The VICE Channels

    Psychedelics Make Us Human: An Interview with Techno-Ecologist Richard Doyle

    Written by


    This Enchanted Contemplative Experience of Radical Interconnection

    This is part one of a two part interview by Jason Silva, who is a fellow at the Hybrid Realities institute and host on Current TV. Read the second part.

    Richard Doyle also goes by mobius, an indicator of just how important interconnections are to him – and how transformative, bedeviling and hypnotic his ideas can be. As a professor of English and science, technology, and society at Pennsylvania State University, he has taught courses in the history and rhetoric of the emerging technosciences – sustainability, space colonization, biotechnology, nanotechnology, psychedelic science, information technologies, biometrics – and the cultural and literary contexts from which they sprout. An explorer of the exciting and confusing rhetorical membrane between humans and an informational universe, he argues that in co-evolution with technology, we find ourselves in an evolutionary ecology that is as vital as it is unexplored.

    In Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants and the Evolution of The Noösphere, the transhumanist philosopher focuses on his favorite technology: the psychedelic, “ecodelic” plants and chemicals (read: drugs) that can help make us process more information and make us aware of the effect of language and music and nature on our consciousness, thereby offering us an awareness of our own ability to effect our own consciousness through our linguistic and creative choices. And that, from an evolutionary perspective, is simply sexy.

    Jason: Your new book talks about the relationship between psychedelic plants and the accelerating evolution of the “noosphere”, which some define as the knowledge substrate of reality, the invisible, informational dimension of collective intelligence and human knowledge. Is this more or less accurate?

    Rich: The book features a set of nested claims about the evolution of mind, psychedelics (or, as I prefer and propose, “ecodelics”), and the evolution of the noosphere, but all of the ideas can be understood via two claims:

    1. Ecodelics have been an integral part of the human toolkit, so suppressing them is like suppressing music, jokes or other aspects of our humanity.


    2. As integral parts of the human toolkit, ecodelics are best modeled as part of sexual selection – the competition for mates and the leaving of progeny. A careful look at Charles Darwin’s writings on sexual selection will show that sexual selection works through the management of attention – what we would now call “information technologies.” Think birdsong, bioluminescence (the most widespread communication technology on the planet), poetry. The peacock is managing and focusing peahen attention with his feathers, so what we have called “mind” has been involved in evolution for a very long time. Mandrilles eat iboga before competing for mates.

    “It is, as always, the challenge of the magus and the artist to decide how we want to customize reality once we know that we can.”

    I work with the notion of the noosphere drawn from V.I. Vernadsky, and propose that we define it as the collective effect of the attention of ecosystems. Psychedelics seem to draw our attention to the whole. Ecodelics dwindle the broadcast of the ego – it is not very good at perceiving the whole, just as we can’t, unlike a butterfly, taste with our feet. With the ego dwindled, we can become aware of the noosphere – the message of the whole. This has particular importance as we grapple with the effects of human consciousness and its externalization in technology on the biosphere.

    Jason: The Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the Noosphere very early on. A profile in WIRED said, “Teilhard imagined a stage of evolution characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping the globe and fueled by human consciousness.” He wrote, “The living world is constituted by consciousness clothed in flesh and bone.” He argued that the primary vehicle for increasing complexity and consciousness among living organisms was the nervous system. The informational wiring of a being, he argued – whether made of neurons or bits – gives birth to consciousness. As the diversification of nervous connections increases, evolution moves toward greater consciousness, right?

    Yes. He also called this process of the evolution of consciousness “Omega Point.” The noosphere imagined here relied on a change in our relationship to consciousness as much as it did to any technological change, and was part of evolution’s epic quest for self awareness. Here Teilhard is in accord with Julian Huxley [Aldous’ brother, a biologist] and Carl Sagan when they observed that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine traces out this evolution of consciousness as well, through the Greek and Sanskrit traditions, as well as Darwinism and (relatively) modern philosophy. All are describing evolution’s slow and dynamic quest towards understanding itself.

    Jason: Jacques Monod, the Parisian biologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1965, proposed that “just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an ‘abstract kingdom’ rises above the biosphere.

    Yes, the irony here is that in in his amazing book Chance and Necessity, Monod was part of the rather vicious attacks on Teilhard. Teilhard was attacked by both the Church and mainstream science. Was he on to something? Nobody was more mainstream than Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, and he also talked about the “Three Worlds” of “objects,” “mental events,” and the “products of the human mind,” with the last, World Three, corresponding roughly to the noosphere. One significant difference between my use of this map and Popper and others is that I do not limit the effects of attention to human attention. Flowering plants, for example, work on this level of the biosphere that involves insect attention and perception.

