As we learn more about human DNA, how trees and plants function, and ecological failure, emerging knowledge about fungi is upsetting notions of consciousness and communication—suggesting a parallel with technological networks. The latest bible of mushroom lovers, Merlin Sheldrake’s debut book spills out of biology into philosophy, medicine, food, and psychedelics.
WORDS: FRANCESCA GAVIN
Mushrooms have so much power they can break through concrete; it is unsurprising that they are equally as impactful on the human mind. Fungi, a unique kingdom of organisms that is neither plant nor animal, have become a prominent subject in recent years: whether you’re coming from philosophy, biology, economics, anthropology, architecture, ecology, food, or drug culture, mushrooms are a hot topic. The debut publication of author and biologist Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life will make them even more central to these discussions.
Sheldrake studied microbiology and plant science before a post-graduate focus on the history and philosophy of science and a Ph.D. in tropical ecology. While focusing on the relationships between plants and their microbial fungi partners at university, he experimented with yeasts and home brewing on the side. He resembles an early 19th century poet, all natural curls and big, curious eyes. It is not hyperbole to say that Merlin Sheldrake is mushroom royalty: the son of biologist Rupert Sheldrake, Merlin met the infamous American writer, botanist, and psychonaut Terence McKenna numerous times as a child and first met mycologist Paul Stamets as a teenager. While most of us looked at mushrooms as merely something on a dinner plate, Sheldrake was being introduced to their position in a countercultural context. Rupert and McKenna were great friends, and they took part in long conversations with mathematician Ralph Abraham between 1998 and 1998, calling the discussions “trialogues.” “They put out a couple of books with three of them talking; one's called Chaos, Creativity and the Cosmic Consciousness, and the other is called The Evolutionary Mind,” Merlin explains. “Terrence was a great storyteller. He was very imaginative about the way that we figure relationships with the more-than-human world and the way that different species interact with each other. He's a great source of inspiration. I’d just listen to him, transfixed,” he recalls. “Terrence died when I was thirteen, so I never got to hang out with him as an adult, which is a great shame.”
Merlin’s own interest in fungi did not emerge from his psychedelic acquaintance. Instead, he was initially interested in how things decomposed and how things change in the natural world. “I became interested in these invisibly small organisms when I was quite a small child. They just seemed to have so much power,” he remembers. “I later became interested in symbiosis—the way that organisms invent new ways to live alongside one another, sharing bodily space in very intimate ways. Fungi are the blockbuster symbiote in the history of life.”
Symbiosis has become of the most influential metaphors to emerge from the biological world and infect culture at large in recent years. As more information has emerged about the human microbiome, ecosystems, DNA, how trees and plants function, and ecological failure, fungi are transforming how we view collaboration in the world. The term symbiosis itself emerged in the late 19th century through the study of lichens. Over time, it became a metaphor by which people and even countries could rethink their relationships to those around them. “I quite like the idea of using the history of symbiosis as a prism to see, to understand human culture of the time. We can't stop doing it. We see organisms. We animate that with narrative, latent with design and patterns. I don't think it's using these stories is a problem in itself—it's just when we stop being aware that we're using these stories. I think most of the problem comes when one type of story is prioritized. You saw that happening in the 19th century: they actually studied evolution as unmitigated conflict, which mirrored views of social progress within industrial capitalist society. You didn't see that so much among some of the Russian researchers at the time, who emphasized cooperation. So if we're going to use these metaphors, let's be aware that we're using them. Let's choose our metaphors wisely.”
Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our future is arguably one of the most comprehensive and fascinating books on fungi of the century. Sheldrake makes the history, science, and impact of mushrooms, lichen, truffles, and yeast accessible to those not wading through scientific papers. More than anything, he makes it clear that when it comes to fungi, questions only lead to more questions. As Sheldrake observes “the fungal is very easy to meet the frontier of knowledge.” Sheldrake’s book spills out of biology into philosophy, design, agriculture, geology, medicine, food, and psychedelics. “I've always being frustrated with what seems to be an artificial barrier between the sciences and the humanities. I've always tried to find the places where that barrier wears thin, becomes porous. We can't talk much about relationships and symbiosis in the world without accounting for the fact that we ourselves are also in relationship with the world.”
Mushrooms have become something strongly intertwined with the contemporary technological fascination with networks. (It’s perhaps also the reason micro-dosing is so popular in Silicon Valley.) “Since the mid-1990s, the network has become a monster concept to understand so many aspects of the world and so many disciplines of human inquiry, and of course fungi mycelium networks, and that resonates with this more general network awareness, network thinking,” Merlin expounds. He explains in his book how fungi have been used in experiments around memory, mazes, and forming new networks. The possibilities and “intelligence” of these organisms are astonishing.
The way fungi function, as described in Sheldrake’s book, brings up ideas around consciousness, communication, and how humanity itself works. “There are a lot of ways that the fungal world encourages us to find effective human life in it. You do this with plants, of course, and with animals. But fungi leave so much to our imaginations. It's ephemeral. We see it maybe just a few days of a year. So much of the life of this organism is out of sight, so we really need to engage our imaginations to deal with these organisms in a more comprehensive way. They're dramatic. Mushrooms grow fast, take remarkable forms and shapes. There's a kind of magic to the way that they appear in our lives and intervene in our worlds. They're a very fertile subject for our thinking.” We use mushrooms to project metaphors onto the world, as much as to understand how we ourselves function.
