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on 27 January 2007
The Cosmic Serpent is a book written by an anthropologist who sets out to aid indigneous peoples keeping rights to their land by demonstrating that their knowledge of the fauna and flora allows them to use the rainforest as a natural pharmacy, during his time with these peoples his life is re-directed by the honest spiritual accounts of the 'ayahuasqueros' the local shamans. Years later he cannot ignore the spiritual elements of what he learned with these people and he begins to push at the boundaries of the known sciences.

The book is written in a very readable manner, and even though the author has little or no background in other sciences he has gone into great detail in his research. I think this book would be quite readable for those with no science type background right up to those with a good knowledge of biochemistry, but an open mind is needed to observe the logic Narby works with.

As pointed out in some of his other reviews his logic can seem to leap a little far sometimes, e.g. a plumed snake from the Aztec mythology representing both 'serpent' and 'non-serpent'. However i believe this is more to do with the detail he has gone into for when he states examples from other known myths and civilisations, books on ancient Aztec and Mayan civilisations would explain this conclusion a little more.

Parts of this book read very much like Bill Brysons short history of nearly everything, and it is wonderful to read the fascinating facts of DNA and biochemistry first hand from someone who has just learned about the awe inspiring facts of our bodies and there secret codes. I think Narby gives a much needed push to some 'accepted' areas of science. For example, as DNA has been further understood since Crick and Howell, it has become apparent that only a small portion of it, 3%, is used to instruct how to make a human body. When i studied biology it was a source of frustration to me that the other 97% was termed 'nonsense DNA' and was believed to be useless. Why after however billion years of evolution our DNA would only be 3% useful is beyond Darwin, It was good to read Narby pushing this and other curious elements about things we take for granted scientifically.

Sorry to waffle on so much, but I have found this book really inspiring and i feel passionately about the subjects it moves through.

Good fact from the book "The average human body contains 25,000,000,000 miles of DNA" Pretty cool eh?
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on 27 June 2008
In The Cosmic Serpent anthropologist Jeremy Narby sets himself the enormous undertaking of attempting to provide a rational, scientific explanation for the realm of the non-rational and the spiritual - how Amazonian shamans (known as ayahuasqueros) obtain their valuable knowledge of plants. Narby's central thesis in the book is as follows:
1.Snakes are important in shamanic work in many indigenous cultures and especially appear regularly in hallucinations caused by the powerful plant-based drug ayahuasca.
2.Snakes and DNA look very similar.
3.Therefore what the ayahuasqueros call 'maninkari' or spirits, and cite as the source of their knowledge is actually DNA. By using ayahuasca, ayahuasqueros are in fact able to connect their consciousness to the biomolecular level of their DNA and use it to communicate with 'the global network of DNA-based life' (p.111) so accessing the knowledge that is stored in the DNA double-helix of all life-forms throughout the planet.

Narby's first person narrative and enormous enthusiasm for his subject is accessible and engaging, and I found the first four chapters of the book compelling as he analyses how unlikely it is that the sophisticated botanical knowledge of the indigenous Amazonian peoples could have been discovered simply by chance. He argues convincingly that plant-based substances such as curare and ayahuasca are so extremely complex to produce that the knowledge of how to create them cannot have been derived from simple trial and error but must have come from somewhere beyond everyday human consciousness.

The rest of the book is spent outlining and exploring his working hypothesis concerning the relationship between shamanically derived knowledge, snakes and DNA. However, at times it seems he is too obsessed with his own theories to be able to step back and take a wider and more balanced perspective. Firstly, he fails to seriously engage with the importance of animal spirits other than snakes in shamanic practices around the world - spirits such as deer, horse and different species of birds - merely dismissing these as the result of DNA being a 'master of transformation' (p.116). He also chooses to ignore alternative reasons for the importance of snakes in many indigenous cultures, such as their connection with life, sexuality and birth because of their phallic appearance, their connection with the Underworld and re-birth as they shed their skin, or their connection with the lines of energy that run through the land, known as 'ley lines' or 'song lines'. Throughout the book Narby concentrates only on one element of an Amazonian shaman's work, that of obtaining knowledge of plant healing, but ignores the many other roles they would routinely carry out such as hunting down and return missing or stolen fragments of people's souls, or psychopomping - guiding the soul of a person who has recently died safely to the afterlife. How can the biomolecular realm of DNA provide knowledge and power in activities such as these? In addition, Narby doesn't explore how if DNA is the source of all shamanically derived knowledge then in what ways do shamans from other cultures that do not use plant-based hallucinogens communicate with DNA to obtain the knowledge and power to heal people?

