SOME REFLECTIONS ON WADE DAVIS AND HIS ESSAY: "THE PLANTS OF THE GODS"

Bob Corbett

Wade Davis is a scientist, specifically an ethnobotanist. Within that science he is a specialistof the use of hallucinogenic plants for religious purposes. I first met him in 1983 in Haiti. He was there to do research on zombies, having been sent to Haiti with pots-full of money by some pharmaceutical company to find the supposed drugs which created zombies. Since anesthesia is one of the most dangerous medical procedures, it was believed that if the zombie drugs could be found and if they really worked, perhaps they would be safer than the drugs currently used as anesthetics. The general belief was there were two drugs or poisons used in zombification: one to put one into a death-like trance and another to bring one back out; exactly what anesthetics are supposed to do.

Davis was there to explore this area. From this experience he wrote three books, a very popular level book called THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, a quite scholarly book which I highly recommend, PASSAGE OF DARKNESS, and his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University on which Passage is based. Additionally, he sold the rights to Serpent to Hollywood and either in extreme naivete or with some less flattering motivation, sold with the book all rights to the text. Hollywood produced a quite well-known horror movie of the same name as the book, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. This horror film, which I hear from horror film buffs is quite a decent horror film, was an utter horror for Haiti and the latest in a long-line of Hollywood films which denigrated the Haitian national religion, Voodoo, and portrayed this fairly ordinary religion as rank superstition and supernatural black magic.

As reported in Passage, I think Davis really got it right. He argues a couple of things which are important to understand in going into his chapter from his latest book, SHADOWS IN THE SUN: TRAVELS TO LANDSCAPTES OF SPIRIT AND DESIRE. Our reading, Plants of the Gods, is from this book.

Ethnobotany is a field of science which crosses chemistry and anthropology. The general argument is that when used within culturally established patterns, mind-altering plants often have an effect which cannot be fully described by the chemical properties of the plants ingested. The point is, the cultural setting and tradition are a factor in the psycho-active result of the plants.

Thus in his zombie research Davis argued the thesis which virtually all scholars today accept. There are, on his account, three phases to zombification:

  1. Bringing a person to the death-like trance so that they are declared dead and are buried.
  2. Raising the person back to consciousness.
  3. Maintaining the zombie in the state of a sort of semi-human automaton that one associates with zombies in the popular image.

Davis' pharmaceutical company was interested in the first two stages. They either hadn't thought about the third or were simply uninterested since after bringing a person out of the anesthesia they would simply be sent on their way.

However, Davis' most famous discovery is the chemical basis of the first stage, which he argues is tetrodotoxin, is a chemical found in the puffer fish, which was used, he alleged, in making the zombie power which caused the first stage, apparent death.

However, Davis really shocked (and, what is relevant to our reading, SCANDALIZED) the scientific world by arguing there was no antidote drug, no second stage chemicals. Rather, it was faith healing that brought the person back to "life."

On Davis account tetrodotoxin, if administered correctly, does not kill, but places one in this coma that we are not used to and do not recognize in western science. After a period (the would-be zombie is buried for three days), the person is on the edge and will either come out of the tetrodotoxin coma or die. However, every Haitian is socialized to understand the power of the bokor, the creator of zombies, and knows he or she will be called. Thus when the person has the bokor dig up the grave and call them back, the power of this culturally based knowledge allows them to break the coma and not die.

Davis does argue that the overwhelming majority of attempted zombifications end in death (murder) since the bokor either mixes the powder poorly or the person does not respond to the necessary faith healing or similar such failures of the system.

Lastly, and relatively uninteresting for our purposes, the third stage is the administration of the drug datura (in Haiti the plant is called zombie cucumber), which keeps the person in the zombified state.

The point of this is simply an example of what ethnobotany is all about. It is an example of Wade Davis' specialization: the use of plants and other chemicals for religious purposes which typically involve some sort of hallucinogenic activities.

The book I have selected this essay from, Shadows in the Sun, is an odd book. It is mainly an exotic travel book, stories about Wade Davis' travels to different places in search of these religious practices and in search of these hallucinogenic drugs, which Davis is wont to pop into his mouth to experience what the "locals" do, like you and I might pop M&Ms. He often scares me nearly to death with his cavalier notion of ingesting things that send him to the spirituals moons of the world.

The particular chapter I choose for us has to do with a particular plant used in several different South American regions and religions.

What makes this chapter such an excellent challenge for a course in critical thinking is not the travel-literature aspect of the chapter. That part just tends to make the reading gripping and exciting, making me personally want to run off and begin ingesting these strange plants and going to the same moons Davis goes to.

But, along the way of this voyeuresque reading Davis makes a couple of extremely controversial arguments. First about the nature of science itself and secondly, an argument INSIDE ethnobotany against other positions inside it.

Thus one of the key arguments I would point you to -- but I will tell you NOTHING about -- that is the task of critical reading -- is INSIDE science (as Davis sees it) trying to show that ethnobotany is, indeed, a science. This is argued against other scientists who would not allow ethnobotany such a status (even though prestigious Harvard University has a department of ethnobotany within its science school), and would rather hold it like astrology as a non-science. The second argument is within the world of ethnobotany, and is an argument about Davis' particular interest in these plants which are used to enhance or even create certain forms of religious experience. Other ethnobotanists are most uncomfortable with that notion of ethnobotany.

This is a difficult and demanding chapter when read in this fashion. Were you to merely read it as exotic travel literature from a character who writes well and takes outrageous chances with his own life and mind, then it would be an easy read. But, to try go beyond such a simple read and make sense of the more serious issues to science which are smuggled into this chapter, well, that's a fitting wrap up for a course in critical thinking.

In ending this I might suggest that were this chapter to fascinate you, I would recommend the whole book, or his earlier book ONE RIVER which is a much longer tale of this exploration in South America. In getting permission to use this chapter from such a new book I talked with Davis in April or May. He was just about on his way out the door for 6 months (" or more") in either Tibet or Nepal, on an exploration of that region of the world. I would suspect this betokens yet another book within another year or two which will deal with that work. He has four books now and I've read them all. I think it is not very likely he will write any future books which I will not equally love and certainly read. He's one fascinating character!

If you want more details on his first two books I have reviews of them on my Haiti web page and they may be found at:

SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW

and a much longer and more serious review of

PASSAGE OF DARKNESS

Bob Corbett
June 2000


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