Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

A Theory of (Almost) Everything

Richard Waswo

          The parenthesis in the title means to exclude the search of physicists and mathematicians for the famous 'unified-field theory' that will provide a single explanation for the forces in the macrocosm of the universe (electromagnetism and gravity) and in the microcosm of the atom (the strong and weak forces between particles).  These I cannot remotely claim to understand, and so must confine my 'everything' to life, both natural and cultural, on this planet.  In short, and with the help of evolutionary biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, paleoarcheologists, psychopharmacologists, neuroeconomists, and others, I propose to identify the universal drives that link humanity to the rest of animal life, and then to suggest the particular accomplishments that distinguish our species alone.

            We can get a head start on this not very modest project from Sigmund Freud―who was immodest enough to cast himself as the third member of the dark historical trinity that decentered humanity from the cosmos―Copernicus; toppled us from the royal summit of biological creation―Darwin; and reduced our formerly sovereign consciousness to a baffled battleground of libidinal energies―S.F. himself.  Revising his theory of the instincts in his last great work, Civilization and its Discontents, Freud quotes a line of Schiller--'hunger and love are what moves the world.'  His explication is our starting point: 'hunger' includes 'the instincts which aim at preserving the individual,' while 'love' has as its 'chief function . . . the preservation of the species.'[1]  This distinction is lucid, comprehensive, and incontrovertible.  Let us briefly expand it.

            'Hunger' may summarize all the material needs of the individual organism in order to survive; for us mammals (and mutatis mutandis for the rest of animal life), these are: air, heat, water, food.  'Love' may describe the psychological needs of the individual which are based on the material needs of the species: all forms of association, cooperation, competition, symbiosis, and of course, reproduction.  Taken together, these two might seem to form an adequate motivation for most of our aims, activities and desires.  We work to satisfy all hungers, and we combine in order to compete (with both other individuals and species) for available resources, whether we're marine worms, or coral reefs, or wolf packs, or children seeking the attention of parents, or parents attempting to give their children the education that will allow them to satisfy more hungers.  From Darwin to Dawkins,[2] our selfish genes are indefatigable at finding ways to preserve and transmit their precious selves.  So hunger and love move the world, all right, as the poet insisted (against the philosophers, who can never agree how to explain it)[3]--the universal imperatives are: 'get fed'; 'get laid.'

            But there is also a third imperative, for which I can think of no better label than 'transcendence', which requires some apology and elaboration.  For the initial field of reference of that term is religious, as it was for the (rather superficial) psychologist who used it in 1964 for what he called 'core-religious' or 'peak experiences,' 'ecstasies,' or 'illuminations.'[4]  Without excluding these, I wish to liberate them from the purely impalpable or ineffably spiritual, and include them in a third kind of imperative quite as material and physical as the first two.  In fact, it's an imperative that we share with virtually all of our animal brethren  (those that have been observed to date), from insects to birds to mammals to us.  It is simply the imperative of intoxication: as Byron wrote, 'Man, being reasonable, must get drunk' (Don Juan 2.179).  Or, as Clarence Darrow put it, 'No one can find life tolerable without dope.  The Catholics are right, the Christian Scientists are right, the Methodists are right, the drunkards are right.'[5]  To justify this amalgamation of both 'reason' and religion as inducing the same satisfactions as those of any kind of alkaloid poisoning, I began to consult articles by evolutionary scientists on the adaptive utility of substances that produce addiction.[6]  But then I made the happy discovery of a re-issued book on the subject by a psychopharmacologist at the UCLA Medical School; his evidence is encyclopedic and his title sums it up: Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances.[7]   This is the more inclusive sense of 'transcendence,' from the Latin for 'going beyond,' 'surmounting,' or indeed 'transgressing.'  And what is surmounted or surpassed in the animal kingdom is just our ordinary, everyday perception of the world and ourselves―for better and, of course, for worse.

            That transcendence begins with intoxication first occurred to me when I saw birds kill themselves by flying into plate-glass windows at the end of summer in a Connecticut forest.  At that season, they consume nicely fermented wild berries and become, fatally, drunk drivers―or rather, flyers.  There's a hilarious video available on the Internet showing various jungle mammals―monkeys, cattle, giraffes, elephants―gorging themselves on ripe and rotting fruits, and all becoming staggering, falling-down drunk.[8]  The video has been accused of falsification, but is amply confirmed by the experimental observations compiled in Dr. Siegel's book: jungle dwellers from bats to elephants, Borneo to Africa, will travel far beyond their normal range to consume whatever fruits are fermenting (117-18).  Whether in the wild or in the laboratory―where rats congregate in cocktail parties―'almost every species of animal has engaged in the natural pursuit of intoxicants' (vii, 114). 

