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?

Footnotes

  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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If I were in charge… (Part 1)

If I were in charge of a country, I would change 3 significant things:

  1. I would legalise and monopolise all illegal drugs
  2. I would implement a universal basic income
  3. I would rigorously secularise society

Put the cartels out of business legalise drugs

Part 1. The War on Drugs has Failed

This is no secret. It is well documented now, in all sorts of ways. It costs many billions each year, it causes more harm than good, costs lives, creates crime, and completely fails to deliver on its one objective. Drugs are more accessible, cheaper, and more numerous than at any other point in history.

We need a new approach.

Portugal has been the only country to really give decriminalisation a serious go. And it has worked remarkably well for them. But decriminilisation is a weird halfway sort of solution. Sure, it isn’t ‘criminal’ any more, but it still isn’t legal. It becomes more like speeding.

If I were in charge, pending rigorous expert consultation and comprehensive review, I would immediately take steps to create a centralised government drug production and wholesale distribution system.

Dare to legalise drugs

Initial Education

While the infrastructure was being set up, I would ensure adequate educational material was made available and regularly presented to kids of all ages, at least once a year throughout all of high school warning of the side effects and risks of drugs (in all forms), ensuring that everyone in society grows up with a valid understanding of drugs, not a fear based one. TV commercials, paper, radio, and mail-drops of informational pamphlets would also be done at this early stage to inform the public of the changes, and provide them with access to a website where more information and drug facts could be accessed.

With the warnings and education in place, the drugs would start being produced, and retail outlets would be licensed. Either directly through pharmacists, or similar to how liquor outlets are currently handled in Australia. Either way, the government would handle the production and wholesale distribution to private, highly regulated, thoroughly trained and licensed retail outlets. Every shipment of every type of drug would have information sheets which go with each batch, providing crucial information relevant to the dosage, side effects, risks, interactions etc that should be known before taking that drug.

Retail Scenario

The retail outlets would be responsible for ensuring the customer meets age restrictions (most likely 21+ for most drugs, but definitely based on scientific rigour rather than ideology), limiting the quantity purchased per customer, providing cursory verbal information, warnings and queries to ensure the customer understands the risks (as pharmacists currently do for prescription drugs), and of course, giving information pamphlets/booklets with the purchased drugs.

User Consequences

Now, all drug users have a clean reliable source of known quantities of drugs. This will significantly reduce risk of poisoning and overdose. Plus all users have readily accessible information about risks, rather than trusting ‘friends’ and random strangers to advise them. This too will have a significant impact on overdoses, overuse, addictions, bad interactions and many other risks typically assumed to be the fault of the drugs, rather than the fault of ignorance.Remember prohibition it still doesn't work legalise drugs

Crime Results

With a reliable government source, drug dealers will all be rapidly put out of business.

All of the drugs will be sold with a high tax rate and commercial mark up, so drug dealers might be able to keep lower prices. However, people will tend to prefer the certainty of knowing they are getting pure quality of known concentrations from reliable outlets over slightly lower prices. The profitability of large drug running organisations and organised crime groups will simply disappear, and with it, those groups will die a quick death. Most organised crime will simply disappear because most of them depend on their drug sales to maintain cash flow.

With the death of most organised crime groups, violence will decline. Turf wars, inter-gang rivalry, and violence to intimidate and maintain control will disappear with them. This fact is already being demonstrated with marijuana legalisation in Colorado, with violent crime declining by 5.2% in the first 6 months. Legalise all drugs, and it will be much more significant.

Revenue and Expenses

The biggest positive will be the significant new income source taken from crime syndicates and given to the government for the benefit of the public.

The costs of policing drug crime are significant, and these will nearly completely be eradicated over the course of a couple of years. The savings there alone will be immense, but they will be nothing compared to the revenue generated by the sale of the drugs, and the tax revenue generated from the retail outlets.  If there is one thing we have learned over the last 50+ years of drug prohibition, it is that druglords make more money than just about anyone else in society

Some of that revenue would be lost to the initial costs – creation of the farms, laboratories and distribution networks. Ongoing staff costs, maintenance etc will be easily covered by the revenue of sale. The significant profits and the taxation from retail sales would then need to be all used for specialised drug-related concerns in society.

Investment into Education

First, there would be the education side. Some of the money would need to be put into ensuring schools can adequately teach children about the drugs, so that no one is left ignorant of their risks and dangers. So a certain amount would be invested into schools every year and specific teachers, teacher trainings, materials, and other overheads associated with this.