Entangled Life is the latest publication in a flurry of fungal cultural output, include anthropologist Anna L. Tsing’s surprise blockbuster The Mushroom at the End of the World, the rise of Donna Haraway as a cult theorist, the publication of A Mycological Foray on John Cage’s fascination with mushrooms, Carsten Höller’s immersive installation Upside Down Mushroom Room, and my own exhibition at Somerset House, “Mushrooms: The art, design and future of fungi,” which included artworks by numerous contemporary artists working with mushrooms as a subject, including Annie Ratti, Adham Faramawy, Jeremy Shaw, Hamish Pearch, Hannah Collins, and Stephan Doitschinoff. The question many are asking is, why mushrooms now?
Sheldrake sees this rise of interest as the result of numerous influences, including the resurgence of interest in psychedelics, and in particular psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in two-hundred types of mushrooms. There is also the work of myco-evangelists like Paul Stamets, whose TED Talk “6 ways mushrooms can save the world” has had over six million views, as well as some major scientific discoveries. “It's only in the last few decades that we've developed techniques that allow us to observe many aspects of fungal life like the rest of the microbial world. DNA sequencing, for example, has granted us access to the fungal world in a way that we simply didn't have before,” Sheldrake explains.” All these types of identification have allowed us to realize quite how omnipresent fungi are and deepen our understanding of their role and the ecosystems and biochemical cycles of the plants.”
Once you start reading about fungi, the information that emerges turns upside-down everything from Descartes to Darwin. One of the most interesting topics in Sheldrake’s book is an exploration of the idea of the horizontal exchange of information, skills, and genes between fungal organisms. Rather than looking at the history of nature as something vertical and linear, mushrooms demonstrate how they have adapted and incorporated the skills of other organisms horizontally. The idea of linear progress goes out the window. “Think about horizontal gene transfer compared to vertical inheritance, where however many parents have an offspring which can only arise when the parents combine their genetic information. With horizontal gene transfer, you can just exchange genetic information. You don't have to give rise to a new organism,” Merlin concurs. “The analogue in human nature is culture. You can acquire knowledge or skill horizontally without having to make a whole new being. So much of the microbial world gets on with business in a horizontal fashion. We do it vertically, and so we just assume that's a better, more natural way to go. It's a super human-centric view.” The idea of an anthropocentric world where everything echoes how we as humans function seems archaic. Old narratives are being de-centered. Here, evolution is not just about competition and conflict, but also about collaboration. “Symbiosis and these intimate relationships are co-authors of evolution,” as Merlin notes. “It just puts us into a much bigger room that is much more fun—to find actually how diverse the processes and patterns that evolution can breed.”
The environmental crisis is making humanity look desperately to nature for solutions. Paul Stamets and the Radical Mycology movement, which Sheldrake examines in depth, are looking to fungi to fix human disaster. Despite a lot of interest, Sheldrake highlights that fungi are not just easy plasters to cover our ecological and agricultural wounds—working with fungi is complex and has unexpected positive and negative outcomes. “There's a huge amount of potential, but there's never going to be a scalable off-the-shelf solution for every single problem,” Merlin points out. He instead enthuses about fixing the issues before we’ve polluted the environment entirely. “Why don't we treat the cause and intercept the pollution before it hits the environment?” Sheldrake calls for rethinking our dysfunctional philosophy of waste and preventing problems from happening in the first place.
Another central shift in mushroom’s popularity is the alleviation of the post-1960s stigma from around psychedelics, due in large part to a series of powerful studies published in very credible journals by credible scientists. “These substances are fascinating and raise so many questions about how we can see the nature of reality and the nature of mind,” Merlin points out. “Substances can help us tackle some really big subjects.” Entangled Life is not the book for a deep examination of how the work being done at Imperial College in London and John Hopkins University in the United States is shifting ideas about psilocybin’s effect on mental health, depression, and addiction. Sheldrake is not a nouveau counterculturalist calling for Leary-like tuning in and dropping out. He instead, fascinatingly, uses the zombie fungus ophiocordyceps to look at the effect of mushrooms on other organisms. You emerge happy you are not an ant, rendered unable to control your body until you take a death bite into a leaf and a mushroom fruits from your head, spreading its spores.
The way fungi communicate or function have the power to upset the idea of consciousness itself. There is the possibility of a mushroom form of thinking, communication, and memory that can reflect but also differ quite dramatically from the way the human brain works. Admittedly, this is another metaphor, but a fascinating one nonetheless. “It depends on what we mean by ‘thought,’” Merlin says. “Thinking happens in this indeterminate or indeterminate part of us—our minds. When we’re thinking, we're dealing with possibilities that haven't even happened. We're dealing with options. We're dealing with different courses of action. If you would try and think of the analogy with fungi, what options do they have? What are their choices? What can they do or not do? Then, I think, you can start to imagine what kind of analogue of fungal thinking might be. A fungus can grow into any shape it likes. It can change its shape over time. We might see an analogy of fungal thinking in the way that it addresses the morphological possibilities. There are also metabolic possibilities. Could there be some kind of metabolic thinking? Fungi have very elastic metabolisms and can express enzymes and chemicals in different ways at different times. Where are fungi making decisions? Where are fungi deciding between alternative courses of action? You could also look at their metabolisms. This is just a tentative speculation. It's not something that I would argue in court at all.”
The delightful part of Sheldrake’s approach to fungi is that he doesn’t have to be restricted by the academic tropes of argument, evidence, and conclusion. Instead, we are left with a delicious taste of possibility. Mushrooms highlight the limitations of human knowledge. Thankfully, there is much yet to discover about how the world, nature, and even our own bodies work.