Sheldrake chafes against the limits of scientific language, turning to metaphors to evoke the sheer difference of mycelium from plant or animal forms. Mycelial networks are “processes not things.” Noting how fungi expand into the world to live and consume, he describes mycelium as bodies “without plan” and “appetite in bodily form.” As for their apparent cognitive abilities, “mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation—speculation in bodily form.” They are “streams of embodiment” as opposed to “streams of consciousness.”
Some of the book’s most challenging insights come in its discussion of symbiosis. Lichens—those easily overlooked organisms that grow on stone and branch—are, in fact, not a single species, but a mutualistic partnership of fungi, algae, and bacteria. Together, they are able to sing “metabolic songs” that enable them to live in environments where they could not survive alone. Studying them occasioned the creation of the concept of symbiosis itself, the politics of which “have always been fraught.” Lichen required a radical rethinking of evolution in the decades after Darwin and has provoked debates about competition and cooperation ever since.
Lichen also contest our understanding of individuals and species. From Aristotle through Darwin, we’ve imagined organisms as distinct natures possessing the powers to meet their needs in their environment. This conception held despite profound changes in the understandings of their origins. Lichen do not fit this definition. With lichen, the tree of life’s branches “intertwine and melt” into one another. “Lichens are places where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism.”
The insufficiency of thinking of lichens as species or individuals resonates with other, similar insights. Lynn Margulis’s widely accepted notion of endo-symbiosis argues that the fundamental structures of plant and animal cells—chloroplasts and mitochondria—are the result of a primordial fusion of species. It is hard to find simple boundaries for any organism: plant, fungi, or animal. Humans host trillions of bacterial partners that play essential roles in our flourishing. “Our bodies, like those of all other organisms, are dwelling places. Life is nested biomes all the way down.”
The “involution” of different species evident in lichen is also manifest in even more jarring examples of fungal parasitism. Once infected with the fungus Ophiocordyceps, zombified ants leave their colony, climb nearby plants, clamp their mandibles to the bottom of a leaf and die. The fungus then fruits from their head and rains spores down on the colony to seed the next generation. Who is acting here, the ant or the fungus?
One of the chemicals active in Ophiocordyceps is psilocybin—the hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms. Human partakers of psilocybin have profound experiences of loss of individuality and union with the universe. Sheldrake sees here another manifestation of fungi’s ability to blur boundaries and facilitate entanglement.
Sheldrake’s consideration of mycorrhizal networks builds upon this explanation of mycelium and lichen. There is strong evidence that this symbiosis between fungi and plants dates to the original colonization of land by primitive plants. Mycorrhizal fungi expand plant root networks a thousand fold, and they have the enzymatic abilities to free nutrients such as phosphorus from rock and provide them to their plant partners. The plants, in turn, provide the fungi with carbohydrates from photosynthesis. Simard’s research was revolutionary because it proved not only that trees share resources with fungi, but that fungi distribute these resources to other trees, even those of different species. (As it turns out, this is a special case. There are many instances of mycorrhizae functioning parasitically.)
This sharing of resources with other plants through fungal networks raises the issue of altruism—a classic problem for natural selection. Several solutions have been offered. Sheldrake argues that a “myco-centric perspective” provides the best solution. When fungi are viewed as actors rather than passive conduits, their interests in maintaining diverse partner species becomes apparent. Trees exchange with fungi, which then use the resources they receive to cultivate various other partner plants.
While that approach seems to address the altruism debate, Sheldrake is eager to pursue this myco-centric perspective further by interrogating the many metaphors used to describe these relationships—feudalism, socialism, market exchange, the “wood wide web,” and neural networks—and finds each to be limiting.
Inspired by Donna Haraway’s insight that “it matters which stories tell stories,” Sheldrake seeks to develop the narrative possibilities of fungal life: flipping anthropomorphism for “mycomorphism.” Sheldrake notes that hidden beneath our debates about anthropocentrism lies the less noticed, but equally profound, dominance of tree-like structures in thought. These appear in examples as diverse as family trees, biological classifications, academic disciplines, and file structures. What would happen if we thought in the logic of mycelia, imagining the relationship of things in terms of involution and entanglement rather than separation and distinction? What if we “let the polyphonic swarms of plants and fungi and bacteria that make up our homes and our worlds be themselves, and quite un-like anything else? What would that do to our minds?”
Here Sheldrake runs into the limits of what can currently be analyzed scientifically. Studies of mycorrhizal networks are limited in scope: measuring exchanges among a few plants in pots or test plots. Even larger field studies mapping interconnections are, in the words of a key investigator, “only a glimpse; a small window into a vast open system...a gross understatement of the actual connectivity of the forest.”
Previously, Sheldrake was much more critical of “super-neoliberal capitalist” interpretations of mycorrhizal networks. But in this book, resource exchange is a major focus, perhaps because of the analytic tools available. Lacking the ability to study these networks in their complexity, scientists trace single-factor connections and exchanges. As a result, this research is dominated by economic metaphors such as “trading strategies.” The “shimmering unceasing turnover” of the larger system remains just as out of reach empirically as it does conceptually.
Thus, rather than finding a hoped-for fungal analogue of the common good, we can learn from science how very difficult it is to perceive and study emergent, collective realities such as common mycorrhizal networks. Sheldrake cites physicists who caution against assuming that we can understand complex systems by breaking them down and studying their component parts: “We rarely know how to put the pieces back together again.”
Sheldrake’s respect for these fungal entanglements can help us attend to other complexities that elude us. In the end, the crossover lesson may be epistemological humility and moral solicitude for the complex systems that sustain us—from ecosystems to the common good. That is challenge enough to neoliberal hegemony.
How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures
$18 | 368 pp.