BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin

The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for AmericaThe Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The title and subtitle say it all when it comes to Lattin’s controversial thesis that four individuals who were at (or — in Smith’s case — “near / working with”) Harvard University single-handedly (octa-handedly?) gave birth to the sixties’ counterculture through their research and advocacy of hallucinogenic substances (first psilocybin and later LSD.) Before I obtained a copy, I was perusing the reviews, and one overarching criticism stuck out amid a sea of generally complimentary comments. Having now read the book, I’d have to agree with both that criticism and much of the praise.

The criticism is that Lattin arbitrarily lumps four individuals together and emphasizes their connection to the prestigious Harvard University in order to support a [sub-titular] claim whose reach exceeds its grasp. Now, some critics may be defending their alma mater. No matter one’s perspective, Harvard gets a black eye from the story of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass.) For some people, that black eye results from the fact that the pair of psychologists were able to carry out such wild and woolly experimentation in the first place. For others, it results from the fact that the university ultimately fired the two and ended research into the benefits and hazards of hallucinogenic substances [and how to tap the former without succumbing to the latter] — a line of research just starting to show results. (To be fair, the CIA’s shenanigans with hallucinogen experimentation [i.e. MK ULTRA] likely did more to kill this line of research than did the firing of Leary and Alpert.)

As one can see, tying the stories of Leary and Alpert together is reasonable. They were faculty members who worked together, were ultimately fired together, and for a while after said firing they continued to work together to advance their agenda outside the constraining halls of academia. Smith and Weil have roles in this story, but presenting them as though they were working shoulder-to-shoulder to advance psychedelic substance use is a bit of a stretch. While Weil’s work eventually suggested that marijuana wasn’t particularly harmful and could be beneficial, as his story intersects with the Leary / Alpert story his role was adversarial. As an undergraduate and writer for the school newspaper, Weil was the one who broke the story that Leary and Alpert were giving at least some undergraduates hallucinogenic substances (a big no-no as per their agreement with Harvard.)

Huston Smith’s story is yet more tenuously connected. While he was on faculty at MIT, he worked with Leary and Alpert on a study with divinity students to determine how psychedelically-induced mystical experiences compared to ones that weren’t influenced by mind-altering substances. While Leary followed his own advice to “drop out,” becoming a counterculture / hippie bad boy, and Alpert went on to pursue the mystical life of a spiritual seeker under the alter-ego of Ram Dass, Smith had a long career as a mainstream academic – retiring as Professor Emeritus from Syracuse University. Weil had some karma pains early in his career, being marginalized by his colleagues for his work with controlled substances as Leary and Alpert once had been, but ultimately he became a health food / holistic medicine celebrity and co-director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.

While I agree that Lattin overstates his case on the book’s cover, once one delves into its pages, I think he does some intriguing and honest reporting of the stories of these four men. It’s certainly a story with a lot of tension. There’s the strained relationship that ultimately develops between the polar-opposite partners of Leary and Alpert. The two psychologists’ differences were complements in some ways, but the partnership was ultimately doomed. Of course, both of the above men had a problem with Weil, and the latter’s attempts to reconcile with them is integral to the post-Sixties part of the book. As suggested above, Smith’s is a side story that exists outside this drama, and only really has the one point of intersection.

This book kept me reading. Timothy Leary and Ram Dass were only vague pop-culture references to me, and I knew nothing of Weil or Smith before reading, but the overarching story (as well as the individual ones) is a fascinating one. While these four men may not have birthed the Sixties into being, they did have interesting stories while living through an interesting time. I’d recommend this book if you want to learn about the early civilian (i.e. transparent) research into hallucinogens (note: there is only a small reference to the parallel, secretive, government-sponsored work on LSD, and this isn’t the book to learn about that subject.) It’s also a good book to get a view of how the sixties unfolded, and the states of mind that led to it. As I said, these four men weren’t particularly integral to the Sixties being what it was. Aldous Huxley’s essays were out there; the Vietnam War, political mistrust, and other ingredients of the counter-cultural tide were all present. But, while the Sixties might have transpired without a glitch if none of these men had ever been born, they did have front row seats to what was going on, and one sees in their actions (drug use, spirituality, radicalism, etc.) the era in miniature.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Brief History of Vice by Robert Evans