Taken to its logical conclusion, Narby's hypothesis is an attack on the essence of shamanic practice, that of working with the sacred. If the shaman's knowledge comes not from the sacred - from the spirits - but from his or her own DNA communicating with the DNA of plants, trees, animals etc then that knowledge can be said to 'belong' to him or her rather than being a gift from the spiritual realm for the good of all. As such, the shaman's knowledge becomes a commodity to be sold on the open market - something that Narby even goes to the extent of suggesting: "If the hypothesis presented in this book is correct, it means that they [indigenous people] have not only a precious understanding of specific plants and remedies, but an unsuspected source of biomolecular knowledge, which is financially invaluable ... " (p.146). To be fair to Narby, I can see that this attitude probably comes from the highest of motives: before writing this book he was (and I believe still is) working with the Swiss organisation Nouvelle Planète securing the legal recognition of indigenous territories in the Amazon. As such, it is understandable that he might want indigenous people to gain access to greater economic power by any means possible. But it does reveal that he simply does not 'get it' - nor has he truly listened to the ayahuasqueros who he has interviewed for his book. As one, Carlos Perez Shuma, tells him: "I hold on to those words and to the ones that say that truth is not for sale, that wisdom is for you, but it is for sharing. Translating this, it means it is bad to make a business of it." (p.35)

The Cosmic Serpent is an important book in that it has brought an awareness of the validity of shamanic practices to a potentially new and large audience: readers of 'Popular Science' publications rather than the usual 'Mind, Body and Spirit' folk. There is a sense of compromise throughout it though, as if Narby may not always be letting us in on what he really thinks about the true source of shamanically derived knowledge, mindful of the need to position his argument so that mainstream readers may take it with at least some degree of seriousness. In the conclusion he says that he has chosen not to describe in detail the impact that working on the book has had on his spirituality. I would have very much liked him to have written about that and I hope that one day he will.
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on 25 October 1999
This book takes you on an unexpected and surprising journey. Ever since sub-atomic physics discovered that the presence of the experimenter alters the outcome of any experiment - ie that pure objectivity is no longer possible - some avant garde scientists have slowly begun to see reality through new eyes. More and more scientists are beginning to discover what every good intuitive already knows: that an inherent intelligence pervades all things. This idea flies directly in the face of old 'objective' science which rests on materialist philosophy. This philosophy claims, for instance, that we will ultimately be able to understand life as just a series of chemical reactions. Jeremy Narby, a scientist himself, begins The Cosmic Serpent with this materialistic perspective but gradually, in the face of more and more overwhelming and compelling evidence finds himself forced to challenge the materialist philosophy on which science is based as he discovers the active intelligent, coded language at the heart of life itself, in the DNA. This is something way beyond the blind chemistry of materialistic science. DNA originated life as we understand it 3500 million years ago almost as soon as the planet cooled enough to sustain it and, according to the fossil record, with hardly enough time to develop anything so sophisticated. Scientists are inclined to think that only humans have been intelligent enough to invent language. So where did the ultra sophisticated coded language embedded in DNA come from? What is it saying?
This book is like discovering those important pieces of the jig-saw puzzle you've been looking for everywhere. It explains some of the mysteries. It also elevates so-called tribal knowledge - obtained by shamans the world over - to a par and probably beyond recent discoveries in the field of genetics. It becomes obvious reading this book that the shamans have long known about DNA and the origin of life - even if they use their own language to describe it. Also, because they are not looking to exploit it, their relationship to this knowledge is very different to ours.
The Cosmic Serpent describes Jeremy Narby's personal quest for truth. It's an exciting read as he uses his scientific mind to uncover truths which have long remained hidden. Along the way he finds his own beliefs challenged again and again. He expects his work to be rejected by dogmatic and fundamentalist believers in science. They may do this out of hand by not reading this book. But any who do and have a half-way open mind will surely also be challenged to the roots of their belief. It will be interesting to see if and how Western scientists come to terms with the remarkable facts in this fascinating book. And if science ever does come to recognise the sacredness of life then this book will have been one of the stepping stones which helped it to a better perspective.
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on 30 July 2004
Jeremy Narby is an anthropologist who during a stay with Indians in the Peruvian jungle became fascinated by the Indians' encyclopaedic knowledge of the healing properties and requirements for preparation of the plants around them - knowledge that they claimed was revealed to them directly by spirits after imbibing of a powerful hallucinogenic brew.
Narby agreed to sample the concoction and had terrifying visions of two enormous fluorescent snakes. He subsequently developed the zany theory that these snakes were mental representations of the DNA double helix and that hallucinations allowed the Indians to receive normally imperceptible messages 'communicated' by all life forms via extremely weak light waves that are known to be emitted by DNA.
Sounds crazy? It is a bit. Narby admits that he formed his theories in ignorance of the areas of neurology, chemistry and physics that impinged on them; remarkable, then, that when he investigated these fields he found so much to corroborate his ideas. So remarkable that the reader can't help suspecting that he was unconsciously selective in his 'evidence' and rather free in the interpretations he drew from it. The same applies to his anthropological sources; for example, from Aztec myths of snakes with legs and wings he moves to the concept of a thing that is 'both serpent and non-serpent', that is therefore 'double', thus 'a double serpent', thus the DNA double helix. Poetic, certainly. Remotely convincing? Hardly, I would suggest.
Narby is sound in his denunciation of the arrogance of a scientific community that refuses to investigate, or even to acknowledge, phenomena that don't fit into its established paradigms. Equally admirable is his taking seriously the idea that technologically primitive peoples might have something to teach Western culture, which has risen to the ascendancy by pursuing materially fertile but one-sidedly rationalist trains of thought.
Yet for all his broad-mindedness, in the end Narby seems altogether too ready to jump to 'exciting' conclusions and to infer real correspondences from mere metaphors. He certainly asks fascinating and important questions: is there a stratum of external reality to which hallucinogens open up the mind? How does consciousness arise from the interactions of insentient chemicals? Why do certain symbols crop up time and again in mythologies around the world? But his conclusions, ingenious and poetic as they may be, often sound too glib to be persuasive.
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on 24 February 2013
I haven't yet finished reading this book, but so far it is excellent - well-written, thought-provoking and a reminder that there is far more to life on this planet than Western 'Civilization' wants to acknowledge, a richness that may well be destroyed forever by the idiotic, ignorant and greedy slash and burn methods of 'Taming Mother Nature' used by governments and big companies globally. Back in the day I enjoyed reading Castenada, but this is a more educational book as it explores 'behind the scenes' of Shamanic altered states, focussing on the people, their harvesting methods and their relationship with the drugs themselves and the spirits of their world, all researched diligently and thoroughly with the author's respectful and humble approach to the 'other' and his willingness to 'have a go' and truly empathise rather than just observe and record. A mind changing book.
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on 24 March 2013
This book is excellent - over the years I have read many books on this subject and have always been left with the sneaking feeling that what the indigenous peoples of the world say about nature is correct, particularly when their knowledge has been obtained under the influence of hallucogenic drugs. In this book Narby goes a long way to convince me.

