The Shoddy Scholarship of Terence Mckenna [Trenchant Edges]

We kinda have to talk about it

Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, the newsletter where we dive into fringe topics around culture, politics, and history.

Today we’re going to hit on a really… unfortunate topic that we can’t really avoid if we’re being honest.

Terence McKenna is a bad scholar.

Or, more accurately, he’s not a scholar but a kind of long form, quasi-intellectual poet storyteller.

IE: He’s a bard.

Which explains why so few of his close friends refer to Terence after his death as an ethnobotanist, despite a considerable amount of effort in that direction. Arguably his greatest accomplishment was starting Botanical Dimensions with Kat Harrison to help conserve endangered psychoactive plants. But that ended up being more Kat’s project anyway.

But no one honest can carefully look at his writings and their citations and say, “Here’s a guy who really did the reading and carefully built an argument rooted in his sources.”

Now, I’ve not done a hard check on all of his sources, even in one of his books. I’ve looked a few really key sources mainly in Food of the Gods and spoken with Kevin Whitesides of the Terence McKenna Archive, who’s slowly collecting hardcopies of all Terence’s sources.

Quite a chore, I don’t envy him.

We’ve mostly ignored Food of the Gods in this series because it’s not really about The Timewave, but it’s one of Terence’s most enduring works especially after 2012. It’s split into two parts: Part 1 argues that psilocybin mushrooms played a key role in the development of modern human intelligence and language. Part 2 argues the drugs a society allows or disallows are based on what’s beneficial for the society.

The feedback loop Terence cites as the process which would lead to evolutionary change starts with prehuman hominids start eating small doses of psilocybin mushrooms which increase their visual acuity and edge detection.

We must allow him some slack here, because while he only cites one small study as part of this claim, it’s one that functionally can’t be replicated or expanded on due to the war on drugs. But that’s not enough, because even though Roland Fischer’s 1970 study, “Psilocybin-Indueed Contraction of Nearby Visual Space” only has 16 subjects and hasn’t been replicated, the real problem is it doesn’t make the claim that being on psilocybin at low doses improves edge detection.

Now, Terence supposedly spoke with the author who made some comment like, “So you see, here’s an example of when being on a drug makes one more able to discern reality.” Definitely not a quote, but that was the gist.

So maybe Terence got some more inside skinny, but uh, we can’t really verify that.

Roland Fischer, actually, had a lot of interesting stuff to say on psychedelics and perception, but we don’t really have time to cover him here.

The study he cited is super technical, but is about building up Roland’s theories around how much of perception is learned.


”It should be emphasized that the projection
of our central nervous system activity as location
in space and time was learned at and is hence
bound to the lower levels of arousal characteristic
of our daily survival routines. This paper has
shown that, with an increase in the level of central
sympathetic excitation, a gradual contraction of
this projection is experienced. In fact, the degree
of contraction could be regarded as a measure
of the excitation, and a measure of the relative
dependence of the mind upon the biological substratum which generates it. Thus, at normal levels of arousal, the mind, i.e. the perceptual-behavioral interpretation, is largely independent of the central nervous system activity it interprets.”

And this isn’t the only example. Some cited works don’t even appear in the text.

All of this makes it hard for anyone to take Terence’s ideas seriously. The devil is in the details and Terence did a bad job aligning them.

Now, I’ve got to get back to bed. There’s a lot more of this stuff in his books but we’re out of time to look into it today.

I’ll be sending more emails this week since I screwed up scheduling posts last week.

Talk soon.

-Stephen