Notes on Rhetoric, Ecosystems, and Darwin’s Pharmacy:

“If the soil is carried off by flood,/ May we help the soil to say so,/ If our ways of living/ Violate the needs of nerve and muscle,/ May we find speech for nerve and muscle,/ To frame objections/Whereat we, listening,/ Can remake our habits. ” Kenneth Burke, “Dialectician’s Hymn”


I. For years I immersed myself in scientific and social scientific literature that supported a relationship between rhetoric and neuroplasticity.  Eventually I arrived at the conclusion that language is intimately involved in virtually every function of the conscious mind.  Not only learning, memory, and a “sense of self” are built on language, but also emotions, visual and aural perceptions, and indeed the unconscious (at least to the extent that it is potentially accessible to the conscious mind).

Whenever I have offered this evidence in writing or at professional meetings I have met the same general and often impassioned objections.  What about art?  What about the unconscious?  What about animals?  And though the point has not been raised, I might add, the theory of the “triune” brain also problematizes this hypothetical monopoly of language.  (See: The Brain from Top to Bottom).

Though at first taken aback by the emotional retorts, I have come to appreciate the pressure of affect on cognitive/linguistic processing.  I have not moved from my general position, because it remains tethered to a critical mass of evidence.  However, I have changed my attitude.  While detractors may have correctly interpreted my tone, on previous occasions, as that of a rhetorician warm in the embrace of the linguistic turn, I now have a different view of the relationship between language, consciousness, and the world at large.

Far from thinking that the colonization of the human mind by language renders it superior to other forms of intelligence (the unconscious, let’s say, or animal consciousness), I want to suggest that consciousness (qua consciousness) is thoroughly corrupted by language.

II. In Permanence and Change, Kenneth Burke artfully engages the concepts of “trained incapacity” and “occupational psychosis” (citing Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey).  The assumption underlying both of these concepts is that specialization creates a blindness to realities outside of one’s narrowed field of vision.  This could be said of the language professor and even the language user in general.

Reflecting further on the ubiquity of language in thought I have come to believe, as has been suggested by rhetoricians and philosophers throughout the ages, that language itself is a trained incapacity or occupational psychosis of our species.  It is precisely because we are corrupted by language as a linear thought process that we generally fail to employ those other great tools of communication and art—imagination, intuition, emotion—to better understand our place in the world.  Thus we also fail to fully grasp our responsibilities to other people, other living things, and the various ecological systems that we inhabit and that inhabit us.

III. In Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (2011), Richard Doyle develops a number of audacious theses.  Among them is an argument that ecoldelics (natural hallucinogenic drugs) are a means by which plant life induces altered states of consciousness in human life, so that humans may become aware of their profound connectedness to all creation.  Doyle briefly describes his participation in a sacred, ayahuasca ceremony that induces powerful hallucinations, and profoundly alters his physical and psychological composition.  (See:  ayahasca)  The bulk of the book, however, is a master argument incorporating extensive research in rhetoric, ecology, politics, evolution, genetics, ecodelics, and metaphysics (See Darwin’s Pharmacy).

With respect to rhetoric, Doyle argues that ecodelics induce eloquence, and have throughout the ages.  However they also evoke experiences that are beyond representation.  Again and again, he asserts that an ecodelic trip cannot really be narrated.  He also argues that it is the quieting of conventional, linear thought and ego defenses that enables direct “Gaian” knowledge.  He frequently refers to his sitting (mediation) practice and his experiences in a sensory deprivation tank, both of which allow him to focus away from the quotidian thoughts (and language, I might suggest) that maintain a strictly coherent (read “embattled”) sense of self, and impede alternative ways of knowing.

IV. Circling back to Burke, I suggest that ecodelic research supports the hypothesis that language is a trained incapacity.  Only by somehow getting around the barrier of every-day language, can profound knowledge of complex systems be admitted to consciousness.  And when this happens, the experience is (predictably) beyond words.

Are we then, for the most part, trapped in a cul de sac of thought as language?  Is there nothing to be done . . . but ecodelics?  Or should we just meditate more often, or perfect our shivasanas?  I don’t mean to mock meditation or yoga practices.  Both are supported by scientific and humanities research as means of stress-reduction and consciousness-raising.  However, since I am invoking Doyle as rhetorician here, I turn to his own stunning performance for a prescription.


Doyle/Ayahausca speaks most powerfully not in the theoretical mode, nor through scientific jargon, but through music.  Like all shamanic hybrids, D&A communicates through rhythm.  While some readers may be frustrated by the theoretical density of Darwin’s Pharmacy, the open and devoted will be hypnotized by its poetic prose, and richly rewarded for their attention.  Doyle’s initial ayahasca experience was programmed through shamanic drumming and melodic chanting (relics from a common cultural past).  Thus, ayahuasca re-turned Doyle to rhetoric as poetry, music, and performance.  And thus art and ritual—incorporating imagination, intuition, and emotion—may help cultivate, or rather return us to, environmental consciousness by luring us beyond our usual, linear patterns of thought and speech.

Painting: “Sky Spirits” by Pablo Amaringo


For more information about this artist see here.









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10 responses to “Notes on Rhetoric, Ecosystems, and Darwin’s Pharmacy:

  1. Scu

    This is both an interesting and dense post. It has certainly had me add Doyle’s book to my wish list. I do have a question, though it may be off topic (and it certainly falls under the “what about animals” category of question) What do we do with the fact that animals like to get high? And this includes ecoldelics (because it is Xmas season, Reindeer get high on fly agaric mushrooms
    So, is the argument that ecoldelics only works because of language, or is it that ecoldelics functions to take humans out of language? (and then art, imagination, intuition, emotion, etc can also do that work).

