For this month’s blog I want to do a book review of a very important book ‘Entangled Life’ by Merlin Sheldrake. Merlin is the son of Rupert Sheldrake who may be known to some of you as the inventor of Morphogenetic Theory - the idea that there are Morphogenetic Fields in living organisms that kind of help it to self-learn. It's quite an esoteric theory but he's a very important scientist and Merlin is his son who's a mycologist which I'm sure helps a lot having a famous father when pitching an idea to a publisher!!
However, this is a really good book, although it starts off rather oddly where some phrases didn’t make any sense so it could be that that that was missed in the editing, but it develops into a theory really of how fungi lie at the heart of Life on Earth and biology in particular - in fact they made life as we know it possible!
Because they're the only organism that can break down rock and therefore in evolutionary terms they enabled plants to come out from the seas - single cell plants like algae to adapt to life on land and start to create soil. They also highlight a very important conundrum in biology at the moment – which is about Darwin's theory of evolution often coined ‘Survival of the Fittest’ as being inaccurate when we look at how fungi and plants co-operate. Don’t forget this theory was formulated during the Victorian era, the era of the Machine age and the idea was that evolution was a competitive thing. But now what we're seeing as we increase our ability to look at smaller life-forms, is that there's more of a cooperative frame in which we can view how organisms live together in ecosystems or communities. But we don't want to go too far and say that all life is altruistic that is an anthropomorphic viewpoint i.e. saying all life lives in harmony but that isn't quite how nature works.
What Merlin is saying is it's very much a combination - he uses a lovely term ‘an alloy of competitiveness and cooperation’ and fungi really illustrate that so beautifully because they lie at the heart of connectivity between plants, inorganic soils and animals – even us because they live within and on us in the form of yeasts on our skin and in our various orifices.
Functions of Fungi from Decomposition to the Wood Wide Web
Most people understand fungi are involved in rotting or decomposition of organic matter, and that's a very important part of what they do for us without them we wouldn't be able to exist because we'd be knee deep in rotting material not to mention human bodies! But it’s only recently we’ve become aware of other functions that they provide in nature largely because fungi are mostly invisible to the naked eye. The fruiting body which we call the mushroom is only a tiny part of the fungus. In fact, fungi exist in myriad forms but the most common form is the mycelium which spreads as network of veins almost under the soil linking plants via a nutrient transport network. Some have likened it to the internet calling it the ‘Wood Wide Web’ which is quite a clever analogy but I would also say it's very akin to the neurons in our brain where the process of connectivity is more important than the structure itself. You could say the same of the brain - it is a process not a thing; it happens to consist of fatty matter but it's the making connections all day every day over and over that is what the brain really is – a process in constant remaking of itself.
So the mycelial network does that for the soil - it doesn't only transport nutrients, it actually transports information which can feed back upon itself because if you imagine it has a series of hyphae - these are the sort of filamentous threads, the tips of the filaments which are able to sense what's ahead and make connections where they overlap. If they find an area that is less advantageous to them they will pull back and feedback information to retract that degree of growth and develop it in a new direction where maybe conditions are more favorable. We have always thought that it's a chemical transport of information and there is some degree of chemistry involved organic compounds we know travel along there along with bacteria and probably some viruses as well but it's also thought that maybe it's an electrical network which is a very brand new idea that hasn’t been developed. At least when he wrote this book in 2020 it was a brand new area the idea of electrical transportation in living systems (one I covered in my book Life Illuminated).
We're finding that more and more in living systems that the body uses both chemistry and also uses propulsion waves or electrochemistry to make fast connections. So fungi then have this ability to make connections in networks and by doing that promote plant growth by enabling a symbiosis between the plant and the fungus. The fungus is able to break down compounds in the soil and provide organic compounds and in return the plant is able to photosynthesize and feed the fungi. This sort of dual role or symbiotic relationship that enables plants and fungi to coexist but it's not as simple as saying fungi make plants able to survive because it's a two-way street - it's definitely a mutual endeavour.
Lichens and the Importance of Community
He talks a lot about specific groupings between plants and fungi and spends quite a lot of time on lichens because they are in themselves a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga till the recent discovery that actually there are more than two types of organisms living together - there's also prokaryotes (single celled organisms without a nuclear membrane) of all kinds. In other words, lichens are a community of organisms.
