In the last decade, we have experienced a gradual renaissance of psychedelic therapy, with researchers looking at the role that hallucinogenic compounds play in promoting mental health.`
Unfortunately, not much has been said about the role of psychedelics in stimulating human consciousness. Does that mean that we have forgotten all that has to do with the stoned ape hypothesis? Let’s find out.
What is the Stoned Ape Theory?
This hypothesis was first postulated by renowned ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, who suggested that psychedelics play a crucial role in enhancing human consciousness. He first proposed this theory in 1992 in his book Food of the Gods. In the book, he argued that the consumption of magic mushrooms enhanced human consciousness.
The Origins of the Idea
The idea came about after Terence and his younger brother Dennis (an ethnopharmacologist) talked deeply about hallucinogenic substances and their role in evolution.
Initially, Dennis had considered writing a book titled "Hallucinogens and Evolution”, but he never quite got round to doing it. However, he thought that his brother's book conveyed most of what he had wished to say. Dennis is the founder of the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy.
To understand the stoned ape hypothesis, it’s interesting to learn about the brothers who came up with the idea:
Terence Kemp McKenna was a known American ethnobotanist and mystic who’s considered a legend within the psychedelic world. He advocated the responsible use of psychedelic plants and, as mentioned above, connected them to the origins of human consciousness.
By many, he is also considered a shaman and the intellectual voice of rave culture. Along with his brother, Dennis, Terence McKenna developed a technique for cultivating psilocybin mushrooms using spores from Amazon. In 1992, he proposed the stoned ape theory.
Dennis Jon McKenna is an ethnopharmacologist and research pharmacologist. Like his brother, he is concerned with the investigation of the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelics. He’s well-respected among his peers and has conducted extensive research in botany, pharmacology, and oo-koo-hé, a perennial tree native to the Caribbean and South America that gives an entheogen.
Arguments Made by Terence and Dennis McKenna
- Psilocybin consumption helped our ancestors evolve from homo Erectus to the modern-day homo sapiens.
McKenna claimed that as those ancestors were migrating from Africa herding cattle, the weather conditions favored the growth of psilocybe cubensis (magic mushrooms), which do well in an environment with cow dung. The ancestors lacked a source of food and must have consumed the magic mushrooms regularly. McKenna argued that consumption of the psilocybin mushrooms helped develop the cognitive abilities and creativity of our ancestors.
- Language and self-reflection emerged as a result of prolonged consumption of psilocybin.
Terence and Dennis suggested that language and self-reflection evolved as humans consumed psilocybin mushrooms. The exact timeline for this is unclear, but Dennis believed that the evolution must have started about 2 million years ago. This is based on the tripling of brain mass 2 million years ago, coinciding with when the ancestors were migrating from Africa and probably feeding on psilocybin fungi.
Misrepresentation of the “Stoned Ape” Theory
Terence and Dennis did not coin the term "Stoned Ape", and neither did they approve of it. They both felt that the term watered down what they intended to convey in their hypothesis. Unfortunately, the name stuck.
The term "stoned ape theory" has since been modified to the "stoned ape hypothesis." A hypothesis suggests a plausible explanation for something, even though hard and fast facts to support it may be lacking.
You will notice that the arguments offer answers but may lack scientific evidence to substantiate them. On the contrary, a theory is a principle set to explain phenomena supported by actual data.
Joe Rogan Talks About the Stoned Ape Theory
While the McKenna brothers proposed it, numerous other people have discussed the stoned ape theory over time, including a renowned podcast host, comedian, and former television presenter, Joe Rogan.
According to the theory, he explains that climate change might have led hominids to experiment with different food sources, including mushrooms. Joe Rogan also states that, at least as far as the theory goes, low doses of psilocybin have been shown to increase visual acuity, making the hominids better hunters. Likewise, they might have increased their sexual activity, making them more productive, and even affected their brains by expanding the neurons, helping them form an actual language.
Here’s an interesting TEDx talk that looks at modern research on how psychedelics affect the human brain and consciousness. The keynote speaker is Simeon Keremedchiev, who might come from a legal background, but his interest in human consciousness led him to pursue a degree in psychology.
The talk focuses on the psilocybin mushroom and examines scenting findings on its effects on humans. Moreover, Simeon Keremedchiev talks about the short-and-long-term effects of psychedelic substances and attempts to show that they can be used effectively in medicine and self-development.
What Does Research Say?
While this hypothesis is not based on specific scientific studies, some scientific evidence can help explain its basis. For example, one study investigating the role of psilocybin in perception, memory, and attention showed that it enhances brain connectivity.
If psilocybin can improve brain function and consciousness, how were these characteristics passed on from one generation to the next?
Cultural Inheritance Theory
The cultural inheritance theory suggests that cultural practices facilitate the transfer of information, creativity, and learning from one generation to the next. For example, psilocybin increased the creativity of our ancestors, which enabled them to form new habits such as fire lighting. The unique patterns were observed by younger age groups, who then copied and passed them on to the following generations.
The Epigenetics Theory
The epigenetics theory refers to the involvement of the environment in passing on genetic characteristics. Consumption of psilocybin mushrooms by our ancestors led to epigenetic changes (changes in the expression of genes), which were passed on from one generation to the next. Psilocybin activates serotonin receptors in the brain, and this alters gene expression. These changes at the genetic level have been linked to changes that have increased intelligence and learning in our species.
The Sex Theory
McKenna also proposed that since psilocybin increases sex drive, our ancestors had frequent sex and reproduced more frequently after consuming psilocybin. The psilocybin-consuming ancestors were able to pass on their enhanced genetics to their offspring. However, there is no scientific evidence suggesting that psilocybin increases sex drive.
The Stoned Ape Theory Through Netflix's The Fantastic Fungi Film
The Fantastic Fungi is a 2019 documentary produced by Netflix that takes viewers on a time-lapse journey about fungi's mysterious and medicinal world and their power to contribute to the regeneration of life on Earth. With its incredible footage of growth and decay and powerful speeches about the magic of mushrooms, the Fantastic Fungi managed to grab the attention of movie critics and the audience.
The main message is that fungi can be used in many helpful ways, from assisting chemotherapy to treating mental illness, as the Stoned Ape theory suggests. Now, not everyone sees the movie positively. For example, we're confident that Churches and religious institutions probably don't like the idea of humans reaching high levels of understanding through the use of fungi. That said, people like us find the stoned ape theory a very comfortable and attractive idea.
Besides, when you consume mushrooms, your mind connects in a different way to reality. It can learn so much more, which makes total sense that after thousands of years tripping on shrooms, the human species managed to evolve from their neolithic cousins. Or, perhaps the shrooms didn't affect the mind directly, but the mental processes motivated by said mushrooms evolved the brain.
Final Take on the Stoned Ape Theory
Terence McKenna's suggestion that human consciousness is linked to the consumption of magic mushrooms appears to be far-fetched. However, after careful consideration of his postulations, it is apparent that he was heading somewhere with this. Research has shown that psilocybin does have a role to play in enhancing brain connectivity. Evidence suggests that our ancestors have been consuming psilocybin mushrooms for thousands of years, during which period the human brain has increased three-fold. The claims put forth in this theory are plausible but need further investigation.