  2. Christine Skolnik

    What a great question, Scu. Doyle connects animal drug habits to natural/sexual selection. Primates get high before battling rivals. Birds sing more sweetly on certain types of seeds. So the habit is related to survival, evolution, though I don’t think that really answers your question. Definitely have a look at *Darwin’s Pharmacy.* Miss Christina.

  3. Great post CS! I have a default resistance to thinking about any human adaptations as a “corruption” or an “incapacity” etc. These terms will always suggest to us that if we can just switch off certain capacities we get to something preferable, something better perhaps. That being said at one extreme where we might declare ourselves simply happy to let whatever is going to unfold do its job of unfolding…. on the other we can be so preoccupied with our supposed mal-adaptations that (at the extreme) we might welcome our own extinction.

    I guess I am wondering if it is not better to draw the lesson that like all creatures we are a mixed bag of nuts, so to speak, and that language mixes with other capacities in an uneasy but nonetheless organic alliance. I guess I am just too lost in Joyce to want to dim the strong bulb of loquaciousness….sure, I’ll be happy to drop some ecoldelics (when we get that IRB approval!), but I’m likely to get as much from poetry, even from conversation and get an emboldened ethic from such things as I probably would from that trip.

  4. Christine Skolnik

    Yes Dub-in Soil,
    Language as incapacity doesn’t sit well with Darwin, does it. Raises lots of pesky questions about evolution about which I have almost no opinion at this point . . . certainly no educated ones. But I’d like to ask them (innocently). How do single-species adaptations fit within larger ecological systems (other than as an overture to extinction)? How responsive are adaptational mechanism presumed to be (that is to say is there a pendulum swing and how broad)? I assume folks have suggested that anthropogenic climate change is occurring at a pace incommensurate with evolutionary theory . . . would they say the same of human cultural change? And, speaking of cultural change (and hybrids), how do information technologies work with or against plant intelligence. Or, put another way, re. “fullness,” how is D&A in my Mac? Randy?

  5. Agreed evolutionary questions are pesky. But evolutionary change can, I’m told, be quite episodic. The excretion of O2 by plants in a manner that was, initially at least, mischievous for many other organisms comes to mind. So sure climate change is occurring at a reckless pace but not an unprecedented one in comparison with some other ecological events.

    Just as an amoeba if it was conversationally inclined (its not) might tell us about the uniqueness of its pseudopodia etc we can claim a certain uniqueness with respect to our capacity for rapid cultural change and so forth…. or the tempo of our ethical responses – an ethic that we presumably will catch up with the situation we face. All this to say that to dim the lights on language in an effort to add luster to other attributes is a perplexing gesture. Honestly I don’t know how to think about it. But this is precisely the crux the the matter, I don’t know how to think about it for the tools of thought are predicated on this quite singular adaption…language, of course, that is!

    The topic is a super one. I am about the reread Mary Midgely’s Beast and Man, which has some nice stuff on language, and also have reintroduced Heidegger into my diet (looking forward to that particular rabbit hole). But questions of language are central and I am looking forward to seeing more posts on this topic from you CS.

  6. Christine Skolnik

    Jung: “‘Analogical’ or fantasy thinking is emotionally toned, pictorial and wordless, not discourse but an inner-directed rumination on materials belonging to the past.” This quote, which I just encountered in a book I’m reading (*A Dangerous Method*), reminds me that the distinction between logical (verbal) and analogical (non verbal) thinking is a commonplace. I think the critique of linear thought also fits squarely within complex systems theory, no? What, then, is the relationship between systems thinking and evolution?

  7. Christine Skolnik

    P.S. What the “point” of evolution? Do we derive it from current conditions or do current conditions suggest we’re missing something?

  8. Christine Skolnik

    Off-piste response I’d like to share from Donald Strauss, Chair of the Urban Sustainability MA at Antioch:

    “Language is this insanely powerful thing that can bring us to war, enclose us behind borders, attract us, repel us, and all other things good and bad that we can name, all while protecting us from confronting the possibility of our greater capacities to commune, include, appreciate, and simply be.’

  9. Pingback: A Conversation about Sustainability, Epistemology, and Politics | environmental critique

  10. Jeff Tangel

    Immensely useful conversation prompted by a great post. It does seem to me to get at the heart of our many problems, which might be, in the end, boiled down to one problem: choosing our epistemology (though big and multifarious!). In the political sphere I am reminded of the powerful leading conservative language manipulator Frank Luntz and his increasingly well known, though still comparatively weak, challenger George Lakoff (an honest to goodness linguist!). Thankfully, after many years in a dark wood, Lakoff has flat-out declared an epistemological war; he urges people to choose a set of propositions and defend them. The perversity of Luntz is evidenced by David Frum, a heretofore conservative ally, accusing the right of constructing an alternate world view, almost totally disconnected from any sense of shared “reality.” That this effort has been successful is proof I think of the practice: folks have to choose, and with great haste, in order to slow Luntz’s, et al pernicious epistemology.

    And too, Christine’s post reminded me of Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, “My Stroke of Insight”. She is a neuro-anatomist, works for Harvard’s Brain Bank, who literally watched herself have a stroke that wiped out the left side of her brain leaving her in contact with the world only through her right hemisphere. This she describes as an awareness of utter interconnectedness and interdependence; a state in which physical reality was reconstituted in a myriad of ways, all of which resonates with both ecodelic experiences and, to me a Buddhist sensibility of the world. The experience was euphoric and terrifying, as you might expect, and difficult to narrate (it took her many years to recover and reconstruct what happened as she wrote the book) Here’s Bolte-Taylor speaking on TED (about 18 mins.)

    Moving Stuff….

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