Terence Kemp McKenna (November 16, 1946 – April 3, 2000) was a writer and philosopher. He was notable for his many speculations on subjects ranging from the Voynich Manuscript to the origins of the human species to Novelty theory, which claims time to be a fractal wave of increasing novelty, which culminates dramatically in 2012. His concept appeared to involve a combination of hallucinogenic chemical agents, Gaianism, and shamanism.
Terence McKenna grew up in a small, highly religious town in western Colorado. Unusually poor eyesight forced him to wear bifocals at an early age. This and his nonathletic nature made him an outcast, and he spent much of his childhood alone. He was introduced to the subject of geology by his uncle and developed a hobby of solitary fossil hunting in the arroyos near his home. From this he developed a deeply artistic and scientific appreciation of nature.
McKenna was first informed of psychedelics by the writings of Aldous Huxley. His first direct experience with them came when he ate several packets of commercially produced morning glory seeds, an experience he claimed set the direction of his life.
After graduating from high school, McKenna enrolled in U.C. Berkeley. He moved to San Francisco in The Summer Of Love before his classes began, and was introduced to cannabis and LSD by Barry Melton, who happened to be rooming in the apartment opposite his.
In 1969 Terence received a B.S. in Ecology and Conservation from the Tussman Experimental College, a short-lived outgrowth of the Berkeley campus. He spent the years after his graduation teaching English in Japan, traveling through India and south Asia; smuggling hashish and collecting butterflies for biological supply companies.
Following the death of his mother in 1971 Terence, his brother Dennis, and three others traveled to the Colombian Amazon in search of oo-koo-hé, a plant preparation containing DMT. At La Chorrera, at the urging of his brother, he allowed himself to be the subject of a psychedelic experiment which he claimed put him in contact with The Logos: an informative, hallucinatory voice he believed was universal to visionary religious experience. The revelations of this voice prompted him to explore the structure of an early form of the I Ching, which led to his Novelty Theory.
For most of the 1970s McKenna maintained a low profile, living in a nondescript suburban home, supporting his lifestyle with the royalties from the Magic Mushroom Growers Guide, and the cultivation and sale of psilocybin mushrooms. He said that he was frightened out of this line of work, and into public speaking by the harsh penalties the war on drugs exacted from his colleagues. He himself was once wanted by Interpol for drug trafficking.
McKenna was a contemporary and colleague of Ralph Abraham, Rupert Sheldrake, and Riane Eisler and participated in joint workshops and symposiums with them. He was a personal friend of Tom Robbins, and influenced the thought of numerous scientists, writers, artists, and entertainers.
He became a fixture of popular counterculture in his later years. Timothy Leary once introduced him as “the real Tim Leary”. He contributed to psychedelic and goa trance albums by The Shamen, Spacetime Continuum, Zuvuya and Shpongle, and his speeches were sampled by many others. In 1993 he appeared as a speaker at the Starwood Festival, which was documented in the book Tripping by Charles Hayes (his lectures were produced on both cassette tape and CD). He was a skilled orator, and admired by his fans for his eloquence. While some of his presentations included verbatim repetitions of earlier material, his gift for extemporaneous speech allowed him to weave them into seamless performances that varied audience to audience. His responses to novel questions were usually as sophisticated and subtle as his prepared speech.
In addition to psychedelic drugs, McKenna spoke on the subjects of virtual reality (which he saw as a way to artistically communicate the experience of psychedelics), 'techno-paganism,' artificial intelligence, evolution, extraterrestrials, ancestor-worship (or, as he put it, contacting 'dead people'), and aesthetic theory (art/visual experience as 'information,' hence the significance of hallucinatory visions experienced under the influence of psychedelics). He advised the taking of psychedelics in relatively-to-extremely large doses (asserting that those who had only sampled psychedelics in small doses failed to access their full potential), particularly alone, in a dark space, without music or other forms of external stimulation. Philosophically and religiously, he expressed admiration for Marshall McLuhan, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Gnostic Christianity, and James Joyce (calling Finnegans Wake the best literary representation of the psychedelic experience). He remained opposed to all forms of organized religion or guru-based forms of spiritual awakening. He believed DMT was the apotheosis of the psychedelic experience and spoke of the 'jeweled, self-dribbling basketballs' or 'self-transforming machine elves' that one encounters in that state. Although he avoided giving his allegiance to any one interpretation (part of his rejection of both monotheism and monogamy), he was open to the idea of psychedelics as being 'trans-dimensional travel, literally,' enabling an individual to encounter what could be aliens, ghosts/ancestors, or spirits of the earth.
McKenna also co-founded Botanical Dimensions with Kathleen Harrison (his colleague and wife of 17 years), a non-profit ethno botanical preserve on the Island of Hawaii, where he lived for many years before he died. Before moving to Hawaii permanently McKenna split his time between Hawaii and a town called Occidental, located in the redwood-studded hills of Sonoma County, California a town unique for its high concentration of artistic notables, including Tom Waits and Mickey Hart.
Terence died in 2000 of glioblastoma multiforme, a highly aggressive form of brain cancer. He was 53 years old. He is survived by his brother Dennis, his son Finn, and his daughter Klea.
The "Stoned Ape" theory of human evolution
Perhaps the most intriguing of Terence McKenna's theories and observations is his explanation for the origin of the human mind and culture. McKenna theorizes that as the North African jungles receded toward the end of the most recent ice age, giving way to grasslands, a branch of our tree-dwelling primate ancestors left the branches and took up a life out in the open—following around herds of ungulates, nibbling what they could along the way.
Among the new items in their diet were psilocybin-containing mushrooms growing in the dung of these ungulate herds. The psilocybin -- which in small doses provides an increased visual acuity, in slightly larger doses a physical sexual arousal and in still larger doses full-on ecstatic hallucinations and glossolalia -- gave evolutionary advantages including the rearing of off-spring to reproductive age amongst those tribes who partook of it. The changes caused by the introduction of this drug to the primate diet were many—McKenna theorizes, for instance, that synesthesia (the blurring of boundaries between the senses) caused by psilocybin led to the development of spoken language: the ability to form pictures in another person's mind through the use of vocal sounds.
About 12,000 years ago, further climate changes removed the mushroom from the human diet, resulting in a new set of profound changes in our species as we reverted to pre-mushroomed and brutal primate social structures that had been modified and/or repressed by frequent consumption of psilocybin.
McKenna's theory has intuitive strength, but it is necessarily based on a great deal of supposition interpolating between the few fragmentary facts we know about hominid and early human history. In addition, because McKenna (who described himself as "an explorer, not a scientist") was also a proponent of much wilder suppositions, such as his "Timewave Zero" theory, his more reasonable theories are usually disregarded by the very scientists whose informed criticism is crucial for their development. A live recording of his "Stoned Ape" theory can be found on the CD Conversations on the Edge of Magic (recorded live at the Starwood Festival).