First off, this is not a "Hey! Lets all get stoned and it'll be fine!" idea. Although the thought experiment involving a full sitting of the UN and a bucket load of MDMA along with a large delivery of bean-bags and candles is a pleasant one... note I said thought experiment, a few minutes researching the effects of MDMA and the possible world that might emerge from such an experiment is a good way to while away an hour or so. But I digress...
This is about our early hominid ancestors evolving in near symbiosis with psychoactive molecules in his diet. I do not advocate going out and trying these substances.
This is also about the closest an unqualified, left school at 16, self taught layman can get to peer review. I put this idea forward in the spirit of seeing if it will stand up in the face of the criticism of others more qualified in the field than myself. It will live or die by the scientific method. I want no esoteric, mystic, unexplained energies or eternal verities being used to support this. This is not New Age psychobable.
It's about the social structures and ways of thought engendered by such exposure. It's also about the natural compounds these plants produce. There is 26 (give or take) alkaloids in opium, morphine is just one, and acetylated morphine (Heroin) was never available to our ancestors. Nor was prohibition or social stigma. But what we did have back then was a social structure that included use, preparation, warning signs and shortcomings... All these are not available today.
It is also about what those compounds can do to humans and what we have lost by their prohibition and stigmatisation.
This is a siren call in the night, a call to anyone who knows what I'm talking about, to the proper people still left in this mad, sick society. Like indigenous (and not so indigenous) peoples all over the planet still know.... Drugs change the way you think, for the better!
Thanks are due too, to Neil Young, playing the Hop Farm in Kent. Listening to that last glorious howl of feedback that sounded like the shriek of a million tortured souls trying to find a way out of this awful valueless place I suddenly realised where i was going wrong. His message to the industry contained in "On the Beach", and his lyric earlier night was prescient. "Fuck You! I ain't gonna play your game!" made me realise that this idea is bigger than me. And me trying to hang on to it to write a book, not give it away in case it made me a few quid, was this sick old societies way of doing things.
There'll still be a book, but i want to put the contributions of everyone in it. It'll be a distilling of the whole thing to try and reach a bigger audience. Conferences will be fun.. I guarantee it!
I want to be around a fire, with my tribe, talking into the night. I want the feelings of having a new idea and sharing it excitedly as we each in turn add, hone and shape it. That's what this is about. The excitement of sharing times like that, and findind value in it. Real, deep, lasting value of time so very well spent. You know what I mean...
So, thanks Neil. Bloody excellent gig... And you woke me up enough to ask "What Would a Hominid Do?" Well, he wouldn't be holding out for bloody Shyster, Shyster & Flywheel to make him a fat book deal would he? He'd be saying "Hang on you lot! I've just had an idea! Build the fire up, get out that Qhat and those 'shrooms we found earlier and we'll kick it about a bit.
So here it is...
I hold that before the mutant virus meme of religion hijacked what these compounds had created with us. Used the very same pathways and routes to replicate itself and in so doing, like a Cuckoo pushing the real eggs out of a nest before laying it's own, had to get rid of the original "religious experience", rewards at the end of the day, bringer of empathy, love and the wonderful.
Many know these things, all are in places it can't be said. Lets get together and see if we can't make some people listen!
Burroughs new, Leary too. Aldous Huxley, De Quincey, Coleridge... We have an illustrous past, a very long past. It's about time we showed people that there really is more to life than the sad, shallow, tawdry, shadow play of work, drab reward and half glimpsed values.
I propose a web site, forum, (need some decent hosting) and at least a bumper sticker saying "What would a hominid do?"
I can't do it alone, would love some people in the fields of theoretical biology, anthropology, paleobotany, psychopharmacology, neuro-psychopharmacology, molecular biology, psychotherapy, paleogenomicpharmacology, molecular toxicologists to come and argue their case. And see if I really might have a handle on the Human Drug Reward Paradox!
But, if you have a comment, contribution (or some handy hosting space for the web site and forum) please get in touch.
To my best knowledge, this reworking of the data over many fields producing a new perspective is not, in this form, in the literature anywhere. Like a broken vase shards are everywhere. A few have found two or three. But no one has been able to sketch the outline of the vase yet. It is this I am trying to do.
The more i look then Human Alkaloid Deficiency Syndrome is everywhere!
I think it's new... Bits everywhere, but not all of it. Drugs were the spark that turned thoughts into memes. drug / brain symbiosis and the co-evolution of psychoactive plants, humans, ideas and the death of a culture we still yearn for.
The spark that made Homo per sententia ut ago... An ape with thoughts that live.
I might be able to offer a way to throw one single theory over a swathe of science with a fit that is still taking my breath away.
This is a view of AD/HD as a deficiency syndrome akin to scurvy or rickets. It will open up new ways to help sufferers, predict high risk families and explain AD/HD using physiology for those in the more "manual" medical specialities who still doubt it's very existence.
This view of AD/HD is a natural consequence of taking a single sentence to explain a long enduring puzzle that I extrapolated, step by step into a theory that seems to have a life of it's own. This one has legs as they say and it's ability to sweep past paradoxes and problems in many fields as if they didn't exist still excites me.
R.Dawkins suggested memes or ideas that behave as Darwinian Replicators and evolve by natural selection. In that spirit I launch this meme into it's environment. R.Feynman mentioned the pleasure of finding things out was all that drove him. I understand the energy, life and rewards contained in those simple words now.
So, from small beginnings to the biggest, sickest, most depressed, unfulfilled elephant in the sitting room there ever was!