            In the natural world, alcohol is produced when heat produces the fermentation of sugars, and is therefore seasonal.  But other intoxicants come in myriad forms, and are the poisonous alkaloids produced by plants of all kinds (and some animals) for protection.  Some forms of protection are exclusively discouraging: if you've ever watched cows peaceably grazing in an Alpine pasture, you will have seen them systematically avoid the weed called (in English) Queen Anne's Lace, whose leaves are highly, and merely, toxic.  Other toxins, however, are also highly attractive to animals (and to us), like catnip and thorn apple.  The toxins in the former (Nepeta cataria), called nepetalactones, sucessfully repel insects that would feed on the plant, but attract most cats, who sniff it, rub it, wallow in it, and exhibit the euphoria, uncoordination, and apparent pursuit of hallucinations typical of the inebriated.  The toxins in the latter (Datura stramontium), of the nightshade family, aka jimsonweed, devil's weed, et al., are extremely potent, highly hallucinogenic, and often fatal.  About nine species of Datura flourish on every continent, and almost all animals avoid it.  But some don't: hawkmoths in North America exhibit the craving of addicts for all parts of the plant after they've drained its nectar (34; 319).

            Thus have angiosperms evolved chemical protection against herbivores, so that what is food, and what can also become healthful (to us, as sedative or painkiller), is also poison.  Thus evolutionary biology confirms the famous oxymoronic sense of the ancient Greek word, pharmakon--'drug,' as both remedy and poison.  It is also, of course, pleasure.  Chemicals designed to protect plants are sought by animals to procure the pleasures of transcendence.  The most remarkable result of Dr. Siegel's researches is that when given free access to any intoxicant, both in the wild and in the lab, animals will tend to moderate their use of it, to establish a pattern of consumption that procures the pleasure without endangering their lives.  Pigeons, and other birds, will feast happily on marijuana seeds, but reject higher doses when available (152-55; 337).  Elephants with unlimited access to alcohol will adjust their daily intake to a moderate level―until the conditions of access, or the social conditions of their captivity in a game reserve are changed, at which point some of them will get deliberately drunk and remain so (119-23).  Monkeys in isolation will reach their own rhythm of consumption of hallucinogenic cigarettes (77-80; 325); other monkeys will maintain a regular daily level of cocaine injection that can last for years with no symptoms of toxicity (180-81; 339).  The point of such experiments is to demonstrate, first, that animals seek the transcendence that mind-altering substances provide and, second, that most of them can exert control of the attraction short of self-destruction or addiction.   But there are still a few who become addicts, although virtually none who refuse to indulge at all. 

            The inescapable implication of these facts is, of course, that 'saying no' is not really an option: intoxication is a biological imperative quite comparable, if not identical, to the other two: hunger and love.  So what really moves the world is a triad: get fed, get laid, get high.  This being so, the current 'war on drugs'―military action with punishment of universal needs--is as absurdly hopeless as the earlier American efforts to abolish tobacco and alcohol.  Dr. Siegel recognizes the futility of these efforts and realizes that we cannot 'eliminate' the drive (293), but refuses to accept this fact as an argument for legalizing the substances that provide the pleasures of our intoxication.  (Instead, he advocates the development of supposedly safe, because 'unabusable,' mind-altering drugs.)  He even admits the obvious benefits that legalization and control (as of tobacco and alcohol) would produce: the elimination of 'funds for organized crime,' and the profit for 'government health programs . . . from tax revenues on the legal sales' (295).  His only reason for not coming to the fully logical conclusion of all the research he does and chronicles is that drugs are still not 'totally safe' (296), can be abused, and even when controlled 'still have dangers and risks' (304). 

            But so, of course, does all else.  Anything can be abused, including food and sex, both of which have been the subject of various and unenforceable interdictions from earliest recorded time.  The possibility of abuse, or risk, cannot be eliminated, any more than the drive itself.  The risk is always there, and cannot constitute an argument for anything, except the logical principle well known to at least some of our ancestors: that all things are as they are used.  This is the title of a lucid, if not too skillful, poem that systematically sets forth the truth of this truism:


George Turberville (1567)

Was never aught, by Nature's art

  Or cunning skill, so wisely wrought,

But man by practice might convart

  To worser use than Nature thought.


Nor yet was ever thing so ill

  Or maybe of so small a price,

But man may better it by skill,

  And change his sort by sound advice.


So that by proof it may be seen

  That all things are as is their use,

And man may alter Nature clean.

  And things corrupt by his abuse.


What better may be found than flame

  To Nature that doth succour pay?

Yet we do oft abuse the same

  In bringing buildings to decay.


For those that mind to put in ure

  Their malice, moved to wrath and ire

To wreak their mischief will be sure

  To spill and spoil thy house with fire.


So physic that doth serve for ease

  And to recure the grievèd soul,

The painful patient may disease,

  And make him sick that erst was whole.


The true man and the thief are leeke,

  For sword doth serve them both at need;

Save one by it doth safety seek,

  And th'other of the spoil to speed.


