First proposed by 20th century ethnobotanist and psychedelic advocate Terence Kemp McKenna (who died in 2000) in his 1992 book Food of the Gods, the stoned ape theory (or hypothesis) is based on the concept that the consumption of psychedelic fungi—in other words, magic mushrooms—may have played a crucial role in the development of human mind and culture. The theory, which has since been advocated for by psilocybin mycologist Paul Stamets is now going through a revival thanks to a trending video on TikTok.
In his book, McKenna proposed that the transformation from humans’ early ancestors Homo erectus to the species Homo sapiens mainly had to do with the addition of the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis in their diet. An event that (according to his theory) took place in about 100,000 BCE, which is when he believed that the species first diverged from the genus Homo.
McKenna based his theory on the main effects, or alleged effects, produced by the mushroom while citing studies by the likes of Roland L. Fischer from the late 1960s to early 1970s. The ethnobotanist believed that, due to the desertification of the African continent at that time, human forerunners were forced from the increasingly shrinking tropical canopy into search of new food sources. They would have been following large herds of wild cattle whose dung—yep, poo poo—harboured the insects that were undoubtedly part of their new diet, and would have spotted and started eating Psilocybe cubensis, a dung-loving mushroom often found growing out of cowpats.
Okay, so let’s assume our ancestors found some magic mushrooms hidden in cow shit, then what? According to McKenna, low doses of psilocybin—a psychedelic prodrug compound produced by more than 200 species of fungi, including Psilocybe cubensis—improve visual acuity and particularly edge detection. This means that the presence of psilocybin in the diet of early pack hunting primates could have caused the individuals who were consuming those mushrooms to be better hunters than those who were not, resulting in an increased food supply and in turn, a higher rate of reproductive success.
Then at slightly higher doses, McKenna said that the mushroom acts to sexually arouse, leading to a higher level of attention, more energy in the organism, and potential erection in the males thus rendering it even more “evolutionarily beneficial,” as it would result in more offspring. At even higher doses, McKenna proposed that the mushroom would have acted to “dissolve boundaries,” promoting community bonding and group sexual activities. In all fairness, that doesn’t sound too different from the last mushroom party I attended.
As a result, all thanks to this magic fungi, there would have been a mixing of genes, greater genetic diversity, and a communal sense of responsibility for the group offspring. McKenna went as far as to argue that psilocybin could have also triggered activity in the “language-forming region of the brain,” manifesting as music and visions, thus leading to the emergence of language in early hominids. He also pointed out that psilocybin would dissolve the ego and “religious concerns would be at the forefront of the tribe’s consciousness, simply because of the power and strangeness of the experience itself.” Sounds pretty familiar too.
Long story short, the psychedelic advocate was sure our newly-founded access to and ingestion of mushrooms was an evolutionary advantage to humans’ omnivorous hunter-gatherer ancestors while also providing humanity’s first religious impulse. For him, psilocybin mushrooms were the “evolutionary catalyst” from which language, projective imagination, the arts, religion, philosophy, science, and all of human culture sprang. Big theory there, McKenna. But that was all in 1992.
After making such claims, McKenna did not receive much attention from the scientific community, apart from some criticising his theory’s lack of citation to any of the paleoanthropological evidence that informs our understanding of human origins so far. Many deduced that he had misinterpreted previous findings.
It wasn’t until 2017 that McKenna’s theory was supported by someone else from the scientific community; Paul Stamets.
At Psychedelic Science 2017, Stamets presented his theory through a talk titled ‘Psilocybin Mushrooms and the Mycology of Consciousness’. In it, he sought to rehabilitate McKenna’s hypothesis as a totally plausible answer to a longstanding evolutionary riddle. “What is really important for you to understand is that there was a sudden doubling of the human brain 200,000 years ago. From an evolutionary point of view, that’s an extraordinary expansion. And there is no explanation for this sudden increase in the human brain,” he said.
Stamets portrayed a group of early humans making their way through the savannah and coming across “the largest psilocybin mushroom in the world growing bodaciously out of dung of the animals.” It didn’t need to have been unusually large to have its effect, of course. In his talk, Stamets invited the crowd to suspend their disbelief and admit that McKenna’s idea constitutes a “very, very plausible hypothesis for the sudden evolution of Homo sapiens from our primate relatives,” even if it’s an unprovable one.
Although it should be noted that the people attending his talk were initially here for a conference on psychedelic science, and thus predisposed towards such theories, at the time, the audience’s response was reportedly enthusiastic.
That being said, other researchers who have also studied early humanity’s use of drug plants remain sceptical of the stoned ape theory. Elisa Guerra-Doce, an expert in the field, considers the idea too simplistic, potentially a reduction of a complex evolutionary process into a single ‘eureka!’ moment. According to Big Think, she’s also troubled by the lack of evidence of such a pivotal moment, or of drug use at all, so early in the archaeological record.