    “Leary called this ‘internal freedom.’ Yet becoming aware of the practically infinite choices we have to compose our lives, including the words we use to map them, can be overwhelming – we feel in these instances the ‘vertigo of freedom.’"

    Jason: This ‘world of ideas’ sounds a lot like the Noosphere… are these two guys saying the same thing here?

    As I mentioned above, I think there are important differences in our use of this map, but all of these authors are pointing to the need to model an aspect of our ecosystems that involves what the plant scientists now call “signaling and behavior” as well as the collective effects of that signaling and behavior. I find that the noosphere is a good metaphor and mneumonic device for doing that and helps us think on a more planetary and informational scale. Precisely because the noosphere is about differentials of attention, it matters how we model it.

    Jason: In The Information, James Gleick writes that ideas influence evolution. “Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms … Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.”

    The American neurophysiologist Roger Sperry also arged that ideas are “just as real” as the neurons they inhabit, causing new ideas, interacting with each other and with other brains, and through the Internet, “to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet.” Do you agree with that description?

    Rich: First, I like idea sex as a meme, and yet I think it is in some way redundant. I am working with Geoffrey Miller’s hypothesis (which was also, implicitly, Charles Darwin’s) that the human mind evolves as a courtship device. Thinking and story telling are like birdsong – they play a role in how we pair up. Darwin (as well as more contemporary researchers like Nottebohm) focused on the role of song in courtship and neurogenesis. Nottebohm observed juvenile finches singing their brains larger!

    Gleick’s treatment of the evolution of ideas is strikingly resonant with Plato’s dramatization of the effect of writing to “get into the wrong hands” and drift (see the Phaedrus). I honestly think we are still grappling with the fact that our minds are distributed across a network by technology, and have been in a feedback loop between our brains and technologies at least since the invention of writing. As each new “mutation” occurs in the history of evolution of information technology, the very character of our minds shifts. McCluhan’s _Understanding Media _is instructive here as well (he parsed it as the Global Village), and of course McLuhan was the bard who advised Leary on “Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out,” and was very influential on Terence McKenna.

    One difference between now and Plato’s time is the infoquake through which we are all living. This radical increase in quantity no doubt has qualitative effects – it changes what it feels like to think and remember. Plato was working through the effect of one new information technology – writing – whereas today we “upgrade” every six months or so. Teilhard observes the correlative of this evolutionary increase in information – and the sudden thresholds it crosses – in the evolution of complexity and nervous systems. The noosphere is a way of helping us deal with this “phase transition” of consciousness that may well be akin to the phase transition between liquid water and water vapor – a change in degree that effects a change in kind.

    A map of the Internet.

    “In ecodelic experience we can perceive the power of our maps, or ‘reality tunnels.’ That moment in which we can learn to abide the tremendous creative choice we have, and take responsibility for it, is what I mean by the ‘ecstasy of language.’”

    Darwin’s Pharmacy suggests that ecodelics were precisely such a mutation in information technology that increased sexually selective fitness, through the capacity to process greater amounts of information, and that they are “extraordinarily sensitive to initial rhetorical traditions.” What this means is that because ecodelic experiences are so sensitive to the context in which we experience them, they can help make us aware of the effect of language and music, etc, on our consciousness, and thereby offer an awareness of our ability to effect our own consciousness through our linguistic and creative choices. This can be helpful when trying to browse the infoquake. Many other practices do so as well – meditation is the most well established practice for noticing the effects we can have on our own consciousness, and Sufi dervishes demonstrate this same outcome for dancing. I do the same on my bicycle, riding up a hill and chanting.

    Jason: Richard Dawkin’s notion about memes, a replicator that has achieved evolutionary change faster than genes, for which “the vector of transmission is language” is very compelling. This insight reminds me of a quote that describes, in words, the subjective ecstasy that a mind feels when upon having a transcendent realization that feels as if it advances evolution:

    “A universe of possibilities,
    Grey infused by color,
    The invisible revealed,
    The mundane blown away
    by awe”

    Is this what you mean by ‘the ecstasy of language’?