As law and learning both redress

  That otherwise would go to wrack,

E'en so it doth oft times oppress

  And bring the true man to the rack.


Though poison pain the drinker sore

  By boiling in his fainting breast,

Yet is it not refused therefore,

  For cause sometime it breedeth rest;


And mixed with medicines of proof,

  According to Machaeon's art.

Doth serve right well for our behoof

  And succor send to dying heart.


Yet these and other things were made

  By Nature for the better use,

But we of custom take a trade

  By wilful will them to abuse.


So nothing is by kind so void

  Of vice, and with such virtue fraught,

But it by us may be annoyed,

  And brought in track of time to naught.


Again there is not that so ill

  Below the lamp of Phoebus' light,

But man may better, if he will

  Apply his wit to make it right. 


Milton, Aereopagitica (1644):

They are not skilful considerers of human things, who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin; for, besides that it is a huge heap increasing under the very act of diminishing, though some part of it may for a time be withdrawn from some persons, it cannot from all, in such a universal thing as books are; and when this is done, yet the sin remains entire. Though ye take from a covetous man all his treasure, he has yet one jewel left, ye cannot bereave him of his covetousness. Banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercised in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste, that came not hither so; such great care and wisdom is required to the right managing of this point. Suppose we could expel sin by this means; look how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue: for the matter of them both is the same; remove that, and ye remove them both alike.

The principle (that goodness and badness do not inhere in things themselves, but are consequences of how they are used) is stated in the first three stanzas and repeated in the last three.  The rest of the poem offers the usual evidence for and examples of it: fire, medical practice, weapons, legal practice, and drugs.  The paradox of the pharmakon is the final example, the substance that can be both poison and remedy, destructive and beneficent, according to the dosage.

            I could not resist adding a more famous statement of the principle as applied to books, in Milton's great argument for uncensored printing.  One cannot remove the 'matter . . . in such a universal thing as books are'--or in such a universal thing as our biological drive to get high, which is, I shall argue later, related to, indeed a part of, what books do. 

            For the moment, however, there is an additional pragmatic argument for the legalization of drugs that was not available to Siegel twenty-odd years ago but that has become pressing since in the United States:  the exploding number of prisoners and the resulting pressure to place them in private institutions.  In state prisons between 2006-08, about 20% of all offenders are drug-related (over a quarter million of 1.3 million); in federal prisons in 2008-09, slightly more than half are there for drug offenses (about 95,000 of 188,000).[9]  The vast majority of these offenses are merely for possession and use―not pushing or transporting.  It has been estimated that about half of the adult population of the U.S.--around 100 million people―smokes pot (the mass sociology of its sale and distribution is even the subject of a current comic TV series, called Weeds).  That both state and federal laws criminalize this use is not merely ludicrous; it also has racist consequences.  The same statistics show that somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of drug offenders are black and latino.  Given the way the supposed 'war' on drugs proceeds, this is not surprising; here's how a professor of law describes it:

            Studies have consistently shown that people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates, yet this war has been waged almost exclusively in poor, ghetto communities. For those who are tempted to imagine that the goal of the war has been to root out violent offenders or drug kingpins, think again. Federal funding flows to those state and local law enforcement agencies that boost dramatically the sheer volume of drug arrests; it's a numbers game. Agencies don't get rewarded for bringing down drug bosses or arresting violent offenders. They're rewarded in cash for arresting people en masse.[10]


Apart from this discriminatory enforcement of current law remains the silliness of the law itself: making a criminal offense of what is socially accepted and biologically necessary.

             But let us return to what the drive aims at, transcendence, and review it in its initial field of reference, religion.  The presence of intoxicants in the rituals of almost all known religions, past and present, has been documented since at least the middle of the last century, when a Protestant theologian in Paris wrote a series of three books, all with the same subtitle: Essai sur quelques formes inférieures de la mystique.  The one that interests us is the first: Poisons Sacrés Ivresses Divines.[11]  Despite the condescension in the classification of 'inferior,' Pasteur de Félice compiles impressive evidence, much of which is repeated (independently, as far as I know) or expanded by Dr. Siegel.

            Here's a summary catalogue of the most common plant alkaloids used around the world, since before recorded history, in religious ceremonies: 

            Peyote (the word is from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, for Lopophora williamsii), contains the active alkaloid, mescalin.  Native to North and Mesoamerica, its beans (found at a prehistoric site in Texas) have been providing ceremonial hallucinations to native Americans since roughly 8,000 BCE; it can be eaten or drunk, and is found everywhere in their mythologies as the property of the gods themselves, associated with the necessities of life: venison, corn, and fire.  The Sioux of South Dakota, having become Roman Catholic, declared in 1923 a new 'Church of Christ' in which the consumption of peyote 'was the main sacrament.'[12]  Such use continues today in the Native American Church, and is specifically exempt from legal penalties,[13]--the U.S. Government now showing the same indulgence to the Indians as was granted to both Jews and Christians for their ceremonial wine during Prohibition.

