Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

June 4, 2014

Sasha Shulgin: a Light in the Dark

The great chemist and psychonaut Sasha Shulgin died peacefully of liver cancer on June 2, 2014, at 5 in the afternoon. He was surrounded by caregivers and listening to Buddhist meditation music, and passed with little struggle. I know his work better than the well-meaning obituary writers out there, and I want to tell you what he accomplished in his lifetime. It’s not to a honor the great man, which I could only do an inadequate job of, but to pull away the veil of establishment taboo and show something of the scope of his underappreciated work.

I have to skip right over his prodigal childhood and World War II Navy experience, not to mention his graduate work at Berkeley and his early professional work at Bio-Rad.

Moving right along: in the 1960’s, Sasha worked for Dow Chemical and invented Zectran, the first biodegradable synthetic pesticide (a huge ecological advantage over pesticides like DDT, which linger in the environment and accumulate up the food chain.) He was rewarded with free reign over a generously-appointed corporate lab. Not long before, someone had introduced him to mescaline on a sunny California day, and he’d been totally impressed by the experience (you can see his original write-up in the first of his lab books posted online.) So it was natural enough that mescaline was the substance Shulgin wanted to tinker with in his new lab. He experimented with alterations of the molecule, at first pursuing the all-too common medicinal chemistry approach of sifting for the most potent compounds through animal tests. Dow soon lost interest in Shulgin’s forays into medicinal chemistry (they prefer bulk chemicals and paint to pharmaceuticals, and on top of that, psychedelics became taboo over the course of the 1960’s.)

Shulgin became an independent consultant and set up a ramshackle laboratory on an old farm near San Francisco. He often found paid work testifying for either drug enforcement agencies or defendants accused of drug crimes, while continuing to make new variants of mescaline.

Shulgin believed in investigating new drugs as pure exploration, but hoped to find therapeutically useful drugs and even promote an expansion in human self-awareness as an antidote to human self-destructiveness.

He tested new drugs first on himself. He was aware of Albert Hoffman’s 1943 experience with LSD: Hoffman had started testing LSD at the 250 microgram level, believing that that was the smallest amount of any drug which could possibly have an effect… but Hoffman was knocked on his butt by a drug more potent than any discovered before! Therefor, Shulgin started with miniscule doses, and then took a nearly doubled dose a week or two later, until some hint of activity was found (poisons are just as likely as the next great breakthrough.) This work led to the Shulgin Rating Scale for rating the power of drug experiences, ranging from ” – ” for no perceptible effect up through ” ++++ ” for perceived omnipotence.

If Sasha found something worthwhile, he might take some with his wife Ann (married 1981), and then with a research group made up of close friends. The research group met on Sundays and enjoyed dinner and wine after an experiment. They included psychologists and lawyers and were able to help Sasha publish his work by qualifying as their own Institutional Review Board, for a time. The group soon found that the compounds differed in their qualities as much as in duration and potency. They investigated hundreds of Shulgin-designed derivatives of mescaline and spice rack oils (as from the peyote cactus and parsley,) and information about their synthesis and proper use was eventually collected into the book PiHKAL. Later, Shulgin tinkered with the structures of DMT and psilocin (as from ayahuasca brews and magic mushrooms,) and he wrote up over a hundred novel compounds in the sequel TiHKAL. Some of his more recent synthetic work began from new inspirations found naturally in various psychedelic cacti and poppies.

As the institutional environment became more oppressive, the research group was unable to continue getting published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The Shulgins started Transform Press as a vehicle for self-publishing, and published PiHKAL and TiHKAL as fiction during the 1990’s. As a result, Chemical Abstracts, repository of the list of all chemicals known to humankind, has rejected some of Sasha’s compounds as fictional!

In 1976 a graduate student (whose name I will try to find) called Sasha Shulgin on the phone to report smashing results with a chemical gleaned from the literature: 3,4-methylenedioxy,N-methylamphetamine, better known as MDMA, ecstasy, or molly. At first Shulgin treated MDMA as a “low-calorie martini,” but as he shared it with the research group he saw it help people make remarkable personal breakthroughs. The drug lacked the colorful or disorienting effects of LSD or other infamous psychedelics, which suggested it would make an ideal drug for psychotherapists to give their patients.

A member of the research group, Leo Zeff, used MDMA in his therapy practice and began sharing the secret with other therapists. He developed new techniques for working with patients under the influence and was known as “The Secret Chief.” People said MDMA was like “six months of therapy in one session,” which is immensely gratifying to both patient and practitioner. Therapists worked with qualified chemists to obtain the chemical, and the practice was perfectly legal.

Someone with less discretion found out and decided that MDMA should be made available to everybody. Larry Hagerty and others in the inner circle of Dallas MDMA dealers were motivated not only by the ample profits, but also by the desire to save humanity much as Sasha himself had described in an especially zealous talk! Thousands and thousands of doses were sold in the Dallas dance club scene. In 1985 the DEA noticed and acted to ban the drug, not only from clubs but from therapists’ offices as well.

MAPS, a non-profit that runs on donations, today funds studies into MDMA to treat the fear of death in the terminally ill, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans and rape survivors, and social anxiety in the autistic. MDMA’s capacity to quell human suffering is well-demonstrated, vast and legally forbidden. MAPS faces an uphill battle to fund the extensive testing required by the FDA, which only a few cartelized pharmaceutical companies have ever been able to fund.

Sasha Shulgin produced many interesting compounds besides his role in passing along MDMA. 2C-B is a sense enhancer and aphrodisiac; DiPT disrupts the perception of pitch and harmony; TOMSO is a psychedelic which manifests no effects until combined with alcohol; CPM leads to eyes-closed fantasy, yet the structurally similar MAL leads to visual chaos with the eyes open. ARIADNE has been investigated as an anti-depressant. 5-MeO-DiPT enhances orgasm. All of these compounds may present uses for therapy or creative work, and certainly all of them present clues and new puzzles for brain science. Investigation into them is a legally tortured pursuit, especially in the United States. The vast bulk of Shulgin’s compounds have been only very superficially investigated.

Shulgin’s work is carried on by chemists and therapists around the world, often quietly.

His one-time student David Nichols has worked within the system, and extensively probed the molecular mechanism of MDMA at Purdue’s pharmacology labs. He also is the founding President of the Heffter Institute, which conducts research into psilocin mushrooms as medicine.

Sasha inspired his friends Earth and Fire Erowid to provide the best information about drugs available online. is especially sharp at keeping current with new synthetics that appear on the grey and black markets. The site helps users understand what they are getting into and stay safe, and even to get the most out of their drug experiences just as a therapist would help a patient to do.

Paul Daley came to the Shulgin farm in 2007, to help in the lab after Sasha’s eyes failed due to macular degeneration. Recently the pair was working on techniques for growing peyote, for such time as this becomes legal for the Native American Church. Another project seeks to help cluster headache sufferers with an efficient synthesis for 2-bromo-LSD. 2-bromo-LSD is not a psychedelic or an interesting head drug of any sort, except that it aborts clusters of “suicide headaches” said to be among the most physically excruciating of all human experiences. Shulgin and Daley were working on improving the synthesis of an unapproved drug with little hope for running the approval gauntlet — suggesting that they might have been hoping for others to distribute 2-bromo-LSD in an underground fashion, just as earlier circles of doctors did with MDMA. Their allies in the 2-bromo-LSD project are the Cluster Busters, a patient organization.