This is what started it.... thinking or hearing this age old question....
"What drove the selection pressure for a large brain in early hominid evolution?"
I thought, mimicking a famous Pres. Clinton quote, "It was the drugs stupid!"
I think the evidence points to a conclusion that cognitive changes in early hominids caused by a naturally toxin / alkaloid rich diet especially in times of famine and use of "fall-back" foods drove the start of cranial expansion that led to Homo Sapiens.
The changes in cognitive process was a direct result of the effects on thought caused by ingestion of psychedelics or any of a huge range of CNS active substances in our natural environment. For an early hominid to have an original, giant leap, flash of genius, leap into the unknown type of thought must have been rare. And without communication with anything like the fidelity required for real idea exchange it had nowhere to go either.
The combination though of a primate brain and psychoactive molecules in the diet something very different happens. A phase shift in thought, a revolution that leads directly to modern humans. The Memetic Cognitive Phase Change. Drugs of many types found naturally in our early environment added some important qualities to our hominid ancestor's thoughts. Drugs mutate thoughts and drugs join thoughts together from different areas, times, subjects or whatever.
Your thoughts after a drug experience can never be the same. What was once stable and unchanging changed. Just for our hominid to have two world models, one of normal cognition and the other of the place he goes when he eats mushrooms, in his head is enough for this phase change in thought. For one thing we know drugs can join two vastly disparate ideas together easily so...
The mutation of one world model to another by the action of psychoactives leaves our hero with two view of his surroundings.
The mixing of the two world maps and new ideas arising from their union and new concepts emerge. If they are useful concepts he'll remember them longer and use them to mix with others in the future, if dangerous or not useful then they will be discarded. This process we know, and it's the process that gave rise to our ancestor in the first place. Darwinian Replicators and Evolution by Natural Selection. What were simple mammalian thoughts now have all the qualities for an explosion in cognitive ability, performance and advancement. Memes, ideas with replication qualities.
The Hominid Memetic Revolution meant that each individual brain in the species was a single niche environment for memes. With psychoactives from the outside, parallel development of the brain and toxin defences all working to give these trapped memes the qualities for continued evolution.
The rewards that once trained his ancestors in a simplistic Pavlovian conditioned response pattern of supplying small rewards for eating and drinking,big ones for sex and the odd social one for the grooming response etc. now changed and changed dramatically.
The basic directive changed. Now that it was invention, thought and the ability to assimilate new knowledge and arrive at brand new conclusions that was feeding more young, keeping them alive longer to breed and allowing them to prosper then the new replicators prime directive had to be changed from the mindless "Struggle to stay alive long enough to breed!" to the new suited to the new replicators in charge. "Take drugs, discover more drugs and think!"
Memes were only thoughts without the sexual mixing and mutations supplied by drugs, new drugs brought new mutations and different mixing. The greatest rewards now from the Mesolimbic system now trounced orgasm and above it were the Mesolimbic rewards for drug taking and the greatest one of all, The reward for original, useful, discovery of thing, invention or concept.
We are a very materialistic society and many values are being lost. Drugs also open up ways to share each other. Love, tenderness, empathy, openness, sex are all enhanced and become as important as the material, more base things. So the reward system includes these as things for the god of the species.
Rewards for closeness, openness, altruism mean that the old ape grooming reward develops and diversifies hand in hand with our ancestors exploration of each other as well as the material world with the aid of chemicals produced all around them, inside them and eventually by them. The Cytochrome P450 family and sub families grow, our internal neurotransmitters / receptors / rewards / motor neuron mirror system and the new thoughts themselves mean we can not only simulate the world, those around us and try to predict their actions we can also use these simulations of others to change our neurochemistry to "feel" what it is like to be that other person.
By keeping the same physical architecture, new thought processes could run in the original hominid brain. But now there was a selective pressure for increases in capacity, speed and getting more out of the alkaloids present.
The Cytochrome P450 / Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward paradox or the "Human Drug Reward Paradox" just isn't there with this perspective. We retain and improve detoxification systems because as a species we are evolved to live in an environment rich in toxins and alkaloids of many types. Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward System is exposed to toxins / alkaloids because the brain needs them for normal function and we gain evolutionary advantage by consuming these chemicals and letting our brain have direct access to them.
A classical symbiosis between man and alkaloid rich plants develops. As evolution progresses the Cytochrome P450 array not only diversifies to eliminate toxins, it changes some chemicals to be more stable and to allow passage across the blood / brain barrier.
Receptors and many other parts of the brain change to make the best use of the chemicals from plants etc. The selective pressure is now pointing on a trajectory straight to modern humans and by neotony the last momentous act of our old DNA replicators, we arrive.
Modern Humans, memes now driving evolution but not of flesh. Of thought. Many, many changes have happened but the memes in our heads, those closed niche environments that can only slowly leak out the best memes are still stuck behind that bony domed skull.
It was the arrival of a language with enough fidelity, with just enough leeway to make it variable, that let the memes burst out. To put a bridge to each island habitat of thought and release all those myriad ideas into the minds of others. The mixing and selection of ideas is exponential.
One thing is universal... Man's co-evolutionary catalyst of all that he is and will be. His continuing love affair with thinking, his fellows and drugs.
His greatest rewards come from discovery, love, empathy, discourse and the consumption of psychoactive chemicals that enable and enhance all of his pleasures. We should be called Homo per sententia ut ago, the Ape with thoughts that live. (I hope.. online translation and all that).
