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Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science (2024)

Tripping on Utopia will be published by Grand Central Publishing in January, 2024 and widely available in bookstores. Please consider pre-ordering it: Amazon, Bookshop.org, Barnes and Noble.

Another way to support the book: add it as “Want to Read” on its Goodreads page.

Advance praise for Tripping on Utopia:

  • “Benjamin Breen has crafted a brilliant and original history of the chemical dreamscape of American democracy. With a driving narrative and unforgettable cast of characters, Tripping on Utopia resurrects the promise, dangers, and sheer weirdness of one of the twentieth century's unsung frontiers of discovery: the quest to change the world by altering humans' perception of it.”

    Charles King, author of Gods of the Upper Air and Midnight at the Pera Palace

  • “Tripping on Utopia is epic in its scope, cinematic in its rendering. This masterpiece of storytelling is underpinned by impeccable research and extraordinary material that will have you questioning everything you think you know about America's history of psychedelic drug use. Breen is an exciting new voice in narrative non-fiction.”

    Lindsey Fitzharris, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Facemaker

  • “Part biography, part intellectual history, this kaleidoscopic book reveals the century-long search for psychological liberation at the heart of today’s fascination with psychedelics. It’s a marvel of scholarship and impossible to put down.”

    Fred Turner, Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication at Stanford University and author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Publisher’s blurb:

A bold and brilliant revisionist take on the history of psychedelics in the twentieth century.

The Baby Boomers didn’t usher in the first era of drug experimentation. From the 1940s to the early 1960s, transformative drugs rapidly entered mainstream culture, where they were not only legal, but openly celebrated. American physician John C. Lilly infamously dosed dolphins (and himself) with LSD in a NASA-funded effort to teach dolphins to talk. A tripping Cary Grant mumbled into a Dictaphone about Hegel as astronaut John Glenn returned to Earth.

At the center of this revolution were the pioneering anthropologists—and star-crossed lovers—Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Convinced the world was headed toward disaster, Mead and Bateson’s sought to reshape humanity through a new science of consciousness expansion.  But the CIA and other government bodies who funded them had darker ambitions for their pioneering work. Mead and Bateson's partnership unlocks an untold chapter in the history of the twentieth century, linking drug researchers with CIA agents, outsider sexologists, and the founders of the Information Age.

Following Mead and Bateson’s fractured love affair— from the malarial jungles of New Guinea to the temples of Bali, from the espionage of WWII to the scientific revolutions of the Cold War—uncovers a new origin story for psychedelic science.

Pre-order "Tripping on Utopia"


The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade (2019)

The Age of Intoxication was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2019. It won the 2021 The William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine. You can buy it in paperback, hardcover, e-book or audio at Amazon, Bookshop.org, or direct from the publisher.

Winner of the 2021 William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine.

Publisher’s blurb:

Eating the flesh of an Egyptian mummy prevents the plague. Distilled poppies reduce melancholy. A Turkish drink called coffee increases alertness. Tobacco cures cancer. Such beliefs circulated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an era when the term "drug" encompassed everything from herbs and spices—like nutmeg, cinnamon, and chamomile—to such deadly poisons as lead, mercury, and arsenic. In The Age of Intoxication, Benjamin Breen offers a window into a time when drugs were not yet separated into categories—illicit and licit, recreational and medicinal, modern and traditional—and there was no barrier between the drug dealer and the pharmacist.

Focusing on the Portuguese colonies in Brazil and Angola and on the imperial capital of Lisbon, Breen examines the process by which novel drugs were located, commodified, and consumed. He then turns his attention to the British Empire, arguing that it owed much of its success in this period to its usurpation of the Portuguese drug networks. From the sickly sweet tobacco that helped finance the Atlantic slave trade to the cannabis that an East Indies merchant sold to the natural philosopher Robert Hooke in one of the earliest European coffeehouses, Breen shows how drugs have been entangled with science and empire from the very beginning.

Featuring numerous illuminating anecdotes and a cast of characters that includes merchants, slaves, shamans, prophets, inquisitors, and alchemists, The Age of Intoxication rethinks a history of drugs and the early drug trade that has too often been framed as opposites—between medicinal and recreational, legal and illegal, good and evil. Breen argues that, in order to guide drug policy toward a fairer and more informed course, we first need to understand who and what set the global drug trade in motion.

Buy "The Age of Intoxication"