On the other hand, Amanda Feilding of the psychedelic think tank Beckley Foundation says that “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.”
It’s clear that our relationship with psychedelics began centuries ago. Sadly, we’re still not sure exactly when and the kind of impact it had on human evolution as a whole. As for the lucky ones who got to discuss the stoned ape theory with McKenna and are still around today, I’m just not sure the memory of these renowned psychedelic enthusiasts will be that reliable. The downside of a good high, I guess.
Does anyone else feel like the world is quite literally exploding? Within the past week alone there have been so many climate and weather disasters it’s been hard to keep up. You’d think it couldn’t get worse after seeing an ocean surface on fire but it does. As devastating heatwaves in Canada continue, Cyprus is also experiencing some of its worst fires in decades, people have died due to a landslide in Japan, Cuba is bracing itself for raging hurricane Storm Elsa and Antarctica has reached its highest temperature to date. This has all been reported within the last few days and honestly, it’s depressing.
It’s not rocket science that the climate crisis is quickening at an alarming rate but don’t worry, Jeff Bezos is coming to our rescue. Bezos, along with Bill Gates, are the latest big-time investors of alternative meat and dairy company Nature’s Fynd. Currently based in Chicago, the brand is the latest food-tech startup to develop fake meat and dairy-free products in a bid to reduce the impact animal agriculture has on the planet.
This particular industry is expected to skyrocket in the next few decades, with consulting firm Kearney projecting that alternative animal products will take over 60 per cent of global meat sales by 2040. The billionaires haven’t missed this fact as Nature’s Fynd has managed to raise over $150 million in funding from its investors. Aside from Bezos and Gates, it’s been backed by the likes of—you guessed it—Richard Branson, Al Gore and Michael Bloomberg. This is not a first for Gates, who has invested in other alternative meat brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in the past. Don’t worry, I’ll get into why they’re all hypocrites, but first, let’s look at the brand that has caught the eye of these finance bros.
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Co-founded in 2012 as Sustainable Bioproducts LLC by Thomas Jonas and Mark Kozubal, only to be renamed Nature’s Fynd more recently, the company’s story started with a volcano. It was Kozubal, a PhD student at the time, who, in 2009, discovered a unique microbe dubbed ‘Fusarium strain flavolapis’ while on a NASA-funded research study at Yellowstone National Park’s Supervolcano. The group of scientists were initially studying potential forms of life that could survive extreme environments beyond Earth. It is from this discovered microbe that the company created its lab-grown nutritional fungi protein—Fy. The future of lab-grown meat isn’t just the future anymore, it’s now our present. Let’s break down how it works.
Nature’s Fynd had Hank Green, known for his scientific hot-takes on the internet, break down everything you need to know about fungi, the microbe and the Fy protein. Green explains that “in a straightforward energy efficient technique called liquid-air interface fermentation, the microbe grows in trays with simple sugars, a little bit of nitrogen and the warm acidic water it loves.” Its characteristics means it can be transformed into literally anything—solid, liquid or even powder. The nature of this particular microbe helps avoid some other concerns with lab-grown produce such as hormones, pesticides and GMOs.
“Most other organisms are reasonable and refuse to tolerate these acidic conditions, contamination isn’t much of a concern. And that means that no antibiotics or pesticides are needed to keep any invaders in check. Nature’s Fynd team also spent years learning how to grow the microbe without any hormones or genetic modifications,” Green clarifies. He also explains that they’ll never have to return to Yellowstone again—like a “sourdough starter,” the cultures can be used endlessly to ferment all the protein you’d need. This means it can be grown anywhere, making it available to be grown in the same locations that it would be eaten, and in turn cutting the levels of emissions it would take to transport the product.
Apparently, it gets even better, as the Fy protein is a complete one, meaning it would have a complete balance of amino acids. It is a vegan source of complete protein. I’m no scientist, so I won’t even try to explain the ins and outs of what this means, but have a watch of the video below for a more in-depth understanding.
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While Nature’s Fynd looks like a brilliant brand, its backers aren’t exactly the best. Well, actually they’re the worst. Gates’ release of his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster and his investment into fake meat is laughable. How can he be taken seriously when we know that he’s also the biggest private owner of farmland in the US? I won’t even comment on how stupid that is. Moving on to the other billionaire bozo, Bezos himself has also pledged contributions to aid the climate crisis.
The Bezos Earth Fund, where he pledged to donate a current total of $10 billion to environmental causes, was met with criticism after its public announcement last year. While it appears philanthropic, Recode reported that the fund had been previously linked to an LLC named Fellowship Ventures—this means that, unlike a foundation, an LLC is not legally obligated to disclose “any amount of money at a regular clip.” Furthermore, $10 billion is microscopic in comparison to the damage Amazon has had on the planet and we cannot ignore his inability to pay taxes. His latest venture into fake meat is arguably another green-washing way to make money.
The super-rich strike again. As the oceans continue to burn, don’t forget who lit the match.