Cannabis is the coevolutionary plant partner of humanity

Human and Cannabis Coevolution

CANNABIS CULTURE – How the human race enhanced the cannabis plant … and how it returned the favour.

 Does the human-cannabis connection predate humanity? (Photo by DoobieDuck)

Does the human-cannabis connection predate humanity? (Photo by Doobie Duck)

“Whatever THC’s original purpose may have been, as soon as a certain primate with a gift for experiment and horticulture stumbled on its psychoactive properties, the plant’s evolution embarked on a new trajectory, guided from then on by that primate and his desires.” – Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire [1]

“Coevolution” is a concept described by Darwin [2] but first fleshed-out and defined in 1964 by insect scientist (entomologist) Paul Ehrlich and botanist Peter Raven, in their paper “Butterflies and plants: a study in coevolution”. [3] Put simply, coevolution is where two different living species help each other adapt and evolve by influencing each other.

Can one argue that this is occurring between cannabis and humans? Certainly, the partnership has been good for cannabis. Once confined to central Asia, cannabis has been distributed by humans to all four corners of the globe. Different cannabis species have developed due to human selection for industrial, nutritional or medicinal traits. Cannabis has become a stronger, more diverse, more adaptive and more widely-cultivated plant as a result of it’s relationship with us. [4]

Can the same thing be said for humans? What has the plant done for us?

Hemp seeds do happen to be the best food in the world for humans. [5] Nice of cannabis to evolve into a plant which produces seeds that contain all the essential fatty acids required for complete human health in the exact ratios required by humans. Coincidence? Or was the plant trying to get our attention somehow?

Also worth mentioning: cannabis may have been our first rope and fabric [6], our first “true” paper [7], and one of our first medicines. [8] The list of physical and mental medicinal actions that cannabis is involved in is a long one, and would take many pages to properly outline it’s entire scope. Suffice to say cannabis medicines may replace up to half of all synthetic medicines when fully researched. [9]

Then there’s that cannabis high. Truth be told, the economic and social desires to understand and obtain this high was a major impetus for the creation of Cannabis Culture Magazine. To a certain extent, it is the insights gathered during these moments of highness that have most deeply effected human culture. As psychonaut/poet Allen Ginsberg put it; “the vast majority all over the world … adjust to the strangely familiar sensation of time slowdown, and explore this new space through natural curiosity, report that it’s a useful area of mind-consciousness to be familiar with”. [10] Without attempting to list everything, what are some of the results of the insights found during the “time-slow cannabis high” [11] on human mental and cultural evolution?

On the less controversial side of things: pot-smoking piano players in the whorehouses of Storyville in New Orleans brought the world Jazz music. [12] Most, if not all of, the decent rock and reggae music after 1965 was composed while the artists were high – and probably over half of the best rap music. [13] The best comedy of the last twenty or thirty years? Potheads. [14] The personal computer and much of the decent software in this world? Potheads. [15] The best writers and poets? Potheads. [16] And I think it’s safe to say a very large percentage of professional athletes – especially NBA and Snowboarding athletes – had their professional performances enhanced when high – or by what they had learned while high. [17]

But let’s also speak more controversially: there is strong evidence Shakespeare [18] and Jesus [19] were also really, really high. The evidence for Jesus was that the holy “Christ/Messiah” anointing oil that was used during his baptism and for the healing miracles and duties of him and his apostles. The evidence for Shakespeare was that his pipes were full of cannabis resins. In fact, its fair to say that cannabis has had a profound effect on the minds of those behind many religions [20] and much of modern theater – which now also embraces Hollywood. [21] Say what you want about the benefits and drawbacks of religion and Hollywood, but you have to admit that the insight-filled “time-slow cannabis high” has been part of the process of human cultural evolution. Religion has brought us the Golden Rule. Hollywood brought us “They Live”, “Brazil”, and “Blade Runner”. Ultimately, humans have benefited from both relationships.

Aron H. Lichtman

Aron H. Lichtman
At the risk of endorsing animal experiments, which I almost always find completely useless in being able to tell anything relevant about human behavior (not to mention cruel), there has been a notable discovery from animal experiments regarding the cannabinoid receptors which may shed some light on the “insight” side of the high. In an article titled “Evaluation of CB1 receptor knockout mice in the Morris water maze” by Varvel and Lichtman [22], scientists took mice that had their cannabinoid receptors genetically “knocked out” – “knockout mice” – and put them in a tank of water with a small platform, comparing their performance in finding this platform with mice which still had their cannabinoid receptors.

