Approximately 200,000 years ago, the early human brain evolved at an extreme rate, almost suddenly. What caused this major change?
There seems to have been a profound difference in cognitive abilities between early Homo sapiens and our immediate predecessor, Homo erectus. Sure, erectus stood upright — a big, um, step forward — but with the emergence of Homo sapiens, we see traces of art, pictography, and tool usage, and we believe humankind made its first forays into language.
Oxford neurobiologist Colin Blakemore tells Robin McKie why he thinks a mutation in the human brain 200,000 years ago suddenly made us a super-intelligent species
Colin Blakemore believes the human brain became bigger through genetic accident and not evolution
In a recent lecture, the Oxford neurobiologist argued that a mutation in the brain of a single human being 200,000 years ago turned intellectually able apemen into a super-intelligent species that would conquer the world. In short, Homo sapiens is a genetic accident.
In the early 1990s, psychedelic advocate and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna published his book Food of the Gods in which he surmised that homo sapiens’ cognitive leap forward was due to their discovery of magic mushrooms.
The scientific community never took McKenna’s theory very seriously, considering it mostly trippy speculation — these days, his ideas have largely been relegated to the spacier corners of Reddit. Now, however, the idea has acquired a new advocate, psilocybin mycologist Paul Stamets, who’s suggesting McKenna was right all along.
In McKenna’s Stoned Ape hypothesis,” he posited that as humans began to migrate to new areas, at some point they came upon psychedelic mushrooms growing in cow droppings, as is their wont, and then ate them. After ingesting them, and more specifically the psilocybin they contained, their brains kicked into overdrive, acquiring new information-processing capabilities, and a mind-blowing expansion of our imaginations in the bargain.
Many modern users of psychedelics claim the world never looks the same again after such an experience. As McKenna put it, “Homo sapiens ate our way to a higher consciousness,” and, “It was at this time that religious ritual, calendar making, and natural magic came into their own.”
When human cultural evolution led to the domestication of wild livestock, humans began to spend a lot of time around animal droppings, McKenna explained. And because psilocybin mushrooms often grow on cow excrement, “the human-mushroom interspecies codependency has intensified and deepened. It was during this time that religious rituals, calendaring, and natural magic were born.”
McKenna, who died in 2000, passionately believed in his hypothesis, but during his life, it was never seriously considered by the scientific community. Rejected as overly specul ative, McKenna’s hypothesis now only appears in online communities and psychedelic Reddit pages.
However, speaking at Psychedelic Science 2017 – a scientific conference on psychedelics that brings together scientists, doctors, and artists who believe in the therapeutic potential of these drugs – rekindled interest in the theory. Paul Stamets, a renowned mycologist who studies psilocybin, supported the stoned monkey hypothesis with his speech “Psilocybin Mushrooms and Mycology of Consciousness.”
“I’m presenting this to you because I want to bring back the concept of the stoned ape,” Stamets told the crowd. “It is very important that you understand that 200,000 years ago, the human brain suddenly doubled in size, and there is no explanation for this sudden change in the human brain.”
Doubling, which he talks about, refers to a sudden increase in the size of a person’s brain.
Outlining the mindset of the stoned monkey hypothesis that McKenna and his brother Dennis formulated, Stamets depicted a portrait of primates that emerged from Africa, travel across the savannas, and stumble upon “the world’s largest mushroom growing on animal droppings.”
Isn’t it time to take the stoned ape hypothesis seriously? This will require applying our advances in scientific research to psilocybin, recent archaeological discoveries, and our vague understanding of the nature of consciousness, and then fitting it all into our current understanding of human evolution.
Amanda Feilding of the psychedelic think tank Beckley Foundation says, however, that the stoned ape theory is at the very least a valid reminder that humans have always been drawn to and fascinated by mind-altering substances: “The imagery that comes with the psychedelic experience is a theme that runs through ancient art, so I’m sure that psychedelic experience and other techniques, like dancing and music, were used by our early ancestors to enhance consciousness, which then facilitated spirituality, art, and medicine.”
Source: curiosmos.com; https://bigthink.com