Star Larvae Hypothesis
"Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes, though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region, though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality."
An intriguing personality to emerge from the 1960s counterculture was Dr. Timothy Leary. Because he spoke frankly about the use of psychedelic drugs, as therapeutic tools and religious sacraments, the Harvard psychologist became a notorious public figure. The mind-altering effects of LSD and similar drugs alarmed conservative America. As a result, Leary crossed paths with the U.S. legal system, served hard time, and fled overseas.
Then, as if to confound fans and critics alike, the counterculture impresario re-emerged in the late 1970s as a proponent of Intelligent Design. The term wasn't widely used at the time, but it captures the drift of Leary's post-60s philosophy. The professor had little to say about the dangers of drugs. Instead, he proffered a teleological model of evolution, one guided by Higher Intelligence, to audiences attending his "stand-up philosopher" performances.
During his hiatus from the public scene, Leary had steeped himself in research on the origins of life, particularly Fred Hoyle's panspermia theory, and he became an enthusiastic proponent of Gerard O'Neill's space colonization proposals. Life on Earth was seeded from outer space, Leary told his nightclub audiences, and, after four-and-a-half billion years of evolution/development, was now preparing to metamorphose into its mature, extraterrestrial, form. It's time to migrate (back) to space, he proposed. The new shtick elicited mixed feedback from the old hippies, young cyberpunks, and other curiosity seekers who took the time to listen.
Leary organized many of these ideas in Exo-Psychology, published in 1977, an ambitious and provocative book that modestly billed itself as "a manual on the use of the human nervous system according to the instructions of the manufacturers." Despite the book's appeal to teleology and Higher Intelligence, it had little to do with conventional religious thinking. Leary had no patience for scriptural literalism, except to note sardonically that Eden was the site of the first drug bust. Instead, he looked for Higher Intelligence far from religious—and scientific—orthodoxies. The psychedelic experience had convinced him that DNA not only preserves the evolutionary past—a prescient assertion, given the recent finding that DNA is conserved across species—but also already holds in storage the evolutionary future.
Leary proposed that phenotypes are pre-coded into an evolutionary program. In the case of humans, modalities of mind are among the pre-coded phenotypes. His model of developmental and evolutionary psychology, based on eight "brain circuits" that are activated sequentially—during the ontogeny of an individual and species-wide during phylogeny—includes terrestrial and post-terrestrial stages. The first four circuits govern the experiences of planetbound life. The last four become activated in outer space. Leary came to believe that psychedelic drugs temporarily activate (or emulate or simulate) the extraterrestrial circuits. Although unwieldy and possibly maladaptive on Earth, the psychedelic experience delivers a preview of modes of consciousness that will be the norm among space dwellers. Evolutionary stages present themselves to the mind for perusal, under the influence of the drugs. The psychedelic experience will find its proper field of application and adaptation, according to Leary's model of evolution, outside the confines of gravity.
When it became clear that space colonization and post-terrestrial consciousness lay farther in the future than Leary was likely to see, he re-issued Exo-Psychology as Info-Psychology. A sidelining of his extraterrestrial ideals, the re-issuing appeared to be a transparent move to cash in on the personal computing boom of the 1980s. Leary proved adept at changing lanes (and wives) and became an elder statesman of the cyberpunks (and a video game developer) (also, more recently, here) at about the same time that beat novelist William Burroughs re-emerged as an impresario of the music and poetry punks. Leary engaged with his old nemesis, Nixonian henchman, G. Gordon Liddy, in touring debates.
Marketing maneuvers aside, Leary's "Exo-Psychology" deserves a reappraisal as a futurist manifesto. It is relevant to the star larvae hypothesis in a number of ways: It proposes that evolution unfolds according to a program, that biology arrives on planets from space and, after planetary incubation, returns to space in a symbiosis with its technologies. Leary came to believe that in space consciousness mutates/metamorphoses concurrently with the body.
Leary referred in passing to weightlessness and cosmic radiation, but he did not propose specific physical or physiological mechanisms that would trigger the final four, psychedelic, brain circuits. Nonetheless, the retention in space brains of the dense circuitry that is lost when brains develop on Earth constitutes a plausible neurological mechanism for a psychedelic post-planetary consciousness. This consciousness, arising from an enrichment of brain tissue, will extend the trend line of human neoteny; it will be psychedelic to the extent that infantile and psychedelic modes of consciousness overlap. And they seem to share considerable ground.
