I think Jeremy Narby did a fantastic job with this book. Personally, I had read a bit about South and Central American shamanism, and I'm a fan of Carlos Castaneda's books. But while enjoyable, Castaneda's blurring of the lines between truth and fiction leaves me with mixed feelings. Narby's work doesn't suffer the same faults. He's meticulous, academic where he needs to be, but isn't afraid to consider unpopular ideas or develop unconventional theories. And darned if he doesn't come up with some highly unique and thought-provoking stuff! His willingness to take the shamans at their word and see the possible links between their visionary knowledge and that of molecular biology is pretty remarkable, and distinguishes him from the vast majority of his colleagues, whose metaphysical assumptions limit where they can venture, in my opinion.
Narby sees connections between common themes in shamanic visions (e.g., ever-present snakes, often paired and entwined) and DNA. The connections don't stop at common imagery, however. The things the shamans describe, like the way the 'spirits' of plants and animals communicate, their origins, traits, and 'behaviors' all have a remarkable similarity to the way biologists describe DNA and its functions. He hypothesizes that shamans actually gain direct access to their own DNA and the DNA of other forms of life while in trance. It is through the DNA that knowledge is communicated, such as which plants provide which medicinal uses. This leads him to speculate on the possible intelligence of life (developed more fully in his recent book, Intelligence in Nature
), and a mode of communication with the world of nature via DNA.
Understandably, his work hasn't been taken seriously by the scientific community. But I think he's onto something. Scientific materialism is a dead end as it is currently formulated, but I think approaches like that developed by Narby provide a saner alternative - they take into account a greater portion of observable reality, whereas the current scientific mindset simply brackets entire phenomena off as unworthy of study, or simply nonexistent. Not very scientific, in my opinion. The book was written in the 90s, so much of the science is out of date, but even taking that into account, the main lines of force still hold today. And works like Bryant Shiller's Origin of Life: The 5th Option
make good supplementary reading, and support several of Narby's ideas.
In short, if you're into shamanism, research into hallucinogens, consciousness, or DNA, I don't think you'll be disappointed. I picked this one up on whim and couldn't stop reading. The prose is clear, engaging, and fun.