A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built CivilizationA Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization by Robert Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s title and subtitle suggest its central theme, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. As the title suggests, drugs, sex, and sundry bad behavior aren’t just the abhorrent actions of a marginalized few who society seeks to reign in. In some cases, culture and civilization are built on said behaviors. Evans devotes a fair amount of space to discussing research on vices’s role in the growth of civilization. These hypotheses and theories run a gamut from the non-controversial and well-established to more sweeping claims such as that the agricultural revolution was largely driven by the dictates of beer production (i.e. both the need to produce a lot of grain and to be homebodies through the fermentation process) and that the dawn of religion may be linked to the ingestion of mushrooms of the magic variety. Despite the book’s light and humorous tone, it should be noted that the author treats the latter type of claims with the requisite skepticism.

But this isn’t just a book of history, anthropology, and evolutionary biology as pertains to the origins of vice and its linkage to civilization and culture; it also offers humorous anecdotes of the author’s experiments into how to replicate some of the vices of the ancients – as well as offering step-by-step directions for readers to conduct their own such investigations. As might be expected, there’s a lot of humor in the book. Just the idea of debauchery building civilization offers plenty of opportunity for the subversion of expectations that makes comedy, but then one adds in stories of people (and occasionally other species) making decisions under the influence of mind and mood altering substances (or even under the influence of horniness) and one enters territory ripe for hilarity.

The book consists of 15 chapters that cover both expected and unexpected topics. Not surprisingly, discussion of drugs – legal and illicit — takes up a large portion of the book. [I should make clear that the discussion of illegal substances is purely historical, and the “how-to” sections describe “experiments” that were legal in the author’s jurisdiction and that will be for most readers.] Ten chapters are about various consciousness and mood altering substances including: alcohol (ch. 1 & 4), psychedelic substances (ch. 7, 8, and 10), tobacco and marijuana (ch. 9; treated together because historically they had more in common than in their modern use / legal status), the ephedra shrub and derived products ranging from Mormon tea to Methamphetamine (ch. 11), coffee and caffeine (ch. 12), designer drugs ranging from ayahuasca [made from two different plants that don’t live together and which only work when used together] through pain killers and on to the dangerous scourge of synthesized substances created in labs to get around drug laws for a few days until they will be added to the schedule of illegal substances.) The final chapter (ch. 15) is devoted to the search for the mythical salamander brandy of Slovenia (claimed to have hallucinogenic qualities owing to a toxin emitted by the submerged reptile.) I should point out that I have oversimplified with this division of chapters for simplicity’s sake. Some of the chapters dealt with more than one type of substance. For example, Chapter 10 is really about drug cultures and how they kept people safe in, for example, shamanic tribal societies, and how the loss of such culture is part of the reason we have a more severe problem with substances in modern society.

No investigation into the role of vice on civilization would be complete without discussing sex, though there are only two chapters about it. The first, chapter 6, discusses prostitution / sex work. There’s a widespread tongue-in-cheek reference to “the world’s oldest profession” that hints that sex work is both ancient and that past civilizations sometimes viewed these activities in a much different light than do we in modern, Western society. The second chapter on sex, chapter 13, addresses a different question altogether, but one which has captured the attention of many a scholar (as well as being fruitful territory for humorists), and that’s why there’s such a vast range of sexually titillating activities. It’s not difficult to figure out the evolutionary advantage of extreme pleasure being linked to sexual intercourse. However, it’s much less clear why there are such a huge range of fetish behaviors that are intensely arousing for some while ranging from being boring to disgusting for others. [It’s not cleared up by thinking that there is just a tiny fraction of the population that is into everything. A person who gets excited by wearing a head-to-toe rubber suit while being failed with a halibut might find a foot fetish utterly disgusting.]

For those who are counting, that leaves three chapters on miscellaneous forms of vice. Chapter 2 discusses music, particularly as a lubricant of social activities, and it presents an intriguing theory that Stonehenge may have been built for its acoustic qualities – i.e. to facilitate ancient raves. Chapter 3 explores celebrity worship, an activity which we tend to think of as both recent and as harbinger of doom for humanity, but which actually has a long history – so long that it may date back further than humanity, itself, does. That leaves chapter five, which delves into a grab-bag of bad habits that would today be collectively labeled “douchiness.” This includes narcissism, inexplicable overconfidence, and a tendency toward lying, bragging, and delusions about self or others.

