SMI2LE! You’re Going Home: Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic, Interstellar Futurism

Elon Musk has told us, in no uncertain terms, that he wants to die on Mars (“just not on impact”). Similarly, Stephen Hawking has recently stated that “our Earth is becoming too small for us, global population is increasing at an alarming rate and we are in danger of self-destructing.” Buzz Aldrin, one of the first astronauts on the moon, has also expressed his wishes for continuing “manned” space colonization.

Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” contemplates humanity’s celestial destiny. In one scene, Matthew McConaughey’s “Coop” gazes up at the night sky from his porch and morosely quips, “We were born on Earth. We weren’t meant to die here.”

The short film, “Wanderers” by Erik Wernquist, was released three years ago to immensely popular attention on social media. “The sedentary life has left us edgy…unfulfilled. We haven’t forgotten,” Carl Sagan’s voice pines as images of space explorers traversing alien landscapes fill the screen. “Your species might be owed to a restless few… drawn to a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.”

Space travel has been on our minds since we’ve known it was possible, and although many of these futurist visions are strictly materialist in tone — via Hawkings or Sagan — that wasn’t always the case.

Timothy Leary, the famous Harvard psychedelic pioneer and champion of LSD in the 1960s, developed a psychedelic futurism involving space colonization, artificial intelligence, and life extension decades before Elon Musk’s push for Mars or Peter Thiel’s transhumanism.

He called it “SMI2LE”, an acronym for Space Migration, Intelligence increase, and Life Extension.

It’s as wild as you might think.

We are Cosmic Larva

Artwork by Tim Comrad in Epic Magazine, 1981.

“Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state anymore than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.” – William S Burroughs

Timothy Leary was a countercultural icon, moving in circles with the likes of other figures like Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler, Marshall McLuhan, Ram Das (Richard Alpert, a former colleague at Harvard) and the aforementioned William S. Burroughs. While Leary is well known for the lines, “turn on, tune in, drop out” or “think for yourself, question authority,” he is perhaps less known for also being one of the psychedelic grandfathers of the transhumanist movement.

It was during Leary’s prison stint — he was given 20 years for marijuana possession, but gracefully had it commuted at 6 — that he first began to develop the concepts behind SMI2LE.

In 1974, he published Starseed Transmission, a “wild prison fantasy” that postulated taking 5,000 humans (“advanced mutants”) out into the galaxy. It detailed, according to Leary, “a complete systematic philosophy: cosmology, politic, epistemology, ethic, aesthetic, ontology, and the most hopeful eschatology ever specified.” The Starseed Transmission was a “collective hallucination”—encountered without the use of psychedelics—shared by Leary and four other participants in a telepathy experiment.

It’s worth quoting the summation, provided by Robert Anton Wilson, at length:

It is time for life on Earth to leave the planetary womb and learn to walk through the stars. 

Life was seeded on your planet billions of years ago by nucleotide templates which contained the blueprint for gradual evolution through a sequence of biomechanical stages.

The goal of evolution is to produce nervous systems capable of communicating with and returning to the Galactic Network where we, your interstellar parents, await you.

Life on planet Earth has now reached this halfway point, established itself, and evolved through larval mutations and metamorphoses to the seven brain stages.

At this time the voyage home is possible.

Assemble the most intelligent, advanced, courageous of your species, divided equally between men and women. Let every race, nationality, and religion be represented.

You are about to discover the key to immortality in the chemical structure of the genetic code, within which you will find the scripture of life. The time has come for you to accept the responsibility of immortality. It is not necessary for you to die.

You will discover the key to enhanced intelligence within the chemistry of the nervous system. Certain chemicals, used wisely, will enable your nervous system to decipher the genetic code.

All life on your planet is a unity. All life must come home.

Total freedom, responsibility and interspecies harmony will make the voyage possible. You must transcend larval identities of race. culture and nationality. Your only allegiance is to life. The only way you will survive is to make the voyage home.

The Japanese people are the most advanced race on your planet and will give protection to the company.

We are sending a comet to your solar system as a sign that the time has come to look to the stars.

 When you arrive back home you will be given new instructions and powers. Your sperm ship is the flower of terrestrial life. As soona s the company is formed and the voyage begun, war, poverty, hatred, fear will disappear from your planet and the most ancient prophecies and celestial visions will be realize.


Come home in glory.

Robert Anton Wilson, author of the occult-psychedelic Illuminatus trilogy and most famous in psychedelic culture for his discussions on navigating “reality tunnels” and the “Church of the SubGenius,” was a big fan of Leary’s Starseed Transmission and SMI2LE, going so far as to create a small group around the ideas in the San Francisco Bay area and dubbing it “The Network,” whose logo touted the promise of “neurologic-immortality-star flight” in its logo.

Now, is all this hyperbole? What does it all mean? It might help to step back a little to “grok” Leary’s big picture, which, unsurprisingly, is nothing short of a view of human consciousness as an evolutionary journey from Earth-based larva to celestial super being. Now I’m being hyperbolic. Let me explain.

The 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness

Neurocomic” by Pete Von Sholly and George DiCaprio (incidentally, father of Leonardo DiCaprio)

Leary developed the ideas from Starseed Transmission in Exo-Psychology: A Manual on the Use of the Nervous System According to the Instructions of the Manufacturers. It was in this book that Leary postulated his eight-circuit model of consciousness, a map he developed through his exploration of human psychology and altered states. If we were to sum it up in a few words, the 8-circuit model is a map of the evolution of the nervous system.

The first four circuits deal with normal psychology, moving from basic survivalism to the complexities of human sociality and anthropology.