In 2013, Daley reported that 87-year-old, blind, dementia-addled Sasha was still joining him in the lab every day. Sasha was no longer on top of the work but he hung around in the lab and cracked corny jokes about whatever was going on. Those are some of the best things about working as a chemist anyway.

Sasha is survived by his wife Ann, a writer and lay therapist with valuable contributions in PiKHAL and TiKHAL. I find her work on integrating the shadow to be especially interesting and useful. She was also a great support to Sasha, taking care of him when he was ill, and cooking meals for the Sunday experiments.

There is every reason to believe that when these drugs are freed from their taboo status, they will allow us to make strides towards physically understanding the brain-mind correlation, and relieve vast amounts of human suffering. It will take dozens of scientists decades just to chase down all of the suggestions mentioned in PiKHAL and TiKHAL.

Some may eulogize Shulgin as a colorful character, “Dr. X, the inventor of ecstasy” or the like, but understand that Shulgin’s work is just the beginning of an unfolding Big Bang in mind science and medicine. After the superstitious and ignorant Church (of unlimited government authority) stands out of the way, we’ll recognize Shulgin as a giant of science like Galileo or Einstein.


April 18, 2013

Sasha Shulgin on Animal Research

Filed under: science, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 5:18 pm

From “PiKHAL, a chemical love story:”

This (MME) is one of the very few compounds with which I actually risked (and took) the lives of experimental animals. I was still impressed by the scientific myth that pharmacological research wasn’t really acceptable without animal support data. And I had access to an experimental mouse colony at the University. I injected one mouse with a dose of 300 mg/Kg., i.p. That sounds pretty scientific. But what it really means is that I picked up a mouse by the scruff of the back with my left hand, then turned my hand over so that the mouse was belly-up. I put the ring finger over a hind leg to keep things relatively immobile. Usually at this point there is a little urine evident where there had been none before. And I took a syringe equipped with a very fine needle and containing about 8 milligrams of MME in a fraction of a mL of a water solution and pushed that needle into the mouse at about where the navel would be if one could see the mouse’s navel, and then I pulled the needle back just a little so that there should be nothing at the business end but the loose folds of the peritoneum. Then I pushed the syringe plunger home, effectively squirting the water solution into the area that surrounds the intestines. I dropped the mouse back into his cage, and watched. In this case, the mouse went into a twitching series of convulsions (known as clonic in the trade) and in five minutes he was dead.

Fired with the lust for killing, I grabbed another mouse, and nailed him with 175 mg/Kg. Dead in 6 minutes. Another one at 107 mg/Kg. Dead in 5 minutes. Another at 75 mg/Kg. Well, he looked pretty sick there for a while, and had some shakes, and then he seemed to be pretty much OK. One final orgy of murder. I injected 5 mice at 100 mg/Kg i.p., and watched four of them die within 20 minutes. I took in my hands the sole survivor, and I went outside the laboratory and let him loose on the hillside. He scampered away and I never saw him again.

And what did I learn, at the cost of seven precious lives which I can never replace? Not a damned thing. Maybe there is an LD-50 [the dose lethal to 50% of the animals] somewhere around 60 or 80 mg/Kg. This is for mice, not for men. I was intending to take an initial trial dose of 300 micrograms of this completely untested compound, and it would have made no difference to me if the LD-50 had been 600 mg/Kg or 6 mg/Kg.  I still took my trial dose, and had absolutely no effects, and I never killed another mouse again. No, that is simply out-and-out dishonest. I had an invasion of field mice last winter coming up through a hole in the floor behind the garbage holder under the kitchen sink, and I blocked the hole, but I also set some mouse traps. And I caught a couple. But never again for the simple and stupid reasons of being able to say that “This compound has an LD-50 in the mouse of 70 mg/Kg.” Who cares? Why kill?

If you believe in something you are creating, there should be no problem in trying it out for yourself first. Shulgin’s usual protocol for trying new drugs is to start with perhaps 1/500 of the expected active dose, and then taste again next week with double or 1.5 times as much. If there are signs of activity, whether amusing or toxic, the next dose will only be a small increment more.

Shulgin’s intent is purely to make new compounds for exploring the mind, which generally fall near the psychedelic category. Not very much is known about the possible health effects of most of the (over 200) new compounds he’s synthesized.

Yet, I feel a lot better with the idea of taking an exploratory compound cooked up by an eccentric and earnest scientist, than buying shampoo at the store that was rubbed into bunny eyes as a Cover Your Ass move, but which was actually created by people whose only interest lay in making money. Monsanto represents an ultimate in ugly innovation, removing GMO items from their own cafeterias because their employees don’t want to eat what they are growing.

If corporate scientists don’t want to test their new creations on themselves, I understand why. They are just working on orders from above, acting as competent technicians. I am all in favor of testing on the people in charge: the Board of Directors, the CEO and management team, and the major shareholders.

April 14, 2013

On the belief in spirits in disease

Filed under: magic, science — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 8:18 pm

Recently, I have read much of an ignorant superstition regarding disease: this, the concept of diseases being caused by malevolent spirits. These spirits are invisible creatures, which live in the air and seek to wreak mayhem on any human animal they come into contact with. They will attach themselves to a person, and even spread from person to person, or linger in the victim’s home. It is believed by the ignorant, that the home of the afflicted may be “cleansed” with herbs and smoke such as sage and wormwood, to drive the spirits out; for, these dark-minded individuals believe that the spirits of plants may be called upon to battle the evil spirits of disease. (Thus, the fools deny themselves the true and helpful medicines known to our doctors of today, such as preparations of arsenic and mercury.)

This belief in invisible agents of disease is known to be false by all Men of science, who know disease to be caused by an imbalance of the four humours (phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, and blood.) Thus, the barefoot primitive and the superstitious peasant will rely on the magical qualities of the witch-doctor’s plants, such as ephedra or belladonna, to treat asthma, to their great detriment, instead of looking to a medicine with the empirically-validated phlegm-drying virtues of “warmth” and “dryness,” such as Indian tobacco.

As one cannot argue with the willfully ignorant, I can only pray that our Legislators take decisive action for the licensing of doctors and pharmacists, and to punish swiftly and surely the selling of false and deleterious medicines.

[Disease really is spread by invisible organisms. Sage and wormwood are antiseptic. Arsenic and mercury were really put into medicines. Ephedra dilates bronchioles and belladonna reduces inflammations and spasms. And, tobacco was used to treat asthma under the Four Humours system of medicine, with rather limited success.]

February 24, 2013

The Great Nutmeg Question

Nutmeg is the seed or kernel of Myristica fragrans tree fruits, grated down into a musky-smelling spice. Lately, it seems as if few people are cooking with nutmeg except to sprinkle it on Christmas cookies or other holiday dishes. It was once greatly popular and expensive in Europe, as people liked it for medicine and flavor, but they had no idea where it came from. The fact that people had to buy the spice from Sindbad-like Arab traders who would not reveal the spice’s faraway source lent it a certain mystique.