            Stone and clay pipes for smoking tobacco have been found in neolithic North American burial mounds.  It was (and is) also chewed, and figured in many religious ceremonies to invoke the gods of Native Americans: Mayans, Pueblos, Comanches; Natchez, Sioux, and Illinois.  It also served as votive offerings to be burned, floated, and wedged in rocks.  In the Amazon basin the principal act in many ceremonies is the drinking of tobacco juice.  The infamous leaf, of course, took Europe by storm and was forbidden, how ineffectively we know,  by Pope Urban VIII in 1621.[14]

            The smoke of cannabis (the ancient Greek word for the plant) seeds placed on hot rocks was inhaled by the Scythians, according to Herodotus (4.73-5); its dried leaves and a drink made from them were bhang in Sanskrit.[15]  Smoked, eaten, or drunk, this has occupied (and still does) a central place in Hindu culture, religion, and medicine, since about 1,000 BCE.  Cannabis will grow anywhere in the temperate and tropical zones of the planet; the resin glands of the plant's buds can be collected and compressed into blocks of the concentrate called hashish (Arabic for 'grass'), and were consumed, famously, by the 12th-century Muslim cult of Assassins (from Arabic hashashin, 'addicts' thereof) to prepare for their missions.[16]  Cannabis is consumed in all of Africa, and itself became toward the end of the 19th century a god worshipped by the Baluba (in what is now the Central African Republic), forming a sect called Bena Riamba ('sons of hemp'), who smoked it in collective ceremonies, practiced communism, and held communal orgies.[17]  One can hardly imagine a kinder or gentler response to Belgian colonialism.

            Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) were first cultivated in ancient Sumeria, and a couple of millennia later were attributed in Egypt to the god Thoth, and in Crete to a Minoan goddess of narcotics.  Opium provided the warriors in the Iliad the solace of nepenthe; and the flowers were associated with numerous ancient Greek deities, including all the nocturnal ones (hence the Latin for sleep, somnus, in their name; as well as the name for their most active alkaloid, morphine, from Ovid's god of dreams, Morpheus).  At about the same time, 5th-4th centuries BCE, the Celts of transalpine Europe were cultivating the same poppy, whose seeds were found in the excavations of La Tène, on the lake of Neuchâtel, which gave its name to their late iron-age culture.[18]  The medical uses of the plant as sedative and painkiller were continuously extolled in the ancient world and became commercially marketed in the modern one from the sixteenth until the early twentieth century.[19]

            Coca (Erythroxylum coca), native to the Andean regions of South America, has a history as old, as sacred, and as commercial as opium.  The leaves, when chewed, as they still are in those regions, have various stimulating and beneficial effects, and have been found at archeological sites dating from the eighth to fourth millennia BCE.  They were both burned and smoked in homage to the gods―this religious use was discouraged in the sixteenth century by the king of Spain―and became personified as a goddess, 'Mama Coca.'[20]  The active alkaloid, cocaine, was not isolated until the mid-nineteenth century, when it became very popular as 'Cocawine' and the original Coca-Cola―until it was declared illegal by first-world governments about the same time as heroin.

            The Arabian and African equivalent of the coca leaf is khat (Catha edulis), observed since the eleventh century and still chewed by millions in those regions.  It is thought to have originated in Ethiopia, where a disgruntled Catholic missionary reported that no religious ceremony does not include chewing it, accompanied by prayer and chanting.[21]  Its active alkaloid is a relative of amphetamine and not stable enough to isolate into a concentrated form, making it the least harmful of all the intoxicants rated by The Lancet, and is legal in some countries (Holland, Great Britain), illegal in others (the U.S., Canada, Saudi Arabia).

            The whole nightshade (Solanaceae) family―Datura or thorn apple in the Americas; henbane, belladonna or Hyoscyamus in Europe and the Middle East; Duboisia or corkwood in Australia―shares the alkaloid scopolamine.  Its potency, avoided by almost all animals (as noted earlier), nonetheless provides 'ecstatic drunkenness' in communal ceremonies of some Aborigines and was also a 'mystical sacrament' for the indigenes of North America and South Asia.[22]   Even pastor de Félice, the tireless admirer of mysticism, cannot forbear noting more pragmatic uses of this particular toxin: in Australia it disables the prey of hunters, and in North America gives them visions of where to find it.

