Animals Do Drugs?

Looking at a phylogenetic tree animalia (or the animal tree of life) ones sees a continuum of divergent lines, all stemming from one common ancestor. At some point on that tree, an animal consumed a drug, survived, and a behavior was created. This experimentation has continued to this day, being observed in a litany of species in every kingdom. Considering that the procurement and consumption of these drugs entails some kind of cost (energetic or otherwise,) it can be argued that some kind of larger advantage must be conferred, in order for the behavior to exist.

In his book “Animals and Psychedelics”, Georgio Samorini explores the possibility that alteration of consciousness is actually one of the primary motivational forces among the drive for food and sex. Samorini argues that, through this alteration, animals can develop new behaviors that were previously outside their horizon of thought. However, we must consider anthropocentric thinking may be skewing Samorini’s objectivity. He writes “Drugs induce experiences accompanied by profound emotional and intuitive states that can be illuminating and revelatory in humans” and, under the assumption that other non-human animals also experience what is called “perceptive consciousness” in addition to the more limited “sensory consciousness,” it can be inferred that the use of drugs provides similar revelations to animals.

This idea of consciousness is somewhat problematic. Consciousness and, particularly, an altered consciousness have very strong connotations with the human experience. We, as humans don’t know what consciousness entails for other animals or the effects drugs have on them. It makes sense that, in these terms, an otherwise objective observer may see animal behavior from a human lense, reflecting their human experience with, for example, drug use onto a discrete non-human animal. Even if the consumption of mind altering drugs is adaptive, the alteration of consciousness isn’t necessarily the main force increasing fitness. After all, psychoactive substances like fermented fruit, locoweed and mushrooms are often nutritious or abundant when other food sources are scarce. However, some cases seem suggest the psychoactive effect is the primary motivator for consumption. For example, in the case of Jaguars only a tiny amount of the psychoactive caapi vine is consumed and the lengths taken to acquire this resource exceed the substance’s caloric value.