So you can see a social structure, a world view, that has an idea of the true worth of things. With breeding no longer the prime directive, but with thought, discussion, invention and exploration (both external and internal) the best things for the species something happens.
From birth, and before, the youngsters are surrounded by drug use and consumption. Folklore, history, experience and the fact that this culture has been in symbiotic relationship with these plants since the very beginning then their uses, contraindications and safe preparation are normal, natural things everyone knows.
Since the first person noticed that his bag of poppy pods, if spilt, would erupt into a stand of Papaver Somniferum next season just after the rains gave us the birth of farming crops. Although selection had been happening for a long time before domestication.
If you travelled you took your own bag containing your home set of psychoactives with you. If you met a stranger, your first point of contact is drugs. It still is. Meet someone new and buy them a beer, offer a cigarette, sit down and talk. The pattern is the same. But the really nice psychoactives to make this such a rewarding human experience have been removed from us.
Trade.. There is one lingua franca across all mankind. When we want to barter then the thing mankind always travels with, loves to swap, is always looking for different types and smoothes the wheels of two strangers meeting... Drugs. The first currency..
This is the thing though. Most humans do not move about. They stay at home. This is a time of stability as any drug user worth his salt even today will tell you. "There is more wonder and complexity inside us to be discovered with just you, the person you love, a simple life with time to think and learn, a few chosen, pure compounds from plants. Than if we travelled around the world alone without the inner life we can discover with drugs."
So, on the whole, people didn't travel. War and conquest were for later times. So people adapted to their local toxin / alkaloid mix. Their Cytochrome P450 array adapted to local conditions. The original Turkish population still has clear adaptations to an opium rich past. Their cognitive, neurochemical balance would adapt to this toxic / alkaloid environment too.
Let me link you to http://www.brainmysteries.com/Research/ ... _Kenya.asp
A propensity for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might be beneficial to a group of Kenyan nomads, according to a new study led by a Northwestern University graduate student.
The research, published today (June 10) in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, shows that an ADHD-associated version of the gene DRD4 is associated with better health in nomadic tribesmen, yet may cause malnourishment in their settled cousins.
"Our findings suggest that some of the variety of personalities we see in people is evolutionarily helpful or detrimental, depending on the context," said Dan Eisenberg, a first-year anthropology graduate student in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and lead author of the study. "This insight might allow us to begin to view ADHD as not just a disease but something with adaptive components."
The study looked at a group of traditionally cattle-herding people called the Ariaal who live in northern Kenya. Eisenberg collaborated with Benjamin Campbell, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, who ran the fieldwork.
Eisenberg and his research team analyzed the correlates of body mass index (BMI) and height with two dopamine receptor genes, DRD4 and DRD2. The DRD4 gene codes for a receptor for dopamine, one of the chemical messengers used in the brain. "This gene is likely to be involved in impulsivity, reward anticipation and addiction," said Eisenberg.
One version of the DRD4 gene, the '7R allele,' is believed to be associated with food craving as well as ADHD. By studying adult men of the Ariaal tribe of Kenya, some of whom still live as nomads while others have recently settled and begun to grow crops, the researchers investigated whether the different versions of DRD4 have the same manifestations in different environments.
The researchers found a striking difference in the two populations. Those with the DRD4/7R allele were better nourished in the nomadic population but less well-nourished in the settled population.
The effects of different versions of dopamine genes have been studied in industrialized countries, but very little research has been carried out in non-industrial, subsistence environments like the areas where the Ariaal live. This is despite the fact that such environments may be more similar to the environments where much of human genetic evolution took place.
"The DRD4/7R allele has been linked to greater food and drug cravings, novelty-seeking and ADHD symptoms," said Eisenberg. "It is possible that in a nomadic setting, a boy with this allele might be able to more effectively defend livestock against raiders or locate food and water sources, but that the same tendencies might not be as beneficial in settled pursuits such as focusing in school, farming or selling goods."
These findings suggest that behavior differences previously associated with the DRD4 gene, such as ADHD, might vary in effectiveness depending on the environment. Research into how this might occur in Ariaal children is planned in the near future.
This had me jumping around the room, and then to google for a look at Kenya's naturally occurring psychoactives.
From http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drugs ... n/khat.htm
Khat produces amphetamine-like effects. They include: euphoria, a feeling of increased alertness and energy, hyperactivity, anorexia, and lack of fatigue. The users also feel relaxed and talkative. Sympathomimetic effects may include elevated blood pressure, dilated pupils, hyperthermia, arrhythmias, and increased respiration. The effects of khat usually last between 90 minutes and 3 hours. After-effects of khat use have been reported as lack of concentration, numbness and insomnia.
So here's the possibility. Evolved in an environment where just one of the many chemicals in the diet was an amphetamine like stimulant that reduced appetite. What would the adaptations to this be? Perhaps a brain that used it's presence to fill a nomads long nights or full days trudging behind a camel to talk, think, enjoy the flow of ideas. Hunger suppression useful in times of famine, but there's no reason to be a nomad if it was a bad way to survive. Hunger suppression in times of plenty meant the body had to change the way it metabolised to balance out the effects of the Khat.
Evolutionary advantage? Same old one as before, the swapping of ideas, exchange of thought, invention etc are all good for species survival. Looking back, it's stands out that nomadic people often had not only the best drugs but also the best ideas. This is another branch of my idea too long for here.
So what happens when you remove this stimulant from the population? No more hunger suppression so a leaning towards the fat end of the scale seems likely. And the lack of amphetamine like substance? Irritable, unable to hold on to a thought, can't keep up with the nomadic banter, not enjoying life behind a camels arse anymore, so stays at home perhaps, eats a lot out of boredom, watches Richard and Judy.
