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The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge Reprint Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0874779646
ISBN-10: 0874779642
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Anthropologist Narby's very personal account of his encounters with Amazonian shamanism and his passionately researched syntheses of anthropological, biochemical, neurological and mythological scholarship fascinate but do not convince. His defense of the rights of indigenous peoples against usurpation by capitalist, technological countries is admirable; his methodology is not. Throughout, Narby appears to mistake enthusiasm for evidence and he takes similarities of form (e.g., any helical pattern, hexagon or snakelike figure) to be proof of identity or of casual connection: that the serpent of shamanic lore is DNA. Of his assertion that the Amazonians' specific knowledge of pharmacology derives from hallucinogenic trance (and not from some other more diffuse source), he undertakes no experimental test, offering the typical complaints that the "presuppositions" of science are too narrow to permit the test. Narby does well to question the assumptions of scientists who dismiss all teleology in favor of mechanistic interpretations that are often deeply inadequate, and he does well to inquire into the meaning of the vast commonality of forms between science and world mythologies, but his answers too often come off as groundless invention. He provides an intriguing detective story, wondrous visions and a wealth of fascinating information on genetic science, shamanism, etc., and he also offers some valuable thoughts on the parochial smallness of official science, but, overall, his book's greatest value, perhaps, is as a case study in the excesses of scholarship gone astray.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam; Reprint edition (April 5, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0874779642
  • ISBN-13: 978-0874779646
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (156 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #34,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

124 of 127 people found the following review helpful By The Don Wood Files on July 16, 2002
Format: Paperback
Jeremy Narby's argument is that when shaman's drink hallucinogenic brews, their consciousness sinks to the molecular level, and literally communicates with DNA, the basic building block of life. DNA appears to shamans, and others who drink these magic brews, as serpents. This is why, Narby claims, serpents loom large in ancient cultures around the world. It is also how shamans get their expert knowledge of plants. When shamans say that the spirit in the plants tell them how to concoct life-saving remedies, they mean what they say. In hallucinogenic trances, the plants speak. Narby goes onto to speculate that the world is one vast communication network among strands of DNA. You don't have to buy the DNA-communication theory to enjoy this book. It is written in an engaging, personal, first person narrative style. It shows how science works, how "eureka moments" occur when one is relaxed and thinking about other things. Maybe his theory is totally off-base, but even so, big ideas like this one often spur research in different, interesting directions. We are only as good as our questions, and Narby's question is a great one: What if the shamans are right?
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112 of 119 people found the following review helpful By Zane Ivy on February 21, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Very interesting book. Anthropologists tend to project their own world views on the people they "observe." This book, which is basically a "story" - demonstrates how one Anthropologist, through his experiences in South America, has his own LAE (life altering experience) which enables him to examine his OWN culture...and its assumptions/metaphors. As a "Native" person, who went through the "mainstream" education system and wrestled with the hubris and fragmentation (let's disect everything!)...it was a pleasant breath of four winds' air to see him face up to his own field's shortcomings. I recommend the book.
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48 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Betty Sayers on December 11, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Author, Jeremy Narby leaps between science and mysticism on his quest to explain how several millennia ago Stone-Age hunters living in the Peruvian rainforest learned the botanical properties and the chemistry of plants. Dr. Narby, a Canadian-born scientist, lived two years with the Ashaninca people in the jungles of the Pichis Valley in Peru. Early in his work with the Ashaninca, Dr Narby perceived an enigma. He writes, "These extremely practical and frank people, living almost autonomously in the Amazonian forest, insisted that their extensive botanical knowledge came from plant-induced hallucinations." For Dr. Narby, the hallucinatory origin of botany contradicts two fundamental principles of Western knowledge. First hallucinations cannot be the source of real information, because to consider them as such is the definition of psychosis. Western knowledge considers hallucinations to be at best illusions, at worst morbid phenomena. Second plants do not communicate like human beings. Scientific theories of communication consider that only human beings use abstract symbols like words and pictures and that plants do not relay information in the form of mental images. Dr. Narby said that he often asked Carlos (interpreter) to explain the origin of place names, and Carlos would invariably reply that nature itself had communicated them to the shaman during their hallucinations. Throughout Western Amazonia people drink ayahuasca. (hallucinogenic drug) Carlos said, "That is how nature talks, because in nature, there is God, and God talks to us in our visions. When a shaman drinks his plant brew, the spirits present themselves to him and explain everything.Read more ›
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60 of 69 people found the following review helpful By rareoopdvds VINE VOICE on March 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found the writing easy to get along with as its written in narrative form that. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby steps off the plane and into Amazonian country. Here he tries the commonplace hallucinagenic ayahuasca. This plant gives Narby incredible insight into the human soul, body and nature of life. The author then gives his experience in as much detail as he could remember, then passing along the rest of his trip with conversations and whatnot. From here, he sets out to write his book. Although the author does sort of jump to conclusions that the double serpents he sees all over ancient mythology is the double helix of DNA (i.e. the medical symbol caduceus). Although in some cases I tend to agree with his point of view, and I find much of the ancient symbols of the past to correlate strongly with our modern psychology, mathematical sciences and biology. However, in his search, he does not let go of the idea, which may or not not help his cause. The book would have received 5 stars, if he stayed on top of his subject. He began with hallucinagenics in the Amazon, then to DNA, then neurology and smoking ingredients. He writes humbly knowing what he believes wont be taken to heart very lightly. There are no answers in this book, however many questions, pertinent questions no less, which makes this such a valuble and enjoyable book. Definately reccomended. Fans of Joseph Campbell may really enjoy this one.
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51 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Patrick D. Goonan on December 18, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a very interesting story by an author with great credentials who seems very sincere. However, his argument that indigenous people truly understood the structure of DNA and gained this knowledge from what the plants told them was not convincing. There were some interesting connections, but I found that Mr. Narby tended to read a lot into his findings. At certain points, I was even annoyed by the leaps in logic and hasty conclusions.

On a more positive note, the story itself is interesting and underlying concept for the book intriguing and thought provoking. When I shifted gears to thinking of this as very speculative and following it like ficition I found it more interesting. While I believe the author was sincere in his attempt to rely the facts, I think he got very caught up in his theory and tended to see proof for it where in fact the evidence was less than certain.

This book is certainly not a scientific treatise. It is a good story that raises some interesting issues about shamanism and the validity of information gained from altered states of consciousness. It raises interesting epistemological questions and certainly entertains, but I found it to be light in terms of making a good arguments for the central premise of the book.
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