Mouse on platform

Mouse on platform

As it turns out, the regular mice could learn to search out the platform when it was moved but the knockout mice could only learn where the platform was once. The knockouts could not relearn it’s new position when the platform was moved. This means that cannabinoid receptors have something vital to do with memory and problem solving. Dr. Robert Melamede has reflected on the water maze experiments and suggests there are FLPs and BLPs – Forward Looking People and Backward Looking People – the BLP’s missing out on some cannabinoid-related brain activity. Perhaps the BLP brains don’t produce enough cannabinoids on their own. According to Dr. Melamede, the extremely backward-thinking people such outgoing president Bush are the human equivalent of knockout mice. [23]

Perhaps if there was more pot smoking and less drinking going on in the White House, there would be less war and monopoly capitalism and more sustainable growth and wealth-sharing. You never know until you try.

Hopefully, this “knockout mice drown – CB1 receptors are important” info will empower scientists to stop drowning rodents and turn their attention to the study of well-cannabinized human subjects in their natural setting – like an Easy Star All-Stars concert or something. Maybe the researchers just need to smoke a bit more pot in order to become “forward-looking” enough to see how inhuman, insufficient and wasteful animal testing ultimately is.

Clearly, the huge bibliography of anecdotal evidence outlined above of humans using cannabis in natural settings points towards much insight and creativity gained from cannabis use. Combined with all the evidence of the medical, nutritional and industrial uses, it can be said that humans have benefited much from cannabis, and it has benefited much from us. This is a “win-win” form of coevolution known as “mutualistic symbiosis”.

Other questions then arise: how far back does this relationship go? And where is it headed?

Gardens Long Ago

Our fathers planted gardens long ago…
Whose fruits we reap with joy today;
Their labor constitutes a debt we owe…
Which to our heirs we must repay;
For all crops sown in any land…
Are destined for a future man.

Arab Poet – Nizami

The world's first flower fossil - circa 125 million years ago

The world’s first flower fossil – circa 125 million years ago

There are no cannabis fossils on record. [24] Cannabis probably arrived on planet earth about 34 million years ago, an estimate based upon the seven shared parasites with Cannabis’s “sister group” the Urticaceae (nettle) family and the lack of any shared parasites with cannabis’s “cousin” the Moraceae (mulberry/fig) family. [25]

The first cannabis farmers? Nobody knows that for sure. What we do know is that there is evidence of cannabis pressed into pottery from 12,000 years ago from Taiwan – at the beginning of the Neolithic era (the age of farming). In a footnote to his 1977 book “The Dragons of Eden – Speculations on the Origin of Human Intelligence”, Carl Sagan pointed out that cannabis is the only crop of the Pygmies, and posited that “It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.”

We also know that as early as 1.75 million years ago Homo erectus migrated into Asia, where cannabis is thought to originate. [26] Some time between 1.8 million and 1 million years ago early humans learned to control fire. [27] Did they sit around hemp fires and get a whiff of that cannabis smoke while they “chewed the fat” from a recent hunt? Is this how we invented language?

It’s even possible that earlier primates or mammals went after the cannabis seeds and then began distributing a few of the unchewed seeds in nice neat little piles of fertilizer a day’s worth of travel away. I am told that human feces makes poor fertilizer … maybe ape droppings fertilizer is better?

This fossil of an unknown leaf is from 40-50 million years ago. Cannabis originated 34 million years ago

This fossil of an unknown leaf is from 40-50 million years ago.

Cannabis originated 34 million years agoIn his book “Intoxication”, Author Ronald K. Siegel records cannabis self-administration by different animals. Mice, rats and birds would get intoxicated in the process of obtaining hemp seeds. Monkeys have been observed snacking on the top leaves of plants in South American pot farms. [28]

Endocannabinoids, the things that your body produces to get you high, are a lot older than humans. They are found in primates, mammals birds, amphibians, fish, sea urchins, molluscs, leeches and the Hydra vulgaris – a primitive water creature that never ages. Scientists estimate the first endocannabinoids are over 600 million years old. [29]

There is a theory – the “vestigial receptor hypothesis”, that states that the proto cannabinoid receptor evolved in primitive organisms before the division of animals and plants – about a billion years ago. [30]

It’s an obvious over-simplification, but it’s quite possible that a nettle-like plant had a mutation which reactivated it’s cannabinoid genes and began to ooze THC, which intoxicated and confused animal threats, allowing the mutant plant to survive pests. It’s intoxication may have eventually attracted other animal which the mutant plant hitched a ride with, making the proto-cannabis plant more able to spread it’s seed around.