The idea that DNA holds the key is absolutely right to me, - after all, have we not been told that 80-90% of DNA is junk? This to me is plain wrong; nature does not go in for waste so why would it have this huge amount of material sitting there doing nothing but being transmitted faithfully down through the ages? Maybe, Narby is correct and DNA does transmits bio-chemical knowledge - sounds a plausible expanation to me for the use of the so-called 'junk'.

I, along with other reviewers, would like to know how Yarby's spiritual conception has changed in the light of his experiences - it would be very interesting to find out.

In any event this book is definitely a must read for any enquiring mind and is highly recommended.
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on 3 December 2001
I have to agree with the previous customer. This book is a tremendous read, and an epic journey into the world of understanding. It combines spiritualism with the cutting-edge of science. Whilst what he discovers is mind-bogling Jeremy Narby never races ahead of himself and always keeps one eye on science and rationalism.
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Somewhat reductionist take of the DMT phenomenon. Gone are the elves, gone is the musing on the ecology of souls, gone is the wild Hieronymus Bosch speculation of Other Worlds inhabiting our own grey and very lame and highly boring existence.

Instead Jeremy Narby wants us to get excited over DNA and cells and how the Amazonian Shamans were making fractal patterns of cells and the double helix.
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on 10 October 2013
A very thoroughly researched book. Half the book is references which can be a bit annoying to flick back and forth, however, since he is on such cutting edge ground-breaking thinking he has to ensure all references are fully divulged so the reader can build confidence in his theories.

His theories, by themselves, are in parts astonishing, and in parts a little "reachy". However, as his arguments progress through the book your earlier doubts begin to evaporate and you shudder with the possibility that he may be on to something deep!

A convincing read for anyone interested in Ayahuasca, medicinal plants, shamanism, DNA and scientific research. I would like to learn more about how his theory stands now, in front of our current understanding of DNA - which, as I understand, still remains very little.
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on 5 October 2012
This book changed my view on many thing, not the least the way I look at things i don't understand. Narby is a open minded person who is not afraid to go outside of the box (and outside this world) and explore the world with his eyes and mind wide open. The book is excellent read and offers very interesting bibliography. I feel very "enhanced". Highly recommend.
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