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Meditation 506
Are the "plant gods" the intelligent designer?

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In the July / August 2006 edition of The Walrus (a Canadian Magazine,) there's an anthropological article "Plants with Soul" by Michael Posner. I was struck by how familiar the following argument was (briefly summarized below if you don't want to read the extract):

[T]here are some 80,000 varieties of plants in the Amazon. To make ayahuasca, it is necessary to combine precisely two of them, a vine and a leaf that, morphologically, have nothing in common. The leaf (Psychotria viridis) contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a hallucinogen. Ingested by itself, the drug has no effect; a stomach enzyme, monoamine oxidase (MAO)r, enders it impotent. The vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), however, contains three alkaloids that effectively turn off the MAO, allowing the psychoactive ingredient of DMT unfettered access to the brain. In chemical composition then, ayahuasca is related to, but more complex than, psilocybin (derived from mushrooms) and, to a lesser extent, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, a synthetic).

How did ancient Amazonian tribes discover what is effectively a designer drug? Surely not, Narby suggests, by trial and error; there are roughly 6.4 billion possible combinations of flora. Moreover, brewing ayahuasca tea is a laborious process during which the plant stems must first be pounded for days, then immersed in hot water with the leaves, then boiled for up to fifteen hours, and finally filtered. Even if the Ashaninca or another tribe simply intuited the potency of this specific leaf vine arrangement, how would they have happened upon the complex recipe that must be used to make the tea? There is no satisfactory answer.

Similarly, forty types of curare, the paralytic agent derived from seventy different plant species, are available in the Amazon. Making it requires collecting a precise combination of several plants, boiling them for several hours, and injecting the resultant paste under the skin. Could that have been discovered by trial and error?

The shamans of the Amazon basin insist that plant gods, appearing during periods of extended trance induced by ayahuasca, taught them the secret medicinal properties of the plants that cured Narby's aching back. These gods also taught them about curare and hundreds of other healers hidden in the botanical world. Their knowledge and its efficacy appear to be beyond dispute; it has, in myriad ways, been adapted and profitably exploited by the global pharmaceutical industry.

But for the empirical West, Narby observes, two fundamental problems arise. First, we regard hallucinations as illusions-projections of the mind that have no basis in reality. But if that precept is correct, and these visions are simply culturally specific phantasms of the brain, then how is it that Peruvian Indians, American businesspeople, Israeli scientists, Swiss anthropologists, and Canadian journalists tend to see exactly the same kinds of visions after drinking the tea?

Second, the notion that under any circumstances plants might speak is anathema to Western science. Indeed, anyone who declares that plants communicate, let alone that they are capable of offering detailed tutorials in pharmacology, is likely to be treated for a psychological disorder. But if plants do not speak, then where does the verifiable knowledge of Amerindian shamans come from? The universe of ayahuasca therefore poses a profound intellectual dilemma.

What is described is a concoction for which the recipe is supposedly so complex, it could not have come about by "trial-and-error." Those who use the recipe claim it came from the plant gods. Even though science does not accept this explanation, it is somehow supposed to be considered as reasonable.

Is this not logically identical to the intelligent design argument? It is the same as "it's too complex to have happened by chance, therefore god did it." Whether the god be some omnipotent creator or a hallucigenically inspired talking plant, it's the same argument.

And like ID, it's a false argument based on false assumptions.