"Living at the border between life and non-life, fungi use diverse cocktails of potent enzymes and acids to disassemble some of the most stubborn substances on the planet, turning rock into soil and wood into compost, allowing plants to grow. Fungi not only help create soil, they send out networks of tubes that enmesh roots and link plants together in the "Wood Wide Web." Fungi also drive many long-standing human fascinations: from yeasts that cause bread to rise and orchestrate the fermentation of sugar into alcohol; to psychedelic fungi; to the mold that produces penicillin and revolutionized modern medicine. And we can partner with fungi to heal the damage we've done to the planet. Fungi are already being used to make sustainable building materials and wearable leather, but they can do so much more. Fungi can digest many stubborn and toxic pollutants from crude oil to human-made polyurethane plastics and the explosive TNT. They can grow food from renewable sources: edible mushrooms can be grown on anything from plant waste to cigarette butts. And some fungi's antiviral compounds might be able to ease the colony collapse of bees. Merlin Sheldrake's revelatory introduction to this world will show us how fungi, and our relationships with them, are more astonishing than we could have imagined. Bringing to light science's latest discoveries and ingeniously parsing the varieties and behaviors of the fungi themselves, he points us toward the fundamental questions about the nature of intelligence and identity this massively diverse, little understood kingdom provokes"--
When I had gone to a local bookstore in Delhi - yes, they still exist - I was intrigued by the cover. I confess that I was tempted to buy it on Amazon, which is a bit cheaper, but
Until now, I had looked at fungi as mushrooms (magical, edible, poisonous), growths on bread and clothing, and not much more. When I started to read the book, I found myself entering a world that is, at once, magical, and scientific. It helps that Merlin Sheldrake writes with a rare felicity, which made the experience enjoyable.
There are worlds of networks, symbiosis, and intelligence that are different from ours. In short, the book gave me a glimpse into a world that we live in, and don't appreciate.
This is a brilliant book. A gem.
In his introduction, using the language of his friend and mentor David Abram, Sheldrake diffracts his narrative through the prism of phenomenology. “Our perceptions work in large part by expectations. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with a small amount of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch…Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses."
On first glance, you might think that this is a book about fungi. And in a way, it is—as much as you might say that an oil painting is about paint and canvas. And yet, just like the painter, Sheldrake uses his medium of mycelium to illustrate not just the qualities of a natural kingdom, but to paint the icon of a new paradigm. In the world of “Entangled Life,” Sheldrake’s portraits dissolve the veil that normally crisply define the thresholds of individual organisms. Given that your corporeal subsistence as a human is reliant on yeasts (a form of fungi), both to maintain your microbiome, and to pre-digests your food, where do you end, and where does the fungal kingdom begin? Given that trees are unable to access the water and nutrients they need to thrive without mycelial networks, is it useful to refer to an individual tree as an organism, or must we expand our definition to include its fungal partners? To use the terminology of J. G. Bennett, maybe even the concept of individuality begins only at the scale of the species.
Sheldrake has PhD in ecology, and relies upon a scientific epistemology to construct and buttress his rhetoric. And yet where much of science hones in at the order of mechanism, to the degree that we lose the forrest in the trees, Sheldrake employs science in a way that invites in our somatic selves and leaves us awed by the synergies dancing our eyes and branching beneath our feet.
Like the effects of the psilocybin mushrooms which Sheldrake describes, this book can serve as a portal through our drab mental models into the vibrant, bustling, sonorous, and pungent world that has been longing for our attention.
Milton Sheldrake delves into the fascinating lives of creatures that are neither animal nor plant but are essential to the natural world. I wasn't sold on the beginning of this book - usually when I pick up a book about the natural wold that I can't fathom, it tends to be about physics. But then, the chapter on mind-altering mushrooms introduced me to one that hijacks carpenter ants to spread their spores in most dramatic fashion, and I was suddenly hooked. Filled with all sorts of fascinating tidbits, acknowledgement of where we need more study, and envisioning a future where fungi may help answer the climate crisis, this book is sure to leave you with an appreciation for fungi that you never had before.
Paraphrasing the author, the relationship between plants and fungi gave rise to the biosphere as we know it and supports life on land to this day, but there is still much more we have to learn. You might remember that in The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins points out that genes don’t just provide the instructions to build the body of an organism. They also provide instructions to build certain behaviors. But, those behaviors can be manipulated.
