Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has made a career by asking big questions with complex, perhaps even unknowable answers. Many of his opinions and assertions delve into the mysteries of the cosmos, but recently he posed a very terrestrial question: how many plants besides cannabis can affect human cognition?
A few known options exist, like ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms; but given the incredible diversity of plant-life on our planet, surely something yet “un-smoked” could also alter a human’s perception of reality.
“How many plants out there remain undiscovered simply because we don’t have enough people saying, ‘Now, let’s smoke that, let’s smoke this?’” deGrasse Tyson asked rhetorically during a chat with Harvard University neuroscientist Staci Gruber. “There’s gotta be [some].”
Gruber agreed in theory, commenting that there’s “huge potential in botanicals.” The neuroscientist also noted that there’s tremendous interest in the potential therapeutic application of botanicals, as well.
The questions come during a time in history when humans seemingly want more medication in their lives, but would also like to look outside pharmaceuticals for daily usage. Studies promoting the safety of drugs like mushrooms are even hitting mainstream scientific journals; and the findings are prompting Western governments like Canada to consider legalization of many once-prohibited substances.
Even if other psychedelic plants once existed, did they survive the many iterations of human evolution of the years?
Neil deGrasse Tyson is not openly advocating for any such behavior, but he does like to theorize about botanicals and the role they play in nature. The scientist has spoken about wild animals accidentally consuming psychedelics in a 2021 podcast, as well as the potential for politicians like Joe Biden to legalize cannabis.
Of course, although cannabis has survived throughout human civilization, it’s possible that many species of plants that might have contained psychoactive have long gone extinct. To put plant extinction into perspective, a study from 2019 estimated that nearly 600 species of plants have been lost in the past 250 years alone.
The entire conversation raises interesting questions about the evolution of humans in general, and how we came to understand our world through trial and error. Modern technology allows for rigorous testing of substances to determine its composites, but for many centuries, presumably man had to take a bite to know exactly what would happen next.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wasn’t advocating for humans to recklessly consume anything, though the thought of thrill-seekers chewing on novel plant species did make for an entertaining podcast. As for his own personal tastes, deGrasse Tyson says he prefers to pass on grass.