            Such multi-functionalism is characteristic of many, perhaps most, intoxicants, and especially of kava (Piper methysticum, Latinized Greek for 'intoxicating pepper'), found throughout the South Pacific.  Various parts of the plant can be variously consumed, but the typical mode is to pound the roots, adding water if needed, into a beverage.  Until largely replaced by alcohol in Tahiti and Hawaii after the voyages of Captain Cook, it provided similar euphoria and relaxation when drunk as a central element in religious rituals, as well as at births and funerals.  In addition, kava was used to facilitate communication with ancestors, to make rain, to grow gardens and build canoes.[23]

            One animal alkaloid intoxicant, whose ritual use is unknown, nonetheless deserves mention for the unique manner of its ingestion.  The ancient Mayans (first millennium CE) indulged in a hallucinogenic enema, prepared by soaking a toad (Bufo marinus), whose skin contains the drug, in their fermented honey drink called balche.  It was administered from a necked jar through a flexible bladder and spout―pictured on vase paintings.   The widespread use of drugs in Mayan culture, typical of their Mesoamerican neighbors, was not recognized until 1970.[24]

            Perhaps the most common and widespread plant intoxicant used in religious rituals from Siberia to the Sahara is not an angiosperm, but a fungus--the numerous genera of mushrooms containing some form of the alkaloid, psilocybin.[25]  This name was confected in 1958 by a German chemist from the Greek name for the largest genus (it has almost 200 species): psilocybe ('bald head').  These are the famous 'divine' or 'magic' mushrooms that the Aztecs called 'food' or 'flesh' of the gods, and were used throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica as divinatory sacraments.  Psilocybin, though highly hallucinogenic, is neither toxic nor addictive.[26]  Its ritual use is attested by prehistoric (around 6,000 BCE) rock paintings in the Sahara, showing the harvest, adoration, and offering of mushrooms to the gods.[27]

            One other psychotropic fungus deserves mention, if only because of its antique prestige in Graeco-Roman culture.  This is ergot (genus Claviceps), a parasite that grows on cereals and grasses, forming hard, dark little tubes, called sclerotia, full of alkaloids that are toxic as well as hallucinogenic.  The ergot of barley, combined with its uninfected grain, water, and mint, composed the kykeon ('mixed drink') that provided the transports and frenzies at the annual celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries for about two millennia.[28]  These ceremonies were, of course, in honor of Demeter, the goddess of grain, and Persephone, her daughter.  So it seems fitting that the cereal agriculture over which they preside should also furnish the intoxicant that enlivens their worship.

            A final example from the ancient world will conclude this brief survey of alkaloids employed in religious ceremonies.  The warrior-gods of the Sanskrit Vedas imbibe Soma (whence Aldous Huxley's adaptation of it), as do their celebrants; the same use is made of 'Haoma' by the Zoroastrians, and whatever exact substance it may be, it's a plant, a drink, and a personified god all at once.[29] Recent disputes about its identification―whether fungus or flower, entheogen or stimulant―may be sampled in Wikipedia.

            The last, and the opposite of the least, natural inducement to transcendence (in whatever form) is, of course, the one that made the birds commit involuntary suicide before my eyes: alcohol.  The ubiquity in human space and time of the ethanol that nature spontaneously produces has received recent and exhaustive documentation from Patrick E. McGovern, a self-described 'biomolecular archeologist' at the University of Pennsylvania.  In Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (Berkeley: UCP, 2009), he chronicles in a most congenial manner his voyages around the globe in search of the shards and fossils and seeds that contain the molecules attesting to the production of fermented beverages.  In a series of maps he presents not only the locations of such production on every inhabited continent since the global spread of our species beginning around a hundred thousand years ago, but also indicates the paths of communication of information and technology about that production.  Beginning at that Paleolithic period in central, eastern and southern Africa, and extending from 30,000-4,000 BP to the Middle East and all of Eurasia, and from 13,000 across the Americas, the consumption of fermented drinks accompanied, or even caused, just about everything that Homo sapiens ever did―from the cultivation of grains and sorghum to the induction of mystical states.  'The principal way to communicate with the gods or the ancestors involves an alcoholic beverage,' writes McGovern, citing 'the wine of the Eucharist, the beer presented to the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi, the mead of the Vikings, or the elixir of an Amazonian or African tribe.'  Whether for purposes of ritual, or merely for the pleasure of their 'mind-altering effects,' alcoholic drinks have, he observes, 'universal allure―what might be called their biological, social, and religious imperatives' (xi).  Exactly: get high.

            What they got high on in the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages was usually some mixture of what we know today as beer, wine and mead―McGovern calls it 'grog.'  He proposes a convincing 'Paleolithic hypothesis' that the process of fermentation was first noticed in some African jungle when fruit or a honeycomb fell into something (like a hollow treetrunk) that would hold rainwater and was exposed to sunlight (13ff.).   As the millennia went by, the possibility of fermenting just about any grain became evident and was exploited: barley and wheat in the Middle East and Europe; rice in Asia; corn in the beer of the New World (chicha in Spanish); or bean (cacao wine added to that beer); or fruit (everywhere), or sap (of the palm tree, throughout Africa)--whatever was present in the environment.  The mixtures of grog seem gradually to have yielded to purer tastes: the Persian elite preferred grape wine from 3,000 BCE; the Hittites from about 1,500, and their art shows its integration into religion (96-7; 114)--as do much earlier Paleolithic carvings and paintings portraying rituals that link 'fermented beverages, religion, music, dance, and sex.'  'Around the world,' McGovern concludes, 'the available archeological, chemical, and botanical evidence attests to the close association between alcoholic  beverages and religion' (268).  Gay Talese recently reported in The New Yorker (25 July, 2011, p. 27) that a Zen Buddhist Temple has taken over the premises of a long succession of restaurants in Manhattan, chucking out all the 'barstools, plates, wineglasses, swizzlesticks, Martini shakers . . . , Bloody Mary mix, and Sambuca.'  As one of the Zen monks described it, '”We are in the process of exchanging one form of intoxication for another.”'