Medical Expenses and Drug Abuse Support

Secondly, most of the money would need to go into ‘medical’ support. This would consist of counselling, addiction treatment, rehab and outright medical expenses generated as a consequence of drug abuse. As part of the constant exposure to drug information provided under this system, constant reminders about counselling, psychological support, and medical assistance would be forever pushed on all drug users, so that no one is ever left feeling isolated, vulnerable and trapped by their drug use. This fact alone will save more lives than any other measure in my opinion (and cut medical costs by helping people avoid the devastating outcomes of untreated abuse).

One of the biggest problems created by the war on drugs is the labelling of drug abuse victims as criminals, forcing them to feel trapped by their situation, pushing them deeper into desperation, crime, isolation, mental illness etc. By breaking that stigma alone, lives will be saved, people will be helped back to functional productive members of society, and everyone will benefit.

Scientific Investment

If money remains, or after a few years of keeping enough money in buffer to compensate for fluctuating incomes and expenses, a fund should be generated for scientific research. By having easy access to all known drugs on the planet, scientific research should be delved into with rigour. Medical applications, long term consequences on individuals, society as a whole, psychology, physiology, etc. The ability to finally get some real research done on these most remarkable of chemicals will yield amazing commercial prospects for the country as new medical applications and treatments will be pioneered there exclusively.

Related to this is the fact that by controlling virtually all drug production, wholesale sales, and regulation of retail sales of drugs, it would finally be possible to get actually reliable statistics on the usage rate of drugs. Governments would be able to monitor just how much of each drug is consumed, and the track that against adverse health affects, long term outcomes etc. Rather than just polling people, and roughly guessing. It would even be possible to recruit far more people into long term health studies of specific drugs, rather than trying to infer the outcomes indirectly.

Invest in Children

One final investment option for the new drug based revenue stream, if there is the money available for it, is to invest in parental support.

This is a bit of a wildcard, but it seems to me like most drug abuse doesn’t come from drug addiction nearly so much as it comes from feeling trapped and useless (see the rat park research). One half of that equation is being unable to fend for oneself – unemployable, destitute, desperate poverty etc. We will deal with this issue in step 2 of this piece.

But the other half of the equation (or at least, another aspect of it) is growing up in an abusive or dysfunctional household.

As a society we already try to prevent children suffering through abusive upbringings. And this is great, but no doubt most of them slip through the cracks because abuse and maltreatment isn’t always obvious. It also isn’t always intentional. Often parents just find themselves overwhelmed. Unsure of themselves. Potentially even inadequate (surprise! Just giving birth to a human doesn’t make you a great parent!).

So the wildcard idea here is to invest in family support initiatives. Definitely keep providing strong support to abused and maltreated children, but also start extending support to parents who just wish they had more help with caring for and raising their children. The idea here is something of a government initiative Super Nanny program. Nannies who come and visit for one work day per week (mornings, middays or bedtimes) or more if required, to help advise parents on how to deal with troubled children, structure and support. Lighten the load and inject alternative unbiased professional experience into the household, and hopefully the children will have better lives for it.

My intention with this idea is to help reduce the number of people who grow up harbouring psychological trauma, mild as it may be, at the hands of misguided parents. I don’t mean to over-generalise here, but like it or not, parents have the biggest impact on our lives, and if you are unlucky enough to get one who repeatedly tells you you are useless, or ugly or a failure at life, or the cause of all of their problems….etc then there is a good chance that these sorts of psychological traumas will follow you for your life, and for some people, these traumas can cause them to seek escape into drugs.

Like I said – wildcard idea, and far from validated. Just an idea at this stage, which I am happy to receive feedback on.

Ultimate Outcome

So in summary, the government produces and wholesales all (currently illegal) drugs to highly regulated retail outlets who sell to very well informed customers who have significant psychological and medical support provided to them should they need it. Drug cartels would be put out of business, reducing violent crime significantly as crime syndicates lose their main source of funding. Policing can focus on actually protecting people rather than arresting drug users, the government has more money all round, and scientific research will undoubtedly find innumerable medical applications for most of the drugs, selling the technology/knowledge/application/treatment globally, creating even more revenue for the nation.

legalise regulate educate medicateCost?

I really don’t see one.

I know, I know: More people will have access to drugs, and drugs are dangerous!

