Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures
by Merlin Sheldrake (The Bodley Head, London, 2020).
A brief appreciation by Colin Tudge.
If the world is to be better after The Virus has done its worst then it needs to be radically different. Everything needs to be re-thought and most of it needs to be re-structured. Encouragement comes not from what politicians call “recovery”, implying a return to the status quo ante, but from a plethora of radical thinkers on all fronts: economics, politics, science, religion. All are relevant to farming because everything is relevant to farming, and farming is relevant to everything else, even if the people in charge of the world don’t realise that.
Among the radical thinkers and of seminal significance is a new generation of biologists who question the idea ascribed to Charles Darwin that life is innately and primarily competitive: a “struggle for life” as Darwin regrettably put the matter; one long punch-up from conception to the grave (or indeed from before conception, because the gametes may compete too). For in truth, life is at least as cooperative as it is competitive. If it were not so, life would not be possible at all. All Earthly life is a dialogue between two classes of molecule – proteins and nucleic acids: amino acids and nucleotides. The eukaryotic cell is a master-class of cooperativeness – a coalition of different kinds of microorganism fused into one. Ecosystems are competitive but in the end everything depends on everything else. Competition is a fact of life to be sure but cooperativeness is its essence. Modern biology indeed is leading us to embrace the ancient, metaphysical, essentially Eastern concept of oneness. All life is one.
All this comes across in Merlin Sheldrake’s new book – which is on fungi in particular and mycelia in particular. Plants almost certainly could not have ventured from water to land without the help of fungi (and other micro-organisms) breaking down rock to create the rudiments of soil; integrating with the plants’ own tissues and serving them as roots. Today’s land plants have roots of their own but largely depend nonetheless on their mycelial extensions. All the trees in a forest may be joined by the mycelial connections between them into one great physiological unit that in principle could cover a continent.
More broadly, fungi are a kingdom in their own right – an alternative life-form that does things differently. Linnaeus’s suggestion in the 18th century that they were just degenerate plants was the biggest mistake he ever made — which, I suggest, has hugely and damagingly distorted our appreciation of them, and hence of the nature of life in general. Sheldrake’s book requires us to re-assess. If the world was cooperative, as nature really is, and not just a battle for ascendancy, as we are told is the case, there would indeed be cause for hope. The kind of radical thinking the world really needs can begin with mushrooms.
Colin Tudge April 19 2020
Entangled Life will be published on September 3 2020. It can be pre-ordered here