The book has a range of graphics from photographs to diagrams. Some are for educational purposes (e.g. to help the reader conduct their own experiments) and some are mostly for comedic effect. The “side-bar” discussions of how to reproduced the results of the ancients (and the author, himself) are presented in text-boxes for the sake of clarity. There are one or two of these text-boxes in most chapters. As mentioned, the subjects for these “hands-on” activities are chosen to avoid running afoul of the law.

I enjoyed this book. It’s at once amusing and thought-provoking. I think the author hits a nice medium between doling out humor and educating the reader. I’d recommend reading it (though not necessarily conducting every one of the experiments) for anyone who finds the subject intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

The Doors of Perception and Heaven and HellThe Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The two essays collected in this thin volume recount Aldous Huxley’s experience taking mescalin (a psychedelic drug / hallucinogen derived from a cactus root) in the 1950’s, and the insights derived from that experimentation. The book contains descriptions of what Huxley observed under the influence, such as the hallucinations of “sacred geometry” that are common among those consuming hallucinogens. However, much of these essays are about how what he witnessed mirrors art and the text of mystical religions. Huxley provides a steady diet of food-for-thought on these topics. It is when Huxley relates the psychedelic experience to the mystical, religious, and artistic experience that I found this volume to be the most intriguing. “The Doors of Perception” is a mix of description and discussion of these linkages. “Heaven & Hell” delves much more deeply into said linkages, and I was blown away by some of the ideas in the latter essay. There is also a bit of discussion of the commonalities between schizophrenia and psychedelic experience.

Huxley devotes some space in both essays to discussing the science of these experiences, but I don’t see those parts as the strength of the volume. While Huxley was a scientifically minded fellow, his reporting on science errors on some of the grand scale issues (e.g. memory, which is far more fallible than was thought in his day.) (Specific [small-scale issue] findings are probably accurate.) The thing is, Huxley was also a mystic and he viewed biology as a “reducing valve” that mitigated our experience of consciousness—a grand field existing wholly beyond the nervous system, such that our experience of it was hemmed in by biology—rather than being created by it. This isn’t particularly a criticism. For one thing, when one beholds the bold sensory experiences that Huxley witnessed and contrasts them to the visualization of everyday consciousness, it’s hard not to believe that one is on a plane entirely outside the bonds of biology. While I’ve never done psychedelic drugs, my limited experience with the more-real-than-real world of lucid dreaming makes me sympathetic to this long-held and widely held belief. Additionally, neuroscience was still in it’s infancy during Huxley’s time. [It may still be in its infancy, but a great deal has been learned—particularly since the technology of the 1990’s—that points to biology being the source of many of these experiences that seem amaterial.]

The two essays are each short. “The Doors of Perception” is about 50 pages, and “Heaven & Hell” is about 40. Even with the front matter and appendices, the book comes in at only a little over 120 pages.

There are no graphics in this volume, nor is it annotated—except for in-text references and a few footnotes. With respect to front matter, there is a Forward by J.G. Ballard and an Introduction / bio-sketch of Huxley by David Bradshaw. There are also a series of appendices that report on various topics related to mystical / psychedelic experiences such as the effects of CO2, strobe lights, and starvation, as well as the relationship to lighting, works of art, and mental illness.

If one is interested in alternate states of consciousness, I’d highly recommend this book. Huxley’s ability to capture his experience vividly and his thought-provoking suggestions about the experience make these essays worth the read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Narconomics by Tom Wainwright

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug CartelNarconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Narconomics” is about how drug cartels are taking pages from the playbooks of big businesses like Walmart and Coca-cola. In cases like diversifying into new markets or deciding to collude with a competitor, this might not seem surprising. However, it may come as a shock to find out about the franchising and CSR (corporate social responsibility) practices of drug cartels. Other than being outside access to the justice system, and thus resorting to violence to achieve what contracts, mediators, and courts would do for other businesses, the drug business it turns out is very much a business.

 

Along the way a secondary story emerges that is just as interesting and even more important. It’s the story of how the drug war makes no sense from the standpoint of economic logic. Destroying fields in South America only makes for poorer farmers because their monopsonistic (i.e. single buyer) market pushes the cost of lost crops back onto them. And because raw product is such a tiny portion of retail price, their destruction has almost no effect on prices at the user end. Furthermore, as more US and European states legalize marijuana, it seems that this will have more of an effect at putting cartels out of business and ending their reign of violence than all the arms shipments and foreign aid for drug enforcement ever had.

