on 23 August 2008
Since I'm a conventional "sceptic" of the pro-establishment variety, reading and reviewing this book was a real challenge. Graham Hancock is a controversial "alternativist" writer based in Britain, but constantly on the move all around the globe (and beyond?). Real Egyptologists, archeologists and historians usually regard him as pseudo-scientific. Indeed, his books are filled with all the stuff we sceptics just LOVE to hate: hyper-diffusionism, pyramidology, the face on Mars and (surprise) the Illuminati. "Supernatural" is Hancock's latest work. In some ways, it's even crazier than his earlier ones. But in some other ways, it's actually better. Yes, my new agey chat buddies will be surprised that I of all people said that...
In this book, Hancock has identified some real scientific problems, in contrast to face-on-the-Mars and other pure pseudo-problems. One such real mystery is why our species, Homo sapiens, lacked a real culture for the first 50,000 or even 100,000 years of its existence. The brains of our species have always been as large as they are today. So why was Homo sapiens on Neandertal level until about 40,000 years ago? Then, suddenly, humans started to paint, and developed a religion. How? Why? What on earth is going on?
Hancock quite rightly points out that many scientists have given up trying to explain these things. For instance, many historians of religion prefer not to speculate about how religion came about. We simply don't know. Hancock, however, believes there is an explanation: cave-paintings and religious beliefs are the result of shamanic experiences induced by hallucinogenic drugs. Apparently, a faction within the anthropological community supports such a theory. Hancock succesfully demolishes the semantic jibberish surrounding the term "shamanism", and also demonstrates that hallucinogenic mushrooms were indeed available to Stone Age Man in the Old World. Hancock's own experimentation with hallucinogenes (vividly described in the book) have lead him to the conclusion that essentialy the same experiences appear again and again, thus explaining the similarities between animist notions from different parts of the world. This, of course, is another mystery: why do people all over the world seem to experience the same hallucinations?
It is at this point that Hancock crosses the barrier and boldly goes where no CSICOP-er have dared to go before or after. He claims that the spirit-beings encountered during shamanic ecstasys are...well, real. Where you go, I cannot follow.
But what about the more down-to-earth theories of "Supernatural"? Can humanity's turn to culture really be explained by the discovery of hallucinogenes? Although the speculation is probably just as good (or bad) as any other, it does raise several new questions. Why didn't our ancestors discover hallucinogenes much earlier? After all, they were available before 40,000 BP. Also, trance states can be induced without drugs, for instance by certain body postures, dancing or meditation. Why didn't the turn to shamanism happen much earlier? We may never know. Personally I suspect that the origins of culture might be connected to language. Perhaps our ancestors lacked sophisticated language abilities before 40,000 BP? A language capable of expressing abstract concepts might have speeded up cultural development. But of course, this too raises new questions. Why did language develop when it did and not earlier? After all, our brains have always been large.
All said and done, Hancock has pinpointed a number of real science mysteries and explained them supernaturally. Fair enough. That, after all, was the whole point of his book. The book is a good read, and might merit 4 or 5 stars for that reason, but the sceptic inside me only gives it 3.
on 31 May 2013
This book is an real eye opener, it questions how and when we became conscious and offers amazing insights into where humanity could be heading. It takes you into fantastic realms and Ideas that I didn't expect it to but glad it did, all the ideas and theories are thoroughly researched and really well written, some are even from personal experience which I found really insightful and interesting. I'd recommend this book to anyone with a open mind who is prepared to go on a epic journey that takes you from the dawn of history and then blasts you off into other dimensions to try and bring back some answers to some fundamental questions about the nature of reality itself. A truly brilliant read. Once you've read this book I'd really recommend reading Graham Hancock's first fiction novel 'Entangled' as it uses some of the ideas brought up in Supernatural but expertly weaves them into a mind blowing adventure story
Science bashing is easy, particularly if you're a bully. Research over the past century has revealed an immensity of new information. The cosmos has expanded and retracted. Our planet's "skin" proved to be a dynamic surface with continents wandering about dodging and clashing. Humanity, once considered the "peak" of Nature's many living things, has proven to be another member of the animal kingdom. While all those areas of study have resolved many questions, they've raised many more. Journalists like Hancock need only select one of those remaining questions, formulate their own answer, then castigate "mainstream science" for not answering it to his satisfaction. It's a bullying tactic that he's used before. The sniping is boring and the dismissal of good researchers is insulting.
One of the last, and latest, areas being investigated is the human mind. What happens in that gob of porridge-like material in your skull. Is it truly a gateway to another universe? Hancock thinks so, but he follows a tortuous path in arriving at his conclusion. He opens with a physical trip into the Amazon region, and a mental journey prompted by a South American drug. Ayahuasca is a "shaman's drug" which evokes visions while purging the gastrointestinal system. People returning from the trip describe all manner of shapes, colours and creatures they encountered in their heads - or somewhere. Modern shamans apply the visions to many aspects of life, but "healing" and "rites of passage" are the major features [there's probably a fee schedule worked out]. Hancock tripped on ayahuasca with predictable results - including the purging. This isn't a pioneering venture - people like Wade Davis [among others] have made the trip on local ground. Hancock's derivation, however, is rather novel.
While we don't know when hallucinagenic drugs were first used to improve bedside manners, we have some indication of what hallucinations can evoke. The evidence is painted on the walls of caves in France and Spain, rockshelters in Africa and temples in the Western Hemisphere. Hancock introduces us to David Lewis-Williams, a South African palaeoanthropologist who devised the term "neuropsychological" to explain the condition cave artists experienced to produce those beautiful, fantastic images at Lascaux, Chauvet and elsewhere. Hancock accepts Lewis-Williams' thesis the cave art was inspired by images perceived by those in an "altered state of consciousness". Fair enough, says Hancock, who wants the scientist to go further. "Trip out with me!", he says in effect, "Otherwise your conclusions aren't valid". That's like saying if cancer researchers aren't infested with tumours we should scorn their results!
The reason Hancock wants scholars to ingest all those fancy chemicals is that he thinks they're missing something. What they're missing, he argues, is the gateway to another realm. About 2% of us, he contends, can do this without either chemical or physical stimulation. It's those people we should trust to guide us into the "spiritual world" since they don't need stimulation to visit this "outside". Those people, Hancock suggests, have a surplus of a chemical called "dimethyltriptamine" [DMT] in their brains. This tricky molecule turns out to be the gateway to the supernatural. To prove that, one of Hancock's more amenable researchers injected volunteers with DMT. They came back with tales of "the other side". Hancock weaves these studies with alien abduction tales and modern shaman's accounts to declare that the commonality of reactions across humanity says there's something there. Someplace, actually, and for Hancock it's the spirit realm. We can all get there if we try!
Hancock builds his case with style, enthusiasm and scope - sprinkled with a heavy dose of self-esteem. He cites numerous interviews, defends Lewis-Williams against his detractors, and shows us how easy it all is with accounts of his own jaunts into the supernatural. The interviewees seem pretty sympathetic with Hancock's thesis - or at least they don't object to it. Lewis-Williams is quite capable of defending himself. And Hancock's chemistry experiments only show that drugs play havoc with human neuronal nets. He might have learned this prior to his fearsome mental journeys if he'd spoken with some real neurobiologists. They could have explained about "sensory deprivation" and how the brain reacts to it. The information might have opened a few new doors for Hancock, while shutting down a few of his more bizarre speculations. Good writing style doesn't make up for shoddy thinking. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]