Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins of
Q&A with Jeremy Narby
by Todd Stewart
Could you sum up your book "The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and
the Origins of Knowledge Research
ndicates that shamans
access an intelligence, which they say is nature's,
and which gives them information that has stunning
correspondences with molecular biology.
Your hypothesis of a hidden intelligence contained within
the DNA of all living things is interesting. What
is this intelligence?
Intelligence comes from the Latin inter-legere, to
choose between. There seems to be a capacity to make
choices operating inside each cell in our body, down
to the level of individual proteins and enzymes. DNA
itself is a kind of "text" that functions
through a coding system called "genetic code,"
which is strikingly similar to codes used by human
beings. Some enzymes edit the RNA transcript of the
DNA text and add new letters to it; any error made
during this editing can be fatal to the entire organism;
so these enzymes are consistently making the right
choices; if they don't, something often goes wrong
leading to cancer and other diseases. Cells send one
another signals, in the form of proteins and molecules.
These signals mean: divide, or don't divide, move,
or don't move, kill yourself, or stay alive. Any one
cell is listening to hundreds of signals at the same
time, and has to integrate them and decide what to
do. How this intelligence operates is the question.
DNA is a single molecule with a double helix structure; it
is two complementary versions of the same "text"
wrapped around each other; this allows it to unwind
and make copies of itself: twins! This twinning mechanism
is at the heart of life since it began. Without it,
one cell could not become two, and life would not
exist. And, from one generation to the next, the DNA
text can also be modified, so it allows both constancy
and transformation. This means that beings can be
the same and not the same. One of the mysteries is
what drives the changes in the DNA text in evolution.
DNA has apparently been around for billions of years
in its current form in virtually all forms of life.
The old theory—random accumulation of errors combined
with natural selection—does not fully explain the
data currently generated by genome sequencing. The
question is wide open.
The structure of DNA as we know it is made up of letters and
thus has a specific text and language. You could say
our bodies are made up of language, yet we assume
that speech arises from the mind. How do we access
this hidden language?
By studying it. There are several roads to knowledge, including
has essentially maintained its structure for 3.5 billion years.
What role does DNA play in our evolution?
The symbol of the Cosmic Serpent, the snake, is a central
theme in your story, and in your research you discover
that the snake forms a major part of the symbology
across most of the world’s traditions and religions.
Why is there such a consistent system of natural symbols
in the world? Is the world inherently symbolic?
This is the observation that led me to investigate the cosmic
serpent. I found the symbol in shamanism all over
the world. Why? That's a good question. My hypothesis
is that it is connected to the double helix of DNA
inside virtually all living beings. And DNA itself
is a symbolic Saussurian
code. So, yes, in at least one important way, the
living world is inherently symbolic. We are made of
You write of how the ideology of "rational" science,
deterministic thought, is and has been quite limiting
in its approach to new and alternative scientific
theories; it is assumed that "mystery is the
enemy." In your book you describe how you had
to suspend your judgement, to "defocalize,"
and in this way gain a deeper insight. Why do you
think we are often limited in our rational, linear
thought and why are so few willing and able to cross
I don't believe we are. People spend hours each day thinking
non-rationally. Our emotional brain treats all the
information we receive before our neo-cortex does.
Scientists are forever making discoveries as they
daydream, take a bath, go for a run, lay in bed, and
What are the correspondences between the Peruvian shamans’
findings and microbiology?
Both shamans and molecular biologists agree that there is
a hidden unity under the surface of life's diversity;
both associate this unity with the double helix shape
(or two entwined serpents, a twisted ladder, a spiral
staircase, two vines wrapped around each other); both
consider that one must deal with this level of reality
in order to heal. One can fill a book with correspondences
between shamanism and molecular biology.
Do you think there is not only an intelligence based in our
DNA but a consciousness as well?
I think we should attend to the words we use. "Consciousness"
carries different baggage than "intelligence."
Many would define human consciousness as different
from, say, animal consciousness, because humans are
conscious of being conscious. But how do we know that
dolphins don't think about being dolphins? I do not
know whether there is a "consciousness"
inside our cells; for now, the question seems out
of reach; we have a hard enough time understanding
our own consciousness—though we use it most of the
time. I propose the concept of "intelligence"
to describe what proteins and cells do, simply because
it makes the data more comprehensible. This concept
will require at least a decade or two for biologists
to consider and test. Then, we might be able to move
along and consider the idea of a "cellular consciousness."
The implications of some of your findings in The Cosmic Serpent
could be quite large. How do you feel about the book
and what it says? Why did you write the book?
I wrote the book because I felt that certain things needed
saying. Writing a book is like sending out a message
in a bottle: sometimes one gets replies. Judging from
the responses, a surprising number of people have
got the message loud and clear.
How can shamanism complement modern science?
Most definitions of "science" revolve around the
testing of hypotheses. Claude Levi-Strauss showed
in his book The Savage Mind that human beings
have been carefully observing nature and endlessly
testing hypotheses for at least ten thousand years.
This is how animals and plants were domesticated.
Civilization rests on millennia of Neolithic science.
I think the science of shamans can complement modern
science by helping make sense of the data it generates.
Shamanism is like a reverse camera relative to modern
The shamans were very spiritual people. Has any of this affected
you? What is spiritual in your life?
I don't use the word "spiritual" to think about
my life. I spend my time promoting land titling projects
and bilingual education for indigenous people, and
thinking about how to move knowledge forward and how
to open up understanding between people; I also spend
time with my children, and with children in my community
(as a soccer coach); and I look after the plants in
my garden, without using pesticides and so on. But
I do this because I think it needs doing, and because
it's all I can do, but not because it's "spiritual."
The message I got from shamans was: do what you can
for those around you (including plants and animals),
but don't make a big deal of it.