This Book On Fungi Will Make You Wonder Where An Organism Ends And Environment Begins
Merlin Sheldrake takes us on a trip into the fascinating world of fungi and down the rabbit hole.
This book is a treat for all those who are interested in life – whether the reader is a science teacher or an artist or a lover of environment.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape. Merlin Sheldrake. Bodley Head. 368 pages. Rs 743.
Any aspect of existence, even one that we would have generally considered as trifle, can become a door to a mysterious and wonder-filled universe.
The book, Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake proves this and takes us on a voyage that is at once an expedition into both science and magic.
Sheldrake is a young scientist with a PhD in fungi interactions in tropical ecosystems. He also has an unconventional lineage.
His father is the famous Rupert Sheldrake who had worked once upon a time in ICRISAT. When Sheldrake senior published the book A New Science of Life, which seemingly supported a kind of vitalist approach to biology, he was fiercely criticised for presenting magic as science.
One reviewer (Sir John Maddox) even wrote a review in 'Nature' that the book was ‘the best candidate for burning.’ While the book definitely had problems, the hostility it earned was unjustifiable.
That was in 1981. Now almost 40 years later, his son has come out with a book on fungi and it is as much poetic magic as it is science – hard science.
What one would consider as a simple mushroom through the pages of the book emerges as a profound mystery and presents us with serious questions that will alter forever the way we view the bio-cosm around us and within us. It shows how the human-centric biases which pervade the sciences are forced to get dropped as our search tools become deeper and our canvasses get larger.
Early in the book we are introduced to the work of Stefan Olsson, a Swedish mycologist who has studied mycelial networks for decades.
Mycelia are the collective filamentous branching structures put forth by the fungi colonies to absorb nutrients from the surroundings. Hyphae are the individual filaments. Olsson has shown ‘how mycelial networks co-ordinate themselves and behave as integrated wholes’ (p.55). He has also shown by inserting ‘microelectrodes’ into the ‘hyphal strands’ of a fungus (Armillaria) the existence of ‘regular action potential-like impulses, firing at a rate very close to that of animals’ sensory neurons’ which move faster than ‘the fastest rate of fluid flow measured in a fungal hypha’(pp.68-9).
After describing such discoveries which blur and question our mental boundaries, Sheldrake asks:
Are network-based life forms like fungi or slime moulds capable of a form of cognition? Can we think of their behaviour as intelligent? If other organisms’ intelligence didn’t look like ours then how might it appear? Would we even notice it?Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life, Random House, 2020, p.73, Kindle Edition
Of particular importance is the chapter ‘Mycelial Minds’.
Sheldrake explains how the fungus Ophiocordyceps nilateralis alters the ‘minds’ of the carpenter ants which when infected by the fungus leave their nest and freed of their fear of heights, move up the nearest plants. The fungus then forces the ant to clamp its jaws around the plant. The mycelium growing from the ant's feet then stitches itself to the plant surface. The fungus whole thus formed then digests the body of the ant and sprouts a stalk from its head which in turn falls on the ants passing by below. Sheldrake discusses this in the context of psilocybin, an active ingredient in many of the sacred mushrooms:
LSD and psilocybin are fungal molecules that have found themselves entangled within human life in complicated ways exactly because they confound our concepts and structures, including the most fundamental concept of all: that of our selves.(pp. 106-107).
It is after pointing this out that he brings in the Ophiocordyceps species or the zombie fungus. Soon he moves into a deeper question.
Sheldrake takes Richard Dawkins' concept of the extended phenotype. By extended phenotype Dawkins meant the behavioural expression of the genes into the outside world. In his book, Dawkins had presented beavers building dam and the termite mounds among others as instances of the phenomenon.
Dawkins has also placed 'stringent requirements' for a biological phenomenon to be considered as extended phenotype: first, it should be inheritable, second it should vary from generation to generation, 'third and the most important' the variation must affect the ability of the organism to survive and reproduce (or its 'fitness').
After showing how Ophiocordyceps speciess behaviour meets all the three requirements, Sheldrake slowly and thrillingly moves towards the question: ‘How do psilocybin mushrooms stand up to Dawkins’ three ‘stringent requirements’?’ (p.125).