            The triad of universal drives is complete: hunger, love, transcendence.  And what links them is the pleasure they provide when satisfied:  a fine meal, an orgasm, a great song or symphony, an exhausting athletic effort, an ecstatic vision―all activate the neurotransmitters that engage both the hypothalamus and the cortex of the brain, that is, the emotional and the cognitive areas (McGovern, 269-78).  One  group of such transmitters, discovered in 1974, was given a name that precisely identifies the animal affinity for intoxicants: endorphins.  The name is a conflation from the usual classical vocabulary; it means 'endogenous morphine,' that is, the psychoactive alkaloid produced within the body.  It is chemically an opioid neuropeptide, with a molecular structure similar to that of opium.[30]  It, along with other neurotransmitters (like epinephrine, serotonin, dopamine), is what makes us feel good as we do anything to accomplish the only aim of our selfish genes: survival, individual and collective.  We are hard-wired to enjoy doing what those genes need us to do.  (Or, in an older idiom, it's wonderful that Mother Nature makes us want what we need―even to the point of wanting too much of it.)  It is therefore no wonder that we and our animal brethren should pursue the pleasures of intoxication by seeking outside the body for chemical agents that resemble and activate those within it.  Nor is it strange that we in particular should associate these (supposedly 'inferior') pleasures with what means most to our communities, the (supposedly 'superior') pleasures of worship and morality.

            It is now time to expand these latter to include all the forms of our culture, science, art, and thought.  Transcendence in the largest sense is a sensation of pleasure consisting in--what, exactly?  The usual terms and descriptions are nicely paradoxical: intoxication or mystic vision can be 'exciting' or 'stupefying'; it can permit us to 'escape from ourselves' and contact a 'supernatural' world; or it can plunge us into ourselves, revealing the 'god within' (the literal meaning of 'entheogenic'; the earlier term was 'psychedelic'--making visible the soul).  But whatever direction we travel (recall the usual name for such transport: 'trip'), inside or outside, we are in either case changing places―going somewhere else.  In other words, what is common to these paradoxical descriptions is the '-else,' the fact of alteration itself.  Another term for the substances that produce it is more inclusive and precise: 'psychotropic'--turning, altering the mind or soul, i.e., our state of consciousness.

            Before we can alter it, though, we have to acquire it: after birth, it takes some months for an infant to distinguish that the surrounding world is not continuous with itself.  The sorting out of self from world, and the recognition of objects in that world, surely begin in the long process of acquiring language.  And this, in turn, proceeds to whatever form of education our families and cultures provide.  Education, whether in speech, writing or (for the deaf) sign language, seems to me our first contact with transcendence―precisely as the heightening of our awareness, the enlargement of what seems possible.  Before I started school, I envied my father's ability to read the newspaper every evening, and talk about events that were wholly mysterious.  So I was deeply disappointed, after the first week of school, that I still couldn't decipher all that tiny print, and had instead at school to memorize, in order, all those little letters.  Making sense of them all came much later, bringing with it both satisfaction and the impatience to see and know more―analogous, for me, to the impatience to grow up, to get taller, to see the world from that elevated perspective: to get higher.

            And so, according to our tastes and talents, we learn whatever and however we can manage.  And just what that elevated perspective consists in, apart from adulthood, are the ways of understanding the world made available by all the forms of our culture: religion, art, science, professions, occupations, skills.  Most of this, for most people, probably comes from our immediate social surroundings, however miserable and constricting, or opulent and enlarging, these may be.  But for everyone who gets to university, it comes (or came) from books.  Those Miltonic objects are the conveyors of what I long ago called 'the pleasures of cogency.'  By this I meant (then and now) an aesthetic delight―perhaps measurable in endorphin secretions―in both great argument and memorable expression: we are 'exhilarated by the effort' and 'illuminated by its result.'[31]  Both effort and result can change our minds, raise our consciousness, make us aware of what we do not ordinarily perceive: this is transcendence, and its pleasure is a kind of intoxication.  A memoir by a contemporary writer describes it like this: 'Reading messed with my brain in an unaccountable way.  It made me happy; or something.'[32]

            Our species can procure this pleasure in more ways than our animal brethren can―even though we share with them all those 'inferior' mystic transports that come from alkaloids and fermentation.  We all get fed, get laid, and get high.  But there are two things we do, two accomplishments that we have, that animals don't: one is 'fire,' the other is 'money.'  These are synecdochic metaphors for the uniquely human activities of cooking and trading.  No animal yet known cooks or shares its food, nor has any social system of barter or exchange.