One phenomenological intersection of these states is synesthesia. The term refers to a conflation of sensory modalities, as in "hearing colors" or "seeing sounds." Reports of synesthesia are common enough in the psychedelic literature, and research suggests that synesthesia probably also characterizes the experience of neonate—and, therefore, of neotenous—brains.
Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen reviews the idea in his overview article Is There a Normal Phase of Synaesthesia in Development? Baron-Cohen cites evidence of cross-referencing of the sensory modalities of infants, as in research that shows that infants exhibit more visual interest in objects that they previously had explored tactilely, or changes in heart rate that correlate with changes in intensity of auditory and visual stimuli but that are not elicited by intensity-matched stimuli. In Baron-Cohen's words, ". . . early in infancy, probably up to about four months of age, all babies experience sensory input in an undifferentiated way. Sounds trigger auditory and visual and tactile experiences. A truly psychedelic state, and all natural—no illegal substances play a role."
A neuroanatomical explanation of this phenomenon seems evident. Researchers have found transient connections among the visual, auditory, somatosensory, and motor cortices in the brains of kittens and baby hamsters, Baron-Cohen points out, and he cites evidence that something similar occurs in human infants. It would seem then that the sensorium is less differentiated in infants than in adults. And it would follow that a retention of juvenile brain structures—neurological neoteny—a retardation of development would tend to preserve the otherwise transient connections among the various cortices. As a result, the normally transient sensory modality of synesthesia would become a permanent feature of extraterrestrial psychology. To adapt Stephen Jay Gould's phrasing concerning morphological neoteny, the juvenilization of extraterrestrial brains will establish a matrix within which all trends in the evolution of extraterrestrial psychology must be assessed. Synesthesia is an evident area of overlap between psychedelic and juvenile modes of experience. As much a psychedelics juvenilize, juvenilization should psychedelicize.
Another, more general, area of overlap between the infantile and the psychedelic, albeit one that is hard to characterize precisely, might be described as unconditioned experience. In The Infant Mind, researcher Richard Restak illustrates by taking us inside the experiential world of a four-month-old:
"In reaching, infants have a difficulty few adults have complained about. Their hand is so interesting, so arresting that it captures their attention whenever it enters the visual field. Only the infant truly appreciates the beauty of the human hand . . . . Indeed, a baby is unable to ignore the hand, can't treat it as an object, hasn't the immediate knack of getting along with the business of grasping . . . . The baby will start to reach, encounter the hand, and ponder 'What's that!' Moments later, attention will shift to the toy once again and reaching will be resumed only to be interrupted yet another time by the Beautiful Hand."
In The Joyous Cosmology, Buddhist scholar Alan Watts relates a similar experience, albeit in a very different context. While strolling a wooded path he notices that,
"A rotten log bearing rows of fungus and patches of moss became as precious as any work of Cellini—an inwardly luminous construct of jet, amber, jade and ivory, all the porous and spongy disintegrations of the wood seeming to have been carved out with infinite patience and skill."
Watts in this passage is recalling an experience that he had under the influence of a psychedelic drug.
Lectures on Literature
A decaying log and a baby's hand would seem to have little in common, other than their ordinariness. How do such mundane objects wield the power to transfix a mind? Maybe the answer has to do with the type of mind. Adult minds typically don't react to commonplaces with concern, let alone intrigue. Adults typically will treat a log along a path and a hand at the end of an arm with indifference. But a baby hasn't yet endured the lessons of socialization. Its mind hasn't been conditioned to ignore anything.
Starting at birth, a brain is subjected to conditioning agents that range from the physical environment (which in the industrialized world might include electric sockets, hot stoves, and steep stairs), to parents, teachers, and coaches (spankings, grades, benchings and high-fives), along with mates, employers, mass media and countless cultural totems and taboos. The lessons of the environment and the norms of the tribe—instilled through socialization, enculturation, and schooling—shape lifelong psychological habits. But what if the result of all this conditioning could be suspended and consciousness returned to its natural, pre-conditioned state? How does raw mind experience the world? Unfiltered by sociocultural manners, the empirical world essentially would be remade; it would revert to William James' blooming buzzing confusion.
Freedom From Karma
The early characterization of psychedelics as de-conditioning agents might, therefore, explain some similarities between psychedelic and infant experience. The drugs inhibit conditioned patterns of thought and perception, rendering the drug-taker psychologically a child. The child, not yet having learned at the hands of parents/teachers/employers that it should dismiss any class of objects as mere, will examine twigs, leaves, and stones with focused intent. And the acidhead enthralled by swirling patterns in an ashtray similarly cannot dismiss the encounter as a run-in with something mere.
