Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake [Book Summary – Review]

When you hear the word “fungi” what awakens in your mind? Most probably, you think of mushrooms, which are living beings that are both respected and disparaged by humans. However, they are not just limited to this. 

Now, mushrooms are running rampant in the turbid mazes of the ground deep below where you stand. They digest myriad substances. They both cure fetal diseases and exterminate some essential agricultural products.

Although they have critical parts in life on our planet, the species of these organisms have not been given the same importance as the plant and animal kingdoms. The following chapters focus on the kingdom of fungi, revealing the connections that these beings have developed over tens of thousands of centuries.

Throughout the chapters below, you will learn 

  • how fungi can find their way around Tokyo;
  • what occurs when a fungus gets the control of an ant; and
  • which economic and political systems do support: socialism or capitalism.

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Chapter 1 – Fungi’s understanding of individuality and intelligence makes it necessary to review ours.

Physarum polycephalum is a slime mold and a real pro at solving issues. When faced with a maze, it can compare multiple possible solutions and choose the most profitable one.

A group of Japanese researchers placed Physarum in Petri dishes that mimicked the Greater Tokyo area. Oat flakes, which the fungus can use as food, were utilized to sign major centers of the city, and detrimental shining lights represented barriers such as mountains. Only 24 hours later, the slime mold found the fastest course amongst the oat grains. The striking thing is that the route he drew was almost the same as Tokyo’s current railway system.

Even without having a brain or central nervous system, Physarum can move and make decisions. Does this mean being unintelligent? Or are Physarum and other mushrooms equipped with an intelligence distinct from that of humans?

Fungi consist of hyphae, a set of narrow pipes, and so are network-based organisms. Mycelium, a complex network, emerges when hyphae get bigger, spread out, and become entangled. However, hyphae also turn into fruit-bearing forms such as mushrooms. When a mushroom is cut, what appears is the matter that composes the remaining part of the mycelium. Most of the time, these fruit-bearing forms aim to scatter reproductive spores. 

It seems easy to understand. Still, try to answer the question of whether mycelial networks are collective or individual.

In a way, we can think of all individual mycelial networks as a mass of hyphal tips. Yet all tips operate separately from each other, with no boss or central control. However, on the other hand, we cannot divide a mycelial network into separate hyphae because all hyphal tips are connected. The entire network can form anew even when the mycelium is reduced to a narrow pipe. This means that the mycelium is both individual and collective at the same time.

Why should we care about this? In the end, it is not difficult to define ourselves as individuals. Do we collapse when our body cannot function?

Actually, not totally like that. The human body contains all microbes, bacteria, cells, and gene groups that come from various origins or are genetically inherited. Without these entities, it would be easy to get sick or even lose our lives. Maybe we and we humans are groups that lead individual and collective lives simultaneously, just like fungi. Maybe we should now review our ages-old opinions about being a person, autarchy, and identity.  

Chapter 2 – By using smell, fungi make communication with humans, plants, and animals.

Truffles secrete a mind-blowing scent. It smells sharp, strong, and a little luscious. If you dine at a luxury restaurant, you may have the opportunity to eat truffles for a handsome price. Since they are rare fungi, the cost of two kilograms of Piedmont white truffles can be 12.000 Euros.

For most of the year, truffles remain as mycelia beneath the soil. But there comes the period when they need to reproduce. They cannot reproduce unless there are factors such as animals or wind that can disperse the spores they produce. For this reason, they need to establish a connection with the surface. Thus, they emit their attractive smell so that they can be unearthed by humans and animals as soon as possible. Thanks to this ability, truffles appeal to everyone.

The scent secreted by truffles evolved specifically to impress animals. To reach these mushrooms, bears throw tree trunks. Elk, on the other hand, dig in the ground with such enthusiasm that their noses bleed. As for human beings, we make direct connections between truffles and sex. In fact, “truffle” refers to “testicles” in numerous languages.

However, truffles must resort to enticement to survive beyond enticing wild animals and humans.

Initially, hyphae of truffles charm other hyphae to form a mycelial network. Then, their mycelia most probably emit pheromones that allure other fungi to breed, in other words, to gather together and combine their genetic material. The truffle is the final product of this action.

In the next step, the young truffle needs to find a plant with which it can partner, as it cannot produce vital carbon compounds single-handedly. For this to happen, hyphae and plants begin a chemical action and reaction process. Compounds made by plant roots make truffle spores germinate and increase the growth rate of hyphae. These roots extend into hairy branches as a result of fungal compounds’ reception to them. This wooing ceremony is planned to increase the possibility of the root tips and fungal hyphae uniting at one point.

When truffles become suitable for reproduction, they secrete a chemical melange that is the fragrance specific to their species. These appear to emerge as an outcome of sophisticated links between the truffle and its matchless community of earth, climate, and microbes.