Give the poor man back the Khat his body, mind and culture have evolved with and he''ll be fine!
In fact, if you deny him this substance you are probably in danger of a UN decision about Human Rights issues.
So, each population is genetically, mentally, biochemically, culturally adapted to the drugs in it's neighbourhood. With man discovering trade and travel the range and uses of these plants and seeds etc. became complex, diverse and the richest part of their culture. A knowledge of what really matters is spread across humanity. For sharing a very strong adventure with Peyote will bond you with someone like nothing else, teach you things about yourself, and show you how life, you, him, me, that tree, the ocean.... are all one. (It does... worth a google. I have an idea but it's early for that one yet)
So can you see what is happening now? With all these plant alkaloids banned we have the largest deficiency syndrome ever! No one is happy, even people that make it to the top get there and realise that wasn't it! No one knows anyone else, no one respects another persons mind, rape, murder, child abuse, all stem from a lack of empathy.
The things that matter.. thought, discourse, getting to know your fellows, invention, care.... All lost. Look around you. This drive to take drugs is everywhere. And it's the prohibition that makes the problems. Sit a man in an opium poppy patch. Let him experiment, smoke it, eat it.. whatever. All those 20 odd alkaloids his body is designed to accept, manageable rewards and a complex, interesting experience letting thought and dream combine into a lucid very creative place.
Now... if this patch is just down the lane from him, or his back garden, if he stores enough dried pods to make poppy tea through the winter and has enough left over to trade for variety in his diet, tools or a wider range of drugs what harm is being done?
Purify it into Heroin because it's smaller, stronger and easier to hide for smuggling, put this poor chap into inner London, charge him money, lots of money, fro something that was free from the soil. Remove the support of a culture well used to drugs. The Heroin over stimulates his Mesolimbic reward system, one ring of an orgasmic, beautiful Pavlovian bell he can never forget. His inbuilt human desire for drugs, ideas and companionship subverted by a sick society that shuns him for expressing behaviour we all share as innate drives. Now conditioned, he is a slave to the call of an ancient society where intelligent, caring people like him were once the majority. Take a look at IQ ratios and empathy scores amongst drug users. You will be surprised.
And if we don't take drugs? We get this global alkaloid deficiency syndrome. AD/HD just a tiny part. Once you get your eyes in it's everywhere. Our beautiful hominid / alkaloid / meme society gone. And left behind a population of poorly functioning, sad, lonely, frightened minds still thinking "There must be more than this!"
The villain of the piece? A retrovirus of the mind. A mutant meme with a virus core. Hijacking systems of the brain / body to reproduce blindly and remove it's rival. Religion.
We evolved to use molecules in our diet as well as molecules made inside us to enhance the function of our brain. Not unusual, we need vitamin C and many others nutrients from outside along with the many we make inside for the smooth functioning of our bodies.
I hold that a brain not in possession of it's full complement of chemicals needed for smooth, efficient cognition is a brain suffering from a deficiency syndrome. Not easily cured though.
If a tribe had vit D deficiency in it's diet as the norm for perhaps a hundred generations caused by perhaps isolation from any sources of vit D and a low calcium diet to boot. Would not the bent, deformed legs caused by rickets become be totally normal to them? Would they perhaps develop an eye for the beauty in a well splayed set of knees? Or use the bandy legs of their heros or most famous actress's as a look to strive for!
Just the right smooth, outward curve from the hip with a lithe, tightening of curve to the feet of their most famous actress could be a template for cosmetic curvature operations, a leg job.
The first time a little girl started sunbathing and drinking milk the effects on her legs would send them to the doctors.. A straight legged man from across the mountains would be presumed deformed and pitied.
Look, we've been suffering from the effects of what religion did to us, and is still doing, for a very long time. Not only have a vast swathe of humanity started using old, pre alkaloid thinking. Dominance, i'm bigger than and therefore better, lack of empathy for our fellow human, violence, tribal conflict, anger, aggression, the "What you lookin' at?" mentality we can all see downtown on a Friday night. It may be the current norm, but that doesn't make it right or even the way it has to be.
Go down to your a local night club. Make sure they play derivative of the happy house, trance, dance that came in with MDMA and try an experiment. Talk to a 100 MDMA using kids on the way home after a hectic night. Ask a set of questions like
"A chap you don't know is looking at your girlfriend, slowly from boots to hair and back again with a smile on his face, he sees you have noticed, smiles even more at you and walks directly up to you. What was he thinking, what were you thinking, What happens next? (I'll be a quid the MDMA sample will ask that you should add "And what was the girl thinking?" more times than the others too)
Your dancing and a very happy girl dressed very skimpily smiles a huge smile at you and with direct eye contact says "Hug!" spreads her arms and hugs you. Then disappears back into the crowd. What was she thinking, what were you thinking and what happens next?
Take the same set of questions to a pub full working class, late middle age men half an hour before closing time. If you can full fill your quota you can then see the differences between humans who have a small taste of what a society well used to many types of psychoactive chemicals might be like. And one that has endured a long poisoning and thought numbing supply of alcohol and the foul bait and switch trick of the church re: the work ethic, sex, showing your feelings, dominant male pattern violence and the mental and physical subjugation of the female members of their society.
I predict two things.
One, the mdma group will take the time to help someone looking into the differences between their culture and the cultural norm of work, beer, casual violence and xenophobia will be very interesting to them and they will want to take time to discuss options, answers and will be able to do so using some very complex and inventive concepts in spite of the awful education given to them by the state.
