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Science

Entangled Life | How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures

A 5-minute read

It’s a real pleasure to share this interview with critically acclaimed author and biologist, Merlin Sheldrake, son of legendary biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, and an expert in tropical ecology. 

In this interview with senior producer, J. P. Harpignies, of Bioneers, Merlin discusses his recently published book on the mysterious, underground world of fungi; Entangled Life. It’s a fascinating, entertaining and enlightening read, providing a helpful overview for those new to the subject, along with some positively mind-blowing insights into the emerging field of Mycology.

The real ‘missing link’?

In the interview, Merlin shares his thoughts as to why historically, Mycology – the study of fungi – has received such little attention, academic recognition (or indeed research funding) and why that institutional neglect seems to be changing. 

It’s a fair point to discuss too, bearing in mind that mycelium – the underground network whose fruiting body is the mushroom – is the planet’s oldest living organism, existing way before humans, animals or even plants, and as such, is a monumentally important part of our biosphere. Not to mention that 90% of plants are thought to be reliant upon fungal networks in order to either thrive or survive. This humble (and yet magnificent) foundation of all life on this planet was not even recognised as a ‘kingdom’ in its own right until the 1960s. 

Networks

However, with today’s technologically advanced societies embracing ‘networks’ as a way of life, the field of Mycology seems to be holding a greater cultural resonance for the contemporary reader, judging by Entangled Life’s glowing peer reviews

“This is a very fungal moment for us,” quips Sheldrake, with his gentle tone (and just a hint of a twinkle in a pair of keenly observant, bright, blue eyes), adding, “We live in a time of networks. Fungi are at least a billion years old and demonstrate the networked nature of the universe.”

It’s this idea of how all life is interconnected that we at The Monastery feel is a crucially important one, especially at this moment in history. The idea of any living being as an individual and separate unit, cut away from its environment, history and community, has served our world badly, legitimizing the destruction of our own environment and the economic and social disenfranchisement of huge swathes of humanity.

We need a more helpful evolutionary model than the ruthlessly competitive-to-the-death Darwinian model. Turns out that the ancient, intelligent, adaptable, communicative kingdom of fungi might just be able to provide us floundering humans with exactly such a model. 

Why we at The Monastery love Entangled Life

At the heart of Merlin’s discourse lies a tantalising discussion around symbiosis, in this case, the ability of mycelial networks to exist in symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationships with other organisms, such as is the case with lichen and coral. In his book, there are other, more shocking (and somewhat grisly) examples of fungi’s ability to form a symbiosis not only with plants, but with insects too. We don’t want to spoil the revelations, so you’ll have to read the book yourself to discover the mighty power and versatility of this much-ignored kingdom lying mostly hidden from view, right beneath our feet.

Rethinking Social Darwinism

These examples of thriving symbiotic relationships between distinct species challenge the idea of social Darwinism; that evolution of the species depends upon competition alone, a view inherent in the ‘survival of the fittest’ hypothesis, so prevalent in modern, social economics. 

Merlin’s research provides ample metaphors which show that in fact, collaboration is key to evolution, arrived at by a mixture of cooperation and competition between organisms and species. This strikes a sensible balance between the stance of hardened social Darwinists who insist that competition is nature’s default approach to evolution, and the opposing countercultural view that only cooperation can lead to evolution. The truth, Sheldrake argues, is neither one extreme nor the other, but a balance between the two. The very word ‘competition’, as he quite rightly points out, comes from the Latin, meaning ‘to strive together.’ 

The Wood Wide Web

A great example of this kind of collaboration between organisms and species can be seen in the metaphor of the Wood Wide Web; an incredibly complex, underground, mycorrhizal fungal network connecting the plants and trees of forests together via a system of tiny fungal tubes called hyphae. These penetrate the plant and tree roots at a cellular level. Through this network emerges a symbiosis between a myriad of species that allows the entire forest ‘community’ to not only connect, communicate, send messages, share and allocate resources but ultimately, to thrive – together. 

Evolution as collaboration 

This seems like an important metaphor, particularly for the times we are living in, as it seems quite clear that a strictly competitive approach to social and economic systems has led to many of what Sheldrake refers to as the “social and environmental injustices that we are being destroyed by.” 

From climate change and extreme divisions of wealth resulting in unimaginable riches for very few and increasingly extreme poverty for most, the principle of this social Darwinism can be seen to permeate every damaging system threatening the survival of countless species and the biosphere we all depend upon for survival – a survival looking more precarious each day. 

A fresh perspective

In today’s challenging times, humanity needs new ways of looking at evolution; what exactly evolution means and the metrics we judge it upon. From this writer’s perspective at least, it seems perplexing that anybody, in all honesty, could describe the current situation we find ourselves in as a species – with our climate crisis, wars, poverty, post-truth social degradation and loss of connection with ourselves, each other and the living world around us – as evolutionary. Isn’t evolution supposed to be progressive?

Inspiration & (a charming touch of) rebellion

In lighter hearted moments during the interview, Sheldrake discusses the influence of legendary thinkers and storytellers such as Paul Stamets and the late, great, Terence McKenna – a great friend of his father’s and a regular visitor to the Sheldrake household during Merlin’s childhood.

Amusing anecdotes include escapades involving the scrumping of apples from both the orchard on Darwin’s estate AND from Newton’s tree (in the grounds of Cambridge University) to brew no doubt deliciously illicit, home-made cider: batch names Evolution and Gravity respectively. 

Mischievous!

To sum up

We at Manchester’s modern-day Monastery warmly applaud this inspired and dedicated scientist’s impeccably researched and beautifully written book, Entangled Life. It’s filled with wonder, awe and optimism and that in itself, dear reader, is a gift.

Whilst this interview is a great introduction to Merlin Sheldrake’s pioneering work, Entangled Life is of course available to buy in multiple formats. Get your copy here.

Words | Jane Charilaou

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