For the most part, the allure ceremonies of these beings are not recognized. Yet when a truffle emits an odor detectable by our sense of smell, we can do almost nothing other than respond to such an invitation. 

Chapter 3 – Our planet’s biological bag of possibilities is incarnated thanks to lichens.

Most living beings cannot survive in the harsh environment of outer space. A small number of them can continue to exist if they can escape from the radiation emitted by detrimental rays of the Sun. Nevertheless, lichen, which is a peculiar living being, does not die even when under the direct influence of the most perilous rays coming from space.

They can also live in places with extraordinary conditions other than space. Both burning deserts and freezing tundras are their places. Lichens’ incredible qualities go further: Some of their species can live for thousands of years and can come back to life after being without for ten years.

The reason why lichens are particularly beloved of astrobiology among all other biological research areas is the matchless qualities of these organisms. By using lichens, scientists examine the boundaries of terrestrial life.

Lichens have a long history of shattering and objecting to accepted ideas in science. In 1869, Simon Schwendener, a Swiss botanist, put forward his revolutionary argument that it was possible that these beings were not merely one organism. On the contrary, he suggested that lichens, as a hybrid of fungi and algae, obtain carbon from the algae and nutrients and protection from the fungi.

Initially, scientists criticized Schwendener’s hypothesis incredibly harshly. It went so far that one of them discounted that hypothesis, calling it “splashy love.” In the end, Darwin’s theory of evolution, first published in 1859, stated that living beings evolved independently of each other. Thus, how could lichens’ evolution have happened without divergence, as in Schmender’s argument?

As the years passed, the acceptability of Schwendener’s argument widened. Yet it did not gain such wide acceptance until 1877 when German botanist Albert Frank produced the term symbiosis to explain the true nature of the bond between the fungal and algal elements of the lichen.

The existence of symbiosis is mostly accepted as a biological fact today. This refers to any type of partnership between living beings that is parasitical, reciprocally beneficial, or something in between. Moreover, the principle of symbiosis led to evolution in scientific understanding. For instance, it generated endosymbiosis, the groundbreaking theory of American biologist Lynn Margulis. She asserted that the organisms that have more than one cell evolved through symbiotic relationships with the organisms that have just one cell.

This symbiosis situation in lichen pushed us to rethink life through more diverse aspects. Trevor Goward, who is one the experts in this field, named this fact the “lichening rod effect.” This demonstrates that lichens are prone to demount classic notions and push us to think about novel prospects. By examining lichens we acquire more information about life.

Chapter 4 – Fungi possess the capacity to change the mental state of both humans and animals thanks to chemical compounds in them.

Throughout a small number of days of its living, the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis gets control of an ant’s biological system.

No, you did not mishear. Because of its skill of seizing and ruling over the biological system of an insect, Ophiocordyceps is called a “zombie fungus.” A carpenter ant is the first to be infected by the zombie fungus, which increases its size as big as two-fifths of the ant’s biomass. The ant is not afraid of heights anymore and starts to go up to a neighboring plant. In the end, pushed by the zombie fungus, the ant clenches its jaw into the plant’s branch. Mycelium’s growth from the ant’s head and feet causes the emergence of a stalk in those parts. The fungus spores disseminated from the stalk fall and stick to other ants walking on the ground. This loop works like this every time.

Curiously, Ophiocordyceps does not manage the carpenter ant by invading its brain. Instead of this, chemicals that are released by this zombie fungus operate on systema nervosum centrale and muscle fibers like an artificial organ. The zombie fungus is one of plenty of fungi that does behavioral manipulation over other living beings.

Ophiocordyceps fungi are in the same class as ergot fungi, which contain LSD, a psychoactive chemical. However, other fungi can produce chemicals that can change us mentally. Mushrooms containing psilocybin, a psychedelic substance that has had a respected place in humankind’s cultures for centuries, can also do this.

In particular, there is a lot of information about the use of psychoactive fungi in the documents from Central America. For example, in Mexico, people consumed hallucinatory fungi which were called “flesh of the gods” at the coronation ceremony of the Aztec emperor in 1486.

Scientists have conducted detailed studies on psilocybin. Many studies have deduced that the use of psilocybin for therapeutic purposes can provide a great deal of decline in psychological manifestations correlated with anxiety, depression, and addiction.

Ophiocordyceps utilizes certain chemicals to conquer an insect’s biological system and manipulate it to gain benefits for itself. Maybe psychoactive fungi are executing the same by invading human brains, causing us to eat them more and their spores to keep spreading.

Not quite. Fungi have been producing psilocybin for thousands of centuries, many years before our hominid ancestors evolved. This is not the case with a zombie fungus such as Ophiocordyceps, whose survival is entirely dependent on the carpenter ant. Even now, experts do not know what the aim of psilocybin is in evolution. However, there is no doubt that the keen fungi that transform our mental functions take advantage of the weird visions, conditions without ego, and fidgetiness when humans consume them.