For example, you may be aware that Ophiocordyceps and other insect-manipulating fungi have evolved a remarkable ability to cause harm to the animals they influence. They can take over insect bodies, effecting zombie-like behaviors to benefit the fungus. Also, The impact of fungal diseases is increasing across the world, such as with unsustainable agricultural practices that reduce the ability of plants to form relationships with the beneficial fungi on which they depend. Rather than working with Nature though, the widespread use of antifungal chemicals has led to an unprecedented rise in new fungal superbugs that threaten both human and plant health.
Of course, in seeking balance Nature's pendulum cuts both ways. Our subjective worlds are underpinned by the chemical activity of our brains. Now, a growing number of scientific studies report that Psilocybin mushrooms have evolved an astonishing ability to cure a wide range of human problems. Recent studies report the dramatic effects of psilocybin on people’s minds, outlooks, and perspectives. Experiences include enduring increases in subjects’ sense of connection with the natural world. Profound changes in people’s minds and personalities are rare; that they should happen over the course of such a short experience is striking. Nonetheless, these aren’t anomalous findings.
Umm, could Psilocybin mushroom consumption be the needed first step in effectively mitigating human caused global warming and extinctions? [My thoughts, not the author's.]
The above but a sampling, there is much more to this book. We exist in a closed loop system, and fungi are an essential component in creating growth and recycling life for new growth. Along the way, various fungi can sap and encourage our being. If one isn't overly encumbered by their human bubble, this book will help in understanding the natural world and our physical being.
Sheldrake provides his readers with a cornucopia of scientific detail yet the book remains utterly accessible for anyone with little interest in fungi. He accomplishes this feat by generalizing from the strange to the familiar. Mycorrhizal networks serve as metaphors for neural nets and the world wide web; fungal-algal associations in lichens provide an opportunity to discuss interspecies boundaries; fungal mind-altering drugs give him the opportunity to discuss his personal experience with LSD and how psychedelic drugs work to alter the perception of self thus offering promise in the treatment of mental illness; and especially, fungal digestion of human waste products (even dirty diapers) serves as a platform to discuss environmental degradation. His description of making hard cider from apples purloined from Newton’s tree is a tour de force.
This is indeed a remarkable book filled with strange facts and wonderful opportunities. It is never boring and well worth reading.
Furthermore, even when it comes to science,
I really would have liked to have seen the author's own work be much more emphasized. Sheldrake is a biologist, or at least he has a Ph.D., but much of this book is just shallow interviews with other scientists, like you'd get from any journalist.
On the plus side, there was some good science. The most interesting parts to me, were the stories about fungal parasites, which are much more common than I had heard of. Also I was quite interested to hear about the plants that parasites on mycelial networks, ultimately getting their nutrition from other plants. I liked the author's perspective that mycelial networks are not just links between trees, but facilitate links between trees, possibly to help themselves. Allowing nutrients to flow from some trees to other trees and possibly back, helps the fungi keep a stable host ecosystem.
The illustrations, originally drawn with ink from Shaggy ink cap mushrooms, were also great.
> besides penicillin: cyclosporine (an immunosuppressant drug that makes organ transplants possible), cholesterol-lowering statins, a host of powerful antiviral and anticancer compounds (including the multibillion-dollar drug Taxol, originally extracted from the fungi that live within yew trees), not to mention alcohol (fermented by a yeast) and psilocybin (the active component in psychedelic mushrooms
> Some fungi have tens of thousands of mating types, approximately equivalent to our sexes (the record holder is the split gill fungus, Schizophyllum commune, which has more than twenty-three thousand mating types, each of which is sexually compatible with nearly every one of the others). The mycelium of many fungi can fuse with other mycelial networks if they are genetically similar enough, even if they aren't sexually compatible
> One partner plays a paternal role, providing genetic material only. The other plays a maternal role, providing genetic material and growing the flesh that matures into truffles and spores. Truffles differ from humans in that either + or - mating types can be maternal or paternal
> Fungi produce plant growth hormones that manipulate roots, causing them to proliferate into masses of feathery branches—with a greater surface area, the chances of an encounter between root tips and fungal hyphae become more likely.