It turns out that nutmeg is more than it seems, a potent mind-bending drug, which can induce long journeys away from the everyday perception of reality. The fact that a totally innocuous kitchen spice can do this raises certain questions about people’s relationships with the plant, and the relationship of the essential oils in spices to psychoactive drugs.

Firstly, the human-plant relations side of it: as nutmeg is a powerful plant drug, I would assume that there are indigenous people somewhere in the world who are familiar with its use in ritual. I would assume wrong. By the time Europeans and history discovered the Banda Islands, the secret source of nutmeg, the natives were already exporting the whole lot to meet world demand for nutmeg as a flavoring and make money. Nutmeg does have traditional uses as a sedative, sleep aid and analgesic. Writers occasionally note it as a mood elevator or health tonic. As the kernels traveled the world, people occasionally used them in smoking mixtures, snuff or chew, to nobody’s concern. And then, around the turn of the twentieth century, things took a strange turn.

A rumor went around the United States that nutmeg was an abortifacient. Perhaps this is true at a dosage that drives one to death’s door… in any case, young women would sometimes take down spoonfuls of nutmeg hoping to cause an abortion, and then, to their surprise, become highly inebriated with untrustworthy senses and delusions about the nature of the world. Nutmeg’s effects can last for over twenty-four hours after taking it. Some women thought that they were going mad or did mad things and ended up in newspaper stories. In 1902, a Dr. E.E. Hinman reported on treating nutmeg poisonings to the Northwestern Lancet: “In all cases of nutmeg poisoning there was prostration with partial or complete coma. Most of them had vertigo, delirium, chiefly hallucinations of sight, rapid, feeble pulse, and free urination. In five instances the nutmegs were taken to produce abortion, and in every case without accomplishing the desired result.”

Hysterical woman falling out of chair.

Prostrated by nutmeg.

Soon, prisoners caught on to the story about nutmeg causing delirium and hallucinations, and they were smuggling it out of the kitchen to experience the terror and insanity for themselves, such is the human drive to experience altered states. Actually, the experience may not run so terribly for everybody (prisoner Malcolm X measured doses out in a matchbox, and described the effects as being like four or five joints). Still, the seed is surprisingly strong stuff. Fortunately, most people don’t like it as a drug — the heavy effects of higher doses come with heavy side effects — so it is little abused, and the US government hasn’t snatched it out of our spice racks yet. Periodically, the news media notices that teenagers or ultra-poor people are getting high on nutmeg, and there is almost a big deal made of it. Occasionally, someone takes enough to do themselves in.

So, that is the anthropology of nutmeg in brief. There is still the question of how nutmeg does its thing. Since we don’t really understand how the human brain correlates with consciousness all that well, we can’t really truly describe the mechanism of action of any psychoactive drug whatsoever. We can, however, take a stab at relating the chemical constituents of the seed to better-understood drugs and their pharmacology.

One of the first strong efforts at dissecting the action of nutmeg took place in the mid-1960’s, to be published in 1967. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a prolific American inventor of synthetic psychedelics, and two Chilean colleagues, Thornton Sargent and Claudia Naranjo, submitted an article to Psychopharmacology Bulletin: “The Chemistry and Psychopharmacology of Nutmeg and Several Related Phenylisopropylamines.” The team assumed that nutmeg’s power lay in the volatile or “essential” oil fraction of the spice, not in its fatty butter or pulpy cellulose structure. So, they pressed the kernels to express the butter, and steam distilled the essential oil from the crushed remainders. They fractionally distilled the oil, meaning that it was distilled and redistilled until each individual compound was almost completely separated from every other compound. By analyzing each fraction, the team could determine exactly which compounds were in nutmeg oil and how much of each.

Many of the chemicals in nutmeg oil are common throughout nature or well-understood, and thus were seen as poor candidates for explaining its psychoactivity (for example, pinene and sabinene are present in high concentrations across many plant species. However, the most interesting thing known about their pharmacology was that they are irritants.) Other chemicals are present in such tiny amounts that they are probably not the main contributors to nutmeg’s action (unless they are extremely potent).

Eventually, the researchers focused their attention on three “phenylisopropylamine” compounds: safrole, myristicin, and elemicin. These components of Oil of Nutmeg bear a striking resemblance to a series of synthetic psychedelics Sasha Shulgin was working on, modifications of the mescaline molecule. — — The researchers hypothesized that the human liver adds nitrogen to the three phenylisopropylamines as they pass through, so converting them into their psychedelic amphetamine counterparts — safrole to MDA, myristicin to MMDA, and elemicin to TMA. The liver is known to “transaminate” many kinds of compounds, lending the hypothesis some plausibility.

Nutmeg oil components and their hypothetical products

Phenylisopropylamine Psychedelic Amphetamine













If the researchers’ hypothesis is true, the effects of nutmeg should roughly correspond to the effects of MDA, MMDA, and TMA in the same proportions as nutmeg oil contains safrole, myristicin, and elemicin. All three psychedelic amphetamines have been explored somewhat as single compounds. MDA catalyzes an opening of empathy and creates sparkling visual changes. MMDA is a psychedelic generally reported as being relaxing, while exhibiting the wrinkle that impressive visual effects are only achieved with the eyes closed. TMA is definitely psychedelic and nausea-causing, but I cannot find enough reports on it to comment as to the particular character of its activity. In general, psychedelics activate certain serotonin receptors which cause “sensory gating channels” in the brain and mind to open up, increasing awareness and the sense of novelty, as well as sometimes creating special effects such as synesthesia. Psychedelics do not necessarily act as stimulants, even though many are chemically described as “amphetamines.”

Sasha Shulgin devised a way to challenge the transamination theory. He prepared a cocktail of psychedelic amphetamines to imitate the effects of 5 grams of average nutmeg, assuming that the phenylisopropylamines would be metabolized with 100% efficiency. It consisted of 100 mg of white powder, divided into 1 part (by mass?) MDA, 2 parts TMA, and 5 parts MMDA. He reports that the cocktail “produced quite a sparkle and considerable eye-dilation. But then, I have never taken 5 grams of nutmeg, so I cannot make any comparisons.” Nice experimental design, Dr. Shulgin! Couldn’t you have taken 2 or 3 days out of your busy life to get high on nutmeg (as an experimental control)? Writing in the Entheogen Review, Ibo Nagano describes 5 grams of nutmeg as a threshold dose “marked by euphoria, relaxation, mood elevation, hilarity and enhancement of the senses,” which I suppose could mean the same as “quite a sparkle.” Please note that nutmegs vary considerably in their potency and exact composition, and you cannot presume to get certain effects at certain dosages unless you know already know your source pretty well — and in that case, put down the shaker bottle, you addict!

Shulgin’s imitation nutmeg amphetamine cocktail superficially supported the transamination hypothesis. However, on another occasion, human volunteers consumed myristicin in the amount present in almost 40 g nutmeg — a dosage seen in typical emergency room visits — yet the volunteers experienced only subtle effects. As myristicin is by far the most abundant aromatic in Oil of Nutmeg, and it makes such a lame psychedelic, we can rule out the idea of it being converted efficiently by the liver. If 100% of the material was converted, each volunteer would have synthesized about 400 mg of MMDA in their own body, and likely been knocked on their butt. Additionally, while the transamination reactions were made to work in laboratory liver cultures, several investigators have not been able to demonstrate such a reaction in living animals.

