Merlin Sheldrake’s New Book is a Journey into the Fantastical World of Fungi
By Jhena Waring
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures introduces us to a world we’ve never seen, even though it’s right before our eyes. Most of us are familiar with fungi, but do we really know them? Biologist and author Merlin Sheldrake takes us on a journey through the perspective of these intricate organisms.
Fungi and their relevance cannot be separated from our lives, nor the history of the universe as we know it. Through the book, Sheldrake explores how fungi bridge together a magnitude of different life forces.
He weaves scientific knowledge and history into a lively and whimsical narrative, resulting in a captivating read that will change the way you see fungi, and its relation to mankind.
Entangled Life isn’t just informative, but also speculative, as it challenges the way we view the world. Through an engaging narrative, Sheldrake opens our minds to existential questions regarding intelligence and humanity. For instance, are complex beings like fungi, intelligent?
Without spoiling the read, here are some of the significant topics Sheldrake addresses throughout the book.
Fungi are Everywhere
We cannot escape fungi, although we often miss them. ”They are inside you and around you,” Sheldrake says (Entangled Life, 4).
From the soil to plant material, seawater, and human skin, fungi are widespread.
They create networks across forest floors and recycle nutrients back into the soil, which allows plants to survive. They are like nature’s building blocks and without their recycling capabilities, humans wouldn’t be able to survive on Earth.
It is estimated that we still have yet to discover 93% of the world’s fungi.
Historically, fungi have been a part of Earth long before we got here. In fact, plants only made it out of the water because fungi served as their root systems for tens of millions of years until they could evolve on their own. Even today, around 90% of most plants still depend on fungi. They extract nutrients from the soil, and provide them to plants.
Mychorrizhal fungi create roots and link trees and plants in shared networks. This is sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web” because of its complex networking system.
Researchers are currently studying network-based organisms such as slime molds and fungi. Because their networks are so intricate and efficient, it’s believed that they can help solve our own systematic problems.
Fungi forage a variety of interactions in the natural world. In new pockets of land, fungi are able to make the soil in which plants take root (Entangled Life, 8). All fungi release spores, but not all of them turn into mushrooms.
In nuclear sites such as Chernobyl, fungi have been shown to help clean up nuclear waste. They are able to convert this waste into energy, the same way plants use the sun for photosynthesis.
Sheldrake speculates that we have probably deployed fungal solutions for longer than we have been Homo sapiens. One of modern medicine’s most important contributions, Penicillin, is derived from a fungus. In fact, Penicillin helps fungi in the same way it helps humans. Because of attributes like these, scientists believe that fungi are more closely related to animals, than plants.
Conversely, they can also cause disease. Every year, fungi are responsible for the demolition of forests and crop harvests.
Fungi have also been a critical part of our history in terms of their psychedelic usage. The earliest account of humans using psilocybin was in 1486, by an Aztec emperor (Entangled Life, 96). From Siberian Shamans to Vikings, hallucinogenic mushrooms are a part of the human history.
Like animals dispersing seeds, we have aided in the spread of psilocybin spores through our continued usage.
Sheldrake believes that we often view nonhuman organisms as unintelligent because their interactions appear automatic and programmed.
Even if we stand by this criteria for intelligence, a majority of fungi respond to their surroundings in unanticipated ways. They continuously and actively sense their environment before interacting. Their participation is dynamic.
Based on this information, can we consider fungi to be intelligent?
“Sheldrake awakens the reader to a shapeshifting, mind-altering, animate world that not only surrounds us but intimately involves us as well. A joyful exploration of the most overlooked and enigmatic kingdom of life, and one that expanded my appreciation of what it means to be alive.”
— Peter Brannen, Author of The Ends of the World
More Field Notes from Sheldrake
Sheldrake believes that fungi have changed and continue to change the way we understand life. “On a literal level, mind-altering drugs that have been derived from fungi, from LSD to psilocybin to alcohol, change the way we perceive and understand the world. On a conceptual level, fungi and slime molds illustrate that it is possible to solve potentially complex problems without needing a brain to do so. On a molecular level, it is through studies of yeast that we have come to understand much of what we know about cell biology and genetics.”
When Sheldrake thinks about fungi, the world looks different. One of his hopes is that Entangled Life will provide this appreciation and change of perspective for readers.
“I hope that I can communicate this to readers so that the world looks a little different when they put the book down. Fungi also make me more aware of the dense networks of interconnection that make life possible. I’d be happy if readers left the book with a more vivid sense of the intricate webs of interaction and communication that we are bound up within, and the urgent need for us to change our attitudes towards the more-than-human world.”
I thoroughly enjoyed the book; not only did Sheldrake present an array of new information, but the way in which he wrote about fungi was in itself a new perspective.
Personally, I believe that the best books provide you with an expanded mind. The change in perspective I encountered is the main reason why I recommend reading the engrossing Entangled Life.