This book is one of the most intriguing, challenging, illuminating and culturally heretical pieces of work I have ever read. Written by social anthropologist, Jeremy Narby, it is an analysis of some of the phenomena he observed while living and working among the Ashaninca Indians in the Peruvian rainforest. The Cosmic Serpent* probes the nature of shamanic culture, and in so doing posits a most compelling set of hypotheses about DNA and the nature of knowledge.
As Narby worked with and observed the Ashaninca's he quickly realised that much of their social and medical welfare is centred in the work of the Shaman. After a lengthy initiation process Shaman are the individuals who provide wisdom and healing to their communities, prescribing cures for common ailments and treating major maladies via herbal and floral treatments. The wisdom of the Shaman comes from the use of a highly intoxicating brew known as 'ayahuasco' which, when imbibed, gives them an insight into the natural world, communicating deep wisdom to them, and demonstrating what flora is suitable for treating which illnesses.
The author lived with this people group for two years, and following the completion of his doctoral thesis on their life and social structure, revisited his papers to try to answer some fundamental questions. How do the Shaman discover specific cures from the multiplicity of plants in the rainforest, how can they choose cures with such pinpoint accuracy, and what is the nature of the knowledge they receive? Through a long and fascinating trail of research Narby concludes that the imagery used, not merely by the Ashaninca but by Shaman worldwide, is actually descriptive of the world of DNA. Intertwined serpents speak of the double helix, and diagrams of what is witnessed under the influence of ayahuasco exactly replicate our scientific diagrams of the chromosome.
Narby makes no pretense at Christian belief, but I found his hypothesis compelling in two main ways.
Firstly, his research suggests a commonality of revelation to so-called 'primitive' cultures worldwide. Each has a creation story, mainly centred around two figures (normally male and female) whose behaviour is formative and directive for all of mankind following. They also hold a concept of a serpent being involved in this account, either creatively or destructively, and also have a concept of beings from heaven falling to earth. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Scripture will find rich allusion in these concepts. The notion of DNA communicating with the Shaman directly is also a compelling illustration of the Apostle Paul's contention in Romans that 'since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse' (Romans 1:20).
To quote Hamlet, 'there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy' and this unseen world of complexity, and innate revelation is tantalising and suggestive to any reader with a biblical worldview.
Secondly, Narby's research does serious harm to the hegemony of scientific research. In arguably the best chapter of the book ('Biology's Blind Spot') a rigorous critique of main of the presuppositions of modern science is undertaken, showing its observational bias and inability to bend to the weight of evidence which points to intelligence in nature. I can't do justice to either the content or phrasing of this section of his book, but what Narby records here does more damage to the evolutionary/atheistic view of creation and cosmos than any Christian apologist I have read. Published before the tsunami of New Atheism broke on the shores of belief, Narby provides a refreshing counterpoint to much that is taken as a given in modern scientific discourse.
I highly recommend this book. I stumbled upon it while browsing in a book store, but I have found it to be a fascinating, enlightening and hugely faith affirming read, from the pen of an author who shares none of my evangelical convictions.
*The link above points to Amazon's description of the title. Those interested in purchasing this book may be interested to know that the Bookshop at Queens have recently been selling The Cosmic Serpent at the discount price of £2.99. It may be worth calling them on 028 90666302 to ascertain stock levels.
"A man shall see that is God alone who keeps from all sin. Until we are tempted we think we live on our own strength...when the trial comes we quickly see whence is our preservation, by standing or falling" Owen, Works Vol VI, p.93-94