            The first accomplishment―the control of fire―is what allowed Homo habilis to evolve into Homo erectus, somewhat less than two million years ago according to the plausible thesis of Richard Wrangham (an evolutionary anthropologist at Harvard), in a superbly written book whose title sums up the argument: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human.[33]  Though he and his peers are still debating the exact time period of this transition, the indisputable fact is that cooking has 'spontaneous benefits' that 'are experienced by almost any species . . . because cooked food is easier to digest than raw food' (38-39).  This has been most carefully demonstrated by a long series of experiments with our closest primate cousins, who were given free choice of all their usual foods in both raw and cooked forms, with the result that 'no apes preferred any food raw' (90)--not surprising, since by eating it cooked they are liberated from the average six hours per day that they spend chewing raw food in the wild (139).  The energy thus conserved would presumably have been spent diversifying their activities, thus enlarging their brains, fabricating tools, elaborating language[34]―eventually becoming us.  Cooking made us human not just physically―the bigger brains, the smaller guts, teeth, and jaws, and shorter arms (112-23)―but also socially, with a sexual division of labor in procuring and preparing food, which requires a communal network to impose respect for pair bonding (171-74).  Mating, concludes Wrangham, 'is constrained by the way species are socially adapted to their food supply' (175).   So it would seem that hunger (and the most efficient way of satisfying it) produces love (the forms of social association and structure that sexual reproduction takes).

            And the final drive―the imperative of transcendence―is engaged in our second accomplishment, identified by Gertrude Stein, who wrote: 'The thing that differentiates man from animals is money.'[35]  She continues by claiming that only we can also 'count.'  The latter skill, of course, long preceded the development of formal coinage, but was significantly allied with the aspect of language that is also unique to us: writing.  The earliest form this took in ancient Mesopotamia, from about 3,500 BCE (the earliest forms of Chinese characters date from about 1,200 BCE), had as its sole purpose the keeping of accounts, 'to record economic transactions.  Writing itself developed out of a need to remember exchanges of large numbers of goods. . . . It was a tool of economic administration.'[36]  The temples and palaces of Ur and Uruk functioned as banks of deposit―of grain, oil, metal ingots―and issued certificates of transfer, to pay debts.  By the time of Hammurabi (1,750 BCE), 'payment through a banker or by written draft against deposit was frequent.  Bonds to pay were treated as negotiable.'[37] So already about four millennia ago we had something like cheques and credit instruments--long before the powers that be thought of issuing coins.

            We had these things because they facilitated in the large what coined money came  to facilitate in the small: exchange and trade.  No one I have ever asked (in Europe or North America) has not participated in spontaneous exchanges of objects or food in their primary-school playgrounds.  Such exchanges figure in the convincing argument by two economic psychologists that the power of money, once it appeared, can only be explained by regarding it as both  tool and drug.[38]  They also observe that 'one of the striking facts about money is its cultural dominance: it is taken up irresistibly by any human society that encounters it.'  Evolutionary and cognitive scientists are currently working to identify the brain areas engaged in the activities of assessing value, judging equivalence, and detecting cheaters, which are involved in any relation of social exchange.[39]  It would thus appear that we're hard-wired for trade―whose adaptive value is unquestionable (e.g. procuring by barter the food that will balance our diets).   And this fact allows the psychologists to regard money as a drug, in just the sense that I have applied to 'transcendence' as human culture generally: 'a stimulus,' they write, 'that is of no biological significance in itself, but has motivational properties because it produces the same neural, behavioural or psychological effect as some other stimulus that is biologically significant. A drug in this extended sense is any functionless motivator, obtaining its motivational effect by a parasitic action on a functional, evolutionarily adaptive system.'  In other words: money plugs in to our desire to expand and alter our material possibilities by trading, just as education plugs in to our desire to expand and alter our mental possibilities by learning.  And both constitute pleasure.

            And such pleasure, I urge, is basically that of intoxication.  So, the two accomplishments that separate us from animals become ways of implementing the universal drives we share with them: cooking enabling the better satisfaction of hunger, and money, not only enabling the better satisfaction of all three, but itself abusable as an addiction―for the likes of misers, compulsive gamblers,[40] and financiers.  Even for non-addicts, money seems to excite devotion (or contempt), stimulate allegiance (or alienation), and symbolize a wide range of emotional identification, for both individuals and collectivities--from family to nation.  I'm thinking of the outpouring of sentiment and lamentation in the popular press that surrounded the introduction of the euro in 2002―the nostalgia for marks and francs, pesos and lira was quite remarkable to historical students of the function of money.  For something that operates as an 'abstract paradox,' (Simmel) or a 'general equivalent' (Marx), or a 'play on differences' (Lyotard), to have evoked such feelings seems to confirm the psychologists' idea of money as drug.  The dismay expressed at the demise of the national currencies was excessive for merely patriotic habit, and suggested more the disappointment of being suddenly deprived of some potent pleasure.