There is still a possibility for partial transamination of the phenylisoproylamines in the human body. Perhaps small amounts of nutmeg oil are transformed into psychedelic amphetamines, which act synergistically to create a stronger effect than any one would produce alone. On the other hand, the phenylisoproylamines might be active at some of the same receptors as psychedelics, but at a weaker level. In the end, the 1967 research suggested a lot of things and proved almost nothing.

No one seemed interested in the problem again until 2000, when Bernard C Sangalli and William Chiang submitted a paper to Clinical Toxicology. A young woman swallowed roughly 20 g of nutmeg on a friend’s advice without really knowing what it was. When she woke up the next morning still feeling drunk and high after dreaming of being covered in centipedes, she asked her mother to take her to the hospital — thus, becoming the case study that spurred Sangalli and Chiang to investigate nutmeg. (She recovered after a few days’ rest.)

The duo list many components of nutmeg oil with notes about any known actions of those compounds. Some are stimulants, others depressants, others anesthetics, and so on. Where information is lacking, the authors suggest a strategy of comparing nutmeg to other plant materials containing some of the same or similar chemicals. For example, methysticin and kavain are two compounds from kava kava, which contain within them structures strongly resembling myristicin. The kava compounds are known local anesthetics, which work by inhibiting voltage-operated sodium channels (making nerves less conductive). Thus, the anesthetic medicinal/side effect of nutmeg may be tentatively pinned on myristicin and its interaction with the voltage-gated sodium channels. To hypothesize about each nutmeg effect and compound in this way, and then to test each hypothesis, sounds like a fun project to amuse a few research teams for the next several decades. Nutmeg is not amenable to a simplistic, reductionist approach — there are clearly multiple compounds working together to create the nutmeg syndrome, and quite possibly none of these compounds will create impressive effects working alone. I must say that this is less satisfying than Shulgin’s transamination hypothesis, but it does seem to be the truth: this is one tough nut to crack. At least it is providing us with good questions to ask.

One final note. Sangalli and Chiang lament that nutmeg’s “use is perpetuated in easy access resources such as the Internet.” Nutmeg use was perpetuated throughout the twentieth century, mostly in the absence of the Internet. I believe that having a lack of information perpetuates nutmeg use. People with adequate information would probably turn nutmeg down, or at least keep the dose limited to levels that others report enjoying. People who end up in the E.R. were usually working from ignorance or faulty information, so the researchers’ attitude of “let’s keep this information locked up in libraries where no one will look at it” is completely counterproductive. I kind of have to celebrate the honest people who share their awkward nutmeg experiences via Youtube and Erowid and the like. This young woman didn’t regret her experience but I hardly think she’s going to inspire a thousand imitators (I believe that she is a smaller person who took about 20 g, based on her previous “Nutmeg High” video):

February 16, 2013

Plants Talk, but Who Listens?

Plants and fungi communicate with animals, and each other, through chemical signals. An apple skin fills with pigment to announce its ripeness to animals that might eat it and excrete the seeds far from the tree. A flower’s smell carries on the breeze and attracts just the right butterfly to spread its pollen around.

The worldwide web of chemical chatter helps to keep habitats vibrant. For example, if a tree limb is invaded by insects, it will not only pump pesticides through the vasculature of that limb, but also emit a signal chemical to alert other nearby limbs and trees of the threat. If the forest is on the brink of killing off an insect species, it may select a tree to cease pumping pesticides and serve as an insect sanctuary — thus maintaining a balance between trees and their pests, and preventing both killer infestations and the evolution of pesticide-resistant “superbugs.”

Humans are animals. We are affected by plant talk — it’s how we decide what kinds of fruit, vegetables and grains we like. Yet, we are not lately respecting what plants have to say. We tend to think of food plants and medical herbs as something to buy preprocessed at the store, with no roots in the Earth. In consequence, we don’t know how to act on this planet. As a species, we’ve become like someone who is way too drunk for this early stage in the party, talking too loud, not listening, and obliviously stepping on everyone else’s toes.

A variety of tropical plants speak through caffeine, a chemical deadly to insects, desired by humans, goats, and certain other animals. It is entirely appropriate for sub/tropical peoples such as Arabs and Han Chinese to live symbiotically with coffee, tea, or cocoa trees. Yemen is a land of dry, rocky mountains, but some valleys are terraced and planted with lush coffee forests. Yemenis use coffee “cherries” as well as beans, since they live close enough to the tree to utilize the fresh fruit. Yemeni men stop to gather and drink coffee between morning prayers and the start of work, and men and women drink it throughout the day. Coffee inspires prayer and poetry.

Qat farming in Yemen

Actually, these farmers are raising Qat, Yemen’s other stimulant with its own traditions and rituals. A number of old Yemeni poems concern the debate between coffee and qat.

“Oh Coffee, you dispel the worries of the Great, you point the way to those who have wandered from the path of knowledge. Coffee is the drink of the friends of God, and of his servants who seek wisdom.

No one can understand the truth until he drinks of its frothy goodness. Those who condemn coffee as causing man harm are fools in the eyes of God.

Coffee is the common man’s gold, and like gold it brings to every man the feeling of luxury and nobility….Take time in your preparations of coffee and God will be with you and bless you and your table. Where coffee is served there is grace and splendor and friendship and happiness.

All cares vanish as the coffee cup is raised to the lips. Coffee flows through your body as freely as your life’s blood, refreshing all that it touches: look you at the youth and vigor of those who drink it.

Whoever tastes coffee will forever forswear the liquor of the grape. Oh drink of God’s glory, your purity brings to man only well-being and nobility“

–Sheik Ansari Djezeri Hanball Abd-al-Kadir, 1587, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

There are no significant caffeine plants that grow in the temperate latitudes. Yet, we have a large proportion of caffeine-dependent people (myself included). In order to pull caffeine from its natural place in the order of things, Western powers imposed insane colonial policies on the tropical nations, forcing people out of villages and small farms and onto plantations that raised coffee, cocoa, tea, or sugarcane — the last, largely so that even the humblest of Westerners can add sugar to their coffee or tea or afford the occasional cheap chocolate bar. People in the global South are held in poverty and oppression for our cheap perks. Although we typically use caffeine in a fairly healthful way, caffeine expresses a negative social consequence of making long, dull work days more tolerable and tolerated. I rather suspect that things on Earth would run a little more harmoniously if caffeinated plants were known in the temperate zone as exotic novelties, instead of almost a human right like water and food.

Sugar, the sister of caffeine, sets an example of a substance casually ripped from its physical and chemical plant matrix, a different sort of distortion in the ecological chatter. Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia, where it was grown to be chewed or juiced from about six thousand years ago. By a few centuries after the time of Christ, Indians were crystallizing sugar from the juice. Greeks were using expensive imported sugar in medicine. By the Middle Ages, humans had plainly lost perspective over sugar, with Arabs irrigating the desert to grow the water-loving cane. People all over ate it until our teeth rotted out and we died of diabetic complications.