A vacant stare need not evince a dull mind. The pull of the de- or unconditioned experience would seem to be an aesthetic attraction. It's not that the drugged mind finds beauty where there is none; it is rather that a mind regimented by convention fails to perceive beauty but in the narrow channels recognized by the culture. A mind molded and lulled by cultural media has to struggle to see through its habits. It has a hard time perceiving beauties that fail to conform to the aesthetic rules of the tribe. A psychedelicized mind, with its usual, conditioned habits of thought and perception suspended, can constellate a satisfying aesthetic tableau from nearly any perceptual field. It extracts beauty. In The Wit And Wisdom Of Alfred North Whitehead, A. H. Johnson, comments on the value of such de-conditioning:
"It is Whitehead's contention that both the creative process of continual change and the eternal ideals which are used to guide the change are data discoverable in human experience if one is able to free oneself from the blinding delusions of past conditioning."
— Timothy Leary
Timothy Leary posed the issue in terms of "game" consciousness and "reality tunnels." These terms refer to habits of mind, conditioned conventions. Post-Wittgensteinian philosophers, those aligned with "the linguistic turn" in contemporary philosophy, have made the same discovery. Humans navigate by conceptual "frames" imposed on consciousness by the local culture. All values and beliefs ("vocabularies") are cultural artifacts. Not only is it the rare person who can adopt values and beliefs outside those of his or her culture, but it is the rare person who can even articulate such a possibility. In the extreme form of this model, the social construct extends to include an individual's own identity. "Self" itself is a social construct, down certain avenues of postmodern philosophy. This discovery would seem to complete science’s project to usurp religion. It would seem finally to do away with any lingering notions of individual soul. The nexus of subjectivity that each person experiences him- or herself to be is a psychological artifact that environmental conditioning constructs, layer upon layer. This model of psychological development implies that if a lifetime's cumulative conditioning could be suspended, say, chemically, then consciousness would cease.
Leary and his circle understood well enough that each person's "reality tunnel" is a social construct. But the suspension of conditioned reality does not snuff consciousness; it liberates consciousness, retrieves the natural, unconditioned state. The psychedelic state is non-game; it suspends conditioned habits, cultural and conceptual "frames". Psychedelic drugs connect consciousness to the unconscious; they make the unconscious conscious. They promote "out of the box" experience, freeing experience from social conditioning. Leary used the term "neurological relativism" to underscore the notion that each brain manufactures a unique reality for its bearer. He located the reality-generating agency in the brain (hardware), rather than in the vocabulary, rituals, and artifacts (software) of the culture. In the psychedelic view, the individuals of a society share much common cultural input, but each remains relative to all others because each bears a unique brain. As Leary understood and asserted, no matter how dense, intense, or insistent the cultural conditioning to which it is subjected, the brain is the arbiter of reality.
The contemporary history of psychedelic drugs evidently includes roots deep in U.S. government mind-control research. Gnostic Media Research and Publishing in this video compiles excerpts from interviews with scholars whose research documents the ruse that was the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s. The royalty of the "anti-establishment" movement comprised numerous agents, possibly witting and unwitting, of a clandestine social engineering project, the aims of which remain to be uncovered completely.
The psychedelic experience challenges the notion that enculturation, socialization, and schooling are constructive processes that build identity, values, and beliefs as a person matures. The psychedelic experience suggests that these processes are destructive, that they limit and constrain an otherwise full-blown, free-wheeling, if potentially chaotic, subjectivity and narrow it to a thin slice of its full potential. (The destructive model of the shaping of the individual has a neurophysiological correlate in the process of neural pruning.) In this sense, the psychedelic perspective is Freudian, echoing Freud’s assessment of the fate of the individual at the hands of culture in Civilization and Its Discontents. The metaphor of Plato’s cave provides another kind of commentary. In Plato’s parable, from The Republic, a person liberated from cultural conditioning reports back to his fellows his perceptions of extra-cultural phenomena. He is denounced as a dangerous, delusional krank. No visionary.
Underlying all three of these occultist postures is a revulsion against science, technology, evolution and intellectual competence. Implicit in the occultist theory is the assumption that there is nothing left to learn except to rote-memorize some Hindu chants, to rote-recite some glib theosophical dogmas, to quiet the restless, inquiring mind. "
— Timothy Leary
A migration into the unconscious, into the dream, must correspond to a migration into a physical frontier. If a physical frontier does not accompany transcendence, then we are back in the world of The Matrix, a terminal, terrestrial nightmare. And the mavericks, or the rebels, or the holdouts, or the free spirits, or the individualists, or the insurgents who unplug themselves, who assert some semblance of a private identity outside the shared dream of the culture/Matrix, pose a threat to the financial and political dominators. The hippies taunted the guardians of propriety, by challenging people to drop out, to assert identities for themselves outside the impositions of the collective culture. In hindsight, the efficacy of this strategy, as a political method, seems highly questionable.
