How The History Of Psychoactive Plants Validates Epigenetics

Research conducted at Stanford’s School of Medicine revealed that genes were turned on and off, not by the genes themselves, but through external, environmental stimuli..

These radical findings ran contrary to the long-held assumptions of genetic determinism and became one of the early heralds of an emerging scientific understanding called epigenetics. At the same time it has been a theme of modern neuroscience that certain concepts and ideas (“memes”) have a life of their own within our culture and become adopted over time. So it is interesting to speculate what sorts of influences and forces might be at work in these processes. I was struck by the January 11th Sixty Minutes piece that highlighted the “normalization” of marijuana use in Colorado and how other institutions like law enforcement are handling it. Not surprisingly the fact that it is commercially successful has made it popular among capitalists and the widespread adoption is continuing. It is not hard to connect the popularity of “weed” with various changes in memes in our culture among the adopters. Early proponents were rebels against the materialist establishment, pacifists and sometimes referred to as “hippies.” Also among them were teachers like Alan Watts and Ram Dass who really began the consciousness movement in the United States. But is there a cause and effect connection to be drawn between the popularity of a drug and the changes in a society that happen at the same time? The adoption or integration of marijuana as a “mind altering weed” is not a new phenomenon. It actually happened in a similar way in Elizabethan England in the 16th century.

The real story of tobacco has been covered in John Barth’s novel “The Sot Weed Factor,” a Bob Newhart comedy sketch and in a historical novel I wrote in my 20’s about the real life of Sir Walter Raleigh. In truth, Raleigh was the first capitalist – he financed his Virginia colonies with tobacco which he promoted as a “strange herb smoked by the Indians in the New World.” He brought two Indian chieftains back from Virginia and brought them into court, scandalizing the royals because they were of course nearly naked, and demonstrated their smoke through a pipe. Previously it had only been popular among the seafaring roughnecks and privateers but when tobacco became popular it was smoked as an intoxicant at the theatre and gained in popularity, making Raleigh wealthy. At the same time it is interesting to note that it was during this period that the power of the monarchy began to wane, and ideas like individual freedom and democracy began to spread through Europe. Of course it was only a century or so later that these ideas (memes) flowered in America and the colonists rebelled from England and proponents of tobacco wrote the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

The entire class systems began to erode and even more revolutionary ideas took hold; for example it was also during this time that the church began to split apart and “heretical” ideas like the heliocentric theory became adopted. The Age of Tobacco was also the Age of Newton, Galileo, Giordano Bruno and Copernicus. Interestingly a close of associate of Raleigh was Thomas Harriot, an astrologer, astronomer and mathematician who was in touch with Kepler and other astronomers in Europe and propounded the theory of many worlds and of course validated the concept that the earth and planets move about the sun in elliptical orbits, hastening the birth of modern astronomy and astrophysics. Harriot was Raleigh’s emissary to Virginia and befriended the Indians by learning their language; he was also the first known victim of cancer from tobacco use.

The Elizabethan meme that most intrigued me was the belief in the divine right of the monarch, and the dedication and devotion, for example, to the Queen of England. Raleigh was a man of his own mind, which got him imprisoned several times, as he stood up to both Elizabeth and later King James. Along with democracy came the rise of capitalism and individual wealth rather than the inheritance of the monarchs and their blood lines. So one may ask is something similar to what happened with tobacco now happening with pot? Certainly many memes have changed during our current period and Collective Evolution has been an agent of such change. Chief among them in terms of consciousness is the realization that we do not have to “believe our thoughts.” What also intrigued me about Raleigh and Harriot when I wrote about them was their interest in the civilizations of the New World. Raleigh lost his son on a final voyage to Guiana to ostensibly search for the Lost City of Gold, the legendary El Dorado. But what if his quest had a deeper motivation. It seems that the Indians with whom Harriot communicated told him of their legends of Gods from the Sky, and these same legends were repeated by a Spaniard that Raleigh captured and who told him of El Dorado. Again, what if Raleigh and Harriot’s efforts at reaching the Amazon were not just for material wealth, but to gain the greater wisdom to which their minds had been opened –that the true source of civilization was an ancient wisdom that they sought to discover? Today, of course, the “outrageous” theories of extraterrestrial influence are becoming more widely accepted, especially as our science discovers the secrets of DNA and we begin to suspect that our origins as a species may not be entirely “random.” Could it be that once again an organic substance has changed our brain chemistry so that we are open to new ideas and an upheaval of our belief systems? Of course tobacco and marijuana are rather mild substances when compared to other organic and synthetic products that have become of great interest to neuroscience –like ayahuasca from the Amazon, peyote and of course LSD. It seems obvious that our mental vistas are expanding, and perhaps the quest for outer space will really lead us to inner space. In any case, it is now obvious that as Shakespeare wrote, influenced by tobacco or not that “there is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” .

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