> nematode-eating fungi only produce worm-hunting organs and issue a chemical summons when they sense nematodes are close by. If there is plenty of material to rot, they don't bother, even if worms abound
> The methods fungi use to hunt nematodes are grisly and diverse. It is a habit that has evolved multiple times—many fungal lineages have reached a similar conclusion but in different ways. Some fungi grow adhesive nets, or branches to which nematodes stick. Some use mechanical means, producing hyphal nooses that inflate in a tenth of a second when touched, ensnaring their prey. Some—including the commonly cultivated oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)—produce hyphal stalks capped with a single toxic droplet that paralyzes nematodes, giving the hypha enough time to grow through their mouth and digest the worm from the inside. Others produce spores that can swim through the soil, chemically drawn toward nematodes, to which they bind. Once attached, the spores sprout and the fungus harpoons the worm with specialized hyphae known as "gun cells."
> Olsson and Adamatzky have shown that mycelium can be electrically sensitive, but they haven't shown that electrical impulses can link a stimulus to a response.
> they describe fossilized mycelium preserved in the fractures of ancient lava flows. The fossils show branching filaments that "touch and entangle each other." The "tangled network" they form, the dimensions of the hyphae, the dimensions of spore-like structures, and the pattern of its growth all closely resemble modern-day fungal mycelium. It is an extraordinary discovery because the fossils date from 2.4 billion years ago, more than a billion years before fungi were thought to have branched off the tree of life.
> Lichens encrust as much as eight percent of the planet's surface, an area larger than that covered by tropical rainforests. They clad rocks, trees, roofs, fences, cliffs, and the surface of deserts … Most rocky shorelines are rimmed with lichen. Lichens start where the seaweeds stop, and some extend down into the water.
> The names used to describe lichens sound like afflictions, words that get stuck in your teeth: crustose (crusty), foliose (leafy), squamulose (scaly), leprose (dusty), fruticose (branched). Fruticose lichens drape and tuft; crustose and squamulose lichens creep and seep; foliose lichens layer and flake
> In some situations, lichens reproduce without breaking up their relationship—fragments of a lichen containing all the symbiotic partners can travel as one to a new location and grow into a new lichen. In other situations, lichen fungi produce spores that travel alone. Upon arrival in a new place, the fungus must meet a compatible photobiont
> Lichens have evolved independently between nine and twelve times since. Today, one in five of all known fungal species form lichens, or "lichenize." Some fungi (such as Penicillium molds) used to lichenize but don't anymore; they have de-lichenized. Some fungi have switched to different types of photosynthetic partner
> The 'basic set' of partners is different for every lichen group. Some have more bacteria, some fewer; some have one yeast species, some have two, or none. Interestingly, we have yet to find any lichen that matches the traditional definition of one fungus and one alga."
> Abram Hoffer, a Canadian psychiatrist and researcher into the effects of LSD in the 1950s, remarked that "from the first, we considered not the chemical, but the experience as a key factor in therapy." … psychedelics like psilocybin "dope-slap people out of their story. It's literally a reboot of the system
> Layers of dead and un-rotted forest built up, storing so much carbon that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels crashed, and the planet entered a period of global cooling. Plants had caused the climate crisis, and plants were hit the hardest by it: Huge areas of tropical forest were wiped out in an extinction event known as the Carboniferous rainforest collapse.
> African Macrotermes termites are some of the more striking examples. Macrotermes, like most termites, spend much of their lives foraging for wood, although they aren't able to eat it. Instead, the termites cultivate a white rot fungus—Termitomyces—that digests it for them. The termites chew wood into a slurry that they regurgitate in fungal gardens, known as the "fungus comb," by contrast with bees' honeycomb. The fungus uses radical chemistry to decompose the wood.
> Mycoheterotrophs—"hackers" of the wood wide web—have lost the ability to photosynthesize and draw their nutrients from mycorrhizal fungal networks that lace their way through soil.
I enjoyed the book immensely, first for its information, but also for Sheldrake’s enthusiasm and engaging style. He even gives rough instructions on making wine using the fungus from old books in libraries. I highly recommend it to fellow fungi lovers and philosophers.