    Rich: One problem I have with much of the discourse of “memes” is that it is often highly reductionistic – it often forgets that ideas have an ecology too, they must be “cultured.” Here I would argue that drawing on Lawrence Lessig’s work on the commons, the “brain” is a necessary but insufficient “spawning” ground for ideas that become actual. The commons is the spawning ground of ideas; brains are pretty obviously social as well as individual. The Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin notes that there is no such thing as “self-replicating” molecules, since they always require a context to be replicated. This problem goes back at last to computer scientist John Von Neumann’s 1947 paper on self-reproducing automata.

    I think Terence McKenna described the condition as “language is loose on planet three”, and its modern version probably occurs first in the work of writer William S. Burroughs, whose notion of the “word virus” predates the “meme” by at least a decade. Then again this notion of “ideas are real” goes back to cosmologies that begin with the priority of consciousness over matter, as in, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was god, and the word was with god.” So even Burroughs could get a late pass for his idea.

    Above, I noted that ecodelics can make us aware of the feedback loops between our creative choices – should I eat mushrooms in a box? – Should I eat them with a fox? – and our consciousness. In other words, they can make us aware of the tremendous freedom we have in creating our own experience. Leary called this “internal freedom.” Becoming aware of the practically infinite choices we have to compose our lives, including the words we use to map them, can be overwhelming – we feel in these instances the “vertigo of freedom.” What to do? In ecodelic experience we can perceive the power of our maps. That moment in which we can learn to abide the tremendous creative choice we have, and take responsibility for it, is what I mean by the “ecstasy of language.”

    I would point out, though, that for those words you quote to do their work, they have to be read. The language does not do it “on its own” but as a result of the highly focused attention of readers. This may seem trivial but it is often left out, with some serious consequences. And “reading” can mean “follow up with interpretation.” I cracked up when I Googled those lines above and found them in a corporate blog about TED, for example. Who knew that neo-romantic poetry was the emerging interface of the global corporate noosphere?

    Jason: Is this Anthropoligist Henry Munn’s “language as an ecstatic activity signification” in action? Is ecstatic utterance the universe talking to itself by encoding and transmitting information? Are we the conduits for the songs of the universe?

    Rich: This notion of “ecstatic signification” comes out of Munn’s experiences with Mazatec curandera such as Maria Sabina in Oaxaco, Mexico. Maria Sabina is now recognized as a major poet. “Ecstasy” comes etymologically from the experience of “being beside ourselves.” The mathematician Brian Rotman has written extensively on this idea that we can experience “parallel” rather than “serial” reality. If we aren’t the conduit for the songs of the universe, then who is? I would add, of course, that so too are the blue whales, and the cardinals, and the grasshoppers. Mice sing courtship songs too, and Siegel observed a muskrat in mourning who ate Hawaiian woodrose seeds as a part of it. Those seeds have LSA in them, a potent ecodelic. I know why the grieving mouse sings!

    “Sexual selection is a good way to model the evolution of information technology. It yields bioluminescence – the most common communication strategy on the planet – chirping insects, singing birds, Peacocks fanning their feathers, singing whales, speaking humans, and humans with internet access. These are all techniques of information production, transformation or evaluation."

    Jason: How do psychedelics and marijuana or other natural ecstatic states expand our communion with the dimension of the noosphere? Are these drugs like “modems” that plug us in?

    Rich: We really need much more research to answer this question, but I think a more useful metaphor than “modems that plug us in” would be “knobs that allow us to turn down the self and tune in the Self.” Great chemists such as Alexander Shulgin and David Nichols have explored the “structure/function” relationship of psychedelic compounds, and found that you can’t reliably predict the effect of a compound from its form. You have to test it. So in the book I take the perspective of “first person science” – seeking answers from my own subjective experience as well as the first person reports of others.

    The 2006 Johns Hopkins study on psilocybin (Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance) shows pretty definitively that experiments from 1962 (The Good Friday Experiment) were correct to associate psychedelics with “mystic experience.” Within the vast history of mystical experience, a pattern seems to emerge: Perceiving and experiencing the immense power of processes external to our selves, we can experience what early researcher Walter Pahnke (among others) described as “ego death”:

    “During the mystical experience when the experiencer has lost individuality and become part of a Reality Greater-than-self, paradoxically, something of the self remains to record the experience in memory. One of the greatest fears about human death is that personal individual existence and memory will be gone forever. Yet having passed through psychological ego death in the mystical experience, a person still preserves enough self-consciousness so that at least part of the individual memory is not lost."