Wisely applied, we can use a little chemistry to extract the good stuff from plants and make better medicines or flavorings. Yet, our tendency is to go all-out in purifying something all the way down to a white powder or a volatile liquid, regardless of the results. We believe in the myth of the “active constituent” that supposes only the most predominant, loudest-speaking chemicals in a plant are of any interest. Our economic mindset is scarcity, so we always try to get the most “bang for the buck.” Dosages and nutritional values are distorted, and secondary chemicals that enhance a plant’s flavor or effects are purified away. White flour is little more than starch, cocaine is hundreds of times more problematic than coca tea, clarified beer and wine (fungal products) lack protein and B-vitamins, and so on and so forth.

“Yellow butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin corn,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant throng.

Blue butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin beans,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant streams.

Over the blossoming corn,
Over the virgin corn,
Wild bees hum;
Over the blossoming beans,
Over the virgin beans,
Wild bees hum.

–Hopi planting song

“High fructose corn syrup is nearly identical in composition to table sugar.” — Corn Refiners Association

The processed food around us has been designed to taste good, store forever, and come cheap. In order to fulfill all three requirements, food technologists have essentially been forced to engineer deceptive food. This food compensates for the lack of fresh, quality ingredients with chemical artifice. A few kinds of fats, salt, sugar (often chemically bastardized) and sometimes MSG provide flavor in place of the cornucopia of interesting herbs and vegetables that would make for healthy food, but require care and freshness. Plants mainly tell the truth, and food technologists mainly lie.

We have two human systems at work here that are incompatible with the web of life. Our system of science places a premium on isolating variables, on taking things out of life and into the laboratory to see how the smallest parts work in isolated conditions. We need to orient ourselves more to field observation to learn how things actually work in nature — biologists of many sorts need to be listening to plants, not bombarding their genes with crude inserts.

The second problem, and I would guess the much larger one, is our model of industry. To a subsistence farm family among the Amish or ancient Celts, pigs have a certain role on the farm: eating scraps to produce meat and fertile feces. To industrial people, a pig is a component in a production process, consuming costly inputs to produce a return on investment. It makes sense to farm pigs in tiny cages in warehouses, feed them a diet that causes them to bloat up, and dump their waste anywhere you can get away with, because only money is real. This degrades the environs around pig farms and brings us flavor-and-nutritionally depleted pork, but again, only money is real. A similar ethic affected industry under Communism, wherein Moscow would decree certain production goals, and Soviet managers would aim to meet those goals regardless of who or what they destroyed in the process. But, farmers who live among their plants, who are not economically forced into planting-by-numbers, are sensitive to the needs of the environment around them and degrade it very slowly, if at all.

Field edge boundary hedge - - 1001684

Half-wild hedges between fields represent a fine compromise between ecological needs and immediate human needs. The hedges can be a source of wild food, medicine, and pollinators, not to mention protecting soil from erosion and preserving species from extinction. English hedges are full of the plants you will find in old English songs and literature: holly and ivy, wild roses, oaks…  photo by Dr. Duncan Pepper

What would our culture look like if it listened to plants? I could imagine a permacultural utopia and present it here, but that would be relatively boring. The real point is to learn about that from the plants themselves, anyway.

One change we might make is to drop the use of coffee from the Eastern US to take up sassafras instead. Sassafras is a tree used as medicine in both native and settler traditions. It is the root used in genuine root beer, or it may be consumed as a tea. Sassafras was emblematic of the American colonies, being widely seen as one of the great delights discovered in the New World. It was used to feel warm in the winter, get vitamin C, resist colds and flu, and to reinvigorate oneself in the spring. It is thought to be a subtle stimulant or mood lifter and to help maintain a general state of well-being, as well as offering cures for a number of more specific ailments. Sassafras sounds like just the thing to lift the cultural malaise resulting from the coffee-structured work day, making us healthier in the winter and more cheerful, instead of aggravating anxieties. We could be supporting polycultural farmers here at home instead of practically enslaving workers on plantations abroad.

Sassafras seedling.

Naturally, the FDA bans the use of sassafras in regulated food and drink. In a laboratory setting, sassafras oil was administered to rats (biologically similar to beavers, a natural enemy of sassafras trees) at such high doses that the rats experienced chronic kidney irritation, and subsequently developed kidney cancer, which is somehow interpreted as demonstrating that the substance is a dangerous carcinogen in humans at any dose. The DEA even takes note whenever the essential oil is purified from the plant, because of the oil’s chemical similarity to MDMA (ecstasy). These organizations are dedicated not to the logic of nature, but to the logic of reductive laboratory science and profiteering industry. Consider the US government’s alphabet soup of agencies and their strange relationships with tobacco, as well.

One could still plant a sassafras tree in the backyard and harvest from it quietly. You would get to know that tree, its growth habit, even moods that affect its oil production. More than merely exploiting a means of production, you would be bound to the tree as an ally, giving it space and water in exchange for its beneficent presence.

Even the weeds in your lawn have something to say for themselves, if you will but listen.

Fringing cypress forests dim
Where the owl makes weird abode,
Bending down with spicy limb
O’er the old plantation road,
Through the swamp and up the hill,
Where the dappled byways run,
Round the gin-house, by the mill,
Floats its incense to the sun.

Swift to catch the voice of spring,
Soon its tasselled blooms appear;
Modest is their blossoming,
Breathing balm and waving cheer;
Rare the greeting that they send
To the fragrant wildwood blooms,
Bidding every blossom blend
In a chorus of perfumes.

On it leans the blackberry vine,
With white sprays caressingly;
Round its knees the wild peas twine,
Beckoning to the yellow bee;
Through its boughs the red-bird flits
Like a living flake of fire,
And with love-enlightened wits
Weaves his nest and tunes his lyre.

Oh, where skies are summer-kissed,
And the drowsy days are long,
’Neath the sassafras to list
To the field-hand’s mellow song!
Or, more sweet than chimes that hang
In some old cathedral dome,
Catch the distant klingle-klang
Of the cow-bells tinkling home!

–Samuel Minturn Peck

July 11, 2012

Dr. Drew Pinsky: Shameless Whore

Dr. Drew Pinsky, beloved host of Loveline and the Teen Mom aftershow, chief doctor on Celebrity Rehab, accepts bribes to promote pharmaceuticals.

GlaxoSmithKline has just been hit with a $3 billion fine for fraudulent marketing of its snake oils. GSK was caught promoting its medicines for off-label uses, pushing fishy medical journal articles, and paying doctors like Pinsky for phony medical opinions. Dr. Drew was happy to take GSK’s money and parrot their line, but unfortunately he won’t be giving up millions or going to jail.

In 1999, on David Essel — Alive! — a national radio program — Dr. Drew was asked whether or not a woman could have 60 orgasms right in a row. Drew said that that was typically seen with medication, and then segued into talking about Wellbutrin, which is believed to at least not dampen libido like other SSRI antidepressants. C’mon, Dr. Drew. Selling Wellbutrin as an aphrodisiac? (The DoJ has made a transcript of the program available).

Dr. Drew was receiving $275,000 to participate in a two-year “educational” program on “Intimacy and Depression,” sponsored by GSK. Dr. Drew gave his money-weighted opinion on Wellbutrin in a series of writings, multimedia activities and town hall meetings. However, he insists that everything he said was based on his clinical experience. In Dr. Drew’s innocent mind, we are to imagine, GSK paid him $275,000 to educate the world about intimacy and depression, and it was mere coincidence that Dr. Drew’s prescription for the depressed bedroom is GSK’s product.