— John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin
Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition
Cannabis, or marijuana, is a milder psychedelic drug that also seems to juvenilize consciousness. As such it provides another potential window into the extraterrestrial mind. In David Soloman's The Marijuana Papers, psychiatrist Sheldon Cholst lauds the cannabis experience for its juvenile sensibility. He gushes,
"The child lives in a world of wonders, he searches, finds, turns away and is afraid sometimes of being hurt or 'put down' by adults. But now he is both—so he feels 'high,' tall like an adult and yet still a child. O wonder of wonders! What more can this 'child at heart' want—for that is what a 'head' or hashish taker who really 'turns on' is. He has turned off adult reality — 'what to do, where to go, what am I allowed to do' and has returned to the life of the free, primitive child who wanders in his happiness."
Dating to the heyday of hippie culture, Cholst's paean captures the naïf sensibility of the flower children. Hippies left behind the conditioned norms of bourgeois adulthood, their drug regimen conveying them into a de-conditioned state of polymorphous hedonism. In their survey of human neoteny, Man-Child, a Study of the Infantilization of Man, David Jonas & Doris Klein offer many peculiar observations and speculations along these lines, including,
"In our own lifetimes, we see large numbers of children surviving childhood illnesses who would never have been able to live out their normal life spans had they been born in the days of our own childhood. They begin to form the nucleus of yet a new subspecies, regressing still another notch toward fetalization. Perhaps the appearance of deviant societies like those of the beatniks, the hippies, the flower children and many other of these types all over the earth would prove to that patient scientist from another world that the process of regression continues unabated."
A weird sentiment, but the authors, writing in 1970, seem to concur with Timothy Leary that the hippies represented the vanguard of evolution, albeit arriving early.
The infantile-psychedelic parallel becomes strikingly clear in this passage from Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory:
"What we can imagine in the early years of the child's life, then, is not a unified subject confronting and desiring a stable object, but a complex, shifting field of force in which the subject (the child itself) is caught up and dispersed, in which it has as yet no center of identity and in which the boundaries between itself and the external world are indeterminate. Within this field of libidinal force, objects and part-objects emerge and disappear again, shift places kaleidoscopically, and prominent among such objects is the child's body as the play of drives laps across it. One can speak of this also as an 'auto-eroticism,' within which Freud sometimes includes the whole of infantile sexuality: the child takes erotic delight in its own body, but without as yet being able to view its body as a complete object."
— Charles Hartshorne
Wisdom As Moderation
We now know that, in at least some mammals, the concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the brain peaks shortly after birth. These receptors are the brain's natural docking stations for the primary active ingredient in marijuana. "There is a striking temporary concentration of these [cannabinoid] receptors in the visual cortex during a critical period, when the brain fine-tunes its structure and function," reports neuroscientist Max S. Cynader (Science News, November 27, 1993).
Again, the prospect of neural neoteny—the retention of juvenile brain structures—in extraterrestrials suggests the prospect of otherwise temporary conditions becoming permanent fixtures. Cannabis, incidentally, is an antiemetic drug that is used licitly and illicitly to alleviate the nausea produced by chemotherapy and other medical treatments. The antiemetic properties of the drug suggest that, if space brains retain high concentrations of cannabinoid receptors, then evolution will have equipped extraterrestrials with an endogenous prophylactic against space sickness. Cannabinoids also, incidentally, have been shown to promote neurogenesis. So, the retention of high concentrations of cannabinoid receptors in extraterrestrial brains could only reinforce the neurological neoteny induced by weightlessness.
In Leary's model, marijuana activates the fifth "circuit" of the nervous system, the first of the four post-terrestrial circuits, while more powerful psychedelics activate the remainder of the extraterrestrial circuitry. Consciousness, in this model, as it evolves in space, concerns itself less and less with events outside the body and increasingly with events inside the body, with the body itself being subject to radical redefinition (see the above passage from Eagleton). The first of the post-terrestrial circuits, triggered by marijuana, directs attention to bodily sensations per se, hence the somatic interests of the pothead: hedonism, sensuality, yoga, vegetarianism. The next extraterrestrial circuit takes as its object physiological activity within the brain. The third focuses on the activity of DNA. And the last of the eight circuits concerns the source of subjectivity itself, as consciousness attends to quantum-level events.
to the experience of the eighth circuit as "metaphysiological" consciousness.