1: Survival/Security

  1. Territorial/Emotional
  2. Conceptual
  3. Social/Sexual

While the next four circuits deal with what we would call today transpersonal psychology. Mystical realization. Psychic or paranormal phenomena. William Bucke’s “cosmic consciousness.”

  1. Bliss/Healing, Neurosomatic
  2. Psychic
  3. Mythical Intelligence
  4. O.B.E., “Factor X”

Leary saw the evolution of humanity headed towards the realization of the 8th circuit. The cosmic connection, where we make contact with the wholly, non-local Other in hyperspace. If you were looking for a good film that depicted this, go see Nolan’s “Interstellar” or take an afternoon to watch Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” again and note the “star child” imagery.

Wilson and Leary would go on to collaborate on the 8-Circuit model, and you can find no better place to read about it than Wilson’s Prometheus Rising. (Also check out Ultraculture’s great diagram version of the model)

SMI2LE was a clever slogan that summarized Leary’s model for the next step of human evolution as cosmic evolution. His was a gnostic, evolutionary mysticism which combined the pioneering work behind early psychedelic research with the technological and scientific achievements of the 20th century. With the inner technologies, we could transform our consciousness, and with the outer technologies, we could transform our reality and shape ourselves into interstellar beings. 

Space Migration

NASA artist’s depiction of O’Neill’s space cylinder.

“Moralists complain that the youth culture is infantile. Exactly. As aimless and unproductive as a baby. The first post-larval generation (those born between 1945 and 1970) naturally bore the brunt of mutational confusion. We can imagine that the first generation of amphibians was similarly misunderstood as crazy, lazy, mixed-up kids, laying around on the shoreline passively enjoying the naked sun and sniffing oxygen.”- Timothy Leary, Exo-Psychology

One of the biggest advocates for space colonization in the 1970s was Gerard O’Neill. “Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?” O’Neill asked. His plan was to set up massive space station with six-mile-long rotating cylinders that could house a million people. This would be a launching point for future space colonies, while beaming back solar power to Earth to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Leary came to wholly endorse O’Neill’s utopic visions of space colonization, frequently showering praise on O’Neill in his writings. As W. Patrick McCray notes in Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies and a Limitless Future, “Leary dropped the Princeton physicists name into almost every exposition of SMI2LE and claimed “sexy Gerard O’Neill” was proof of the days of the “retiring, square, fuddy-duddy scientist” were over.”

The leap from terrestrial based intelligence to interstellar intelligence, for Leary, was as momentous a as the evolutionary mutation from sea to land. “The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean,” Carl Sagan famously stated, and so with the leap into the stars, the evolutionary trajectory of planet Earth would come full circle, and humanity’s descendants would become something like celestial amphibians; hybridized and augmented with techno-delic intelligence boosts and new bodies properly fitted for “high orbital living.”

Space colonization would also provide humanity with a laboratory of social and evolutionary experimentation (just read the Ursula K. Le Guin’s sprawling Hainish cycle books for a taste of the exo-anthropology, humanity scattered across the starry night sky in wonderful and new mutations).

“Dopers seem to prefer sci-fi” Leary wrote, because it was technological mysticism that would see the future of our species play out.

Intelligence Increase

Everything hinges on Space Migration as the next species-wide leap, but part-in-parcel with Space Migration, for Leary, was Intelligence Increase.

Leary viewed this aspect of his futurist vision as a result of genetic, neurological, and pharmaceutical advancements—scientific brain boosts that we’re beginning to familiarize ourselves with today through nootropics and micro-dosing. But he also recognized the necessary intensification of consciousness as one that dealt with mystical realization, telepathic contact with interstellar species, and other strange, bewildering and fantastical elements of visionary High Weirdness.

A useful word here might be Philip K. Dick’s “Ultra Meta-Cognition,” which Dick experienced during a visionary state detailed in The Exegesis and VALIS. (Incidentally, PKD’s visionary experience happened about half a year after Leary’s on 2-3-74.)

Life Extension

The last component of Leary’s SMI2LE has admittedly not gained much scientific ground, although it is one of the goals that transhumanists are strongly pushing for (see transhumanist Aubrey de Grey’s TED talk on the end of aging). Some interesting research has gone into genetics, telomeres and life extension, and while this holds promise, the jury is still out.

SMI2LE! We’re all Going Home

Perhaps the most interesting of these ideas is the evolutionary mysticism present in the Folsom prison experiment. The “transmission” encountered by Leary and his colleagues was one in which all of life was to be assumed by the divine imagination, the logos. Not just humanity. Nor merely the soul. The whole of life—and the body—was to make the journey, and so it is not the traditional Gnostic flight from matter but the sublimation of matter and life itself, a spiritual eschatology shared by the Indian yogi Sri Aurobindo in The Life Divine, where Earth was a “living laboratory” in which slept the secret godhead.

If I were to take a mystical flight of imagination here, I would probably say that the cosmic spirituality behind SMI2LE is closer to Aurobindo’s integral yoga than it is to any materialist versions of transhumanism. The mystical impulse behind space migration, increased intelligence (the logos), and life extension is, in this view, the alchemical impulse to divinize matter itself. This is a view shared by Teilhard de Chardin and many others, and in spite of how “far out” Tim Leary’s technodelic SMI2LE might be to us, facing very worldly problems at our doorstep, we can sometimes look up at the stars and know — attain gnosis! — that to “Mutate! Come Home in Glory” is a cosmic recitation to do the Great Work writ large across the heavens, starting with right here and now.

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