de-construct the world that I had been born into but didnt
necessarily want to live in. And then as I carefully constructed a world, became
married, became a father, developed a career, created a world, I found psychedelics
profoundly disorienting and not very helpful.
Vaughan: Do you think the kind of disorientation you mentioned also happens on a
cultural level? Im very struck by the fact that many Western cultures are officially
hostile to a lot of psychedelic drugs and yet there are many traditional cultures which
have used them for thousands of years. Im interested in that process of integration.
I think thats a key point. For whatever reason, people in the West define drugs by
culturally routed moral and legalistic opinion and therefore the drugs we habitually
use we dismiss with euphemisms. So we dont use caffeine we have a coffee break,
or well have a cocktail party or a quick smoke. The irony is, is that the drugs we do
choose to use, by chance turn out to be pharmacologically some of the most
powerful and arguably some of the dangerous. Obviously, tobacco being the first to
come to mind.
What you see in indigenous cultures by contrast, and lots of people have written
about this, is that they seem to recognise that the desire to periodically change
consciousness is an acceptable desire and the ethnographic record says its so
ubiquitous in the human record that you have to see it as a basic human appetite.
But they also recognise that the pure effects of these substances can be profoundly
disquieting and so they insulate that possibility in a protective cloak of ritual.
Of course, they use their drugs in natural forms again, Im not speaking with hippy
ethnography but its just a more benign way of taking any drug. And that doesnt
mean that they only use these drugs for culturally useful purposes that was a sort
of wonderful puritanical rap laid on us by anthropologists in the 70s who wanted to
say it was OK for Indians to take drugs but not us because they dont really have fun
when they use drugs. Thats just not true. The Yanomami love getting high thats
what they do all day long.
But there obviously seems to be great lessons in that because we remain tormented
by drug problems that dont go away. Andy Wild wrote a long time ago that theres
no such thing as a good or bad drug just good and bad ways of using drugs.
The interesting thing about these substances is not the pharmacological effects but
the question of whether they are helpful to you. Do they help you understand
something about your life and destiny and your sense of being in the world? I think
with psychedelics that they can be profoundly useful but there like a telephone call
once you get the call and get the message you can hang up as Ram Dass famously
Interview with Wade Davis: Part II culture clashes
This is Part II of our interview with ethnobotanist and explorer Wade Davis where we discuss technology, culture and the slippery concept of human nature.
Davis kindly spoke to myself and science journalist Ana María Jaramillo while visiting Medellíns excellent science museum Parque Explorer and in Part I we discussed altered states of consciousness and the use of psychedelic plants.
If youre in Medellín, the science museum is shortly to host an exhibition curated by Davis, of photographs by the founding father of ethnobotany, Richard Evans Shultes.
Schultes travelled through then unexplored parts of the Amazon and studied the native peoples, their rituals and knowledge of the forest and was Davis professor and mentor.
Ana María: You wrote Anthropology has long taught that whether a peoples mental potential goes into technical wizardry or unravelling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth is merely a matter of cultural choice and orientation. Do you think Western cultures have lost anything important with a greater focus on technical wizardry?
Im no scholar of middle Europe but if you think of the moment that we elected to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of absolute faith, and that case, the tyranny of the church, the whole thrust of the Enlightenment was the power of the mind over the body of man. When Descartes said that mind and matter is all that matters he thrust out all instincts for myth, mysticism and metaphor and basically, in a single gesture, devitalised Europe.
That idea that only human beings can be animate or the idea that a bird could have animus was ridiculed and dismissed as ridiculous. It was pretty clear that the way that we treat the Earth as simply a raw resource to be consumed at our pleasure comes directly out of that process of devitalising the Earth.
That really goes back to the revelations of genetics where geneticists have shown that were all cut from the same genetic cloth, that race is a complete fiction, that the human genetic endowment is a continuum. And the corollary of that is that if we all share the same raw intellectual capacity we all share the same human genes and so how the genes are expressed is a matter of cultural choice.
Thats really my whole work with National Geographic to go around the world looking at cultures that manifest the human genus in different ways. Whether that be a shaman learning to manipulate plants with such dexterity to create a preparation like ayuhuasca or the Polynesian navigator who, through a process of dead reckoning, was able to chart the open oceans centuries before the Europeans dared leave the protection of the coastline, or the Buddhist science of the mind with 2500 years of empirical observation on the nature of mind.
To me these are all just options that human beings have taken. In terms of the relationship to the natural world the classic opposition to our world view is the Aborigines of Australia. Whats fascinating when you look at their entire intellectual devotion is that it is not to improve upon anything. We embrace this cult of improvement which technological wizardry expressed and made this really remarkable world we live in, which Im not denigrating.
My friend Andy Weil, even though hell speak of the value of alternative medicine, says that if you get your arm ripped off in a car accident you dont want to be taken to a shaman. But the physical impact of our world view on the planet has been demonstrable and what I find interesting is that in these cultures that define the world as being alive like in Andean Peru where people really do believe that they have a reciprocal obligation to the Earth and the Earth in turn has reciprocal obligations to people. That doesnt mean that the people of the Andes didnt cut down the forests they did but in general that world has a much more gentle impact on the landscape than modernity has had.
And with the Aborigines its fascinating because they didnt only not embrace the cult of progress but they embraced a world view that denied progress. Their who purpose in life was to not improve on anything to do the ritual gestures necessary to maintain the world exactly as it was at the time of its origins and thats a profoundly conservative way of thinking but it had real consequences. As a result yes they didnt develop a sophisticated material culture but they didnt create climate change either.
I dont think any of this is about saying whos right and whos wrong but its just fascinating to recognise that there are different options and these other cultures arent failed attempts at being us but theyre unique answers to a fundamental question what does it mean to be human and alive?
When people answer that question, they do so in 7,000 languages. The problem comes along through cultural myopia, which all cultures tend to have but with our unique power we are causing so many of these world views to be lost.
Vaughan: One of the things that anthropology is constantly doing is defying our expectation of what it is to be human. Im wondering how much you believe in a common humanity?
Genetics shows that were all cut from the same genetic cloth, and, as I said, social anthropology shows that we all have the same adaptive imperatives. Thats what I find so cool about culture. Every culture has to deal with death, every culture deals with procreation, coupling or whatever, but within that communality theres this amazing set of possibilities and so many unique outcomes.
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