The book also unintentionally makes it clear why some of this research hasn't been done sooner, and it's because mycologists are, well, kind of weird. You can't study mycology without also studying the psychedelic effects of mushrooms and the intoxicating effects of fermented foods, and Sheldrake, like a lot of mycologists, is willing to experiment on himself. A lot of pioneers of mycology began studying mushrooms because they were interested in the psychedelic, so the whole field has a very different history than other areas of biology.
Fungi are fascinating because they thrive by making connections with other living things, to the point that it is hard to separate them from other living things and they challenge our ideas of what an "individual" or a "species" is. The most obvious example is lichens, but even lichens turn out to be far more complicated than we previously thought. Fungi have an amazing capacity to connect with algae, bacteria, and plants and to facilitate connections between other living things. They are also remarkably adaptable and can consume just about everything. We are just beginning to understand how they can be used to consume human and industrial waste, and how they can be used to create everything from faux leather to houses.
Being humans, we are rather human-centric in our perspective of the world, and when we aren't being human-centric, we are animal-centric or, at the very least, plant-centric. When we acknowledge fungi at all, it is in how they affect us (penicillin, truffles, psylocibin, yeast, etc.) or possibly how they help plants we like to eat by doing things like bringing nitrogen to their roots. Mycelial networks, however, are much more complicated and more integral to our lives than I had ever been taught. They are, in some sense, responsible for us having lives at all! We have evolved in tandem with the fungal networks that inhabit our soil, our food, and our bodies. Lichen (an unusual lifeform that is a combination of fungus and algae), for example, was one of the first life forms on dry land and by breaking down rocks into soil and organic components, it made it possible for plants to establish themselves and animal life to emerge from the sea. They can also survive ON THE OUTSIDE OF A SPACESHIP!
Sheldrake deftly pulls together information, interviews, research, and personal reflection (and self-experimentation) on all different aspects of the fungal world. He is an enthusiastic guide with a lyrical and unique writing style that is much different from other popular science writers I've read. As I worked my way through this mycological world, my perspective shifted from seeing what fungi could do for humans to seeing how humans have become just another part of a fungal network that started long before we were here and, I'm sure, will be here long after we are gone.
Highly recommend this unusual and mind-expanding book!
Interesting to take a closer look at this huge area of live, living beings, our world.
Scientist and journalist enthralled by their own language skills the stories are hard to fathom. While some readers might enjoy the richness (?) of the language, the twist, turns and
Two areas mentioned - deep underground mycelic networks and in person fungi - are not explored with information, or their own chapter. This is most lamentable, as these are the areas that seem least well known in the public sphere - or at least not reaching me, whereas most other areas explored seem much more publicized in news.
I'm also very much in the market for some solid science fiction featuring fungi.
I really enjoyed the exhibition (though it was a cold wet day in Kyoto). Also loved the sketch of three artists sketching…… apparently cold and raining? presumably this is Okoku and friends but it demonstrates the sheer hard work that went into achieving the finished paintings. I must confess that I’ve just spent a lot of time with Google translate on this book and been totally confused because it translates Okoku’s name as something completely different and I couldn’t understand who this “Sakuradani Kajima” was that they kept referring to. Assume it’s alternatives for the Kanji.
But really love the paintings and the work. Happy to give this five stars.
Sheldrake's fascination for fungi really transpires from the pages of this book. His writing is confident enough that he can write about real research and sound neither condescending nor overly academic. (There's also a large number of references and endnotes, which I really appreciate.) What really struck me, though, is how fungi seem to defy our existing classification systems. Throughout the book you're presented with a variety of ways people have tried to understand fungi and how they relate to their environment: symbiosis, parasitism, mycelium as a brain, wires connecting a forest, and even a sort of marketplace for nutrients -- and while these are all fascinating they also show how weird fungi are. Even the notion of an organism seems to be inadequate. If you think you have a good grasp on what life is you should definitely read this.
My experience of this book was undoubtably enhanced by choosing this for a "book read outside" prompt -- so I read this one chapter at a time, mostly in my own backyard, but a few bits in a National Park on vacation. It was a great choice.
It was interesting to learn more about
The most interesting part for me was the environmental aspect. There are species of fungi that will eat/decompose almost everything including used diapers, cigarette butts, plastics, nuclear waste, neurotoxins and even glyphosate. The possibility to naturally clean up toxic spills and other waste utilizing fungus seem endless. I hope this area is given more study and serious consideration as it could change the planet.