Two. This will not be the reaction of the middle age beer drinkers.
I know which community I'd prefer, and i think i know why as i tried to explain above.
But just giving modern refined drugs (cocaine, heroin etc) to all and sundry is not the answer. Opium has 26 or so alkaloids and we have evolved to use the complex compounds, not our monomolecular extractions. Also, this is from the ground up. The social structure and the true value of things to our species has all been lost. But i think we know enough to make a start.
Just a single exposure, with none of the support structure and setting you would get in a society used to these chemicals would supply, and still we see measurable benefits. Scientific studies are rare of the positive effects, anecdotal evidence is very common. But how important was it for our success? If it was very important might there be structures and systems to be found inside us that mean we adapted to maximise the safety and efficacy of consuming these substances?
It seems that access to these chemicals must be important because we adapted to not only keep us from harm from outside toxins, but also to modify some to make them less toxic, more stable and to be able to pass through the blood brain barrier. Also, we developed ways to make sure the brain has access and isn't closeted away from harm as you might expect.
This sets out the "Human Drug Reward Paradox"
http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articl ... d=18353749
So... After all, plants make these chemicals to deter and punish herbivores who eat them. To actually seek out and consume these chemicals designed to make us ill and avoid eating the plant again seems to be very strange behaviour at first look. This is known as the human drug reward paradox and has foxed many who have tried to explain it. Plants poison us to punish us yet we seem driven to consume them. What possible advantage would we get out of such behaviour and is this seemingly self destructive drive as old as is needed to be the change we seek? A look at the biology may help.
Take a look at the indigenous population of Turkey. They have a very high number of the enzymes needed to metabolise opium. A plant indigenous to that region and it seems that the locals have adapted their bodies to tolerate the alkaloids it contains. Asians have trouble metabolising valium and must indicate that their enzymes available for drug metabolisation differ from Caucasians who can tolerate it very well. There are many ways all the different races that have diverged across the planet vary in this regard and modern pharmacology is only just starting to open up these differences. The old ways of making all drugs to suite middle aged, male Caucasians and then giving them to everybody around the globe expecting them to be efficacious, low in side effects and surprise free is thankfully coming to an end and it seems that one of the last bastions of colonial chauvinism is coming to an end.
This points to a very efficient and quickly adaptable system of detoxification in humans. This system, groups and subgroups of enzymes called cytochrome P450 (CYP) haemoproteins is very old going back to single cell ancestors and variations appear in nearly all organisms on the planet. In mammals the system is ubiquitous and we inherited ours from our mammalian ancestors as you would expect. But natural selection being what it is and individual enzyme coding in our genes being as fragile as it is (a single base pair mutation or deletion can change an enzyme totally stop it’s production altogether) means that the cytochrome P450 system is not very robust. This means that simple genetic drift where random mutations or copying errors can damage the system over time would degrade it’s functionality. If a complex and expensive, in terms of resources, system like this is not paying it’s way as it were, by conferring an advantage to the organism then the mistakes and failures caused by genetic drift will not be repaired. So if an animal’s food source is rich in many types of toxins it’s cytochrome P450 system will be complex and of vital importance for it’s survival meaning that any degradation in it’s efficiency will be repaired by selection. A herbivore faced with numerous chemical threats in it’s diet will have a hard time reproducing if it’s defences are weakened in any way. As long as it’s environment remains chemically hostile then resources diverted to keep it safe from harm are resources well spent. But what if the the threat disappears?
In a changed environment where the variety of toxins is reduced then this complex set of countermeasures is no longer conferring an advantage to the organism. Through genetic drift and other errors in the genes controlling and coding for this large array of enzymes mistakes are not rectified and mutations appearing with a reduced set of enzymes may even be selected for. There’s no need to carry waterproof clothing, an umbrella and wellingtons if you’ve moved to the Sahara. They may have been important in in your last home where it rained all the time but now they’re just a liability. So we would expect any animal whose diet changes over time to become less toxic to lose functionality of their cytochrome P450 defences. This has raised a question when applied to our early ancestors. Shouldn’t our diet have become less toxic as our feeding habits changed from times when our ancestors were maybe less discriminatory and indiscriminate grazing rather than dainty picking would best describe their eating habits? Should we not expect our diet and exposure to toxins to decrease as we become more selective and we developed the primates classical attributes of intelligence, opposing thumbs, stereoscopic full colour vision, good memory, social structure where mothers pass on what’s good to eat and what’s not and lips and tongues sensitive to tastes and textures that could serve to warn us about poisons before we swallow them.
If this was so then why did we keep our huge array of plant toxin countermeasures? We kept the cytochrome P450 system we inherited and actually added to it. We still are! We lost no functionality due to genetic drift or mutation but instead we kept up the repairs, tuned it to the toxins we faced and even, if you look at our closest relative the chimpanzee, you can see many changes and adaptations to new toxins that we evolved after chimps and us parted company some four million years ago. The only way to explain why we not only retained the detox kit we and the chimpanzee inherited from our common ancestor but actually added to and improved it in it’s function and variety is that exposure to plant toxins actually increased in the last four million years. We were ingesting toxins designed by plant to punish us and we kept doing it. We sought out new toxins and our cytochrome P450 set of enzymes evolved further in complexity to cope and still we carried on with this, what appears to be, dangerous, uncomfortable and paradoxical behaviour. When our intelligence and abilities were evolving and our new complex brains, social structures and technologies should have been refining our diet removing threats and accidental poisonings reducing our exposure to toxins the exact opposite seems to be true. Puzzling behaviour it seems but there is a contradictory note raised by some in the guise of evidence that this paradoxical behaviour by early hominids never actually happened and the so called scourge of drug use is a modern phenomena and therefore cannot be the catalyst for this change in thought are looking for. Next up is the anomalous exposure to risk of the mesolimbic dopamine system.
