Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge by Terence McKenna is one of the most famous books on psychedelics. It explores our human history through the lens of psychedelics (psilocybin specifically) and forms a theory (stoned ape) that is both loved by some and not accepted in scientific circles. McKenna also argues that we have to restore balance to nature and ourselves (archaic revival).
“Why, as a species, are humans so fascinated by altered states of consciousness? Can altered states reveal something to us about our origins and our place in nature? In Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna’s research on man’s ancient relationship with chemicals opens a doorway to the divine, and perhaps a solution for saving our troubled world. McKenna provides a revisionist look at the historical role of drugs in the East and the West, from ancient spice, sugar, and rum trades to marijuana, cocaine, synthetics, and even television—illustrating the human desire for the “food of the gods” and the powerful potential to replace abuse of illegal drugs with a shamanic understanding, insistence on community, reverence for nature, and increased self-awareness.“
The book is divided into four parts that describe the history, present, and future through McKenna’s lens:
- Paradise – How we used to live in balance with nature and how psychedelics co-evolved with us
- Paradise Lost – How the balance got lost and ‘dominator culture’ took over
- Hell – Critique of current day society and (synthetic) drugs
- Paradise Regained? – Ideas about ‘archaic revival’, getting back to nature
What stands out most is the confidence that McKenna has about his theories. He puts them forward as the answer for our evolution and for the cure to our current predicament. Yet a careful reading may question many of his assumptions. The idea that psilocybin may give you a broader perspective and new experience could very well be true. But that it may help with visual acuity is questionable, that you will be more sexual is not everyone’s experience, and traditional cultures were far from more peaceful than our current system (one needs only read a few pages in anything Steven Pinker has written).
Thinking or arguing that everything was better in the past also makes me think back to Plato. At that ancient time, and many times since, they thought that we had fallen from grace, that our current life was but a mere dud of the full potential. What I think is missing there, and with Food of the Gods too, is a recognition that we don’t have the answers, that there is no perfect society.
Many things are bad, even terrible, about our current society. But thinking back to a time where childbirth was the norm, a small infection meant death, and where war with the next tribe or city over was a given, doesn’t seem to be the answer.
The book is recommended to gain more insight into McKenna’s thinking and the broad set of ideas that one can have about psychedelics. But I would urge the reader to stay critical and take from the book what is useful.