 

The book consists of ten chapters, each of which addresses an area of business practices that have been taken up by the drug cartels. Chapter one is about supply chains, and in the case of cocaine there is a rather long one. The raw product is grown in South America and must be infiltrated into the US—usually through Mexico. (For a while there was a prominent Caribbean route, but it was shut down—at least for a while.) This is where we learn about how the cartels adapt to eradicated crops, as well as how the product is marked up at various stages of the operation.

 

Chapter 2 is about the decision to compete versus collude. We mostly read about the competition, because in a lawless market competition equals violence. However, over time cartels have been increasingly willing to agree on distribution of territory. Although, there are also clever means to compete unique to criminal enterprises, such as engaging in violence in someone else’s territory to cause the police to crack down there—thus making it harder for said opposition.

 

Chapter 3 is about human resources, and the different approaches used to handle problems in this domain. In the movies, a drug cartel employee who fouled up always gets a bullet to the brain, but it seems that this isn’t always the case—though it certainly happens. Different countries and regions have differing labor mobility. In some cases, there is no labor mobility. (i.e. if one has a gang’s symbols tattooed all over one’s body, one can’t interview with a rival gang and Aetna sure as hell isn’t going to hire you.)

 

Chapter 4 is about public relations and giving to the public. One doesn’t think about drug lords engaging in CSR, but in some cases they may be more consistent with it than mainstream businesses. The cartels face an ongoing risk of people informing on them, and at least some of those people can do so without their identities becoming known. Violence is often used to solve problems in this domain, but it can’t do it all. That’s why drug lords build churches and schools, and often become beloved in the process.

 

Chapter 5 explores “offshoring” in the drug world. This may seem strange, but drug cartels, too, chase low-cost labor. But it’s not just about lowering costs, it’s also about finding a suitable regulatory environment—which in the cartel’s case means a slack one. An interesting point is made that all the statistics on doing business are still relevant to the drug business, but often in reverse. That is, if Toyota is putting in a plant, it wants a place with low corruption, but if the Sinaloa want to put in a facility–the easier the bribery the better.

 

Chapter 6 describes how franchising has come to be applied to drug cartels—famously the Zetas. The franchiser provides such goods as better weaponry in exchange for a cut of profits. Of course, there’s always a difference in incentives between franchisers and franchisees when it comes to delimiting territory, and this doesn’t always work out as well for drug dealers as it does for McDonald’s franchisees.

 

While the bulk of the book focuses on cocaine and marijuana, Chapter 7 is different in that most of it deals with the wave of synthetic drugs that has popped up. The topic is innovating around regulation, and so it’s certainly apropos to look at these drugs. If you’re not familiar, there are many synthetic drugs that are usually sold as potpourri or the like. Once they’re outlawed, the formula is tweaked a little. In a way, these “legal highs” may be the most dangerous because no one knows what effect they’ll have when they put the out on the street.

 

In chapter 8 we learn that the drug world hasn’t missed the online retail phenomena. Using special web browsers, individuals are able to make transactions that are not so difficult to trace. In an intriguing twist, the online market may foster more trust and higher quality product than the conventional street corner seller ever did.

 

Chapter 9 examines how drug traffickers diversify—most notably into human trafficking. Exploiting their knowledge of how to get things across the border, they become “coyotes.”

 

The last chapter investigates the effect of legalization, and it focuses heavily upon the effects that Denver’s legalizing marijuana has had in Denver, in the rest of the country, and on the cartels. Wainwright paints a balanced picture that shows that not everything is perfect with legalization. E.g. he presents a couple of cases of people who ingested pot-laced food products intended for several servings, and did crazy stuff. However, the bottom line is that legalization (and the regulation and taxation that comes with it) seems to be the way to go if you want to really hurt the cartels and stem the tide of violence, as well as to reduce the number of people showing up at the ER having ingested some substance of unknown chemical composition.

 

There is an extensive conclusion, about the length of one of the chapters that delves into the many ways our approach to eliminating drug use is ill-advised and dangerous. This connects together a number of the key points made throughout the chapter.

 

I found this book fascinating. Wainwright does some excellent investigative reporting—at no minor risk to life and limb. If you’re interested in issues of business and economics, you’ll love this book. If you’re not into business and economics, you’ll find this book to be an intriguing and palatable way to take on those subjects.

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