The mesolimbic dopamine system is a structure deep inside the brain involved in such basic and important behaviours as feeding, movement, drinking, sex and is vital for the well being and survival of it’s owner by rewarding and reinforcing advantageous behaviour. This happens by flooding the brain with chemicals called neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin etc.) that have profound influence on the brain and the way we think and feel. If you are dehydrated and start to drink then the mesolimbic system will respond via these neurotransmitters making you feel pleasurable feelings rewarding you for good behaviour and reinforcing the lesson each time. It’s the way we teach puppies and it works just as well on us. Bad behaviour punished with bad things and good behaviour rewarded with pleasure. As this is such a basic, important mechanism that rewards us for behaviours that enhance survival and breeding and that it is tucked away deep inside the brain you would think that protection mechanisms would have evolved to stop anything from the outside getting to it and disrupting it’s delicate and very important function. Something like accidental ingestion of a plant toxin, if allowed to get to and disrupt it’s function may well be catastrophic and you would expect mechanisms to have evolved to protect it. You couldn’t be more wrong.
This important structure is so exposed to whatever odd toxins we may ingest as to be reckless. This is the place where drugs from the outside interact our central nervous system and it is the stimulation of the reward system by drugs like heroin and cocaine that causes pleasure and reinforces behaviour to such extremes that we have a special word for the symptoms. Addiction. Seemingly our brain and it’s vital reward system designed to make us eat, drink and breed is able to be hijacked by toxins from outside causing massive disruption to brain function, physical well being and normal behaviour that is so very important not only to the individual but to the species. If the pleasure of ingesting opium is vastly stronger than the pleasure of eating and drinking then things don’t look good for the individual. Some molecules in opium fit so well, like a hand in a well tailored glove, to the receptor sites in the mesolimbic system it “overstimulates” the production of pleasurable neurotransmitters and floods the opium user with pleasurable feelings rewarding him for this behaviour and reinforcing his actions to the exclusion of all else including sex. That such a basic human drive as reproduction could be thwarted and supplanted by something as worthless as laying in a darkened room smoking opium then surely this drive within us to consume drugs is bad for the species as a whole and should be discouraged you might say. A laudable point of view taken at face value but for a couple of things.
That such a sensitive system should be exposed to such onslaughts when we consume drugs leads many to conjecture that humans had a relatively drug and toxin free past. Any mechanism involved in breeding and eating would have evolved protection mechanisms to filter out threats from the outside and maintain the delicate workings of our brains. As this isn’t so, the mesolimbic system seems to be totally open and unprotected meaning that it evolved in a toxin free environment free from threat of disruption. Early hominids, if this was the case, did indeed select their diet with great care and improved it over time. Eating grains, fruits, nuts and meat and avoiding noxious, dangerous and deleterious chemicals altogether. You can see how this image of a healthy drug free existence with proper nutrition, fitness and health chimes with the modern image of the perfect society. Happy, healthy people with happy, healthy minds. From the old “Noble Savage” to the modern new age clap trap of how we should be living now taking this idyllic image of whole foods and whole minds as a model. Using the fact of the unprotected mesolimbic system as evidence of this perfect society at the dawn of man. Proponents of this view go on to say that this points to the use of drugs by humans as a modern invention, not an inerrant human drive and they seemingly ignore our adaptations to such toxins.
We’ve hit a problem. I spent a while earlier describing our chemical defences and using this to prove we were seeking out and using drugs since time immemorial. Just now we looked at the way the normal function of the brain can be profoundly disrupted by the near total lack of defences of a very important system suggesting a drug and toxin free environment while the mesolimbic system evolved. Both scenarios cannot be true and it seems like an impasse. This is the basis of the human reward drug paradox. Two contradictory sets of evidence leading you to two contradictory environments that surrounded us as we evolved. If we did evolve surrounded by plant toxins and, as it seems from the evidence of the cytochrome P450 system and ingested them continuously then what possible benefit could this behaviour have given us. With our exposed, unprotected mesolimbic system then addiction, disruption in brain function, lack of interest in food and drink and even reproduction must have been bad for us as a species and seems very perplexing indeed for such behaviour not to have been selected out a long time ago. Conversely, if our environment early in our history was indeed an idyllic golden age, a drug and toxin free paradise as is suggested by our wide open central nervous system then why are we so well adapted for the detoxification of a myriad of toxins and seemingly hard wired with the need to consume them in the face of all the known dangers and harms drugs are able to inflict on us. What possible benefits, in terms of success of our species, can be the basis for such seemingly paradoxical behaviour?
This is where the current research fragments into many explanations, all of them incomplete and unsatisfactory, as scientists try and resolve what has been the major stumbling block for advancement in the field. Researchers in a recent paper, namely Sullivan, Roger J.; Hagen, Edward H.; and Hammerstein, Peter. in “Revealing the paradox of drug reward in human evolution.” as published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences) describe the current impasse thus; ““We have been surprised by how robust the paradox is – that is, in presenting the arguments at scientific meetings for several years now, no one has been able to refute the basic argument that plant ecological models and neurobiology models of drug use are in direct conflict,” Further, in an interview published online; “The greatest significance of the paper is in defining the paradox, and laying out the arguments in a manner that shows that it is a real conundrum and not a straw man argument,” Sullivan told PhysOrg.com. “The paradox has deep implications for current drug reward theory because it implicitly suggests that many of the key assumptions in current drug reward theory are flawed.”