Cannabis Cave Art from Korea

Cannabis Cave Art from Korea

Over millions of years plants have mutated and evolved to have shapes and petals and smells and fruits and nectar, all of which have acted as enticements and rewards for their animal partners. There is even an ant-fungi relationship where the ants take care of the fungus and the fungus helps break down the ant’s food. [31] The cannabis-human relationship is just like the bee-flower relationship or the ant-fungus relationship – a pair of fauna and flora helping each other out – except in our case it’s a bit more complex.

The future of human-cannabis coevolution

“Obama supports the rights of states and local governments to make this choice— though he believes medical marijuana should be subject to [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] regulation like other drugs,” LaBolt said. He said the FDA should consider how marijuana is regulated under federal law, while leaving states free to chart their own course.” – Jacub Sullum [32]

While a few of the more insane and powerful amongst us want cannabis eliminated from planet earth, more than half of us humans respect, enjoy and revere this plant and appreciate what it has to offer – including, hopefully, the new US President. With any luck cannabis is here to stay … at least in some form.

Nettle - cannabis's closest cousin?

Nettle – cannabis’s closest cousin?

What is ahead for the evolution of cannabis? Our influence on the plant is increasing more and more each day as new breeders seek out different traits. Expect more breakthroughs in breeding for traits we value – such as specific tastes, smells, colors and of course physical and mental effects. Breeding for different effects holds great potential for increasing cannabis’s value to us. I expect some day soon we will all be able to walk into any cannabis compassion club or cafe and select from strains named “Munchies”, “Giggles”, “Pain-B-Gone”, “Sleep”, “Wake Up”, “20minuteOrgasm” and the ever-popular “Fantasia-On-The-Big-Screen”.

And what is ahead for human evolution? The medicinal and nutritional advantages to the human race provided by cannabis are massive. If it was reintroduced into our diets and medicine cabinets to it’s full potential, it could very well help humans evolve into a stronger and more physically and mentally healthy race of beings.

If we humans can overcome the monopolists who control our government and succeed in defeating the monopoly of cannabis production and distribution outside AND within our own community, there might be millions of jobs of cannabis farming, cannabis gardening, cannabis breeding and cannabis retailing that will open up to people of modest means. Other profitable botanical medicines may also be re-examined for their utility, and increase number of people working within the emerging herbal health-care and soft-drug tourism economies. Cannabis could very well help humans evolve beyond poverty.

From p.93 of 'Plants of the Gods' by Schultes and Hoffman, 1992. This is the area that cannabis is thought to originate from.

From p.93 of ‘Plants of the Gods’ by Schultes and Hoffman, 1992.

This is the area that cannabis is thought to originate from.The economic potential of cannabis could be further expanded by realizing cannabis is the best fuel crop in the world for ethanol production. Some estimate that legal hemp ethanol would cost 15 cents per liter or 50 cents per gallon at the pump! [33] Cannabis even grows in sand! [34] The fact it can grow almost anywhere will increase the areas we can grow fuel in and help us reclaim desert regions for food and fuel production. If cannabis was no longer over-regulated, it could easily compete with and replace the oil-spill causing, oil-war causing, climate-change causing fossil fuels – not to mention making up a large percentage of the sustainable lubrication oils, varnishes, vegi-plastics, pressed fiber board and concrete building materials of the future. This would go a long way in helping humans … not just to evolve, but to survive.

Finally, an end to the drug war and an honest evaluation of it’s racist and monopolistic origins may help humans evolve past the point of using scapegoating as a method of social control. Evolving from “Homo Sapien Beat-eachother-uppus” to “Homo Sapien learn-to-share-the-stuffus” is quite possibly the greatest evolutionary step we could ever make. It’s certainly now or never.

Lacking the massive amount of data needed to be able to call cannabis our “co-evolutionary partner in mutualistic symbiosis”, ancient humans simply referred to it as “the tree of life” and left it at that. Whatever we call it, we must re-legalize this plant and learn to share it now, while a slightly saner type of human is at the helm of the free world. We must not let this opportunity pass, allowing some other anti-cannabis and/or pro-monopolist president to regain the White House and continue a war on our coevolutionary plant partner. We must not let the cannabis war threaten to bring our own evolution to a painful halt. And we must not let the drug war act upon us as a form of “unnatural selection”, choosing only the most obedient, dull and misinformed to provide us with the future generation, leaving the forward-looking people to rot in jail, suffer the indignity of “treatment” for their intelligent preferences, and/or languish in artificial, tyrant-imposed poverty.

