Created January 29, 2009. Revised May 27, 2012; April 30, 2013; and May 27, 2013.
Copyright 1998-2013 by John W. Allen.

A Review of Andy Letcher's book
"Shrooms: A Cultural History."

Brian Aakers


Brian Aakers Review of Andy Letcher's book, Shrooms: A Cultural History
"Solid Research, Badly Marred by Postmodern Treatment."
June 9, 2007 ( review).

This is a difficult book to review because it mixes elements that are quite good with others equally bad. It contains a wealth of very interesting material and findings from the author's scholarly studies. But unfortunately, indeed tragically, it lacks the appropriate emphasis of scientific viewpoint in favor of postmodernism, the intellectual fad currently dominant on campus--not in the sciences but in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Like religious fundamentalism and various New Age preoccupations, postmodernism is aggressively ideological, even totalizing in its ambitions. As such, it has significant difficulties with no-nonsense scientific perspectives, inspiring futile scholarly efforts to undermine the authority and credibility of science. "Shroom" can be seen as an offering in this vein. Its discussion treads water in a sea of postmodern buzzwords, while generating a stream of backhanded insinuations about science (a "drab discipline" as Letcher puts it), and indulging in ad hominem arguments (Letcher dislikes Wasson, whom he seems to view as an archetypal Capitalist bourgeoisie White Male sexist Bad Guy... etc.). To anyone unfamiliar with postmodernism and its anti-scientific orientation, I heartily recommend the book "Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science" by Gross and Levitt; or simply google "transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.


On the down side, "Shroom" floats a multitude of red herrings and misconceptions, often under the guise of "debunking" various notions it asserts as erroneous. In many cases, the point is well taken; but in others Letcher unwisely bites off considerably more than he can chew, or misrepresents his targets, attacking cardboard caricatures of his own making. There are far too many such missteps to address in a brief review, and different readers will spot different sticking points. To me, one of the more serious is the idea that "Shroom" has effectively refuted Wasson's identification of Soma as fly agaric. Letcher's discussion of this theory is not an even-handed presentation of the evidence pertaining to it (which is equivocal and complex), but rather a partisan polemic focusing exclusively on arguments against it. In fact, there is significant evidence supporting Wasson's Soma theory, discovered only after he proposed it, which Letcher doesn't even mention. Critics wishing to disprove Wasson's theory must reply to that evidence with better explanations for it, not pretend it doesn't exist while trying to keep the conversation focused on objections (some of which do indeed raise legitimate questions for Wassonian approaches).

Of course, there is nothing wrong with passionately arguing a particular point of view, as Letcher does. But such argumentation is not to be confused with, and must be rigorously distinguished from, efforts toward a balanced, dispassionate search for greater knowledge, regardless of where it leads. Ethnomycology best benefits from the latter approach, compatible as it is with scientific methods. The former approach is responsible for the profusion of "myths Letcher declaims, and there is irony in the fact that "Shroom" creates some new canards even as it seeks to dispel old ones.

But Letcher's dismissal of Wasson's Soma theory does worse than tiptoe around findings that support it. There is some appearance of chicanery. He first sets it up like just one more duck in a row along with a half dozen or so, baiting the reader who eagerly waits to see how he will shoot it down. He then summarizes various arguments already made against Wasson's theory by others, often agreeing by mere dogmatic assertion ("Brough was right: the situation in Siberia was interesting, but it could have no cultural relevance to Soma whatsoever.") But in the end, disappointingly, Letcher switches. He retreats from the whole question on the grounds that we really can't know for sure--no one can prove with finality what Soma was, and there is consequently no point in trying to identify it, he contends.

Apart from any shell-game tactics, such a position is badly flawed in its logic, as though to claim: "I can't see how we can ever know this, therefore we cannot ever know it" (such reasoning resembles that of the Intelligent Designers who can't see how something as complicated as the eye could have originated by natural selection, and proclaim it is therefore impossible). It seems Letcher fails to comprehend the methods and achievements of science. Scientific knowledge, for whatever limited degrees of objectivity it reaches, is not divine revelation. It is inherently theoretical and tentative in nature, based exclusively on discoveries made so far, with a humble certainty there is a great deal yet to be disclosed to investigation. Scientific understanding can never be chiseled in stone, for it must undergo continual revision to assimilate new discoveries as they are made. The question is never whether we can say something with some kind of absolute certainty, as though proven beyond all possible doubt; it is whether we have good reason to think something might be true or not, based on what we know so far. In that regard, the evidence favoring Wasson's Soma theory is probably just as strong as the evidence against it, perhaps even stronger. That Letcher disagrees with Wasson's theory is all well and good. But he does readers a disservice in suggesting it has been laid to rest, and then washing his hands. There is a critical difference between the detached skepticism of a scientific orientation, and mere personal incredulity, a point lost in the "Shroom" sauce. It seems to me the story Letcher tells of Wasson's Soma theory being dead is, perhaps like the preliminary reports of Samuel Clemens' untimely demise, greatly exaggerated.

Recently, the occult-like or New Age orientation of various popular offerings about psilocybin mushrooms has begun to come under critical fire, as it does here in "Shroom." This is an encouraging development for ethnomycological inquiry, and another good thing about "Shroom" as others have noted. But so far, not many critics have taken stock of trendy postmodern orthodoxy as an equally formidable obstacle to better understanding in this field. Ethnomycology is an inherently multidisciplinary subject, as Wasson well understood. As such it thrives on sound input from disciplines outside the sciences. But it also requires a solidly scientific foundation to theoretically integrate such input. It's hard to see how postmodernism, with its bizarre, empty jargon and antagonism toward science, can contribute usefully in this regard. The problems evident in "Shroom" appear to relate mostly to the author's postmodern framework. With this caveat, I nonetheless recommend the book heartily to anyone interested. (For that matter, if you think everything is a "social construct," and science is simply a socially sanctioned "discourse" cunningly conceived to advance the political hegemony of the dominant class, and like to read about "praxes" and "alterity" and--etc.--you might find this book's analysis more worthy of your time and interest than this reviewer did.

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