Access will be there, but most people, even if offered heroin for free at a party, would still decline. Hell, alcohol is ever present in our society and I turn that down all the time! Just because something is available does not automatically mean people will start doing it. There has to be a desire to do it.  Just ask a Dutch person whether they smoke marijuana and take mushrooms or not – most don’t.

Secondly, if people want drugs, they can already get them! This is the current situation! The difference is that when you have problems, you have no real support. And your chances of having problems are significantly increased because of the unreliable source, the materials the drugs are cut with, and the lack of education around the drug usage. The only ‘education’ we currently have is “Don’t do it.”

Abstinence only sex education causes more pregnancies than real sex education, and abstinence only drug education causes more death and harms than real drug education.

So, when we get over this automatic assumption that ‘doing drugs’ is the bad thing, and start to think in terms of actual harms – overdoses, adverse health affects, psychological illnesses etc – then we can start to assess which system causes more harm. Does the current system which provides no support and proper education and reliable sources cause less harm than the system outlined here?

I doubt it very much.

Not only do we have easy comparisons between the USA and the Netherlands showing that the country with legal access to drugs actually has LOWER usage, but we have the obvious fact that support and education create better outcomes than ignorance, violence and unreliable sources.

So again.. I can’t see an actual negative.

End the war on drugs. Legalise and monopolise drug production and lets make the world a better, more inclusive and supportive place.

 

Part 2 to follow soon.

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Re-Legalise Cannabis

A petition has been started to re-legalise cannabis in Australia. I have signed it, and I think every other person in Australia should sign it too. There are so many reasons to legalise it that it makes me angry that anyone even needs to argue the point any more. A quick summary of some of my favourite facts:

  • There are zero known deaths from Cannabis use
  • It is less addictive than Tobacco, Alcohol and even Caffeine!
  • It has numerous known medical uses and helps improve the lives of millions of people suffering with debilitating diseases
  • It is significantly less harmful than alcohol and tobacco (and many many other legal substances too), with only two negative things associated with it, a lowering of IQ when used by teenagers (only in teenagers), and it may amplify the experience of schizophrenia (only the mental experience of it – while softening all of the other problems associated with the disease).

And many more which just get harder and harder to put in to dot point summary. Like incarceration issues, cost to police issues vs revenue from taxation. And the advantages of regulation vs prohibition – the end of drug cartels… sooo many damn things is just makes me angry writing them all.

Anyway, what I really wanted to do was just list 3 great documentaries I have seen over the past few years which make all of these points far better than I do. WATCH THEM. Then help us make the world a better place.

The Union

Probably the best, most comprehensive video on the state of Marijuana legalisation in Canada and the USA, the Union was released in 2007 and so is a little out of date now that Washington state  has actually legalised marijuana, but is otherwise still perfectly relevant. Particularly since the USA federal government still considers Marijuana use something which deserves prison sentences.

When We Grow

A shorter documentary made on a tiny budget for the UK audience. When We grow was made to raise awareness of the same marijuana issues faced in the UK (without the insane prison problem the USA face). A great documentary and absolutely worth watching as well:

Breaking the Taboo

Breaking the Taboo is the most recent video, and in looking to add the full video to this post I have found out unfortuantely, that they have taken the full version offline. It looks like that made it available for a short time just to promote political action. Now the documentary has moved to a new phase of hosting live screenings of it in a film festival type arrangement.

So instead, here is a link to their Youtube Page. In short though, Breaking the Taboo is less about Marijuana itself, and more about the international war on drugs and the harm it has done. It has numerous world leaders in it showing their support for ending the war on drugs including Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, and the presidents of Switzerland and Brazil from the late 90s. It is narrated by Morgan Freeman.

What About Australia?

I don’t know of any documentaries from Australia yet. The petition which started this post used the UK film to make its point, and of course, it is as good as we need really. The differences between their situation and ours are mostly minimal. But I would be interested in seeing a professionally made documentary like these ones being done for Australia and showing our own failures, and the harm it causes us.

If you do want to vote for a serious party which will actively fight to legalise cannabis use in Australia, have a look at the policies of the Sex Party.

All Opposed….?

I would love to hear from anyone who disagrees with the idea of legalising Cannabis. What reasons do you have for your stance?

 

edit: Also, forgot about this one, coming soon:

The House I Live In

Another one moreso on the War on Drugs than cannabis specifically, but all incredibly relevant.

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