    If our experiences are highly tuneable by the language we use to describe them, we might rethink the phrase “ego death” as being rather easily misunderstood. I suppose that could be a virtue. Now what I call the “ecodelic experience” is less about “losing the self” than “tuning to the ecoysystem.” This is what Darwin was doing when, at the end of the Origin of Species, he “contemplated” the interconnection of all living things:

    “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

    How did Darwin perceive this interconnection? He didn’t simply figure it out intellectually – he perceived it. And in order to perceive it, he had to experience something like the ecological contextualization of his own life. He perceived not only that he was interconnected with his ecosystem (itself veritably “made” of these interconnections”), but he perceived the scale of his being in relation to the scale of the ecosystem. Most of us feel this when we look up at a clear star filled sky at night if we are fortunate enough to find ourselves outside of the light pollution of urban areas.

    Intriguingly, the best model I know of for mapping that scalar difference between humans and their ecosystems happens to be the psychologist Roland Fischer’s model of what he called the “hallucination/perception continuum.” Fischer, who studied the effect of psilocybin (a compound of found in “magic mushrooms” and the compound tested in the aforementioned Good Friday experiment), described a continuum between hallucination and ordinary perception that is defined by the sensory/motor ratio – the ratio between the amount of sensory information we receive and our ability to act physically to respond to or verify it. When sensory input increases and there is no corresponding increasing in motor capacities, hallucination is the result.

    Psychedelics seem to draw our attention to the whole. Ecodelics dwindle the broadcast of the ego – it is not very good at perceiving the whole, just as we can’t, unlike a butterfly, taste with our feet. With the ego dwindled, we can become aware of the noosphere – the message of the whole.

    Note in this sense for Fischer the hallucination is a “real” perception of our breakdown in ordinary modeling tactics. This has interesting resonances with Kant’s theory of the sublime, and in ego death we may see the experience of this mismatch between our sensory input and our ability to organize it. Maybe that is why reality seems to be asymptotically approaching a psychedelic world view – consciousness shifts in response to the vast increase of information, changing in kind on the same scale as the psychedelic “turn on.”

    Needless to say, more research is needed.


    Jason: Buckminster Fuller described humans as “pattern integrities,” Ray Kurzweil says we are “patterns of information.” In The Information, James Gleick says that “information may be more primary than matter.” Are we just bundles of information, complex patterns? And if so, how can we hack the limitations of biology and entropy to preserve our pattern integrity indefinitely?

    Rich: First, it is important to remember that the history of the concept and tools of “information” is full of blindspots – we seem to be constantly tempted to underestimate the complexity of any given system needed to make any bit of information meaningful or useful. Caitlin, Kolmogorov, Stephan Wolfram and John Von Neumann each came independently to the conclusion that information is only meaningful when it is “run” – you can’t predict the outcome of even many trivial programs without running the program.

    So to say that “information may be more primary than matter” we have to remember that “information” does not mean “free from constraints.” Thermodynamics – including entropy – remains. Molecular and informatic reductionism – the view that you can best understand the nature of a biological system by cutting it up into the most significant bits, e.g. DNA – is a powerful model that enables us to do things with biological systems that we never could before. Artist Eduardo Kac collaborated with a French scientist to make a bioluminescent bunny. That’s new! But sometimes it is so powerful that we forget its limitations. The history of the human genome project illustrates this well. And the human genome is incredibly interesting. It’s just not the immortality hack many thought it would be.

    In this sense biology is not a limitation to be “transcended," as Kurzweil describes it, but a medium of exploration whose constraints are interesting and sublime. On this scale of ecosystems, “death” is not a “limitation” but an attribute of a highly dynamic interactive system. Death is an attribute of life. Viewing biology as a “limitation” may not be the best way to become healthy and thriving beings.

    Now, that said, looking at our characteristics as “patterns of information” can be immensely powerful, and I work with it at the level of consciousness as well as life. Thinking of ourselves as “dynamic patterns of multiply layered and interconnected self transforming information” is just as accurate of a description of human beings as “meaningless noisy monkeys who think they see god”, and is likely to have much better effects. A nice emphasis on this “pattern” rather than the bits that make it up can be found in Carl Sagan’s formulation, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.”

    This is part one of a two part interview. Read the second part.

    Images: Imaginary Foundation.

    Topics: transhumanism, technology-and-philosophy, nature, technology-and-love

    Connect To Motherboard

    Most Popular

    comments powered by Disqus