Joe Rogan (the host of a talk radio show and tv’s Fear Factor) called out Dr. Drew as a whore years ago, for treating marijuana as an addictive substance.

I was willing to imagine that Dr. Drew was misinformed about marijuana because he went through some kind of brainwashing in the course of getting his Addiction Medicine Specialist certification. He seemed like a friendly, slightly nerdy guy with decent advice to offer, and a few stupid opinions. I now understand that Dr. Drew will say whatever gets him money, ratings or prestige.

As far as Wellbutrin goes, SSRI antidepressants don’t work and doctors have known since 2002. When drug companies run studies, they publish only the ones that support their new, patent medications. However, they submit all studies, positive and negative, to the FDA. When Irving Kirsch and colleagues got a hold of the FDA’s complete set of studies, they discovered that SSRI’s show a very, very tiny advantage compared to placebo. The apparent effect of SSRI’s is so small that it is probably really a glitch in the standard study methodology, or perhaps it’s due to medication side effects enhancing the placebo effect. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that Dr. Drew continues to view SSRI’s as valid antidepressants.

Sorry to let you know if you’ve been paying for worthless placebos or suffering pointless side effects. Quitting the meds could still fuck you up, so you need support from a sympathetic doctor to withdraw. Finding a sympathetic doctor may be tough, as so many doctors are whores who rely on pharmaceutical companies for money and advice.

A whore in the sex work field makes a living by selling their own body. A whore in the medical profession sells out their patients’ bodies. And a celebrity medical whore like Dr. Drew Pinsky sells out the entire body public.



May 24, 2012

Great Pacific Garbage Patch, My Ass!

Filed under: gardening, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 3:13 am

Lost and thrown away plastic is said to be accumulating in the middles of the big ocean gyres. Bottles, bags, nylon ropes and fishing nets, party cups and sundries are carried by winds, rivers, currents and boaters into the sea and swirl out towards the center. Some of the plastic gets tangled in nylon ropes or fishing nets to form little trash islands. Most of it is broken down by the sun, leaching toxic plastic additives and leaving lots of tiny fragments hanging around to choke marine animals.

Yes, this does seem to be a fact, but how about my backyard garbage patch? Back in a quiet corner, where I do my composting, plastic fragments seem to blow in from all over the neighborhood.

Plastic strewn over ground.

As a consequence of plastic coming to rest here, the soil is full of plastic bits and the compost I dug out to fill my vegetable box is full of plastic bits, too.

Similar plastic fragments

Plastic debris makes Bella sad.

Capris Sun packet buried under a weed.

When I moved into this house several years ago, I picked up a slew of trash from this area. Yet, I continue to unearth it. I wonder how long the neighborhood gyre has been dumping on that spot?

A root with numerous plastic hangers-on

Yes, I feel bad for the strangled sea birds, but also for my earthworms and viny creepers. Paper and cardboard debris would be destroyed here within a couple of years, and feed those roots and weird bugs.

I don’t see everyone around me about to become super-aware of this problem and avoid all plastic packaging and junk. And even if they all stop littering, little pieces of plastic tend to blow away (I’m even finding my own plastic label stakes from past years’ gardens). Could we please ban the use of plastic disposables? The problem with plastic is pretty clear, and it deserves some kind of response…

Did we really need to see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to figure something’s gone awry?

April 4, 2012

Intelligent Design is Apparently True

Filed under: science — Tags: , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 4:18 pm

The theory of Intelligent Design is very annoying to mainstream science and its supporters. The theory posits that life on Earth was designed by God (or space aliens), rather than evolving through many iterations of natural selection. I.D. supporters usually point to some complex structure like the human eye or a ribosome and say, “This must be the work of a designer, because it won’t work without all the parts. I can’t imagine, and you can’t either, how such a thing gradually came to be, so evolution is not the valid theory to apply here.”

There’s something very unsporting about cutting down evolution’s explanatory power, and offering nothing in return except the insinuation that God did it. God can do anything; God can make monkeys fly out of my butt; God can make time run backwards and explosions unburst back into grenade shells; God could’ve made the world any old way He wanted to, and is known to work in mysterious ways, so what does it really tell us to know that God did it?

I looked around for some I.D. predictions, in case these might actually exist. According to, besides the non-prediction of “irreducible complexity,” there should be “rapid appearance of complexity in the fossil record,” “re-usage of similar parts in different organisms” and “function for biological structure.” To spin hypotheses in the I.D. fashion, you watch how people  design things. Then, you presume that the engineer of life on Earth works in a broadly similar way.

“Rapid appearance of complexity in the fossil record” is an interesting prediction. If someone were tinkering with life on Earth all along, they might sometimes turn out a really novel batch of organisms in a short time. Unfortunately for I.D., this prediction is also part of conventional evolutionary theory, what is called “punctuated equilibrium.” Punctuated equilibrium holds that life on Earth get into stable grooves for thousands or millions of years, until perturbed by a meteor strike or whatnot, when life will suddenly evolve into different, sometimes more complex forms. Complexity does  rapidly burst into the fossil record (Cambrian explosion, the dawn of flowering plants), but that fact supports I.D. and evolution about equally.

“Re-usage of similar parts” suffers from the same basic problem. Similar parts evolve in different organisms because they employ similar strategies to survive, a phenomenon recognized as “convergent evolution.” It is  pretty freaky to recognize that an octopus, more closely related to a clam than a man, has eyes just like ours (iris, lens, humor, retina). Well, an octopus has a much more active lifestyle than a clam. All of the fine details are different, anyways (no land animals have rectangular pupils, for one thing.) Sometimes genetic similarities are found in disparate species. I think that that is evidence of genes moving about by means other than sex, such as viruses. If conventional biology does a piss-poor job of explaining these things in the future, that will give a little credibility to I.D. — Someone keeps using the same building blocks in all His designs.

The last prediction on Ideacenter’s list is “function for biological structure.” I think that this is a great prediction for digging into the philosophical issues around evolution and I.D. There are a few little biological structures with no function — the eyes of cave fish, the xiphoid process below your breastbone that can only break off and harm you. Possibly, a lot of DNA is junk. But, overwhelmingly, when you look at living organisms what impresses you is the functionality of the parts: the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone with ligament, tendon and muscle all arranged in a complex way, such that people look at it and say, “why, the knee’s purpose is to allow you to walk.” References to evolution are somewhat rare in my Physiology textbook, being reserved for broader, more reflective essays or explaining weird glitches in the human body. On the other hand, the book freely talks about the “function” of the kidneys, heart, liver and so on just as if it were describing the parts of a machine.  Do things have a function if they lack a designer? What is the function of a lump of granite or a cloud?

In the apparent world, living things grow according to designs. Saying that leaves were designed to collect the sunlight is no more wrong than saying that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West (when really, the Earth is rotating and the Sun is practically still). In fact, for the first several hundred years, when science was called “natural philosophy,” everyone was operating under the assumption that God had indeed designed the world. The whole point of natural philosophy was to better understand God’s design — the practical results were mere side effects until science was melded to capitalism and power.

