It is probably this second aspect to religious cooperation than explains the appeal of psychedelic drugs. By simulating the effects of religious transcendence, they mimic states of mind that played an evolutionarily valuable role in making human cooperation possible – and with it, greater numbers of surviving descendants. This does not mean that humans evolved to take psychedelic drugs. But it does mean that psychedelic drug use can be explained in evolutionary terms as a “hack” that enables transcendent states to be reached quickly.
Legal systems can’t change human nature
If this story is true, what are its implications? One is that psychedelic drug use is no different, in principle, to practices like chanting, fasting, praying and meditating that religions typically use to bring about altered states of consciousness. Purists may object to drug taking because it lacks the spiritual discipline involved in such procedures. This is true, but one could just as easily argue that buying a car lacks the practical discipline of building an internal combustion engine from scratch. And in any event, there are many religions that use psychoactive substances in their ceremonies.
A second implication is that psychedelic drugs may play a positive role in improving mental outlook. Already, there are promising results concerning the effects of psychedelics on the depressed and the terminally ill. Though this is no guarantee that such results will hold good for everyone, it gives grounds for thinking that there is a portion of the population for whom psychedelic drugs can produce valuable effects.
Banning psychedelic drugs is likely to be counterproductive. Just as banning sexual activity does not stop sexual desire, outlawing psychedelic drugs does nothing to change the innate need for transcendent experiences. A sensible legal approach would create a framework that allows people to use psychedelic drugs while minimising the harms. The fact is, no legal system yet has succeeded in changing human nature, and there is no reason to think that that prohibiting psychedelic drugs will be any different.