An adamant critic of culture, Terence McKenna was a 20th century shaman that pioneered an in-depth analysis of one's consciousness and the lives we live. He birthed radical hypotheses about the development of the mind, posited "the stoned ape" hypothesis, and declared he had deciphered the nature of time using the I Ching. Mckenna held that individuality and social constructs were detrimental illusions to living a fulfilling life. He was called the "Timothy Leary of the 1990s," inspiring millions of people to question their reality.
Terence McKenna's Beginnings
Born in 1946 in western Colorado, McKenna moved to Los Altos, California when he was in high school. A young McKenna developed a lifelong fascination with psychology at the age of ten when he read Carl Jung's Pscyhology and Alchemy. His first introduction to the surreal world of psychedelics was Adlous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell at the age of sixteen. Huxley's beautifully-written and detailed experiment while under the influence of mescaline led McKenna to try morning-glory seeds, an experience that would confirm to a young McKenna that there was a psychedelic world worth pursuing.
In 1969, McKenna traveled to Nepal to seek out shamans that experimented with psychedelic plants. He then wandered through southeast Asia where he explored ruins, spent time as a professional butterfly collector in Indonesia, and worked as an English teacher in Tokyo, before finally returning to Berkeley to continue studying biology, which he called "his first love."
Returning to the states for a brief stint, McKenna collected his brother Dennis and three friends, and traveled to the Colombian Amazon in search of plants containing DMT. He allegedly found it. While under the influence of the powerful psychedelic he claimed to connect directly with "Logos," a gatekeeper of all knowledge of sorts. The experience formed the foundation for the rest of his life's work and became his inspiration to research and promote psychedelics for their therapeutic use.
"Drugs are not comfortable, and anyone who thinks they are comfortable or even escapist should not toy with drugs unless they're willing to get their noses rubbed in their own stuff."
The psychonaut philosopher graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a major in shamanism, as well as ecology and conservation of natural resources. Soon after graduating, McKenna and his brother Dennis published a book detailing their experience in the Amazon, The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching. McKenna would spend the rest of his life promoting psychedelics. Together with his brother, they were the first to discover a proper means of growing magic mushrooms in the home. The duo published their findings in the 1976 book Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide.
According to McKenna consumerist culture is a cult that eats at the mind like cancer. While it is necessary to function as an individual the perception culture creates prevents people from flourishing, "Culture is not your friend." He declared that culture is a machine detached from the interests of the individual. Psychedelics function as a way to break free from the machine and see through the veil culture creates, and become immersed in reality. When listening to McKenna string words poetically it is tempting to view his beliefs as doctrine.
Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna
In his 1992 book Food of the Gods, McKenna delineates a radical history of drugs and human evolution chronicling humanities descent from "stoned apes." The hypothesis would become inseparable from the musings of McKenna and is itself symbolic of his belief system. The intriguing theory suggests that homo sapien's tree-dwelling ancestors began ingesting psilocybin mushrooms as a result of a forced nomadic lifestyle.
The magic mushroom took root in the nomad's brains and acted as a catalyst for the development of language. McKenna theorizes that the missing link experienced synesthasia due to psilocybin's effects, allowing our primate ancestors to convey their mind's eye.
The "stoned ape" theory is provocative, and it is its eccentricity that makes it so fascinating. To hear McKenna describe the world when humans regularly consumed psychedelics is to believe that the Garden of Eden did exist on Earth. His theory is, however, based on numerous suppositions and the shards of facts anthropologists possess regarding early humans. It should be recognized that McKenna did not view himself as a scientist, but considered himself an "explorer."
McKenna is also credited, at least partially, for positing the widespread belief that the world would end in 2012. "Novelty theory" stipulates that "novelty" in the universe is an inherent quality of time. "Novelty" meaning new experiences. Without venturing too far down the rabbit hole, McKenna believed that the frequency of novelty events would increase as time progressed, until reaching infinite novelty. Instead of seeing the same "hang in there" cat meme every day, internet surfers will eventually see new cats in new motivational poses every second.
"The universe is not being pushed from behind. The universe is being pulled from the future toward a goal that is as inevitable as a marble reaching the bottom of a bowl when you release it up near the rim. If you do that, you know the marble will roll down the side of the bowl, down, down, down—until eventually it comes to rest at the lowest energy state, which is the bottom of the bowl. That's precisely my model of human history. I'm suggesting that the universe is pulled toward a complex attractor that exists ahead of us in time, and that our ever-accelerating speed through the phenomenal world of connectivity and novelty is based on the fact that we are now very, very close to the attractor."
At the point of infinite novelty (or complexity) people would cease being individuals, and humanity would become one organism (in over-simplified terms). The theory is in a similar vein as transhumanist's belief in the singularity. Time itself is speeding up in novelty theory. According to a mathematical model McKenna created in collaboration with Peter Meyer, the point of infinite novelty should have occurred on December 21, 2012. Unfortunately people are as divided as ever, and novelty theory remains another facet of pseudoscience, but it is no less interesting to contemplate while eating Doritos.
McKenna's Omni Interview
Critics of McKenna contend that the explorer extolled the virtues of drugs on an impressionable youth. He disagrees. In an interview in OMNI magazine, May 1993, the shaman explained the importance of proper education and perception of all substances. McKenna was adamantly opposed to synthetic drugs, believing that any substance should be naturally derived from the Earth.
While many of McKenna's theories are forced to live in the void of pseudoscience they are no less interesting. Regardless as what role substances like psilocybin and DMT have played in the evolution of humanity, they are undoubtedly linked to the development human culture (a point McKenna would likely refute).