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The Weekly Anthropocene Reviews: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
A The Weekly Anthropocene Book Review
Entangled Life is probably the best book about the study of fungi this writer has ever read, which means it’s pretty much guaranteed to be mind-blowing right off the bat. The fungus kingdom is large, diverse, and complex a category as “plants” or “animals,” yet it’s wildly understudied, routinely lumped in as a sub-category of plant studies for years. As a result, we’ve gotten a sequence of completely paradigm-shifting discoveries about fungi in recent years, many of which are just starting to be followed up on, and there’s probably a lot more to come.
This book offers a broad overview of the current state of mycology (the study of fungi), with chapters covering fermentation, mind-altering psilocybin mushrooms, the mind-bending ecosystem/individuals that are lichens, the “radical mycologists” working to solve major problems with fungi through mycoremediation and mycofabrication, and lots more. There’s a charming gonzo journalism quality to the book, as Dr. Sheldrake intersperses his discussions of fungal biology and ecology with visits to see these processes in action. Over the course of Entangled Life, Dr. Sheldrake follows along with truffle hunters and their trained dogs in Italy, participates in a psychological study where he takes LSD while thinking about his fungal research1, buries himself in a “fermentation bath” of decomposing wood chips, visits the production facility of radical mycologist Paul Stamets2 as he works to brew fungal cures for bee diseases, and pilfers apples from a descendant of Newton’s famous apple tree at Cambridge to ferment them into cider.
“I lay on the hospital bed with my eyes closed and wondered what it was like to be a fungus. I found myself underground, surrounded by growing tips surging across one another. Schools of globular animals grazing-plant roots and their hustle-the Wild West of the soil-all those bandits, brigands, loners, crapshooters. The soil was a horizonless external gut-digestion and salvage everywhere-flocks of bacteria surfing on waves of electrical charge-chemical weather systems-subterranean highways-slimy infective embrace-seething intimate contact on all sides.”
-Dr. Martin Sheldrake (recalling an experience on LSD), Entangled Life
Entangled Life is chock-full of fascinating fungus facts; this reader learned for the first time that there exist various types of fungi that can eat nematode worms, solve mazes, and alter the taste of the fruits of the plants they form symbiotic relationships with. Several fascinating scientists are discussed, and tantalizing hints of paradigm-shifting future projects are dangled3. Across the board, Dr. Sheldrake integrates the latest science with his own observations to offer a thought-provoking reframing of the role of fungi in the world.
For example, if you’ve followed ecological research recently, you probably know about the concept of the “Wood Wide Web;” beginning with Suzanne Simard’s brilliant experiments in the 1990s, scientists have gradually discovered that trees in a forest are connected underground via webs of mycorrhizal fungi4, through which they can exchange resources like carbon and water as well as sensing valuable information from other trees (like the arrival of parasites or pests) when chemical warning signals are released onto the network. Fascinatingly, some studies have found that plants preferentially share resources with their genetic relatives. As the hyphae5 of mycorrhizal fungi have been found to conduct electricity (somewhat like human brain cells), it’s possible that electrical impulses can also travel from plant to plant via fungi, although this has yet to be completely confirmed by experiment.
Humans have already based a lot of narratives onto this riveting and still little-understood phenomenon. The Wood Wide Web inspired the world-mind Eywa in the Avatar universe, and has been used to reflect a range of different ideologies, from forests as families centered on “mother trees,” to a utopian “forests are socialist” view, to a capitalist “forests are giant markets with a fungal commodities exchange” view. Entangled Life expanded this reader’s already-complex (and somewhat confused) perception of the Wood Wide Web by offering a brand-new perspective. Dr. Sheldrake points out that most explanations of it implicitly treat the networks of mycorrhizal fungi that make it possible as passive conduits, mere water pipes or Internet cables for trees. (This may be because most of the people studying it are plant scientists, experts on plants who pay lots of attention to what plants do and design experiments focused on plant responses). But fungi are alive too, and the picture changes if you consider the Wood Wide Web from their perspective. In fact, the Wood Wide Web might make a lot more sense if you switch to thinking about it from a fungi-centric point of view. Perhaps the fungi are actually “farming” the trees, moving resources from ones that are doing well to others that need some extra help, in order to keep a diversified portfolio of photosynthesizers providing them them with sugars and carbohydrates.
This leads into the fascinating world of mycoheterotrophs, or “mycohets,” plants which have given up the seemingly-defining plant characteristic of photosynthesis and receive all their carbon from underground mycorrhizal networks, without ever contributing any in return. These could be thought of as “hackers of the Wood Wide Web,” and rather conclusively prove that the resources being exchanged are highly significant, enough to support plants with no other energy source. How exactly does this fit in with the other Wood Wide Web hypotheses? No one’s quite sure. This writer suspects that the Wood Wide Web is probably a bit like a family, a market, a socialized state, and a fungus-run farm all at once, plus some stuff humans don’t know about yet.
The Wood Wide Web chapter stands out to this writer due to its ecological implications, but this book is full of fascinating stories like it, touching on everything from parasitism to panspermia. In sum, Entangled Life is an excellent introduction to the rapidly expanding field of fungal science, a mind-expanding popularization of its latest discoveries, and a riveting, imaginative, and thoroughly fun read. Try it!
As an empiricist, Dr. Sheldrake is careful to caveat his LSD-induced fungal insights, writing “I make no claims about the factual validity of these visions. They are at best plausible and at worst delirious nonsense. Not even wrong. Nevertheless, I learned a valuable lesson.”
Yes, the namesake of and inspiration for the Star Trek: Discovery character, astromycologist Paul Stamets.
Apparently Professor Andrew Adamatzky, with the epic title “Professor of Unconventional Computing,” dreams of directly connecting electrical impulse-sensitive fungi to computers to directly communicate and draw data from them, and is already making progress in “fungal computing.” The book is full of amazing stories like this.
Mycorrhiza: fungi symbiotically associated with a plant. Generally the plant provides complex sugars and carbohydrates (made from carbon dioxide using the energy of sunlight, in photosynthesis) in exchange for nutrients from the soil that the fungus can access.