Anthropologist Jeremy Narby is bringing together indigenous knowledge and Western science to inform the search for a sustainable future.
Kim Ridley | May 2007 issue
If you think a slime mould is just a stupid glob of protoplasm, think again. Japanese researchers have discovered that this single-celled organism can find its way through a maze to locate its favourite snack (oatmeal).
Before you dismiss a bee as a mindless honey machine, consider this: French scientists reported that honeybees can think abstractly – with brains the size of pinheads.
And that geranium on your windowsill? The work of researchers in Scotland suggests that plants process information about their surroundings with the same mechanism we use in our neurons.
Over the past two decades, scientists have discovered that humans aren’t the only intelligent beings around. The field of animal intelligence is exploding and even plant intelligence is no longer considered a wacky notion in some scientific circles. The researchers studying these fields aren’t puttering around on the lunatic fringe; they’re publishing papers in leading journals like Science and Nature.
All of this delights and intrigues anthropologist Jeremy Narby, who interviewed scientists investigating smart slime, brilliant bees, perceptive plants and other living wonders for his latest book, Intelligence in Nature.
It isn’t a new idea. Narby says Western scientists are beginning to uncover two facts of life that indigenous shamans have known for millennia: All of nature teems with intelligence and all life is interconnected. As the rare anthropologist who has studied both Western scientists and Amazonian shamans, Narby is on a quest to bring together these two knowledge systems before it’s too late.
To Narby’s way of thinking, rationalism has been the sole driver of the pursuit of knowledge for far too long, with devastating consequences. “The emphasis on technology, commodities and fragmented rational knowledge has bled the world of meaning,” he says.
At the same time, Western culture has drawn a line so deep between humans and nature that it’s embedded in our very language. Intelligence and nature are mutually exclusive by definition. Although science is beginning to erase that line, Narby says scientists lack adequate language to describe and deepen their discoveries about the intelligence and the unity of life on Earth.
Indigenous people’s knowledge systems and cultures, on the other hand, tend to view all beings as sentient and related in a world with no separation between humans and nature. Such understanding, combined with Western science, could inform the urgent search for more sane and sustainable ways to live, according to Narby.
“People of the Amazon believe that plants and animals have intelligence,” Narby says. “As a young university student, I thought this was superstition. I’d been educated into the view that humans were above other species. Now science is finding out that unicellular beings make correct decisions. Our culture is short of concepts and words for how to think about this, but indigenous culture has been talking about this kinship for millennia.”
And Narby believes some scientists are ready to listen. During a visit to the U.S. from his home in Switzerland, Narby sips a mug of tea in a small, sunny conference room at the Marion Institute, an ecological think-tank in Massachusetts that helps support his ongoing work in the rainforest. A brilliant red cardinal flits through the pine trees outside the window as he reflects on the emerging connections between recent scientific findings and ancient shamanic understanding that rattle the 400-year-old walls Western thought has erected between human beings and the rest of nature.
The first scientist Narby visited for Intelligence in Nature was Martin Giurfa, a biologist in Toulouse, France, who found that honeybees could consistently choose the correct path in a Y-shaped maze to find a vial of sugar water. The bees figured out that the pathway that led to the sugar water was consistently marked by the same symbols that marked the maze entrance.
Giurfa’s experiments suggest you don’t need a big, complicated brain to make correct decisions. According to recent research on plants, it turns out you might not need a brain at all.
Narby next interviewed Anthony Trewavas, a biologist at the University of Edinburgh whose research on “plant intelligence” suggests that plants can compute complex information about their surroundings. Trewavas and his colleagues discovered that plant cells perceive and transmit information about the outside world via molecular signals in a fashion similar to the way our neurons do: through the transport of calcium ions. Says Narby: “Plants don’t have brains so much as act like them.”
One example of a particularly “brainy” plant is the dodder vine, which chooses the most nutritious plants around it to parasitize. Another is the Amazonian stilt palm, which slowly “walks” around the forest searching for sunlight. The palm sends out new roots toward sunny patches and lets those in the shade wither and die.
That brings us to the mystery of the maze-solving slime mould. On his final investigation for Intelligence in Nature, Narby interviewed Toshiyuki Nakagaki, a Japanese scientist who reported in the journal Nature that slime mould could repeatedly find the most efficient route through a maze to find that delicious oatmeal on the other side. In explaining this phenomenon, Nakagaki introduced Narby to the Japanese concept of chi-sei, which means “the capacity to know” inherent in all forms of life. Chi-sei was an idea Narby had been searching for – a way to bridge modern science and ancient wisdom.
Narby says the biggest surprise of his investigation was the striking similarity in perspective between the scientists and the shamans he had studied years before. “I thought many of the scientists would say I was soft in the head when I spoke about intelligence in nature, but on the contrary,” he says as he finishes the dregs of his tea. “They completely agreed that their research demonstrates that all the doors are open.”
A self-described “diplomat between systems of knowledge,” Narby began his investigations as a doctoral student in anthropology at Stanford in the mid-1980s. At a professor’s urging, he left the safety of Stanford for the wilds of the Peruvian Amazon to study indigenous shamans’ encyclopedic knowledge of rainforest plants.
Narby recounts some of his adventures for a small crowd gathered in the red-walled drawing room of a grand old home a short drive from the Marion Institute. Standing before them in a simple blue pullover, khakis and black boots, he soon has them spellbound.