These kinds of statements about trying to resolve the two seemingly exclusive sets of evidence appears at the end of many papers, articles and essays. Leaving many groups of researchers with a real problem and I think this problem is the result of many of these scientists coming from the background of the physical sciences, theoretical biology and anthropology etc. who deal with the actual physical structures in the body or the biochemical pathways and reactions at work within our cells leading them to look for actual physical evidence of the benefit humans derive from drug taking. Most drugs cause harm to the function of the body in some way or another even if only temporarily. Sweating, insomnia, hunger suppression, changes in metabolism or the blocking or over stimulation of various enzymes or neurochemical pathways to name but a few. Finding benefits to outweigh the harm they see has proved impossible for them. For them the baseline function of the normal healthy individual is their starting point, an optimum, and drugs seem to disrupt the complex and delicate checks and balances that hold them enthralled in their field. Disruption and the seemingly roughshod chaos inflicted on the body by the taking of drugs removes the body from it’s exquisitely balanced baseline function and to look on these effects as anything except bad evades them.
Or researchers come from the sociological or psychological background where addiction and the effects of drug use are viewed as aberrations that remove the individual from normal, healthy mental function so that to view drug use as anything other than deleterious to the drug user is alien to them. Their field is ingrained with case histories of harm and harmful behaviour caused by drugs, of sadness and pain as the individual is wrenched out of normal behaviour by the actions of these chemicals so that previously well adjusted, happy people are now viewed as patients, criminals and victims to be pitied and helped if possible. It’s no wonder they have trouble looking for evolutionary benefits from drugs just as the physically based researchers seek in vain for evidence of improved function either at the cellular level or taking the individual as a whole. All both types of researcher find is harm, both physical and mental, and it’s their basic grounding in their chosen subjects and the influences of the society that surrounds them that colours their conclusions and hinders their progress.
What are they missing? What on earth could this benefit be that has stumped so many erudite, well educated and hard working researchers? I think they are missing something that many drug users themselves know, and apart from the pleasure some (but not all by any means) drugs reward the taker with is the changes in the way you think. The opening up of new ways of looking at the world. Psychedelics like LSD, Peyote, Psilocybin, and Salvia Divinorum seem to remove the filters we use to limit the amount of data our brains have to process. Showing the user that what is experienced in normal life is not the actual way things are but just one way. Revealing detail and beauty in the simplest everyday objects or making one aware of the interconnectedness of life and our part in it as opposed to outside it. Emotions and feelings magnified and changed in new ways. Sometimes swapping senses (synaesthesia) so tastes are heard and light has a tactile quality perhaps. In large doses a complete loss of attachment to the physical body happens and it feels as if just the very essence of self is transported into places that exhibit stunning beauty or sometimes extreme horror. A person who experiences such things can not return unchanged. Something of the fluidity and arbitrariness of our senses stays with them and memories of such beauty or glimpses of hell reveals just what the human sensory and cognitive machine is capable of. A chemical as a doorway into another way of being, another way of perceiving and a lesson that things may not be as we had thought before. What is here and now is fluid and malleable in ways that would not have been possible to imagine without psychedelics.
Opium, the ancient seductress and demonic master all in one. Able to relieve pain and produce euphoria. Also waking dreams and wild flights of fancy. Pipe dreams you’ve heard of, it’s opium pipes that started the phrase. People face addiction and social stigma to chase these effects. Full knowledge of their probable enslavement deters them not. Coleridge and DeQuincy flouted with physical and social ruin with their untrammelled opium use but used it’s effects to produce some of the most inventive writing of their time. Once again, a drug that enables people to access thoughts and ideas from wildly differing fields and join them together to make something new and more than the sum of it’s parts. It changes the way people think profoundly.
Coca, Qhat and the stimulants offer short term boosts in energy and coca alleviates some of the effects of altitude sickness. But these effects are secondary to what it does to thought. Sleep is banished and distractions of food, time and the mundane disappear. Along with the amphetamines these drugs improve confidence and make ideas that while not under the influence seem complex and unwieldy. The ability to hold on to these complex thoughts and have the time and sheer pleasure of discourse with your peers is the main effect on human brains. Arguments and reasoning that without the drug could not be attempted flow with ease and the bonhomie engendered amongst participants mean that what might normally invoke insult, pride or shock can be discussed openly and at length without upset.
These effects are used more and more on people with AD/HD, a problem of inattentiveness and not being able to hold on to concepts long enough to make sense of them that make sufferers angry and frustrated. The effects of amphetamines seems paradoxical at first. But the AD/HD sufferer treated with amphetamines can now too have the pleasure of complex ideas and long, intricate discussion. What was once an erratic mind settles and frustration dissipates as learning and hobbies become possible. A tiny glimpse of the true importance of drugs in human development, each successful case treated a victory and relief for the individual now filled with hope and interests that can be enjoyed anew as learning reveals the wonder and complexity of the universe to the once angry, frustrated mind.
The benefits are in the way we think, and it's this change that shifted our highest drive from breeding to the new thought and the tools to aid new thought. Now it is technology, techniques and new ways of viewing the world that are keeping more and more of our ancestors alive. With higher survival rates then the percentage that do not breed because of the effects of these chemicals on their behaviour is balanced out.