He avoided making metaphysical proposals,
probably to separate his scientific ideas from the mysticism of hippies
and New Agers and to acknowledge that quantum mechanics remains a part
More recently, the notion of a psychedelic-quantum connection has gained support from the work of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, specifically their assertion that the gravitationally induced collapse of quantum superpositions is the ontological basis of conscious experience. In the Penrose-Hameroff model, quantum superpositions cohere through large volumes of brain tissue. The larger the volume of coherence, the shorter its duration before collapse, so that large superposed volumes produce more conscious events per unit of time. Hameroff's explanation, in paraphrase, runs like this: The hollow interiors of neural microtubules provide a protected environment within which the quantum processes can proceed free from external contamination. Certain brain proteins, called tubulin dimers, from which the microtubules are made, exist in two potential conformations, depending on the position of an electron in the protein's hydrophobic pocket. If the electron is held in superposition, the whole protein molecule is held in a superposition of its two possible conformations. Any molecule that binds to the protein and retards electron mobility in the hydrophobic pocket will tend to reduce consciousness, by frustrating the electron's ability to suspend itself in a superposition. This seems to be the mechanism by which surgical anesthesia works.
|Stuart Hameroff at Singularity Summit 2009 -- Neural Substrates of Consciousness and the 'Conscious Pilot' Model from Michael Anissimov on Vimeo.|
Hameroff notes that psychedelic drugs appear to have the opposite effect; they enhance electron mobility in the hydrophobic pockets of tubulin dimers. He suggests that this is how the drugs produce their effects on consciousness. By making it easier for tubulin molecules to remain in a state of superposition, the drugs facilitate quantum coherence across neurons, and hence more neurons are able to participate in the coherent state. The collapse of the quantum coherence through these larger than normal volumes of brain tissue produces, in effect, larger than normal conscious experiences (in the model it's actually more conscious experiences per unit of time). This is the psychedelic effect, or at least Hameroff suggests this model. (See Computer Simulation of Anesthetic Binding in Protein Hydrophobic Pockets, pp. 425-434, in Toward a Science of Consciousness: The First Tucson Discussions and Debates, MIT Press, 1996.)
The Penrose-Hameroff model implies that consciousness varies on a quantitative scale and that psychedelics and anesthesia are the two extremes of chemical intervention. When Leary and other early researchers called psychedelics "consciousness-expanding drugs" they might have been precise in their terminology. If the Penrose-Hameroff model, or something like it, is correct, then the drugs deliver on their promise quantitatively to expand consciousness. And in doing so they return consciousness to the infant mode of experience, namely that of more consciousness. Psychologist Alison Gopnik observes, in The Philosophical Baby,
"Infant brains have abundant cholinergic transmitters but the inhibitory transmitters only develop later. Interestingly, babies require relatively higher concentrations of anesthetics to put them out—which may be because anesthetics act on these neurotransmitters. One way to define consciousness is that it's that thing that anesthetics get rid of, so this also suggests that babies have more of this mysterious stuff than we do. Babies' brains are also much more generally malleable, more plastic, than adult brains. For example, when children suffer from brain injuries they recover much more quickly and thoroughly than adults. Other parts of the brain take over from the injured parts. Adult brains are much less flexible. Like the proverbial old dog, old brains have a harder time learning new tricks."
Hameroff explores the prospect of culturing large matrices of microtubules in nonbiological environments. Such consciousness-housing structures could be built to scales of size and complexity beyond anything possible in a biological brain. Citing the prospect of Earth gravity interfering with the quantum processes, Hameroff suggests building the necessary facilities off-planet. In Ultimate Computing he muses,
"Current and near future genetic engineering capabilities should enable isolation of genes responsible for a specific individual’s brain cytoskeletal proteins, and reconstitution in an appropriate medium. Thus the two evident sources of mind content (heredity and experience) may be eventually reunited in an artificial consciousness environment. A polymerized cytoskeletal array would be highly unstable and dependent on biochemical, hormonal, and pharmacological maintenance of its medium. Precise monitoring and control of cytoskeletal consciousness environments may become an important new branch of anesthesiology. Polymerization of cell-free cytoskeletal lattices would be limited in size (and potential intellect) due to gravitational collapse. Possible remedies might include hybridizing the cytoskeletal array by metal deposition, symbiosis with synthetic nanoreplicators, or placement of the cytoskeletal array in a zero gravity environment. Perhaps future consciousness vaults will be constructed in orbiting space stations or satellites. People with terminal illnesses may choose to deposit their mind in such a place, where their consciousness can exist indefinitely, and (because of enhanced cooperative resonance) in a far greater magnitude. Perhaps many minds can commingle in a single large array, obviating loneliness, but raising new sociopolitical issues. Entertainment, earth communication, and biochemical mood and maintenance can be supplied by robotics, perhaps leading to the next symbiosis-robotic space voyagers (shaped like centrioles?) whose intelligence is derived from cytoskeletal consciousness."
