Readers of Jeremy Narby's first book, The Cosmic Serpent, might wonder as I did, after reading Intelligence in Nature, why he wrote this latest book. They might also wonder what happened to the spirit of personal discovery that was so present in his previous work. Where Cosmic Serpent fairly rings with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that comes with uncovering splendid mysteries, Intelligence in Nature reads more like a transcription from the Discovery channel.
Narby's search for intelligence in nature takes us into the biology labs of a select group of scientists around the world who are trying to identify humanlike intelligence within the plant and animal life of the natural world. From the Peruvian Amazon to Japan, we meet scientists whose investigations are undoubtedly fascinating. But Narby's inquiry begins and ends with large questions hanging in the air. We learn interesting things about how slime mold, for example, appears to make decisions, or how certain tropical birds ingest clay to prevent disease in much the same way that we use antibiotics. But then what? Why is intelligence in nature such a puzzling question to science when it seems so obvious to anyone who regularly walks in the woods with a curious and observant eye? And why should it be left to mainstream science to decree the existence of something for which scientists themselves can reach no defining consensus?
Narby asks good questions in this book but he doesn't go very far with them. His tentativeness in the company of scientists is curious given the open-minded enthusiasm he brought to his experiences with shamans in the Peruvian Amazon, which he first wrote about in The Cosmic Serpent. There, far from his academic and cultural roots, he eagerly pushed the edge of conventional knowledge. Describing his experience with ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic healing plant of the Amazonian basin, Narby made a symbolic connection between the double-helix imagery of DNA and what the shamans described as the "language twisting-twisting" experience of ritualistically altered consciousness. Through their profound knowledge of the natural world, the shamans revealed a larger intelligence governing all life. Narby's experience and subsequent description of this revelation was truly inspiring.
But it's possible that The Cosmic Serpent was more than Western science could handle, which may be one reason why Intelligence in Nature is so tentative and inconclusive. Once bitten, twice shy, perhaps. In 1997, following publication of The Cosmic Serpent, Harvard biophysicist Jacques Dubochet roundly criticized Narby for insufficiently testing his hypothesis about DNA and universal intelligence. Accusing Narby of "blindly charging down the wrong path," Dubochet made it clear that in his opinion Narby had succumbed to the least responsible path of science.
But it was never meant to be a formal scientific inquiry. Jeremy Narby is an anthropologist, not a scientist, and his intent clearly was to use his own experience to inspire us to think more deeply about our intelligence and what our potential could be. Subjective experience is not admissible to established scientific methodology, which is fine for science. But for the rest of us, personal experience is the only real knowledge there is. That's where Jeremy Narby is strongest, and where he can be an inspiration for all of us. He's done it once, he can do it again.
- Swami Gopalananda
ascent magazine, Issue 27