The Junk Science of Terrence McKenna

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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    Rocky john

    "that the results performed a miraculous one-time instance of Lamarckian inheritance,"

    I am not deffending McKenna , but epigenetic changes can be inheritable. So the basic idea  behind Lamarckian inheritance has been proven to occur.



    We used to think that a new embryo's epigenome was completely erased and rebuilt from scratch. But this isn't completely true. Some epigenetic tags remain in place as genetic information passes from generation to generation, a process called epigenetic inheritance.

    Epigenetic inheritance is an unconventional finding. It goes against the idea that inheritance happens only through the DNA code that passes from parent to offspring. It means that a parent's experiences, in the form of epigenetic tags, can be passed down to future generations.

    As unconventional as it may be, there is little doubt that epigenetic inheritance is real. In fact, it explains some strange patterns of inheritance geneticists have been puzzling over for decades"

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      James Cox

      I was the impression that 'mushrooms' as a living structure/life form goes back to atleast 130 million years. There have been fossil structures very similar to your standard 'mushroom' , called 'Prototaxis', which stood up to 9 meters tall, if memory serves.

      There is no reason to not assume that fungi were atleast part of the early human diet. Anyone know of any fossil or cultural remains to support this?

      If fungi were consumed, I expect that there were a few bad or interesting experiences. What would have been the cultural effect?

      The rest, seems to be just more wuwu, with a few of our fellow travelors trying to 'make sense out of non-sense'...

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        James Cox

        It has been atleast 30 years since my last classes in anthopology. Sadly at that time we spent very little time on the cultural side.

        From the readings I have had since, there seems to be an indication that the 'eating habits' of our ancesters were varied and opportunist. Sadly many materials that might have been part of the human 'kitchen viddles', might be lost to other fungi and small animal grazing of remains, and not survived the march of time. I see no reason to suggest that 'fungi' would not be part of the diet, but since little nutrition would be available from this source, meats and other vegetable sources might be chosen over fungi, with less risk of a toxic reaction.

        I would expect that our ancesters could have a greater understanding of 'risk' from the environment, but it would be based upon experience/cultural memory. The process of trial & error to determine toxicity from fungi, might feed into ritual uses, to control exposure, and deepen the appreciation/concern of exposure. But again there seems, at present, no cultural data for this.

        One thing to consider is that the toxicity of many fungi might be part of natural section in the early human population, and a driver to maintain cultural memory. One could consider this 'section of smarter humans wth long memories' theory. At this point it is not about fungi 'causing' the enlargement of the human brain 'because' of consumption, but the selection of the stupid ones out, leaving the smarter survivors!

        Given the diversity of fungi in the environment, being a very good observor, with a very good memory, will be a real tool in their evolving tool kit.