Intelligent Design is looking to return to that noble, if outdated, philosophy. When I.D. proponents point to apparent design and function in the natural world, it is really there… just as the world really appears flat when my horizon is blocked out by trees and buildings. And for many, many purposes, I really can work from the theory that the Earth is flat (as when using a level).

If Intelligent Design is rejecting Darwinian explanations in favor of a traditional, really pre-scientific view, it is what you call a “null hypothesis.” The null hypothesis says that nothing interesting is going on: eggs aren’t good for your cholesterol, they’re not bad for your cholesterol. Until someone proves that eggs really are good or bad for cholesterol levels, everyone should assume the null hypothesis. This accounts for I.D.’s lack of interesting predictions: it’s essentially a rejection of Darwinism and an acceptance of traditional beliefs and apparent reality, a default position to fall back on, although it’s struggling to become its own distinct scientific theory.

I just sharpened my own philosophy of science by considering the evolving position of Intelligent Design. Can our schools encourage students to question science, and discuss it, and imagine things from another point of view? Or must students accept the word of the High Priests of Curriculum?

I fear that we really can’t discuss evolution vs I.D. in a typical K-12 school. All anyone knows is one line of propaganda or the other, so that would surely be a discussion with zero brain engagement and maximum noise.

December 10, 2011

Who the Hell was Wilhelm Reich?

Filed under: science — Tags: , , , , — paragardener @ 3:46 pm

Whilst surfing the ‘Net for herbalist purposes the other day, I happened upon the name “Wilhelm Reich.” “Who is that?,” I thought, and then answered myself, “Crackpot scientist. Weird cultlike followers.”

My sketchy memory didn’t seem very fair, so I decided to Wikipedia the guy. It turns out that he started out as a psychiatrist, working within Germany’s Communist Party to support sexual freedom in the hopefully soon-arriving Communist utopia. He believed that sexual repression underlay problems like neurosis and sadism, and that freedom in matters like birth control and divorce could reduce the need for psychotherapy. His freedom-loving ways soon pissed off Communists and Nazis alike. Comintern and the Nazi party banned his books, burned them, and put out warrants for his death. Reich had to flee, first to Oslo, and years later to America.

While in Sweden, Wilhelm had moved his theory of sexual repression into a physical framework. He studied a mysterious substance or energy called “orgone,” which is the stuff of life and orgasm. It’s blue, it makes the sky blue, and it holds the galaxy together. If your personal orgone is blocked, it makes you cranky and physically weak. Reich constructed boxes of metal and wood layers which attracted and concentrated orgone, and patients sat inside to get revitalized. This must be the part that had me thinking “crackpot”… the orgone accumulator smells like a big steaming pile of horseshit, if you ask me.

So once in America, Reich published several journals regarding orgone, and operated a laboratory on his estate, “Orgonon,” in Maine, where he and his students could run experiments about orgone. Everyone enjoyed total freedom, and eventually the scientific method repeatedly demonstrated the falsehood of orgone, which is why you don’t hear about it anymore. Oh, if only.

In fact, the news media jumped into the game and infused a lot of politics and sex phobia into the discussion on Reich and his work. At first, a few (pro-Communist?) writers slammed Reich, especially in New Republic  magazine. According to Reich’s followers, these writers didn’t like his critique of Communist totalitarianism, and they found it easy to slide into mockery of the unlikely orgone accumulator, now dubbed the “sex box.” The story of Reich’s anarchical sex cult up on the Orgonon compound was too good not to repeat, so uncritical newswriters passed the tale around until it might as well have been true.

The medical establishment eagerly jumped on board, as they were in the process of purging all “natural” healing methods from practice in favor of an all-powerful MD-Big Pharma axis. In their eyes, the sex box was not merely funny or ineffective, but it was an attempt to defraud  patients. Mind you, the orgone accumulator was at the center of all Reich’s research from this period. Studying the box’s effects intently would seem to run counter to the idea of fraudulently fobbing it off on idiots, but perhaps research conducted outside of the academic Establishment simply doesn’t count.

FDA Inspector Charles A. Wood was soon on the case, snooping about Orgonon with Reich’s permission. Early in the investigation, he told one of Reich’s employees that (I paraphrase) “The accumulator is a fake and Reich is fooling the public with it. He will soon go to jail.” No complaints from patients could be produced, but plenty of experts could  be found to dismiss the accumulator on the basis of its weirdness. For instance, the son of FDA physicist Kurt Lion remembers his father being asked to prove that the box was just a box and that Dr. Reich was a fraud — not  to evaluate the box and find out whether or not it might really do anything, or to review Dr. Reich’s work.

The FDA asked a court for an injunction to shut down Reich’s trade in orgone accumulators. The judge ignored Reich’s response to the FDA (a Motion to Dismiss), and awarded the FDA their injunction by technical default. The full scope of the injunction was utterly villainous, and included the following:

Case #1056, March 19, 1954, US District Court,
Portland, Maine, Judge John D. Clifford, Jr.

“BANNED, until expunged of all references
to the orgone energy:

The Discovery of the Orgone
Vol.I, The Function of the Orgasm
Vol.II, The Cancer Biopathy
The Sexual Revolution
Ether, God and Devil
Cosmic Superimposition
Listen, Little Man
The Mass Psychology of Fascism
Character Analysis
The Murder of Christ
People in Trouble


The Orgone Energy Accumulator: Its Scientific and Medical Use
The Oranur Experiment
The Orgone Energy Bulletin
The Orgone Energy Emergency Bulletin
International Journal of Sex-Economy and Orgone Research
Internationale Zeitschrift fur Orgonomie
Annals of the Orgone Institute”

Reich must have done something right, to get Communists and  Nazis and  the good ole US of A all  excited enough to burn his books! Instead of scientifically picking apart the suspected quackery, FDA went into full-on, cartoonish witch-hunter mode and tried to literally burn out the heresy, sending books and journals to incinerators in Maine and New York. The de facto  function of the FDA seems to be shutting down all alternatives to mainstream, Establishment-operated food and medical options. They always seem to have the authority and resources to crack down on experimenters and raw milk collectives, but they can’t do anything to remedy the chemical soup that lately passes for food.

Eventually, FDA men destroyed the orgone accumulators at Orgonon by hacking them apart with axes. Wilhelm Reich was sent to prison after an assistant broke the judge’s injunction and smuggled some orgone accumulators across state lines. Reich died two weeks before becoming eligible for parole.

In the age of cheap books and photocopying, not all of Reich’s work could be destroyed. Reich’s students and Reich study groups continued to develop his ideas, and he had a following through networks of psychotherapists and psychiatrists. As well, Reich sealed some of his papers and ordered them to remain sealed until 50 years after his death, to protect them from the modern inquisition (thus, they only became available in 2007). Nowadays, with the Internets, elites have pretty sloppy control over the flow of information, and heretical ideas like orgone can really take on new life. It’s a crisis (for some), that ideas can be built on by anyone and published to the ‘Net, cutting out the publishing house or peer reviewers or government committee that ought to be predetermining the truth for everybody.

