Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany

Paperback – June 28, 2016

by Robert C. Clarke (Author),‎ Mark D. Merlin (Author)


A book review by Dr. William Olkowski



Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany is a comprehensive, interdisciplinary exploration of the natural origins and early evolution of this famous plant, highlighting its historic role in the development of human societies. Cannabis has long been prized for the strong and durable fiber in its stalks, its edible and oil-rich seeds, and the psychoactive and medicinal compounds produced by its female flowers. The culturally valuable and often irreplaceable goods derived from cannabis deeply influenced the commercial, medical, ritual, and religious practices of cultures throughout the ages, and human desire for these commodities directed the evolution of the plant toward its contemporary varieties. As interest in cannabis grows and public debate over its many uses rises, this book will help us understand why humanity continues to rely on this plant and adapts it to suit our needs.



I met one of the authors, Merlin, at a recent Xmas party and we were mutually impressed over our common interest in cannabis.  I don’t want to spend the $40 or so dollars for this book at this time, but I restate this short Amazon review above because it covers how “deeply (cannabis) influenced medical, ritual, and religious practices of cultures throughout the ages”…  I have been aware of this history from another book: the Encyclopedia of Psychoactive plants by Christian Ratsch, 1998.  Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont.


This later 942 page compendium goes into great detail about the larger group of psychoactive plants, and their role in human cultural evolution.  This sort of knowledge is not common in the US and probably other countries as well, but so called primitive peoples are familiar with psychoactive plants, even today.


Christianity and its widespread colonization and associated genocidal activities placed psychoactive plants on the taboo list thinking so called “primitive societies” were inferior to the European culture.  This inferiority idea is covered by Jared Diamond’s classic book Guns Germs and Steel.  Just to cover the main idea in this book: why is White Culture superior, or apparently superior?


This subject deserves more words than what I summarize here, but brevity is good.  Diamond’s book should be read widely but will probably not rise above the cacophony today about racial issues, particularly because of the Trump confusion.  White culture, i.e., European culture, arose through ecological coincidence when humans were driven out of southern Africa to go north through the fertile crescent. This is all documented by recent genetic studies. That area of the Eurasian-African nexus happened to have grains that held their seeds on the stalk (i.e., wheat) after maturity.  This makes easier harvesting and storage which lead to surpluses and avoidance of starvation, so common in our human evolution.  Wheat is also calorie dense, being the highest per volume of all the grains.  Once surpluses were possible, specialization grew and with it inventions arose.  These inventions, like steel and guns, among others, including agricultural developments, gave superior tools for human domination, particularly of other humans.  Steel and guns are particular are indicated as examples of investions.  Such innovations are transmitted easily east to west, laterally, not longitudinally, since north south innovations are limited by latitudes and the concomitant seasons. Those cultures which adopted inventions survived and thrived, others perished.


So “Whiteman’s Superiority” was a fluke of nature and does not indicate innate superiority as many white supremacist claim. With the President of the US, now raising racist issues in making immigration policy this idea of how many innovations arose deserves greater exposure.  People are people and we all started in southern Africa as brown people.  Whiteness arose when climate change force the human emigration north and elsewhere.  Black skin protects  from damage from sunlight, white skin makes extra vitamin D since it allows sun energy deeper penetrating power than black or brown skin.  Vitamin D is crucial for bone development and immune system function.  White skin is susceptible to skin cancers, but it makes advantages for people in northern climates as it is easier to make Vit D.


I make this essay because even today the US police systems are still jailing hundreds of thousands of people for possession of a plant.  This travesty is continuing in the face of widespread legalization of marijuana (Cannabis).  The wider and even more severe impacts of other plant materials by the relevant justice departments remain in limbo, even though these are medical problems rather like alcoholism.  Portugal is one country that has legalized all psychedelics without harm along with great savings in penal costs and human costs.  We were in Portugal last year and the policemen we asked for directions to the nearest cannabis dispensary did not know its location, even though we were just blocks away.  This tells the story so quickly.  Here is another:


Chinese story: Wise man on a horse stops to ask a question of a old woman sitting by the side of the road between villages.  He asks: “why do you sit here when tigers are so threatening”.  She says: “I fear bad government more”.


And my experiences says she has a major point, highly relevant today, especially since we have this regressive government headed by the ignorant “businessman” Trump, but supported by equally ignorant lawyers, mostly Republican congressman and congresswomen (not exclusively Republican).  Nobody learns from the past if no effort is made to absorb its lessons.  And nowadays the rule is kill the messenger, rather than learn the message.


William Olkowski 1/25/18


Seo: marijuana, drug policy, kill the messenger, lawyers, Republican, evolution, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond, Merlin, Whiteman’s Superiority, psychedelics.

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