The Stoned Ape Hypothesis and the Original Memetic Cambrian Explosion

A thought struck me after attending Burning Seed over the weekend (Burning Man for Australia) about the value of psychadelics in human prehistory.

Terence McKenna and the Stoned Ape Hypothesis

Alex Grey Artwork Psychedelics and creativityI’d heard of the Stoned Ape Hypothesis in the past, but have never done much research into its exact claims. Skimming the Wikipedia entry on it and a few other overviews and comments on it, it seems that the main claim is that psilocybin (the active molecule in magic mushrooms) lead to increased fitness in the humans who consumed it through greater hunting ability, greater sexual activity and enhanced religious and creative expression, and as a consequence, that lead to increased selective pressure for brain size growths.

I’m not really here to comment on that particular hypothesis at all. It does sound like a bit of a stretch to me to think that mushrooms may have actively directed our biological evolution over hundreds of thousands of years. I don’t discount it entirely though.

Memetics and Cultural Evolution

That said, I do think that there is a very good reason to suspect that entheogens (any naturally occurring psychedelic plant/organism) may have played a very real and significant role in the advancement of human cultural evolution ever since we evolved the ability to form advance cultural concepts (language, art, advanced tools, etc.).

It is no secret that human brains are copying machines. We learn by watching others do things, then seeing the positive outcomes of those actions, we copy them and attempt to recreate the positive results.

In the wider context of a tribe, it seems like we tend to codify certain activities into traditions. There is a certain way that activities must be done in order to work. If you don’t follow the ritual correctly, then you will probably mess up the meal, or fail in your hunt, or build a shelter which leaks, or whatever. So creativity in implementing well established cultural traditions ends up being quite strongly selected against.

And this is where entheogens may have a particularly strong value.

With the way that they affect our neurobiology to confuse neural pathways and thus enable ‘lateral thinking’ by simply allowing us to follow not-well-established neural pathways, creativity is very strongly enhanced(1) under the effects of psilocybin, mescaline, ayahuasca, etc.

They also tend to somewhat reduce our ‘care factor’ while under the effects. This may be equally as significant since cultural traditions are often quite strongly enforced in a social sense, and people acting out of line with them may be chastised, ostracised or even physically punished. But as we all know from the cliché stoner stereotype, no one under the influence of any psychedelic seems to really give much of a shit about anything, much less what you think of them.

These two psychological aspects combine to create an amazing potential for humans to step outside of what might be incredibly rigid social constructs and even rules, to create something almost entirely brand new. Whether it be the first art, or a new form of art, or a new method of cooking, or a new way to hunt, or even just a minor improvement to an established system…. It seems like psychedelics may have actually had a significant role in forcing forwards human cultural evolution.

To clarify:  the selective pressure on human cultural evolution would remain the same (Does it work? Do people like it? Does it make life easier? etc), but the psychedelics would have increased the amount of variety of cultural units (memes, ideas, concepts, whatever) which could be selected, and thus increase the opportunity for human culture to discover new things and improve our ability to survive and thrive.

The Cambrian Explosion of Memes

I worry as I write this that I am saying something incredibly obvious.

This phenomenon has been observed repeatedly in modern society already. Whether it be from comedians, a few famous change makers themselves, or even scientific studies which show the power of LSD in research. It is just that I had never before personally applied this notion to the limited cultural experience of humans in our earliest stages of ‘humanity’. The stages at which our experiences of cultural units – ideas, or memes – would have been so extremely limited on account of the newness of our ability to create them. And with that limited exposure to new and novel ideas, so to, I believe, our ability to be creative would also have been limited.

Perhaps psychedelics pushed the envelope and artificially created diversity of ideas where there was otherwise almost none, and in doing so, was a powerful stepping stone, potentially bringing about the first ‘Cambrian explosion’ of cultural ideas?

Do psychedelics artificially increase the mutation rates of successful memes?


  1. This article states that the scientific research on whether psychedelics increase creativity is inconclusive – though it is largely on account of the fact that research has been stalled for the last 40 years thanks to the unjust war on drugs (my words, obviously) – and the research techniques used back then were not as rigorous as we use these days. Nonetheless, the anecdotal evidence and not-exactly-perfect research results seems quite strong to me.
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2 Replies to “The Stoned Ape Hypothesis and the Original Memetic Cambrian Explosion”

  1. I am no anthropologist, but…
    Lots of animals take drugs. Here in Australia, the phrase “Drunk as a Gallagh”, has origins in the North. Where parrots get drunk, on fermented fruit, under the mango trees, flopping about on their backs and carrying on, staggering about. But they did not build themselves any institutions. Right?
    Maybe it’s the wrong example/animal/drug to talk about.
    But I am not quite sure I can see the main thrust of your argument/ point.
    Personally, I think the word ‘addiction’ (accepted as a positive evolutionary driver) is more effective in tracing reiterative emergence (evolution). Somehow, addiction harnessed us humans, into an impossible chasm of understanding, requiring a creative response to deal with it. Like getting high. The first addiction, normalised as ‘basic need’ today, is hunger and thirst. A circle of perpetual motion is established, by vacillation between full and hungry, thirsty and sated (intoxicated and sober). When it is reiterated, with sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, then it is iterated and articulated into ritual. All mammals have mating rituals, at least. We humans have many different kinds of rituals, but I think the evolutionary paradigm fits very neatly. Doesn’t explain human culture though.
    What are you looking for, anyway? Do you need a moral defense, or are you searching for Origin stories? Political strategies? Idle speculation…?
    (And what’s with the ‘new age’ artwork? I thought you held a torch against ‘that kind of thing’?)

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  2. Interesting post 🙂 I think the role of naturally occurring psychoactives may go deeper than this. Take one issue I’ve mentioned on your fb before: the spirit world. Many of the psychoactives you list reliably produce an experientially impressive encounter with apparently animate and intelligent presences, what we may call entities or spirit beings.

    Phenomenologically this is a distinct dimension of experience, sometimes of overwhelming power. If psychoactives have accompanied humans since the beginning, and if they have catalysed cultural creativity, this is due, in part, to the fact that they have sustained the apparent objective reality of this teeming spirit world for countless generations of humans.

    So, if to operate as a cause is in some sense evidence for objective existence, does it not follow that the spirit world, as a causal force in human affairs, has existed and continues to exist? Or maybe that is to trivialise the issue as a merely scrappy definitional one. The question might rather be: does it not follow that we can have no understanding of the evolution of human culture, and thereby of human being itself, which does not seek to grapple with the sustained phenomenological reality of the spirit world?

    That to me, at any rate, is one of the more interesting conclusions I draw from the pychoactive plants: society, culture, intersubjectivity, is not confined to the relation of humans and nature. Rather, there is a class of molecules in nature which open up, for humans, an inner dimensionality which goes beyond nature and culture, and human culture has been built in ongoing relationship to it.

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