Some of the Reich wackiness has actually been replicated and peer-reviewed. James DeMeo replicated Reich’s technology for cloudbusting,  drawing down rain with the power of orgone, as a graduate thesis at the University of Kansas in 1977. Researchers Stefan Müschenich and Rainer Gebauer at the University of Marburg demonstrated some of the effects of the orgone accumulator in 1987, and Günter Hebenstreit at the University of Vienna replicated their findings in 1995. Very strange!

It strikes me that the accumulator could work through other means than actually accumulating orgone. For one, an orgone accumulator will function like a Farraday cage, shielding the inside from electrical field and some types of electromagnetic radiation (a car is a type of Farraday cage; the body will carry a lightning charge around the very outside of the vehicle, leaving the passengers safe inside). We live in an “enriched” electromagnetic environment lately, with cell phone signals and wireless networks constantly permeating us and probably contributing to cancer. Perhaps it’s a good idea to go hide in a Farraday cage for a half an hour a day, and let your body recover. Also, many people are under so much stress, maybe they just need to get away and sit quietly in a box!

I thought about putting in some links to the contemporary orgone science scene, but really you’ll do fine searching for “Wilhelm Reich.” Normally, I would not waste my time studying something that’s already tripped my bullshit detector, but I’m really impressed by the threat Reich apparently posed to the Powers That Be — Nazi, Communist, or All-American — so I think I’ll revisit this from time to time. There seems to be a little evidence for orgone, so it’s probably not an untestable dead-end idea like Intelligent Design (a good idea isn’t one that’s true, it’s one that leads to good questions). Anyway, this guy’s ideas just deserve a second chance after how people treated him!

July 25, 2011

Curse you, von Liebig!

Filed under: science — Tags: , , , — paragardener @ 1:02 am

Sometimes artificial substitutes fall short of their natural inspiration. Infants fed formula are a little less vital than infants fed breast milk, despite new supplements being stuck in the formula every few years. Fields injected with chemical fertilizers lose fertility after 30 or 40 years, whereas fields that get manured, fallowed, and otherwise traditionally managed sometimes last for thousands of years. Sodium benzoate is an artificial antioxidant, which actually contributes to cancer. Many people get the general feeling that the more “natural” or unprocessed something is, the better. So why are we living in such a heavily synthetic world?

Many times, the artificial substitute product has money and prestige supporting it. Big names and marketing cash can make a bigger difference than a product’s actual value to living human beings. For instance: in 1867, Justus von Liebig introduced Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies to European markets. Liebig was a massive intellect, known as a great chemistry teacher, and he’d created the formula to help out moms with no milk and babies with no moms. Since he “knew” that humans relied on only four nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate and potassium), he was able to create infant formula practically “chemically identical” with mothers’ milk: wheat and malt flours, cow milk, and potassium bicarbonate. The formula probably actually did what it was supposed to, and improved the odds for babies who couldn’t get human milk.

Soon other manufacturers were in the game, and doctors were being paid to issue statements about the greatness of infant formula. Over time, nutritional scientists added more and more nutrients to the mix, so that every few years the formula became “more complete.” By 1950, over half of American babies were grown on artificial formulas, regardless of need, because it seemed more modern and clean and doctors and scientists were telling moms to do it that way. The result was a lot of unnecessary infections, allergies, asthma, metabolic syndrome and SIDS — due to missing nutrients and antibodies. Curse you, von Liebig!

Another “breakthrough” of von Liebig’s was to identify the fact that plants take from the soil only water, ammonia, phosphate, silica, and alkali (any of potassium, calcium, sodium or magnesium). Not only was his formula about 12 elements short, but it downplays factors such as soil structure and any role humic acids or symbiotic organisms might play. When you believe that anything can be explained in terms of its chemical parts, that’s a viewpoint called “reductionism” and it is questionable because things can be intricate and work together in ways you wouldn’t expect. When you live in the 1800’s and you believe that everything can be explained in terms of its chemistry, that’s called “extraordinary overconfidence.”

By and large, agricultural suppliers have enthusiastically adopted Liebig’s viewpoint that “a rational system of Agriculture cannot be formed without the application of scientific principles, for such a system must be based on an exact acquaintance with the [chemical] means of nutrition of vegetables.” They’ve even stuck to his rationally obsolete fertilizer formula of nitrogen – phosphate – potassium. Due to narrow-minded chemical management, I daily witness absurdities such as neighbors putting out bags of yard waste for the city to haul off, and then paying men in a white truck to spray fertilizer – herbicide combination all over their lawns to replace the minerals they just threw out! Excess phosphate in the fertilizer ends up contaminating our Great Lakes, and these same people wonder why some of the beaches are gross (you’re feeding the algae, people). In our food, we experience chronic mineral deficiencies because we aren’t replacing micronutrients in the soils — cobalt, zinc, selenium… — we just take these things out of the soil and literally flush them away. We imagine that science and industry have replaced the need for the natural recycling of shit. Curse you, von Liebig!

Also, like certain snidely ironical bloggers, von Liebig held opinions about such a great many things that he was bound to be simply bone-headedly wrong about some of them. History mainly forgets dead-end ideas such as “Yeast produces fermentation in consequence of the progressive decomposition which it suffers from the action of air and water.”

If you look at von Liebig’s Wikipedia page (today, anyway), you will find him presented as a one-dimensional hero of chemistry and industry. He did many wonderful things, such as inventing beef bouillon and predicting that “…the production of all organic substances no longer belongs just to the organism. It must be viewed as not only probable but as certain that we shall produce them in our laboratories. Sugar, salicin [aspirin], and morphine will be artificially produced.” In this bland story, von Liebig’s inventions are never problematic and the man is never wrong.

Unfortunately, the organic chemistry von Liebig fostered has not proven to be a panacea. For instance, while synthetic drugs have saved many a life, it appears that a decent diet is still more important than swallowing vitamin pills.

Establishment voices (and I include Wikipedia) seem to be held in the thrall of myths similar to von Liebig’s beliefs:

It is not every one who is called by his situation in life to assist in extending the bounds of science but all mankind have a claim to the blessings and benefits which accrue from its earnest cultivation. The foundation of scientific institutions is an acknowledgment of these benefits and this acknowledgment proceeding from whole nations may be considered as the triumph of mind over empiricism.

Innumerable are the aids afforded to the means of life to manufactures and to commerce by the truths which assiduous and active inquirers have discovered and rendered capable of practical application. But it is not the mere practical utility of these truths which is of importance. Their influence upon mental culture is most beneficial…

This naive view was excusable when von Liebig held it in 1847. It’s now time to recognize that science takes wrong turns and is warped by egos, nationalism and marketing hype, and it’s not pure blessing and benefit. I suggest that faith in the institutions of science be supplemented with shrewd judgment, a passing knowledge of traditional ways of life, and a personal spirit of exploration.

When I started writing this, I was angry at von Liebig for the things he got away with. He largely set us on a path of unnecessarily replacing nature with laboratory creations. Now I am angry at the people who write up his life as a series of accomplishments, and in so doing whitewash away Justus von Liebig’s humanity.

If you want to get to know the accursed guy, the best way is to read his actual words. I enjoyed flitting around Organic Chemistry and Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, which is written in obsolete chemicalese but which should be decipherable to the patient reader.

Older Posts »

Create a free website or blog at