That's a really important thing to understand as it brings into question the whole idea of identity and singularity and I wrote a book in 2017 about the microbiome. I called it The World Within and because at the time the microbiome was really being discovered and the idea that the human organism is not an ‘I’ it's a ‘We’. The fascinating fact is we are composed of more microbes than we are human cells at least five to ten times and in terms of the DNA component it's more like 500 times is microbial so it shatters the whole notion that we are unique identifiable individual organisms, I think fungi really illustrate that beautifully too and lichens are an example but there are many others so it it's really very important to understand that the fungal network the mycelium is not just a passive pipeline that just sort of transports and shuttles things around, it makes decisions about where to go and how to connect and what's needed. It will even trade carbon compounds depending on the exchange rate at the time! I thought that was so interesting like money exchange trading which I'm also interested in -you basically buy low and sell high which is well known in Forex Trading. According to Merlin that's what mycelial networks do as well which I thought was really fascinating - that they enable this kind of active decision making or participation in growth and development They are ‘Brokers of Entanglement’ he says, hence the title of the book, I guess. What a wonderful phrase - here I started to get quite excited by his language. Concepts like this help to enlighten us about the nature of this complex community that not only coexists but can learn from each other.
You may know that plants grow faster when they have the appropriate fungal association – Merlin discusses how you can demonstrate that in the lab in nature by cutting plants off from their fungal partners and they tend to not grow as well because they can't ta as many nutrients. We know also that plants will support each other via the mycelial network and this has as I said been simplified to a wood wide web which was a term I think coined by Suzanne Simard, a Canadian scientist who looked at it first before it was taken on by Peter Wohlleben who wrote the book 'The Language of Trees'. But Merlin points out the web is not all equal - older bigger plants tend to command more interconnections very much like the world wide web does i.e. you have a popular website it will draw a lot more people to it because there's more connections and more connections tend to attract more because of the way the web bots and spiders work to discover who's looking at what and tend to promote things that are popular. It’s very similar in the mycelial network and if you cut out some of the biggest trees with the biggest nodes that are the most well connected everything tends to suffer a lot more and unfortunately that's what we do when we log old growth forests and take out the biggest trees to leave the younger ones thinking that that's more ecological Unfortunately that’s not true, it actually destroys the ecosystem because larger trees are almost keystone species if you like; they have a lot more influence on what happens within that Wood Wide Web.
A Flexible Network Adapts to Survive
In summary, the mycelial network is all about flexibility; self-learning and selectivity so you can create a flexible selective communication network that helps the ecosystem adapt to whatever is going on. We know that we're in the middle of significant ecosystem collapse right now. This isn't the first one this is about the sixth – one of the most famous was the asteroid impact that created such a dust storm that it cut out the sun and all the plants that the dinosaurs fed on died so they were made extinct. But not all life was decimated - bacteria and fungi survived and we have found some fossilized remnants of these enormous columns of fungi that were tens of meters high which seemed to dominate the landscape. Meanwhile they were very busy creating the next iteration of life on earth.
So it's a fascinating story that what fungi do for us.
The last chapter ‘Radical mycology’ is very interesting - he interviews Paul Stamets goes on a mushroom weekend where he meets some evangelists for the mushroom movement who believe that fungi will save the world. They do everything from remediate waste like old cigarettes, oil spills, glyphosate toxicity in agricultural waste and they will also replace some of the materials that don't decompose like plastics, polyurethane, all manner of furnishing fabrics, shoes, clothes, etc. Basically you can make everything from mycelium and he talks about some very important developments - companies throughout the world that are using fungal products to replace the things that we are finding very difficult to get rid of. He even talks about fungi proliferating in areas of nuclear devastation like Chernobyl so that could be a future way of dealing with nuclear waste as we go down the nuclear energy route.
Personally I think there are better routes to energy production than something that takes so long to neutralise and decompose but there are fungi that will live on irradiated material so it's an extraordinary story. Finally he talks a lot about classification because that's a big discussion in biology are fungi a separate Kingdom or are they an offshoot? I think that's an important discussion that could be developed further but it's not one that is his particular interest – he really is more concerned with studying particular forms of fungi and their inter relationships. He doesn’t so much touch on the psychological stuff for instance magic mushrooms though he did take some and mentions some of the cultural uses of mushrooms. He also mentions medicinal mushrooms and their use in Chinese medicine but since his background is biological and evolutionary that’s not his specialism. That's something I'll be tackling in much more depth in my new book as it's my interest. I’m calling it 'Mushroom Medicine' (tentative title) because I am very passionate about the medicinal uses of mushrooms for our health and our world because I do think we need new creative solutions to where we are right now.
It is a beautifully written book, the first chapter or introduction aside, and a quite remarkable account that you can get in a week or two or over a weekend if that's all you did so I would highly recommend. Well done Merlin I'm going to be probably quoting some of it when I write my own which is ongoing and certainly using some of his ideas which I think are very important so look out for that that's hopefully should be this summer sometime.
Do catch my YouTube video of this blog and look out for my next blog (and video) which will be with Dr Rainer Viehweger and on the Energetic Wonder of Life