Hameroff has made the book available as a download at http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/ultimatecomputing.html.
— Timothy Leary
If weightlessness produces psychedelicized consciousness, by preserving juvenile brain structures, then reports from astronauts ought to indicate as much. Reports to date only suggest that something weird is going on. Maybe astronauts have spent insufficient time in weightlessness to produce dramatic effects. In any case, NASA's public relations staff would be keeping a tight lid on reports of errant experiences.
— Timothy Leary
But, there are enough odd occurrences surrounding astronauts that have made it into public media to be worth mentioning.
In his book, The Overview Effect, Frank White presents reports from American and Russian space travelers about their experiences in space. Astronaut Charles Walker, recalls, "I have heard other space travelers express a perception that I have had: the feeling of euphoria beginning and continuing several days after launch. It is a feeling that new possibilities must be present where physical orientation and visual perception are under control but always variable." Wally Schirra describes his positive impressions of weightlessness this way: "You feel exquisitely comfortable . . . and you feel you have so much energy, such an urge to do things, such ability to do things. And you work well, yes, you think well, you move well, without sweat, without difficulty."
The experience can attain a life-transforming intensity. Edgar Mitchell's seemingly telepathic experiences in space inspired him to found a parapsychological research tank, the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Astronaut James Irwin returned to Earth sufficiently moved by some sort of revelation to mount several expeditions in search of Noah's Ark. But not everyone who orbits comes back inspired. Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, crash landed in a mental institution. Apparently the bad trip looms over astronautical trips, too.
But most space cases return favorably disposed towards NASA's version of getting high. Astronaut Senator John Glenn is unequivocal: "I found weightlessness to be extremely pleasant. I am sure that I could have gone for a much longer period in a weightless condition without being bothered by it at all. You feel completely free. The state is so pleasant, as a matter of fact, that we joked that a person could probably become addicted to it without any trouble. I know that I could."
The enterprise of space flight, to date, has delivered only a taste of weightlessness. But less patient species have forged ahead. The cetacea—whales and dolphins— provide extreme examples of the big-head, small-limb allometric proportions that neoteny promotes and that humanity's extraterrestrial descendants are likely to display. But the more intriguing aspect of cetacean biology is these animals' neurological evolution. Cetacean brains provide a suggestive model for the likely direction of extraterrestrial neurology.
The mystique surrounding their minds makes whales and dolphins intriguing candidates for proto-extraterrestrials. Data on the size and complexity of cetacean brains suggests that these creatures enjoy a rich subjectivity. Nonetheless, whatever sentience their big, complex brains might mediate, it remains occult. The burden on evolutionary science is to explain why nature endowed these mighty fetal creatures with such impressive neurological hardware. What's the adaptive advantage? How much brain power does a whale need? Dinosaurs pushed their massive bodies around with proportionately much smaller brains. Fish have survived in the water longer than the cetacea with relatively meager brains.
Maybe the cetaceans just lucked out. Maybe when their land-lubbing ancestors, hippo-like creatures as far as paleontology has surmised, lumbered into the seas, they took their large mammalian, and presumably adaptively plastic, brains with them. By retreating into Gaia's womb, they might have set off on a path of neurological enrichment, because buoyancy simulates weightlessness, at least well enough so that NASA has made underwater training a standard part of astronaut training. An aquatic environment delivers to its inhabitants the floaty, three-dimensionality of space, if in a moderated form. The freedom of movement that water makes possible and the need to orient in three dimensions that it requires might make an aquatic environment a brain-enriching one for mammals.
When terrestrial environments simulate weightlessness, then the mammalian morphologies that inhabit them converge on big brains and short (even vestigial) limbs. That is, they become neotenous.
