Tag Archives: Molecular Biology

The Cosmic Serpent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeremy Narby.

Narby The Cosmic Serpent

I read Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent in a sequence that I began with Bateson’s Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity and continued with Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine. All of these books are generalist studies that apply the latest (1960s for the earlier ones, and 1990s for Narby) scientific information about biology and evolution to problems that include the nature of consciousness and the alienation of humanity. Narby, like Bateson, is an anthropologist by primary academic training. Like Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, he turns vigorously against the intellectual status quo, challenging the implicit doctrines of anthropology in the way that Koestler does for psychology. All three authors ultimately reject to varying degrees the mechanistic materialism that is the principal intellectual heritage of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Narby’s (prudent) decision to frame his book as a narrative of personal discovery creates an apparent kinship with the “thick description” ethnography of Geertz, but one of his indictments of the anthropological field is that its texts (particularly those of the structuralists) tend to be arcane and tedious. A graver accusation, and probably one of more general application, is that anthropologists are involved in a work of cultural and intellectual expropriation, plundering the knowledge of societies they study, but attempting to “preserve” indigenous peoples by insulating them from the ability to criticize or benefit from Western knowledge. He also insists that the method and products of comparative religion (after the fashion of Eliade) deserve rehabilitation in the face of anthropological critiques.

Although rooted in Narby’s experiences doing anthropological fieldwork among the Ashaninca people of the Amazon basin, the thesis of this book was developed through a cultivated mixture of academic textual research and “defocusing” non-rational contemplation. Wrestling with such difficulties as the mechanisms of hallucination and the nature of spirits that provide indigenous people with sophisticated botanical knowledge, he began to understand metaphoric expression and interpretation as necessary to his work. The section that describes the development of his method culminates in a fusion of his abstracted awareness with his concrete surroundings: “The path I was following led to a crystalline cascade gushing out a limestone cliff. The water was sparkling and tasted like champagne” (52). I read this partly to describe the exhilaration of his emergence from the rational academic consensus, and also as a metaphor for DNA (the “crystalline cascade”) as the destination of the intellectual “path [he] was following.” 

After much provocative exploration of molecular biology and comparative shamanism (for which his sources are all of impeccable credibility), Narby intimates that it may be a function of the “junk DNA,” which comprises the vast majority of known bio-genetic material, to communicate and coordinate through the emission and reception of electromagnetic signals. Consequently, the entire biosphere may possess a single, ramified consciousness — the Cosmic Serpent of the title — which is accessible in whole or part to individual humans with the use of shamanic techniques.

It is of no small interest to me that Narby’s ideas track very closely with my own accustomed readings of preeminent passages in Thelemic scripture, as well as illuminating certain symbols of secret initiation to the real summit of the Royal Art. My reading of this book (and it didn’t take very long) was attended by some notable synchronistic experiences. To instance one: I acquired an “Aquarius Dragon” to supplement a card game, with the net effect that the game now represents a world of five elements uncoiling from a dragon. [And minutes after first writing this review, I read that the private aerospace company Space X will be launching their Dragon vehicle to dock with the International Space Station this weekend.]

I hugely enjoyed this book, and I anticipate that I will eventually get around to its successor volume Intelligence in Nature. In the meanwhile, however, this thread of my reading will take a turn into the anthology volume Entheogens and the Future of Religion. (Narby, by the way, discountenances the term entheogen because of its metaphysical baggage. He passes no judgment on the word psychedelic — which seems congenial to his thesis — but he uses and seeks to revalorize hallucinogen, insisting that its pejorative connotation is alien to its etymology.)

Dark and Magical Places

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Christopher Kemp.

Kemp Dark and Magical Places

Dark and Magical Places is a popular science book written by a man with “no sense of direction” (4). Author Christopher Kemp rates himself a 1 out of 10 in the ability to find his way through spatial environments, and the text is at least as much about being lost as it is about successful navigation. Although the word doesn’t appear in this volume, neurodiversity is one of its chief themes. While Kemp does marvel at the “very few people who are really, really, really good and … a ton of people who are a little bit worse” at navigation, much of the book is concerned with ways in which “the tail of the graph stretches out and out and out into all sorts of realms of badness” (56, quoting researcher Hugo Spiers).

Since I had recently read and enjoyed Donald Hoffman’s The Case Against Reality, I was skeptical about the veridical model of perception that seems to underpin much of this book’s neuroscience. Kemp at one point draws on The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map (1978) to ask “Can objects exist without space? … Does space even exist, or is it an invention, a human construct–a figment of our imaginations? If we invented space, how did we do it?” (35) but he makes no serious effort to answer these questions. Instead, he relies on the axiom that “space and time are the raw materials of navigation” (16), when they might instead be the products of navigation. Correlating neuroanatomically-specified “activations” with spatial cognitions–a regular preoccupation of the text–does not establish the relevant modes of causation.

The book’s information about neurodiversity of spatial capabilities is not fatalistic. While identifying organic variety and congenital outliers, as well as the apparent heritability of DTD (“developmental topographical disorientation”), Kemp also establishes the possibility for people to improve their navigational capacity through training. Suitable activities include video games designed for the purpose and the practice of origami paper folding (106-7). There is also a dark side to this plasticity: dependence on GPS devices is evidently leading to seriously deteriorated navigational capacity in large segments of our population (173-4).

Kemp consults neuroscientist György Buzsáki for the notion of “mental travel” to characterize the integration of navigational functions with those of memory, planning, and imagination (44-5). In my own work, this idea opens fruitfully onto such “occult” activities as “astral” visionary work, “memory palaces,” and spatial orientation in ceremony. In light of some of the information in this book, I suspect that regular performance of the lesser ritual of the pentagram (and also a daily regimen of solar adorations) could in fact empower the memory, as well as reinforcing navigational ability. This relationship also led me to hypothesize an explanation for the strong mnemonic effects of olfactory stimuli: it seems likely that human smelling abilities co-evolved with our spatial navigation, and the two may overlap one another in their use of neural resources (83).

Despite my reservations about Kemp’s apparently mechanistic metaphysical angle and his unsophisticated epistemology, this book was full of interesting and useful scientific ideas, as well as a wealth of entertaining anecdotes, like the one about Noel Santillan who became a flash celebrity in Iceland by virtue of following hideously mistaken GPS directions (166-7, 177). It’s a short, 200-page volume in the usual format of successful contemporary popular science studies, and its information is terrifically current.