Note: This interview originally appeared in New History magazine in June of 1993. We think it remains quite thought-provoking and worthy of a re-print here.
The mainstream media hasn't quite got it figured out whether Terence McKenna is putting them on or not. His theories about the origins of contemporary culture in the psychedelic trips of the distant past seem startling to those who have overdosed on Reagan/Bush/Larouche-style propaganda, but they are not without precedent if the names Aldous Huxley, John Allegro or R. Gordon Wasson mean anything to you (if they don't, check out the 'authors' section of the card catalog). McKenna's ideas have hit the media in the form of several books, most notably The Archaic Revival (HarperCollins), Food of the Gods (Bantam), and True Hallucinations (Harper San Francisco). He has also maintained a close connection to the burgeoning rave scene, lending spoken-word performances to concerts by the Shamen and recordings by Space Time Continuum. Major publications from coast to coast have lined up to give him press, generally favorable, if confused.
I spoke with McKenna recently as part of an assignment for Future Sex magazine (editorial decision squelched the piece)...
PHF: Can you briefly explain the theory you put forth in Food of the Gods?
Terence McKenna: The primate tendency to form dominance heirarchies was temporarily interrupted for about 100,000 years by the psilocybin in the paleolithic diet. This behavioral style of male dominance was chemically interrupted by psilocybin in the diet, so it allowed the style of social organization called partnership to emerge, and that that occured during the period when language, altruism, planning, moral values, esthetics, music and so forth -- everything associated with humanness -- emerged during that period. About 12,000 years ago, the mushrooms left the human diet because they were no longer available, due to climatological change and the previous tendency to form dominance heirarchies re-emerged. So, this is what the historic dilemma is: we have all these qualities that were evolved during the suppression of male dominance that are now somewhat at loggerheads with the tendency of society in a situation of re-established male dominance. The paleolithic situation was orgiastic and this made it impossible for men to trace lines of male paternity, consequently there was no concept of 'my children' for men. It was 'our children' meaning 'we, the group.' This orgiastic style worked into the effects of higher doses of psilocybin to create a situation of frequent boundary dissolution. That's what sexuality is, on one level, about and it's what psychedelics, on another level, are about. With the termination of this orgiastic, mushroom using style of existence, a very neurotic and repressive social style emerged which is now worldwide and typical of western civilization.
PHF: In what sense did the mushroom influence or create an orgiastic state?
Terence McKenna: All central nervous system stimulants create what's called 'arousal', which means restlessness. In highly sexed animals like primates, it also means sexual arousal. So, psilocybin was a stimulant to sexual acitivity. In an evolutionary context, the more sex you have, the more outbreeding you have of those members of the population that are not experiencing this stimulation. So, on one level, at the lowest dose, psilocybin increases visual acuity, which means better success at hunting. Then, at the middle dose level, it creates this hypersexual activity. Then, at still higher doses it creates the full-blown psychedelic experience, about which we are as uninformed and as easily amazed as our remote ancestors were. So, it was a 3 step process. It was basically a chemical that had been allowed into the diet that boosted us toward boundary dissolution, language acquisition, sexuality without boundaries, and so on. With those behaviors in place, humanness emerged. Then, as the mushroom faded from climatological reasons, in a sense we became schizophrenic. The bestial nature, the animal nature, that had been suppressed by the psilocybin in the diet, re-emerged, so you get male dominance, standing armies, kingship, walled cities, the whole bit that leads to western civilization.
PHF: What is the place of set and setting in the arousal response?
Terence McKenna: In the primitive context, I think, probably, there were orgies which were regulated by the lunar phases. In other words, orgies at the new and full moon.
Basically, I think of the ego like a tumor or a calcarious growth in the psyche that will form unless there is the presence of psilocybin. For a hundred thousand years, nobody went longer than a month without having this boundary-dissolving experience. After the psilocybin faded, the ego was able to get hold and then eventually redefine the whole personality around it. It's a maladaptive response, I think, because it leads to the consequences we see all around us.
PHF: At what age would the psilocybin be introduced to prevent the ego from forming?
Terence McKenna: We're just speculating here -- nobody knows -- but I imagine that it could well have an initiatory rite at puberty, or it could have come even earlier. Also, we're talking a long period of time, as much, perhaps, as half a million years, that this was happening. So it may have started out that psilocybin mushrooms were just edible mushrooms, an item in the diet, and only when you ate a lot did you discover that they were also stimulants and psychoactive. Then, as you approach more recent times, they were obviously institutionalized into a kind of goddess worshiping, cattle worshiping, orgiastic religion.
PHF: Are you suggesting that paleolithic shrooms were less potent than those that present-day psychedelic users consume?
Terence McKenna: No, I'm just suggesting that as human intellectual capacities evolved, people went from unconsciously getting loaded and being stimulated by these things, to actually realizing that the mushroom was what was behind it, and then to consciously seek them out for those kinds of experiences.
PHF: Do you see a resurgence in the psychedelic orgiastic consciousness?
Terence McKenna: Certainly psilocybin is a very important factor in the English rave and house music scene and psychedelics, though not psilocybin, were certainly a part of the sixties scene, which was then also associated with an orgiastic versus a monogamous style of sexuality.
I'm not advocating that we return to orgies. After all, these African populations that I'm talking about were small groups of people between 70 and 125 people, roughly, and with the global pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases, you can't exactly advocate orgy, but I do think that, in social circles where psilocybin and psychedelics are being used, monogamy erodes and people tend to have more than one sexual partner, without the subterfuge and secretiveness that attends that in the ordinary dominator context. I guess I would say that the lesson from psilocybin is not that we should return to orgy, but that we should take a look at the modification of monogamy to permit people to have more than one sexual partner at a time, without having to be socially stigmatized.
PHF: Do you think that there's an ideal recreational drug that may be created?
Terence McKenna: Many psychedelics have the effect that I've mentioned here. The reason I fasten in on the mushroom is because we evolved in the African grasslands, so if you're looking for a psychedelic stimulant to sexuality and consciousness in the context of early human evolution, it's going to be a grassland plant that requires no preparation and no combination with some other plant, because this all happened before that level of culture. Psilocybin emerges as the obvious candidate and I would say psilocybin is probably the best suited for this even today, because it's the one that we co-evolved with.
PHF: What would you recommend in the way of a psychedelic, romantic experience?
Terence McKenna: I think if they take 3-1/2 to 4 grams of [dried] psilocybin mushrooms, in comfortable, dimly lit surroundings, that they'll discover a dimension to sex that you're just not going to approximate any other way. I mean, this is a pretty well-kept secret -- or maybe it's not so well-kept -- but it's certainly true that psychedelics have a tremendously enhancing effect on sex. It's not exactly that they're aphrodisiacs, because they don't have an effect on performance, particularly, but whatever goes down is experienced much more intensely and vividly.
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