Chapter 5 – The creatures of our planet Earth owe their existence to mycorrhizal relationships.

Our planet was a quite dissimilar place six hundred million years ago from today. Because the climate was hot and dry, the land was devoid of vegetation. Temperature levels were changing fast from one high degree to the next.

Compared to the warm, shallow waters that were home to every species, the land was not friendly at all. However, if you were a creature capable of photosynthesis, there were many encouragements. First of all, you could receive the sun’s light without passing through the filter of the water, that is, without reaching you indirectly. Secondly, there was a high amount of carbon dioxide, which is a nutrient for plants.

We think that these driving forces were sufficient for green algae, the first plants, to settle on the land. So what enabled them to hold on to life? Of course, fungi. Although it is a mystery in the scientific world how algae and fungi met millions of years ago, it is certain that they rapidly established an unbreakable connection. The unions between fungi and plants are called mycorrhizal relationships, and the survival of more than 90 percent of all plant species is possible thanks to them.

The operating principle of mycorrhizal relationships is as follows: After plants carry out the photosynthesis process to transform the carbon they take from the atmosphere into fats and sugar, they transfer these nutrients to the fungi. In response to this, extremely thin mycorrhizal hyphae collect discarded water and minerals in the narrowest corners and cracks that are inaccessible to the plant roots.

However, some fungi and plants are better partners than others. Since some mycorrhizal fungi are not very cooperative, they love to embezzle nutrients such as phosphorus. The rest are always open to solidarity and sharing the phosphorus.

Still, this is not the whole story. Different types of fungi can greatly affect numerous plant features. In two similar experiments, he tested how fungal communities, which were distinct from each other, affected strawberry plants. The curious thing is that some of the fungi made strawberries more sugary. A number of them rendered those plants more productive. Some others rendered strawberries more appealing targets for bumblebees.

In addition, the effect of mycorrhizal relationships is not merely on agricultural plants. These relationships are also indispensable for the stability of the climate.

Approximately three to four hundred million years ago, plants scattered all over our planet, grew larger, and gained more complex forms. 90 percent of the carbon atoms in the atmosphere were taken by these growing and expanding plants. The emergence of global cooling was initiated by the decline in the carbon content in the world.

Fungi made contributions to this new and more moderate climate. In a way, thanks to fungi, plants were able to consume the copious phosphorus in the earth and grow efficiently. Our current life couldn’t exist without the fungi.

Chapter 6 – Wood-wide webs form links between plants, fungi, trees, and bacteria.

The Pacific Northwest hosts abundant and verdant woods. However, petty pieces of fully white plants can be seen coming out of the soil amongst vivid thick green woods, in the dimmest areas of the woods.

These plants, whose species name is Monotropa uniflora, are called “ghost pipes.” Unlike many plants, neither they have leaves nor have green coloring because they cannot perform photosynthesis. Yet if they do not do this, how can they live?

Long story short, Monotpona is completely dependent on fungi, making it mycoheterotrophic. Such living beings get all their essential nutrients and carbon from fungi. Yet Monotpona does not give anything in return. The enigma of such a strange, seemingly one-legged relationship discloses an extensive network of synergistic mycorrhizal networks concealed under the earth.

Fungi and plants often share carbon and nutrients via a special mycorrhizal network. However, two separate plants can also share mycorrhizal networks. This is the case with Monotropa. Autotrophic plants send the carbon they get to Monotropa through a common fungal road.

In addition, multiple plants can share mycorrhizal networks. In reality, numerous kinds of vegetation, trees, and bacteria carry nitrogen, endocrine, water, and toxins.

The design of the World Wide Web is what comes to mind when it comes to mycorrhizal networks. Because of this, such networks, which are shared, are mostly called “wood-wide webs.” Mycoheterotrophic plants can continue to live by exploiting this web. 

The wood wide web is revealing as a concept. Yet it also gives too much emphasis on plants by describing them as the network’s principal articulations. Why would fungi accept just being sidekicks when they are living beings that think about personal profits of their own?

So let’s assume that fungi are the chief in this business. This would be reasonable, as maintaining relationships with more than one plant signifies that fungi can keep living even in the demise of a single plant among all others. Furthermore, there are many types of wood wide web. In some types, fungi’s purpose is not feeding the vegetation, but consumption of it. If we consider this from a myco-centric view, trees and plants tangled in normal networks of fungi which are called wood-wide webs.

Chapter 7 – Our way of comprehension of fungi discloses various aspects about us humans.

You may have heard of the famous system introduced by Carl Linnaeus, taxonomy, which puts living beings into separate categories. But are you aware that this system was created only for animal and plant classification? Fungi are neither plants nor animals. However, the scientific community gave fungi an original kingdom as recently as the mid-1960s.

