The Cosmic Serpent

An interview with Jeremy Narby

Jeremy Narby travelled to the Amazonian rain forest in 1984 to study the Ashanica Indians. There he encountered Shamans who recounted their experiences with ayahuasca, a hallucinatory drink, which they claim reveals to them the healing properties of the forest. This encounter began an adventure that lasted over ten years and culminated in his book, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. Narby's discoveries form a fascinating account of the possibilities of myth, science and intelligence.

Todd Stewart: You have said that people are having trouble summing up your book. How would you, as the author, sum it up?
Jeremy Narby: Research indicates that Amazonian shamans access an intelligence, which they say is nature’s, and which gives them information that has stunning correspondences with molecular biology.

TS: In your research you observe that the snake forms a major part of the symbology across most of the world’s traditions and religions. Why is there such a consistent system of natural symbols in the world? Is the world inherently symbolic?

Narby: This is the observation that led me to investigate the cosmic serpent. I found the symbol in shamanism all over the world. Why? That’s a good question. My hypothesis is that it is connected to the double helix of DNA inside virtually all living beings. And DNA itself is a symbolic Saussurean code. So, yes, in at least one important way, the living world is inherently symbolic. We are made of living language.

TS: You have a hypothesis of a hidden intelligence contained within DNA. What is this intelligence?

Narby: Intelligence comes from the Latin inter-legere, to choose between. There seems to be a capacity to make choices operating inside each cell in our body, down to the level of individual proteins and enzymes. DNA itself is a kind of “text” that functions through a coding system called “genetic code”, which is strikingly similar to codes used by human beings. Some enzymes edit the RNA transcript of the DNA text and add new letters to it. Any error made during this editing can be fatal to the entire organism, so these enzymes are consistently making the right choices. If they don’t, something often goes wrong, leading to cancer and other diseases. Cells send one another signals, in the form of proteins and molecules. These signals mean: divide, or don’t divide; move, or don’t move; kill yourself, or stay alive. Any one cell is listening to hundreds of  signals at the same time, and has to integrate them and decide what to do. How this intelligence operates is the question.
TS: Do you think there is not only an intelligence based in our DNA but a consciousness as well?

Narby: I think we should attend to the words we use. “Consciousness” carries different baggage than “intelligence.” Many would define human consciousness as different from, say, animal consciousness, because humans are conscious of being conscious. But how do we know that dolphins don’t think about being dolphins? I do not know whether there is a “consciousness” inside our cells. For now, the question seems out of reach; we have a hard enough time understanding our own consciousness—though we use it most of the time. I propose the concept of “intelligence” to describe what proteins and cells do, simply because it makes the data more comprehensible. This concept will require at least a decade or two for biologists to consider and test. Then, we might be able to move along and consider the idea of a “cellular consciousness.”

TS: What are the correspondences between the Peruvian shamans’ findings and microbiology?

Narby: Both shamans and molecular biologists agree that there is a hidden unity under the surface of life’s diversity; both associate this unity with the  double helix shape (or two entwined serpents, a twisted ladder, a spiral staircase, two vines wrapped around each other); both consider that one must deal with this level of reality in order to heal. One can fill a book with correspondences between shamanism and molecular biology.

TS: The ancient system of Yoga is often described as a “science”; how can shamanism complement modern science?

Narby: Most definitions of “science” revolve around the testing of hypotheses. Claude Levi-Strauss showed in his book, The Savage Mind, that human beings have been carefully observing nature and endlessly testing hypotheses for at least 10,000 years. This is how animals and plants were domesticated. Civilization rests on millennia of Neolithicscience. I think the science of shamans can complement modern science by helping make sense of the data it generates. Shamanism is like a reverse camera relative to modern science.

TS: You explain how different scientific schools keep to themselves, and in doing so, their discoveries and knowledge become limited. Could it be that the true knowledge of the world is hiding from us? What are your thoughts on this?

Narby: The biosphere  is immensely complex. Our own bodies are so complex that we are still a long way away from understanding how they work. True knowledge of the world may appear to be hiding simply because we are not yet  equipped to handle it.

TS: Why were you drawn to the Amazon?

Narby: When I was twenty, I wanted to understand why some people are rich and others poor. I was interested in “Third-world development.” I began studying anthropology. A professor suggested I look into the situation of indigenous people. It seemed these people lived in out-of-the-way places like the Amazon, on top of vast natural resources like tropical forest, which they did not use in ways experts considered “rational.” This was in the early 1980s, when the rainforest was called “jungle,” and taking it away from the Indians and cutting it down was called “development.” I decided to do the fieldwork my training in anthropology required in a place where such a project was being carried out. I strolled into the Peruvian Amazon in 1984 for these rather theoretical reasons.

TS: Why did you write the book?

Narby: I wrote the book because I felt that certain things needed saying. Writing a book is like sending out a message in a bottle: sometimes one gets replies. Judging from the responses, a surprising number of people have got the message loud and clear.

TS: Are you taking the conclusions from your book further in your research?

Narby: I am about to accompany three molecular biologists to Peru to meet three ayahuasca shamans. So we are moving towards a test of the hypothesis. Meanwhile, a cognitive psychologist called Benny Shanon is writing a book about ayahuasca; his work deserves attention.

TS: How has living in the Amazon and studying the shamans affected you?

Narby: I spend my time promoting land titling projects and bilingual education for indigenous people, and thinking about how to move knowledge forward and how to open up understanding between people. I also spend time with my children, and with children in my community (as a soccer coach), I look after the plants in my garden, without using pesticides and so on. But I do this because I think it needs doing, and because it’s all I can do. The message I got from shamans was: do what you can for those around you (including plants and animals), but don’t make a big deal of it.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life