Another intriguing adaptation to their world of simulated weightlessness is the cetacean's acoustic imaging ability. Cetaceans communicate with one another and scan their environments by emitting patterns of clicks and squeals that act as sonar signals. As they echo through the environment, these sounds return to the dolphin or whale information about its surroundings.
McLuhan argued that electronic culture is retreating from the visual bias of literate culture and turning back toward the auditory bias of preliterate culture. This transition might be preparing the ground for a more radical transformation. The auditory sense represents more faithfully a three-dimensional environment than does the visual sense. Ears hear from all directions at once. This capacity will have to give the auditory sense a leg up on the visual sense in the weightlessness of space.
The ordinary human voice, already unique in nature for its range of articulations, could serve native extraterrestrials as a sound source for a cetacean-like sonar sense. The prospect of "acoustic imaging" suggests a convergence of visual and auditory modalities in the extraterrestrial sensorium. Synesthesia suggests itself again, as a prospective adaptation to weightlessness, another link forged between psychedelic and extraterrestrial modes of experience.
If the test of a scientific theory is its ability to make predictions, what can be made of the theory of evolution? The star larvae hypothesis lays out a set of predictions based on the principle of parallel evolution in similar environments: womb, ocean, and weightless space. The predictions cover morphology, particularly allometry, and developmental neurology and its concomitant psychology/phenomenology.
For the sake of completeness, it is worth noting two theories of human descent that complement certain aspects of the star larvae hypothesis. These are the "Aquatic Ape" hypothesis developed by Elaine Morgan, and a not-formally-named hypothesis proposed by Terence McKenna which asserts that early hominids accelerated their evolution toward the modern human state by incorporating psychedelic plants into their diet.
The aquatic ape hypothesis is the older and more widely known of the two and has garnered more commentary. Morgan's series of books on the hypothesis argues that humans differ radically from other primates because human evolution took a turn early on into an environment that other primates avoided: water. She argues that a primate species was in the process of adapting to an aquatic environment when that path was interrupted and the partially adapted aquatic ape returned to the land, where it gave rise to humankind. Our bodies carry evidence of the aquatic episode, in the form of what Morgan calls, The Scars of Evolution.
The aquatic ape argument centers on rising sea levels that turned the Danakil Alps in Eastern Africa into islands for a period of from 1.5 to 3 million years, 5 to 10 million years ago. On the islands Australopithecenes partially adapted to their aquatic environment, goes the argument. Morgan's case is circumstantial, but the number of anomalies of anatomy and behavior that she cites makes an impressive list. Many characteristics of human biology do not fit the usual model of human descent, which situates key developments in the Savannah of Africa:
Morgan acknowledges that the aquatic hypothesis dovetails with the neoteny model of human descent, citing the cetacea (whales and dolphins) as an extreme case imposed by an aquatic environment. She agrees with the general assessment of human neoteny, but disagrees that the Savannah would have encouraged neoteny. Alternatively, she argues that an aquatic environment would have. The case is that neoteny extends fetal growth patterns, and thereby would tend to enrich brain circuitry. Not contradicting, but supplementing, Morgan's argument is the added complexity that an aquatic environment would bring to the sensorimotor lives of aquatic primates, which would add selection pressures for genes that build brains conducive to neurological enrichment.
Recently, researchers have uncovered genetic evidence to support the aquatic ape hypothesis. In What Darwin Got Wrong, authors Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini discuss "master genes," that regulate multiple traits and so force those traits to evolve together. In their example, the traits regulated by a particular master gene, designated Otxi, seem unrelated to each other, but as a group the linked traits are oddly suggestive of an aquatic episode in humankind’s past. The authors write,
"[. . . ] in particular, since the Otxi ‘master’ gene controls the development of the larynx, inner ear, kidneys, and external genitalia and the thickness of the cerebral cortex, selective pressures sensitive to changes in the functions of the kidneys (due to bipedal station, or different liquid intake and excretion resulting from floods or droughts), or the fixation of different sexual patterns, may have had in turn secondary effects on the expansion of the cerebral cortex and the structure and function of the larynx.”
This set of traits, under the control of the same master gene, plays a foundational role in the aquatic ape hypothesis. Fluid/salt regulation (kidneys), 3D proprioceptive orientation (inner ear), breath control and speech (larynx), ventro-ventral copulation (genitals) and development of a complex cerebral cortex turn out to be fated to travel together, all being regulated by the same master gene, and all being components of the aquatic ape scenario.