This may seem strange at first. Surely reproduction must remain the highest goal of any individual as his only reason for existence is the mixing and dissemination of his genes. Any individual so deeply under the spell of drugs that he fails to reproduce must be considered a failure. The natural result of this behaviour is obvious. Individuals who, as a result of their genetic make up have the propensity to choose drugs over reproduction must select themselves out of the gene pool by direct result of their failure to breed. Genes that appear in man in this environment of continuous and varied drug use that have the result of zero reproduction because of extreme addiction would disappear from the gene pool very quickly indeed. But they haven’t.
Individuals who happily throw themselves into extravagant and profligate drug use, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else including procreation, social norms, work, friends or possible breeding partners still abound. All this in the face of illegality, social stigma, poverty, risk from the black market adulterants and violence, disease and all the education on the subject they have ever read told them it was dangerous and a really bad thing to do. Yet still they do it. What possible reason could there be that confers an evolutionary advantage to our species that seems to have kept sets of genes that reduce the chance of reproduction to near zero in our gene pool?
A way to look at it from a modern societal viewpoint is the example of the classic mad scientist character. Here is a human who has no social skills and isn’t bothered if people like him or not. His personal hygiene is somewhat lacking and the wild hair and lack of socks is just the tip of his oddness iceberg. He lives and breathes his chosen subject often forgetting food, drink and sleep in his manic pursuit of answers. His communication skills are terrible. His students never see him and when they do they can’t read his writing on the board or understand anything he said as he sailed in and then rapidly out of the lecture room. The idea he could hold on to a relationship long enough to breed is an idea not even on his or any of his colleagues horizon. Often rude and bad tempered he is prone to rare but dramatic euphoric episodes when he has been known to wake up the whole damn university because he managed to get x=1 on both sides of his latest equation.
Now… here is someone we pay good money to keep. He doesn’t breed and he’d tell us to bugger off if we knocked to see him. If we didn’t know he was a mad professor then we may conjecture he is exhibiting all the symptoms of wild, untrammelled drug use. Yet we value him highly. Why?
Because he is a human and therefore part of this all encompassing experiment in thought. His output is not the old, pre revolution gold standard of offspring in the normal sense. It is not the transmission of his DNA that we value. It is his ideas and production of new thought that gives him value to, and adds advantage for, the species as a whole. His offspring Memetic, not genetic. Thoughts that in some way we think we couldn’t have ourselves. As in many cases this new perspective seems to throw up results that at first glance appear to go against all we know about natural selection. But this is never the case. All that is really different is that what is good for the species has changed. We’ve added one thing above mere procreation, ideas. A very good idea can do more for our species than a single child ever could. Unless the single child went on to produce a very good idea of course! But children are common now, and good ideas are rare.
So, we've seen the body adapt because these chemicals are important. We've seen that society adapts to new values and a wider range of behaviour and tolerance for very practical reasons. I'm not really talking about a society always completely intoxicated beyond rational thought. If you were on a hot beach and wanted an alcoholic, cold drink what would you choose? Would you go for a pint of whisky or a long, cold lager?
Obvious to you... you have the social structure, history and experience to make a reasoned choice. Also, you have the availability of different preparations of alcohol. A pint of whisky on the beach would make you seriously ill. But, that same pint of whiskey, amongst a group of friends at home one evening, would enhance and make the conversation flow.
Take this to the present day. We see people with the same innate drive to consume these chemicals but outside of the support structure of history, tradition and knowledge that you used for the alcohol choice. Prohibition offers heroin, the whisky of opiates. Pure, very strong, and a single chemical. The modern user will be overwhelmed and without the backup of a society he quickly goes under. But if the society was allowed to develop with their history of opium use intact. Where it was a common thing and the traditions, history and knowledge were as commonplace as our alcohol culture is, then it would have been the complex, milder opium he would have taken. In a social setting amongst his peers as there would be no law prohibiting his use. His consumption would have none of the problems associated with heroin use in the modern setting. If looked at properly, 99% of the problems of drug use are connected with prohibition. Lack of knowledge, secrecy, expense, law breaking, impure supply, social stigma... all to do with prohibition.
This is the stumbling block of the modern view of drugs. We see extreme, uncontrolled use with highly purified alkaloids in a setting of Orwellian prohibition and ignorance. We have to look beyond the effects of what our society does to these chemicals and the people who still feel the drive to take them in the face of extreme prejudice. It's innate in all of us. The drug using ape is us. Pick a culture, find one without psychoactives of any kind that isn't tainted by religion, i can't.
Just the experience of ingesting a single psychoactive once in their life has had profound effects on many people. Their perspective of themselves as human, of themselves in the world, changed forever. What would a society be like if we had experience of several types of psychoactive a few times a year say. How would those changed values of empathy, learning, discourse, beauty, social cohesion and personal fulfilment without the need for dominance or massive wealth express themselves in our social structure and communities?
I think we have lost something very valuable, and it could be a way to help some very sad, lonely, depressed and lost individuals that make this society so challenging for us to live in. Research into these compounds we are adapted to but denied might lead to some new avenues for therapy and just improving the human condition.
What do the ultra rich discover when they finally make it to the top of the greasy pole? "Bugger... this ain't it either!"
Copyright LJH (C) July08, 2008 inc. "What Would a Hominid Do?" (TM) & logo (It's mine, all mine I say, Bwahahahaha... Today Kent, Tomorrow the World! They Shall indeed See Glimpses (thks Ian, and you thought it would be S, D & R n R... well it is kinda...)