Fungi challenge taxonomy with their countless unique and odd features in terms of genetics. Still, we humans try to put these beings into the categories we have created. What can provide a more appropriate understanding of fungi?

A researcher, Toby Kiers by name, works on how fungi and plants preserve the equilibrium in power. Kiers focuses on the ways of phosphorus and carbon between fungi and plants by utilizing radioactive etiquettes and peculiar markers that radiate light. However, in what way does the organism operate such an interchange?

In a way, we can consider this as a sophisticated commercial activity involving trade-offs and quid pro quo situations between fungi and plants. For example, Kiers discovered that phosphorus is more expensive for plants if there is less phosphorus in the mycelial network. This means that fungi take in more carbon for every single unit of phosphorus taken in. It should also be noted that if there is a lot of phosphorus in a zone, fungi gain less profit, that is, they absorb less carbon from plants.

Thus, it appears that fungi do this by complying with regulations of a sort of stock exchange or market. Namely, they can be called Wall Street capitalist financiers of the fungi kingdom. Nevertheless, this analogy does not shed light on the entire matter because maybe this is how we think about our human selves rather than how fungi work.

When symbiotic relationship, say, we may simply see it as an instance of an active socialist community that performs redistribution of riches. Although there is no need to provide carbon without any cost to be paid by their mycoheterotrophic relatives, they do provide it in any case.

What do fungi and plants essentially do with each other? Cooperation or competition? Do they act like parasites or do they enter mutually beneficial relationships? Our own political and cultural notions and pasts determine the answer. Even though making such analogies and metaphors can make perceiving the lives of fungi easier, it can also twist our apprehension of them. Maybe we should affirm things that are not certain about fungi and work on them by just taking their unique terms into account.

Chapter 8 – Issues in the environment can be solved by fungi since they propose possible remedies.

We all know that fungi have gluttony. Some species are even more rapacious than others.

Pleurotus mycelium is particularly an omnivore that becomes an eatable oyster mushroom. For example, if it is given a pile of dirty diapers, it shall devour it with pleasure. It was observed in an experiment that within sixty days, Pleurotus made the weight of a heap of diapers decrease to 15 percent of its initial weight.

Toxic waste-filled cigarette ends are some of the materials that Pleurotus does not consume in general. Nevertheless, several types of research have demonstrated that it is likely that Pleurotus may be taught to consume such toxicants by not providing it with other kinds of sources of nutrients.

Humans can release Pleurotus into the waste left over from agricultural activities to make the air cleaner and decrease the quantity of biomass that is combusted thermally. The remaining fungi can be useful for cleansing an area from neurotoxins, pesticides, and various kinds of explosives such as TNT, plastics, and radioactive residuals.

Abilities that are special to fungi are incredibly handy in operating mycomediation, which is the name for the destruction of contaminants. Fungi also progress well in mycofabrication, which is not an operation of destruction, but creation.

We can give Ecovative Design, an American company that produces construction materials using mycelium. The foam that is made from mycelium is likely to be utilized in the place of materials that contaminate nature a great deal, while mycelial leather can take the seat of usage of animal hinds. There are further advantages: It only takes mycelial products a few days to grow under certain conditions, and they can become manure when their lives come to a termination.

Remedies found through fungi can be used for life-saving progressive medical purposes not only in humans but also in many other living creatures. Penicillin as an antibiotic is the first and foremost example that comes to our mind. However, mycologist Paul Stamets is also researching a fungal compound specially designed for honey bees. Although agricultural productivity happens thanks to bees in the world that cause pollination, the numbers of these animals are decreasing day by day. The varroa mite, a parasitic organism that drinks fluids from the bodies of bees and can convey many different lethal viruses, is one of the criminals that cause this. However, because wood-rotting fungi carry various antiviral compounds, they can be given to bees to make them resistant to a significant number of these maladies.  

Certainly, the experiments that are made in laboratories do not always demonstrate how living beings operate their business in nature. However, we are sure of this: In numerous ways, human beings encounter environmental disasters. Production in agriculture has fluctuated, residuals from toxicants are accumulating and the climate is becoming warmer.  

Humans need fungi if they want to keep living.  

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures Merlin Sheldrake Book Review

Although fungi, which are incredible living beings, provide critical benefits to our planet, this is often not noticed. The fact that lichens can survive even at very high temperatures, that truffles can produce an alluring smell, and that the images created by psilocybin mushrooms have positive effects on mental health show the richness and wonder of what fungi are capable of. If people become allies with fungi in the future, this can lead to solving the most burdensome problems including the decrease in environmental pollution, elimination of waste materials, and the advancement of agriculture. 

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Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I like reading books and writing summaries. I like to play soccer too :) Good Reads Profile: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/106467014-sava-ate

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