The Cosmic Serpent
DNA and the Origins of Knowledge
Q&A with Jeremy Narby by Todd Stewart

Could you sum up your book "The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins of Knowledge"?

Research indicates that shamans access an intelligence, which they say is nature's, and which gives them information that has stunning correspondences with molecular biology.

Your hypothesis of a hidden intelligence contained within the DNA of all living things is interesting. What is this intelligence?

Intelligence comes from the Latin inter-legere, to choose between. There seems to be a capacity to make choices operating inside each cell in our body, down to the level of individual proteins and enzymes. DNA itself is a kind of "text" that functions through a coding system called "genetic code," which is strikingly similar to codes used by human beings. Some enzymes edit the RNA transcript of the DNA text and add new letters to it; any error made during this editing can be fatal to the entire organism; so these enzymes are consistently making the right choices; if they don't, something often goes wrong leading to cancer and other diseases. Cells send one another signals, in the form of proteins and molecules. These signals mean: divide, or don't divide, move, or don't move, kill yourself, or stay alive. Any one cell is listening to hundreds of signals at the same time, and has to integrate them and decide what to do. How this intelligence operates is the question.

DNA has essentially maintained its structure for 3.5 billion years. What role does DNA play in our evolution?

DNA is a single molecule with a double helix structure; it is two complementary versions of the same "text" wrapped around each other; this allows it to unwind and make copies of itself: twins! This twinning mechanism is at the heart of life since it began. Without it, one cell could not become two, and life would not exist. And, from one generation to the next, the DNA text can also be modified, so it allows both constancy and transformation. This means that beings can be the same and not the same. One of the mysteries is what drives the changes in the DNA text in evolution. DNA has apparently been around for billions of years in its current form in virtually all forms of life. The old theory—random accumulation of errors combined with natural selection—does not fully explain the data currently generated by genome sequencing. The question is wide open.

The structure of DNA as we know it is made up of letters and thus has a specific text and language. You could say our bodies are made up of language, yet we assume that speech arises from the mind. How do we access this hidden language?

By studying it. There are several roads to knowledge, including science and shamanism.

The symbol of the Cosmic Serpent, the snake, is a central theme in your story, and in your research you discover that the snake forms a major part of the symbology across most of the world’s traditions and religions. Why is there such a consistent system of natural symbols in the world? Is the world inherently symbolic?

This is the observation that led me to investigate the cosmic serpent. I found the symbol in shamanism all over the world. Why? That's a good question. My hypothesis is that it is connected to the double helix of DNA inside virtually all living beings. And DNA itself is a symbolic Saussurian code. So, yes, in at least one important way, the living world is inherently symbolic. We are made of living language.

You write of how the ideology of "rational" science, deterministic thought, is and has been quite limiting in its approach to new and alternative scientific theories; it is assumed that "mystery is the enemy." In your book you describe how you had to suspend your judgement, to "defocalize," and in this way gain a deeper insight. Why do you think we are often limited in our rational, linear thought and why are so few willing and able to cross these boundaries?

I don't believe we are. People spend hours each day thinking non-rationally. Our emotional brain treats all the information we receive before our neo-cortex does. Scientists are forever making discoveries as they daydream, take a bath, go for a run, lay in bed, and so on.

Vision of the Snakes
By Pablo Amaringo
Gallery of Usko-Ayar Art
What are the correspondences between the Peruvian shamans’ findings and microbiology?

Both shamans and molecular biologists agree that there is a hidden unity under the surface of life's diversity; both associate this unity with the double helix shape (or two entwined serpents, a twisted ladder, a spiral staircase, two vines wrapped around each other); both consider that one must deal with this level of reality in order to heal. One can fill a book with correspondences between shamanism and molecular biology.

Do you think there is not only an intelligence based in our DNA but a consciousness as well?

I think we should attend to the words we use. "Consciousness" carries different baggage than "intelligence." Many would define human consciousness as different from, say, animal consciousness, because humans are conscious of being conscious. But how do we know that dolphins don't think about being dolphins? I do not know whether there is a "consciousness" inside our cells; for now, the question seems out of reach; we have a hard enough time understanding our own consciousness—though we use it most of the time. I propose the concept of "intelligence" to describe what proteins and cells do, simply because it makes the data more comprehensible. This concept will require at least a decade or two for biologists to consider and test. Then, we might be able to move along and consider the idea of a "cellular consciousness."

The implications of some of your findings in The Cosmic Serpent could be quite large. How do you feel about the book and what it says? Why did you write the book?

I wrote the book because I felt that certain things needed saying. Writing a book is like sending out a message in a bottle: sometimes one gets replies. Judging from the responses, a surprising number of people have got the message loud and clear.

How can shamanism complement modern science?

Most definitions of "science" revolve around the testing of hypotheses. Claude Levi-Strauss showed in his book The Savage Mind that human beings have been carefully observing nature and endlessly testing hypotheses for at least ten thousand years. This is how animals and plants were domesticated. Civilization rests on millennia of Neolithic science. I think the science of shamans can complement modern science by helping make sense of the data it generates. Shamanism is like a reverse camera relative to modern science.

The shamans were very spiritual people. Has any of this affected you? What is spiritual in your life?

I don't use the word "spiritual" to think about my life. I spend my time promoting land titling projects and bilingual education for indigenous people, and thinking about how to move knowledge forward and how to open up understanding between people; I also spend time with my children, and with children in my community (as a soccer coach); and I look after the plants in my garden, without using pesticides and so on. But I do this because I think it needs doing, and because it's all I can do, but not because it's "spiritual." The message I got from shamans was: do what you can for those around you (including plants and animals), but don't make a big deal of it.