            But whatever fantasies money may unleash or recall, the fact of institutionalized exchange, facilitated first by writing and then by money (which is itself writing, first on metal, then on paper, and now on electronic screens), remains that which both distinguishes our species most fully from others and empowers us to implement more effectively the drives we share with them.  All us animals get fed, get laid, and get high--but only we can get rich.






[1]Ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1962), p. 64.  We need follow his exposition no further, since he goes on, as usual, to construe this clear classification as an opposition, a binary power struggle to occupy--'cathect'--the ego.

[2]Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: UP, anniversary ed., 2006) is the best contemporary account of combination and competition in all of life.

[3]Friedrich von Schiller, “Die Weltweisen”:

[4]Abraham H. Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences (New York: Viking, 1964).

[5]Quoted by Jill Lepore, 'Objection' [review of two biographies of Darrow], The New Yorker (23 May 2011), p. 41.

[6]e.g., those of Robert Dudley: “Evolutionary Origins of Human Alcoholism in Primate Frugivory,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 75 (2000): 3-15; “Ethanol, Fruit Ripening, and the Historical Origins of Human Alcoholism in Primate Frugivory,” Integrative and Comparative Biology 44 (2004): 315-23.

[7]Ronald K. Siegel (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2005; 1st ed. 1989).


[9]These figures are from the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, Dec. 2010, at:


[11]Philippe de Félice (Paris: Albin Michel, 1936).  The other two are: Foules en délire : extases collectives (1947), and L’enchantement des danses et la magie du verbe  (1957).

[12]De Félice 184-91; Siegel 54.

[14]De Félice 147-63.  Siegel calls its neolithic use 'tobacco shamanism' and observes that nicotine was ideal for ritual consumption because it could be easily ingested in so many ways: 82-83.

[15]De Félice 167-68.

[16]Siegel 159-60; de Félice 172-73.

[17]De Félice 177-78.  A more recent account of this jolly group may be found in Johannes Fabian, Out of our minds: reason and madness in the exploration of Central Africa (Berkeley: UCP, 2000).

[18]Siegel 126.

[19]Heroin, first synthesized from the poppy in the late nineteenth century, was marketed by Bayer, who also brought us aspirin, until 1910.

[20]Siegel 172-74; Wikipedia, sub 'coca'.

[21]De Félice 180-81; Wikipedia, sub 'khat.'

[22]De Félice 106-09, 136-39. 

[23]De Félice 116-23.

[24]Norman Hammond, Ancient Maya Civilization (Cambridge: CUP, 1982), 285, 321.

[25]Siegel 67.

[26] Contemporary research--2006-10--into this drug is reviewed at: , and suggests numerous                           'transcendental' and medical benefits from it.

[27]Giorgio Samorini, 'The oldest Representations of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms in the World (Sahara Desert, 9000-7000 B.P.),' Integration 2 (1992): 69-78; at:

[28]Siegel 60-70.  Its active alkaloid contains lysergic acid, which had to wait until 1938 to be synthesized into LSD.

[29]De Félice 254-55.

[30]It was reported in 2004 that morphine itself (not a peptide) is also produced endogenously: see the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences at:

[31]The Fatal Mirror (Charlottesville: UPVa, 1972), p. 166.

[32]Salvatore Scibona, 'Where I Learned to Read,' The New Yorker (13 & 20 June 2011), p. 105.

[33]NY: Basic Books, 2009.

[34]For an excellent account of contemporary research into the evolution of language (virtually a forbidden topic in linguistics until about 20 years ago), see Christine Kenneally, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (NY: Penguin, 2007).

[35]  'All About Money,' The Saturday Evening Post (22 Aug. 1936), p. 54.  The same observation, that the 'abstract paradox' of money distinguishes humanity from animals, was made (independently, one imagines) by a later Marxist scholar: Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978), p. 45.

[36]See the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, at: cdli.ucla,edu.

[38]Stephen E. G. Lea and Paul Webley, 'Money as tool, money as drug: The biological psychology of a strong incentive,' Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29 (2006), 161-209.

[39]e.g., Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, 'Neurocognitive Adaptations Designed for Social Exchange,' in Evolutionary Psychology Handbook, ed. Donald M. Buss (NY: Wiley, 2005), pp. 584-627; Paul W. Glimcher, Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), pp. 256-63.

[40]It is noteworthy that the Qu'ran associates gambling with intoxicants in the verses that decry them and regard them as the practices of the devil (2.219; 5.90-92).  Elsewhere, of course, wine is frequently promised as a reward to the righteous.