One objection sometimes raised against the search for extraterrestrial life is that our planet is rich with bizarre life forms that we still poorly understand. As a biologist, you are usually so close to the subject that you sometimes forget just how otherwordly our home planet can be. With his beautifully written book Entangled Life, biologist Merlin Sheldrake shook me out of that daze by offering a truly mind-opening book on fungi. Excitingly, he does so without floating off into speculative or esoteric territory.
Say “fungus” and most people will think of mushrooms. However, they are only the above-ground fruiting bodies that serve to disperse fungal spores. Most of what a fungus does happens underground. Here, they form mycelium: networks of fine, tubular cells called hyphae. Leave it to Sheldrake to dissolve boundaries and make you rethink everything you thought you knew about living organisms. Mycelium is “better not thought of as a thing, but as a process—an exploratory, irregular tendency” (p. 7), as “a body without a body plan” (p. 55), writes Sheldrake. Mycelial fungi are maze dwellers, probing the underground world in search of resources. Hyphae can branch and fuse, exploring in all directions simultaneously. These amorphous, shape-shifting entities have no fixed shape. Like water, “mycelium decants itself into its surroundings” (p. 58).
And while there is no “brain”, no centre of control, mycelium somehow communicates information through its network. When it finds something to digest, hyphae leading there grow more numerous, while those leading nowhere are pruned. Mycelium communicates this information across its network with surprising rapidity, though how is still open for debate. Pressure changes as in a hydraulic network? Volatile chemicals? A likely candidate that Sheldrake highlights are electrical impulses.
“Mycelial fungi are maze dwellers […] these amorphous, shape-shifting entities have no fixed shape. Like water, “mycelium decants itself into its surroundings“.”
Really questioning the concept of identity are lichens, the symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an alga. Taxonomists have long struggled to make sense of this inter-kingdom collaboration where an organism is made up of two separate lineages. Lynn Margulis turned to them to support her idea of endosymbiosis. But look harder and things become weirder. Recent discoveries show that lichen groups consist of stable partnerships involving a third or even fourth fungal partner. And their identities differ between different lichen groups. It seems that a broad range of different fungal and algal players can come together to form lichens, making them “dynamic systems, rather than a catalogue of interacting components“. One scientist quoted here points out how this leads to the absurdity of “an entire discipline that can’t define what it is that they study” (p. 101).
Fungi shape both the deep past and the present. They played an important role in plant evolution, providing root systems for algae conquering the land 50 million years before plants evolved roots. Today, over 90% of plants still depend on these so-called mycorrhizal fungi. Fungi also have many practical applications, from yeasts providing us bread and beer to mycoremediation (cleaning up waste with fungi) and new building materials. Sheldrake pays particular attention to the efforts of mycological maverick Paul Stamets to save the world one mushroom at a time, and the loose collective of DIY-mycologists that has sprung up around Peter McCoy’s organisation Radical Mycology.
“lichens [are a] symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an alga […] but look harder and things become weirder.”
I admit that I was initially worried that this book might veer into very speculative and spiritual territory. One of my concerns was the question “like father, like son”? After all, Merlin’s father Rupert Sheldrake is both a biologist and parapsychologist who formulated the concept of morphic resonance*—an idea that lacks both empirical support and widespread acceptance. Add to this the topic of psychedelic mushrooms and you have the ingredients for a potent new age brew. Instead, there are two chapters in particular where Sheldrake Jr. shows how to open minds without stepping off the edge of reason.
First, when discussing psychedelic mushrooms and his own experiences taking LSD in the setting of a clinical drug testing unit, he draws parallels to Ophiocordyceps fungi, popularly known as zombie fungi, that take control of insect minds. Though he acknowledges that the powerful and transformative hallucinations induced by psilocybin-containing mushrooms can literally, as Michael Pollan put it, change your mind, he does not confuse them with reality. Rather, they confirm the idea that “our subjective worlds are underpinned by the chemical activity of our brain” (p. 121).
“[Sheldrake] is surprisingly critical of the relatively novel idea of the “Wood Wide Web” […] [pointing] out how plant-centric this metaphor is […]”
Second, he is surprisingly critical of the relatively novel idea of the “Wood Wide Web“. This is the finding that mycorrhizal fungi connect different plants, even different plant species, with each other via their mycelial networks. The popular press has run with the idea of trees talking to each other, helped along by the success of books such as Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, but Sheldrake takes a far more balanced and sobering view, shying away from sweeping extrapolations. First, he points out how plant-centric this metaphor is and considers the fungal point of view. Second, mycorrhizal networks are not all about “sharing and caring”, their behaviour is far more ambiguous than that. Our metaphors are fraught, argues Sheldrake, before asking: “Are we able to stand back, look at the system, and let the polyphonic swarms of plants and fungi and bacteria […] be themselves, and quite unlike anything else?” (p. 193)
Not only is the science fascinating and Sheldrake’s ideas and musings perspective-shifting, he is also a first-class wordsmith who has crafted a beautiful book with Entangled Life. When diving into the pungent underground world of truffle hunting, he writes: “truffles provide a depiction of animal tastes—an evolutionary portrait-in-scent of animal fascination” (p. 28). On the question of how mycelium should distribute itself when growing: “How do fungi juggle this kind of trade-off while exploring a crowded rot-scape in search of food?” (p. 54). Extensive footnotes, sometimes running half a page, add much interesting detail, while tasteful drawings made with ink from shaggy ink cap mushrooms give the book a certain cachet. As also evidenced by below teaser trailer, Sheldrake is an able promotor of his own book, really making you want to read it.
In comparison, other popular books on fungi feel like taking a look in from the outside. Somehow, Sheldrake has the uncanny ability to speak as if directly relaying messages from the mycelium. Entangled Life is a gem of a book that mixes scientific astuteness with remarkably entrancing writing.
* a sort of collective memory in nature that would allow for telepathy-type interconnections between organisms
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review:
This is only my second comment on your terrific book review site, as I am moved to comment only on the books I have already read myself. Again, a splendid job both summarizing the key points of the book and in placing gold stars on particular writing style and substantive elements. I fully agree with your review. As a former science writer myself, I recognize the enormous advantage Sheldrake had in being both a scientist and a writer. He is a junior scientist, so he could bring in his seniors in a way typical of a science writer. Yet as a scientist himself, he has the official platform to enter his own pronouncements, too. Prior to publication of this book, I was already aware (and grateful!) that Sheldrake would tackle the overwrought public presentation of mycorrhizal networks as being used BY plants FOR their own (usually, be-kind-to-neighbors) purposes. For years I have found that plant-centric assumption offensive. Thus I admire the polite, yet very clear, way that Sheldrake communicates and grounds his opposition. A clarifying term I would, however, add is that a plant-centric interpretation of the Wood Wide Web reveals a bias that Thomas Gold and I together named “surface chauvinism.” As a professional writer, I help Gold organize his concepts and arguments into his final book, not long before he died. Titled “The Deep Hot Biosphere” and published in 1998, Gold’s book has astounded me with how much of what then seemed too speculative and unsupported has now proved true — notably, discovery of a liquid hydrocarbon sea on a moon of Jupiter and normalizing of the concept of “lateral gene transfer” as a significant mode of evolution. Bravo for Entangled Life — and for the Inquisitive Biologist review.
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Thanks Connie, glad you enjoyed reading it – I like the term “surface chauvinism”! Very apt. I’ll look up Gold’s book as I’m not familiar with it yet.