In between Sheldrake explores what psilocybin does to human minds:
One of our most robust mental models is that of the self. It is exactly this sense of self that psilocybin and other psychedelics seem to disrupt. Some call it ego dissolution. Some simply report that they lost track of where they ended and their surroundings began. The well-defended ‘I’ that humans depend on for so much can vanish entirely, or just dwindle, shading off into otherness gradually. The result? Feelings of merging with something greater, and a reimagined sense of one’s relationship to the world.(p. 124)
Sheldrake shows how the way Ophiocordyceps infected ant’s behaviour can be considered as the extended phenotype of the fungus. Then he asks if 'the alterations in human consciousness and behaviour brought about by psilocybin mushrooms be thought of as part of the extended phenotype of the fungus?' (p. 124).
Terence McKenna, one of the early influences on Merlin Sheldrake and a pioneer of DIY mushroom studies, advocates this view.
Earlier Sheldrake also recounts McKenna’s thesis that it was mushroom consumption that triggered or at least catalysed the dawn of human civilisation with its varied core components:
Evidence of religion, complex social organisation, commerce and the earliest art arises within a relatively short period in human history around fifty to seventy thousand years ago. What triggered these developments is not known. Some scholars attribute them to the invention of complex language. Others hypothesise that genetic mutations brought about changes in brain structure. For McKenna, it was psilocybin mushrooms that had ignited the first flickerings of human self-reflection, language and spirituality, somewhere in the proto-cultural fog of the Palaeolithic. Mushrooms were the original tree of knowledge.(pp. 112-113)
Sheldrake presents McKenna’s view that mushrooms do act through human minds and almost shape and guide us:
McKenna thought fungi could wear our minds, occupy our senses and, most important, impart knowledge about the world out there. Among other things, fungi could use psilocybin to influence humans in an attempt to deflect our destructive habits as a species. For McKenna, this was a symbiotic partnership that presented possibilities ‘richer and even more baroque’ than those available to humans or fungi alone.(p. 125)
So, do the sacred mushrooms act through us and are a significant part of our species behaviour, just as the behaviour of Ophiocordyceps species through the ants? Sheldrake points out the crucial problem in such a speculation despite its poetic attractiveness – the fact that ‘humans are latecomers to the psilocybin story’:
Psilocybin was produced by fungi for tens of millions of years before the genus Homo evolved – the current best estimate puts the origin of the first ‘magic’ mushroom at around 75 million years ago. ... It’s possible that psilocybin didn’t do much at all for the fungi that made it until humans came along.(p. 126)
Then why did the fungi produce psilocybin? Sheldrake makes a speculation based on some of the latest papers that ‘the evolutionary value of psilocybin lay in its ability to influence animal behaviour.’
As a teenager who grew up reading both Rupert Sheldrake and Lyall Watson, this reviewer always felt that the heart of their science has always been beautiful and poetic. However, the facts unveiled by science at that time were simply not yet ready for that poetry. Of course, vitalism is still problematic.
So, when Lyall Watson got his facts wrong it was easy to rubbish all his work as pseudoscience. Merlin Sheldrake points out what Alfred North Whitehead said to his student Bertrand Russell that while the vision of Russell was the one at fine weather noon day, the vision of Whitehead was the first early morning vision from deep sleep.
To Merlin Sheldrake McKenna’s speculation is similar to the early morning vision while that of Dawkins is the noon vision: 'Between the two poles lies a continent of possible opinion.'
That is only a glimpse of what the book contains.
This book is a treat for all those who are interested in life – whether the reader is a science teacher or an artist or a lover of environment. Merlin Sheldrake takes us on a trip into the fascinating world of fungi and down the rabbit hole well into the wonderland and makes you realise that it has become a pilgrimage.
The book is a demonstration of how a thorough dedicated study of any phenomenon around us can take us to the heart of the profound mystery that surrounds us, permeates us and animates us. One wishes such books and excerpts from them become part of our school and college curricula.
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