“As a greenhorn, I bought a pair of fancy rubber boots, T-shirts and a tape recorder and strolled into the Peruvian Amazon with no experience of tropical rainforests or indigenous inhabitants,” Narby says. His two years with the Ashaninca Indians and other tribes, however, opened his eyes in ways he never imagined – and made him realize that the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon are not only the most qualified stewards of their fragile lands, but also the keepers of centuries of ecological knowledge and wisdom relevant far beyond the rainforest. He compares destroying the rainforest homes of indigenous cultures to burning down the world’s oldest universities.
Narby sprinkles his talk with intriguing scientific facts that support the ancient indigenous concept of kinship – like the amusing and slightly unnerving reality that we share about half our genes with the banana. As entertaining as he is, however, he doesn’t shy away from the problems afflicting the Peruvian Amazon – and the world. “It’s increasingly clear that the industrial world is modifying the biosphere,” he says. “We are impoverishing the world we depend on. This isn’t a guilt trip, but if we don’t get a grip, we’re going to be out of business.”
At the end of his talk, an elegantly dressed woman asks the question on everyone’s mind: “What can I do?” Narby smiles. People sit up straight and lean forward.
“I try to avoid using the word ‘should’,” Narby says. “But I think we privileged Westerners need to rethink the last 500 years of history and look at other cultures with fresh eyes. Academic rational knowledge has fundamentally misjudged indigenous cultures that have other ways of knowing, and looked down on them, but by opening intercultural spaces for scientists and shamans to have dialogues, we’ll have better tools for understanding the world.”
“Jeremy is a bridge-builder between science and shamanism, worlds that have been separate at best and polarized at worst,” says Kenny Ausubel, founder and co-executive director of Bioneers, a U.S. think tank in New Mexico that promotes solutions to environmental and social problems. “He has the rare ability to maintain scientific rigour and skepticism while at the same time respecting subjective ways of knowing and the empirical knowledge that indigenous peoples have gathered over many thousands of years.”
Some leaders of the scientific establishment acknowledge that new thinking is urgently needed as the gap between humans and other forms of life continues to shrink. “As we learn more and more about the behavioural capacities of animals, I think the zone of what we think of as uniquely human is gradually shrinking,” observed Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, at a neuroethics conference in 2002. “And as we learn more about how their brains work, it may well change our attitudes about how different we are from them, thus reducing our sense of being all that special. There’s this awkward growth of knowledge. It might in the long run change our view of our place in the living world.”
That view may well grow more closely aligned with the indigenous perspective that all beings are kin, says Narby. He explores the Amazonian roots of this insight in his earlier book, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. In it, he hypothesizes that Amazonian shamans who drink ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew, to learn the healing properties of plants take their consciousnesses down to the molecular level to gain access to information related to DNA, which they call “animate essences” or “spirits.” Whether or not that’s the case, Narby says Western science has underscored the literal truth of our relatedness with the “discovery” of DNA, the molecule common to all life, from bacteria to bananas to human beings.
The Cosmic Serpent didn’t make the big splash Narby had hoped for in the scientific community. He drew critics, including a biophysicist who challenged him to test his own hypothesis. In response, Narby brought three molecular biologists into the Peruvian Amazon to see whether visions induced by ayahuasca administered by shamans gave the scientists information about their work. They all reported that they did, in fact, receive information from their visions in an account published in Shamans through Time, a book Narby co-edited with anthropologist Francis Huxley.
Other critics frown on anthropologists who participate in ayahuasca ceremonies (Narby writes in The Cosmic Serpent about his hallucinatory encounter with large, talking fluorescent snakes), a line rarely crossed by anthropologists, who are expected to maintain objectivity. But Kenny Ausubel sees Narby’s willingness to enter “the subjective realm” as strengthening his research. “Ordinarily, the subjective realms are described from a quote, “third party perspective,” almost like ethnography but with no real inner understanding,’ Ausubel says. ‘Jeremy is way beyond ethnography; he’s also trying to enter into the actual experience.”
Perhaps in the long run, the better we know ourselves and other beings, and understand our place in the living world, the better we’ll be able to control what Narby calls “our predatory nature.” As a young species that only recently scrambled to the top of the food chain, human beings are, in Narby’s words, “like hormonal adolescents with power tools.” To act more responsibly as predators in the global ecosystem, he says we could learn a thing or two from one of our much older relatives and a creature widely revered by Amazonian shamans: the jaguar.
“Jaguars have 10 times more experience than we do at being at the top of their food chain,” Narby says, “yet they’re very discreet. They have power over every other species, but they don’t go around bullying them.”
In the quest to become “responsible predators” that benefit their environments rather than destroy them, humans have one major advantage that still sets us apart from the rest of our relatives: We’re fast learners. “Human beings were painting the caves at Lascaux less than a thousand generations ago, and we’ve been blasted onto an exponential learning curve ever since,” Narby says. While our learning abilities have given us dominance over other species, the challenge now is to learn to wield our power more responsibly in the service of all life.
As Narby continues to seek common ground between scientists and shamans, he doesn’t offer any hard-and-fast answers about the way to a sustainable future, but his work does invite and inspire a shift in consciousness, which begins one person at a time. His research, he admits, has dramatically altered his own world view.
“Having written Intelligence in Nature, I know that when I walk across a lawn, the blades of grass are conducting impulses through a mechanism similar to the ones firing in the neurons in my brain,” Narby says. “Once you can shift your gaze to the point where you can seriously identify with a blade of grass, the world looks different. It’s actually more interesting and more comfortable. It’s like being surrounded by family members all the time. It’s like waking up and seeing what’s really there.”