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Even if psilocybin in mushrooms began as “an accident of a metabolic pathway,” the fact that it wasn’t discarded during the course of the species’ evolution suggests it must have offered some benefit. “My best guess,” Beug says, “is that the mushrooms that produced the most psilocybin got selectively eaten and so their spores got more widely disseminated.”

Eaten by whom, or what? And why? Beug says that many animals are known to eat psilocybin mushrooms, including horses, cattle, and dogs. Some, like cows, appear unaffected, but many animals appear to enjoy an occasional change in consciousness too. Beug is in charge of gathering mushroom-poisoning reports for the North American Mycological Association and over the years has seen accounts of horses tripping in their paddocks and dogs that “zero in on Psilocybes and appear to be hallucinating.” Several primate species (aside from our own) are also known to enjoy psychedelic mushrooms. Presumably animals with a taste for altered states of consciousness have helped spread psilocybin far and wide. “The strains of a species that produced more rather than less psilocybin and psilocin would tend to be favored and so gradually become more widespread.”

Eaten in small doses, psychedelic mushrooms might well increase fitness in animals, by increasing sensory acuity and possibly focus as well. A 2015 review article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology reported that several tribes around the world feed psychoactive plants to their dogs in order to improve their hunting ability.*

At higher doses, however, one would think that animals tripping on psychedelic mushrooms would be at a distinct disadvantage for survival, and no doubt many of them are. But for a select few, the effects may offer some adaptive value, not only for themselves, but also possibly for the group and even the species.

Here we venture out onto highly speculative, slightly squishy ground, guided by an Italian ethnobotanist named Giorgio Samorini. In a book called Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness, Samorini hypothesizes that during times of rapid environmental change or crisis it may avail the survival of a group when a few of its members abandon their accustomed conditioned responses and experiment with some radically new and different behaviors. Much like genetic mutations, most of these novelties will prove disastrous and be discarded by natural selection. But the laws of probability suggest that a few of the novel behaviors might end up being useful, helping the individual, the group, and possibly the species to adapt to rapid changes in their environment.

Samorini calls this a “depatterning factor.” There are times in the evolution of a species when the old patterns no longer avail, and the radical, potentially innovative perceptions and behaviors that psychedelics sometimes inspire may offer the best chance for adaptation. Think of it as a neurochemically induced source of variation in a population.

It is difficult to read about Samorini’s lovely theory without thinking about our own species and the challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves today. Homo sapiens might have arrived at one of those periods of crisis that calls for some mental and behavioral depatterning. Could that be why nature has sent us these psychedelic molecules now?

• • • SUCH A NOTION would not strike Paul Stamets as the least bit far-fetched. As we stood around the fire pit, the warm light flickering across our faces while our dinner sizzled in its pan, Stamets talked about what mushrooms have taught him about nature. He was expansive, eloquent, grandiose, and, at times, in acute danger of slipping the surly bonds of plausibility. We had had a few beers, and while we hadn’t touched our tiny stash of azzies, we had smoked a little pot. Stamets dilated on the idea of psilocybin as a chemical messenger sent from Earth, and how we had been elected, by virtue of the gift of consciousness and language, to hear its call and act before it’s too late.

“Plants and mushrooms have intelligence, and they want us to take care of the environment, and so they communicate that to us in a way we can understand.” Why us? “We humans are the most populous bipedal organisms walking around, so some plants and fungi are especially interested in enlisting our support. I think they have a consciousness and are constantly trying to direct our evolution by speaking out to us biochemically. We just need to be better listeners.”

These were riffs I’d heard Stamets deliver in countless talks and interviews. “Mushrooms have taught me the interconnectedness of all life-forms and the molecular matrix that we share,” he explains in another one. “I no longer feel that I am in this envelope of a human life called Paul Stamets. I am part of the stream of molecules that are flowing through nature. I am given a voice, given consciousness for a time, but I feel that I am part of this continuum of stardust into which I am born and to which I will return at the end of this life.” Stamets sounded very much like the volunteers I met at Hopkins who had had full-blown mystical experiences, people whose sense of themselves as individuals had been subsumed into a larger whole—a form of “unitive consciousness,” which, in Stamets’s case, had folded him into the web of nature, as its not so humble servant.

“I think Psilocybes have given me new insights that may allow me to help steer and speed fungal evolution so that we can find solutions to our problems.” Especially in a time of ecological crisis, he suggests, we can’t afford to wait for evolution, unfolding at its normal pace, to put forth these solutions in time. Let the depatterning begin.

As Stamets held forth, and forth, I couldn’t help but picture in my mind Alex Grey’s wacked painting of the stoned ape, with the tornadoes of thought flying out of his hairy head. So much of what Stamets has to say treads a perilously narrow ledge, perched between the autodidact’s soaring speculative flights and the stoned crank’s late night riffings that eventually send everyone in earshot off to bed. But just when I was beginning to grow impatient with his meanders, and could hear the call of my sleeping bag from inside the yurt, he, or I, turned a corner, and his mycological prophecies suddenly appeared to me in a more generous light.

The day before, Stamets had given me a tour of the labs and grow rooms at Fungi Perfecti, the company he founded right out of college. Tucked into the evergreen forest a short walk from his house, the Fungi Perfecti complex consists of a series of long white metal buildings that look like Quonset huts or small hangars. Outside are piles of wood chips, discarded fungi, and growing media. Some of the buildings house the grow rooms where he raises medicinal and edible species; others contain his research facility, with clean rooms and laminar flow chambers in which Stamets reproduces fungi from tissue culture and conducts his experiments. On the office walls hang several of his patents, framed. Amid the torrent of words, what I observed in these buildings was a salutary reminder that while Stamets is surely a big talker, he is not just a talker. He is a big doer too, a successful researcher and entrepreneur who is using fungi to make original contributions across a remarkably wide range of fields, from medicine and environmental restoration to agriculture and forestry and even national defense. Stamets is in fact a scientist, albeit of a special kind.

Exactly what kind of scientist I didn’t completely understand until a few weeks later, when I happened to read a wonderful biography of Alexander von Humboldt, the great early nineteenth-century German scientist (and colleague of Goethe’s) who revolutionized our understanding of the natural world. Humboldt believed it is only with our feelings, our senses, and our imaginations—that is, with the faculties of human subjectivity—that we can ever penetrate nature’s secrets. “Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice” that is “familiar to his soul.” There is an order and beauty organizing the system of nature—a system that Humboldt, after briefly considering the name “Gaia,” chose to call “Cosmos”—but it would never have revealed itself to us if not for the human imagination, which is itself of course a product of nature, of the very system it allows us to comprehend. The modern conceit of the scientist attempting to observe nature with perfect objectivity, as if from a vantage located outside it, would have been anathema to Humboldt. “I myself am identical with nature.”

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