Source List

1. Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, 2002, Random House, p. 156
Darwin, C. R. 1862. On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. London: John Murray.
3. “Butterflies and plants: a study in coevolution” (1964) Evolution: 18 pp 586-608 Ehrlich, P.R. & Raven, P.H.
4. “The evolution of Cannabis and coevolution with the cannabinoid receptor – a hypothesis” (2004) The Medicinal Uses of Cannabis and Cannabinoids McPartland, J.M. & Guy, G.W., the Pharmaceutical Press p. 93 – Robert Connell Clarke, Hashish!, Red Eye Press, 1998, p. 6
5. Chris Conrad, Hemp For Health, 1997, Healing Arts Press, pp. 112-122
6. Rowan Robinson, The Great Book of Hemp, 1996, Park Street Press, p. 103
7. Needham, Joseph (1985). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Part 1. Cambridge University Press, p. 40
The Great Book of Hemp, pp. 104-106
8. Christian Ratsch, Marijuana Medicine, 2001, Healing Arts Press, pp. 15-18
Franjo Grotenhermen, Ethan Russo, Cannabis and Cannabinoids, 2002, The Hawthorn Integrated Healing Press, pp. 27, 37
The Medicinal Uses of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, pp. 72-75
9. Tod Mikuriya, Marijuana: Medical Papers, 1973, Medi-Comp Press, p. xxiv
Sidney Cohen and Richard Stillman, The Therapeutic Potential of Marijuana, 1976, Plenum Medical Book Company, pp. 35-36
Jack Herer, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, 2000, AH HA Publishing, p. 40
10. Allen Ginsberg, “First Manifesto to End the Bringdown”, 1965, published in David Solomon, The Marijuana Papers, 1966, Bobbs-Merrill, pp. 184-185
11. “Time slowdown”, David Malmo-Levine, 2003, Cannabis Culture #45
12. “The History of music and marijuana (part one)”, Russel Cronin, 2004, Cannabis Culture #49
13. “The history of music and marijuana (part two)”, Russell Cronin, 2005 Cannabis Culture #50
“Marijuana music history (part 3)” Russell Cronin, 2005, Cannabis Culture #51
14. “Dead funny “, Russell Cronin, 2005, Cannabis Culture #53
“Most programmers smoke pot. Coincidentally, most programming jobs won’t drug test. :D”
“…the first e-commerce transaction happened in 1972, a marijuana purchase between Stanford’s SAIL lab and MIT’s AI lab.”
16. Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess – A history of writers on drugs, 2002, Harvard University Press, pp. 123-169
17. “Arrests of the Rich and Famous “
“There’s worse than marijuana”, Skip Bayless,
18. “Drugs clue to Shakespeare’s genius -Elizabethans may have explored more than just the oceans”, March 1, 2001
“Shakespeare on pot” Chris Bennet, 2001, Cannabis Culture #31
19. Cannabis and the Christ: Jesus used Marijuana, Chris Bennet, 1998, Cannabis Culture #11
20. Green Gold the Tree of Life – Marijuana in magic and Religion, Chris Bennet, 1995, Access Unlimited
The Ancient History of Cannabis part 1, David Malmo-Levine, Fall 2001, Potshot #17
21. “Celebrity stoners” Dana Larsen, 2002, Cannais Culture #37 “Celebrity stoners”
, Dana Larsen, 2002 Cannabis Culture #38 “Celebrity stoners” Brooke Thorsteinson, 2005, Cannabis Culture #52 “Celebrity stoners” Brooke Thorsteinson, 2005, Cannabis Culture #53 “Celebrity stoners” Brooke Thorsteinson and Dana Larsen, 2005, Cannabis Culture #54 “Celebrity Stoners”,
22. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2002 Jun ;301 (3):915-24 12023519 (P,S,G,E,B) Cited:2
Evaluation of CB1 receptor knockout mice in the Morris water maze.
[My paper] S A Varvel, Aron H Lichtman
23. “Cannabinoids, From Cells to Society Part 2”, Dr Melamede’s presentation at the 5th Conference on Clinical Cannabinoids,
24. The Medicinal Uses of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, p. 73
25. Ibid, p. 74
26. Ibid, p. 72
27. Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Environs
28. Ronald K. Siegel, Intoxication, 1989, Dutton, pp. 147-157
29. The Medicinal Uses of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, p. 81
30. Ibid, p. 85
31. Exploiting a mutualism: parasite specialization on cultivars within the fungus-growing ant symbiosis – Proceedings of the Royal Society, Gerardo, Mueller, Price, Currie
Issue Volume 271, Number 1550/September 07, 2004
32. “Obama on Medical Marijuana: Getting Clearer” Jacob Sullum, 2008,
33. Fuel of the Future? The Economics, History and Politics of Hemp Fuels
David Malmo-Levine, 2008, Treating Yourself Magazine, #11,
CIFAR Conference XIV, “Cracking the Nut: Bioprocessing Lignocellulose to
Renewable Products and Energy”, June 4, 2001
34. Marijuana Medicine, p. 64