Millions of years after they abandoned their aquatic habits, the pre-human apes got an evolutionary boost from another source, according to researcher Terence McKenna (who, by the way, makes no reference to the aquatic theory). In Food of the Gods, McKenna proposes that uniquely human consciousness and language evolved with the help of botanical catalysts. Early hominids, as they spread across the old world in search of new foods, would have sampled unfamiliar plants growing around them, overcoming distaste when they got sufficiently hungry. Chimpanzees, for example, out of curiosity and especially if hungry, will tend to sniff and nibble approachable objects, apparently testing them for palatability. Assuming that early hominids behaved similarly, McKenna argues that the presence of ungulates, including cattle, in the grassland environment of the African plains would have set the stage for an encounter between early hominids and Stropharia cubensis, a psilocybin-containing mushroom that grows in cattle manure. He cites research showing that psilocybin in small doses measurably improves visual acuity, which would have given hominids that developed a taste for the mushroom a survival advantage. Psilocybin is at large doses a powerful psychedelic drug and this property probably would have been discovered early on. Consequently, McKenna argues, the mystical/religious sensibility might have been born concomitant with human speciation. The religious interpretation of the psychedelic experience led researchers in the 1970s to to coin the term entheogen, meaning "God within," as an alternative to hallucinogen and psychedelic. Recent anthropological work suggests that even Western monotheism has roots traceable to psychedelic drug use. In The Holy Mushroom researcher Jan Irvin elaborates on the work of Dead Sea Scrolls translator John Allegro to argue that Christianity rose from a mushroom cult.
"Einstein's ability to write the basic equations of energy-matter may have resulted in his having experienced in this own body and brain the implications of light speed travel—which had been reported for centuries by mystics and yogis who were not able to symbolize them in mathematical form."
— Timothy Leary
— Alfred North Whitehead
Adventures of Ideas
By referring to skewed behavior patterns, those that would have resulted from an affinity for the psychedelic experience, as a stratifying agent in the hominid gene pool, McKenna skirts accusations of Lamarckism. The putative evolutionary mechanism McKenna leans on is called the Baldwin-Waddington Effect. Richard Dawkins, in The Extended Phenotype, illustrates the concept by proposing to breed a race of lactating men. By treating men with estrogen and selectively breeding those who showed the greatest susceptibility to its effects one could in theory produce an evolutionary result that would mimic a Lamarckian effect. Ongoing research into epigenetic inheritance is bringing to light various quasi-Lamarckian processes.
Mircea Eliade's Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions, includes a chapter called Spirit, Light, and Seed, which covers various themes related to the star larvae hypothesis. In particular, in a section titled, A South American Example: 'Sun-Father,' Photic-Sexual Symbolism, and Hallucinatory Visions, Eliade describes the mythology of the Desanas, "a small, Tucano-speaking tribe living in the equatorial forests of the Vaupes River in Columbia Amazonia." The tribe persists in an archaic hunting-based culture. Its religious mythology revolves around the creative power of the Sun-Father.
"According to the Desanas, the soul is a luminous element which possesses its own luminosity, bestowed by Sun at the birth of every human being." The association of luminescence with spirit is expanded and reinforced by ritual use of the psychedelic drug, yagé. "The myth of the cult's origin tells that the supernatural yagé-Woman gave birth to a child who had 'the form of light: he was human, yet he was Light; it was yagé.'" During the yagé-drinking ritual, the initiate is told by the shaman that "he is ascending to the Milky Way." He then is led to a subterranean world also inhabited by luminous beings. Eliade says, "Taking yagé is expressed by a verb meaning, 'drink and see,' and it is interpreted as a regressus to the cosmic womb, that is, to the primeval moment when Sun Father began the creation." Light also is associated with semen and sexuality. Another aspect of the creation myth involves souls originating from semen that falls from the rays of the sun. Eliade summarizes:
"If everything which exists, lives, and procreates is an emanation of the sun, and if 'spirituality' (intelligence, wisdom, clairvoyance, etc.) partakes of the nature of solar light, it follows that every religious act has, at the same time, a 'seminal' and a 'visionary' meaning. The sexual connotations of light-experiences and hallucinatory visions appear to be the logical consequence of a coherent solar theology."
Timothy Leary's 1960s persona might always overshadow his later work.
But his spaced-out thinking after the hippie revolution might have been his most prescient.
He was right, it seems. The journey to the stars turns out to be a journey to the center of the mind.
The Star Larvae Hypothesis:
Stars constitute a genus of organism. The stellar life cycle includes a larval phase. Biological life constitutes the larval phase of the stellar life cycle.Elaboration: The hypothesis presents a teleological model of nature, in which
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