The modern skeptic needs to be well armed to deal with the array of woo being spewed these days.  Biblical criticism is pretty much a solved game but the new-agers can toss out faux-facts faster than you can say, “Bullshit!”

One flavour making the rounds here recently has been the junk science of Terrence McKenna.  An incredibly articulate ethnobotanist of the late 20th century, he was able to public several books that garnered the attention of aging hippies and which seem to have renewed their popularity with contemporary new agers.  As a self-described psychonaut, his writing mostly revolved around his ever more desperate attempts to instill perceived empirical value to the observations he made of his own consciousness while higher than a kite.

His timewave zero and novelty theories tied into eschatological prognostications for 2012 – a prophecy failure that his devotees overlook as quickly as the adherents of Benny Hinn overlook his.  Perhaps the most entertaining of his drug-addled ramblings was his ‘Stoned Ape’ conjecture.

In his Stoned Ape conjecture, McKenna tried to convince himself that use of magic mushrooms was the catalyst that sprung homo-sapiens into existence from homo-erectus.  He starts by assuming that the magnificent shrooms appeared on the African savanna 100,000 years ago and made their way into the homo-erectus diet – both assumptions being supported by zero evidence.  He then misrepresents a scientific study about visual perception to suggest that use of these mushrooms increased visual acuity in our early ancestors – thereby making them better hunters.

Based on his first two unfounded assumptions and an outright fabrication he then jumps to the conclusion that the results performed a miraculous one-time instance of Lamarckian inheritance, altering the offspring of psilocybin-gobbling hominids enough to speciate them from surrounding populations of homo-erectus.  It just goes on and on, and he actually managed get published for it in 1992 - Food of the Gods.

I feel this load of malarkey is worth our attention, as skeptics, so we can be better prepared to counter the ridiculous claims of McKennites that we may encounter.  I know there is one with us lately and felt he might like to put his thoughts on display here for all of us to observe the workings of such a mind.

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Perhaps that is not a sufficient explanation. You could reduce it to a tautology in the sense that anything can be reduced to a tautology. I cannot observe my reflection if I have no reflection to observe. If the mechanics of X are not what they are then they are not.

True, we cannot describe evolution without having 'evolved' the ability to observe and describe it, but evolution is in no way dependent on our observation. That is to say our observations, our explanations, our science is incidental to the occurrence of evolution as a process. Our observations need not be accounted for in any way separate from any other traits, and a case for the natural selection of this trait can be made.

Well, it isn't as simple as that, but I ask to anyone if they know what mainstream evolutionary theory attributes to this "dramatic emergence"?

I'm aware, but it still doesn't account for anything under the known mechanics of evolutionary progress. If the case is simply that we are well adapted to consumption then that is perfectly reasonable, and even the notion that there could be some cultural/ social impacts is somewhat tenable, but beyond that? It's a pretty hard case to make.

Try the 'dramatic emergence' of flight in birds.  Any scientific explanation required data, conjecture, modelling to test conjecture, discarding errors and developing that which works, then collecting more data - it goes around and around.  McKenna's approach?  Hmm, I like these mushrooms and I think they explain everything.  It's perfectly analogous to, "God did it."

Well, it isn't as simple as that, but I ask to anyone if they know what mainstream evolutionary theory attributes to this "dramatic emergence"?

This is the classic 'Argument from Ignorance' fallacy. The approach involves asking a question that cannot be answered. Then the asker tacks his answer to the ignorance. Any form of ignorance will do, although the origin of life is the most popular.

Crackpot: How do you explain X?
Me: I can't.
Crackpot: (Triumphantly) See! It has to be Z! There is no other explanation!
Me: Why does it have to be Z? Why can't it be something else we don't understand yet?
Crackpot: Um...

Admittedly, this is an original twist. Usually 'X' is life on earth and 'Z' is God. This time 'X' is consciousness and 'Z' is magic mushrooms. Still, the fallacious aspect of the argument is exactly the same.

I have the perfect response to this and others, but unfortunately, right now I have to go to work, but I will be back to point out how this is a false analogy.

If x = human civilization and z = aliens, solve for crackpot.


TsO^U-k/X = Crackpot/(G into rg into X)

Tsoukalos = Crackpot/Giorgio

Crackpot = Giorgio Tsoukalos!

Hey, it works!

"evolutionary theory attributes to this "dramatic emergence"?"

I hypothesize: Language

The ability to form abstract concepts, to form, say the concept of "rock" and realize which objects it applies to and recognize new instances of rocks as being "rocks". 

Very closely related to language.

Curiously, animals seem to be born hard-wired with some concepts (the ability to classify some objects as a certain type despiite wide disparities in appearance). My cat can recognize that a dog is a dog, be it a chihuahua or a doberman. Arched back, ears laid back, hissing. That is rather remarkable if you think about it.

You may say that perhaps that is just her response to an unfamiliar animal, but I doubt she'd respond that way to a sheep and she certainly wouldn't respond that way to a squirrel. She'd respond as a predator would. She can somehow recognize other predators.

Disagree. You can form all the abstract concepts you want while gazing at your belly button. Actually being able to communicate those concepts is what counts from an evolutionary perspective. To me the first people who were able understand that "Uh Uh" means, "don't go down that path - a tiger lives there" and that "uh huh" means, "yes,  there's a grove of berries and scantily-clad females that way", would be more likely to propagate their bigger brain power.

Nevertheless, the great embarrassment to evolutionary theory, is the human neocortex. Well, why is this an embarrassment? Because it's the organ that thought up the theory of evolution. So you know, can you say tautology? 

Now he's trotting out the tired, old tautology argument, only he's not paraphrasing it well enough to hold together coherently. Ann Coulter put it like this:

"The second prong of Darwin's "theory" is generally nothing but a circular statement: Through the process of natural selection, the "fittest" survive. Who are the "fittest"? The ones who survive! Why look – it happens every time! The "survival of the fittest" would be a joke if it weren't part of the belief system of a fanatical cult infesting the Scientific Community. The beauty of having a scientific theory that's a tautology is that it can't be disproved".

The tautology argument is ridiculous because it's directed against the wording of the phrase "survival of the fittest" and not the substance of the theory it describes: natural selection. (It's so fatuous I'm more inclined to think Coulter is being cynical to prop up her book sales rather than genuinely being that stupid.)

And even if we do not yet understand exactly how consciousness works, we do understand that natural selection was ultimately responsible for the formation of every biological structure known to exist in nature, including the neocortex.


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