Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake

Ostensibly a natural history of the kingdom of Fungi, this volume achieves its highest interest and greatest value when biological knowledge is extended outward like mycorrhizal hyphae to enrich other fields of thought.  It was, for example, during the study of lichens, those unbelievably prolific and durable partnerships between fungi and algae, that the word ‘synergy was coined, leading both author and reader to ruminate upon the ubiquity of synergies in human activities and the value of opportunism in finding new ones.

Fungal networks are exposed as ancient precursors to the Internet (Sheldrake devotes an entire chapter to what he has dubbed the ‘Wood Wide Webs’, and their contributions to the natural environment and its unnatural derivative – agriculture).  Darwin’s theories are subjected to reinterpretation as cooperative relationships in nature are seen to outnumber competitive ones by geometric factors. (Though Sheldrake does not specifically go there, this particular insight bodes ill for American society’s preoccupation with win/lose ball-sports as training ground and philosophical oracle – how much better off might our politics and civics be if we had chosen a cooperative paradigm, geographic explorations, perhaps, than the winner-take-all destroy-your-opponent-at all-cost strategy of pro football?)

And how many of us, among the general populace, knew that plants themselves do not actually capture water or nourishment from soil, but rather must rely on fungi both on and inside their roots in order to exist at all?  That those fungi cannot survive without feeding off products of the plants’ photosynthesis seems less striking, though Sheldrake reminds us it is so only because of our plant centric (and animal centric, mammal centric, primate centric, human-centric) way of viewing the universe. Another worthy insight.

Beyond even those, there is the chaos concept of intelligence – how organisms without brains can yet engage in problem solving and deduction  Whether finding their way through a maze or creating a web to find food and then pruning back the unproductive branches to concentrate energy and resources where they will have  most effect, fungal networks suggest ways in which many human phenomena actually operate, and in which others might be made more effective.    A fungal contribution likely even more valuable to future generations than say, penicillin (molds being a subset of fungi). 

At times reading too much like a graduate compendium of current research (the chapter on ‘Mycelial Minds,’ focusing at great length on the effects and mechanisms of psilocybin – Magic Mushrooms – and with them LSD, went on far too long, for my taste), Sheldrake at other times comes across as geekily lovable, as when relating early childhood experiences that led him to this field of  study.    Cleary capable and erudite, he is a worthy PR rep for this too-oft overlooked and underpublicized part of our natural world. (which we learn is the ‘life kingdom of fungi’, independent of the kingdoms of ‘plants’ and of ‘animals,’ all of which are within the Domain of Eukaryota – who would have guessed?),   

Truffles may be the most highly-prized variety, but this volume makes clear there’s plenty more in the fungal kingdom worth biting one’s teeth into than just those stinky delicacies.

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