We meet Merlin Sheldrake, author of an astonishing new investigation into the hidden networks of life under the soil
Merlin Sheldrake, biologist son of the scientist Rupert Sheldrake, has clearly inherited his father’s talent and courage. His new book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, is a beautiful meditation on fungi, lichen, cooperation between species and the nature of life itself. We asked Merlin some questions about his research, much of which appears to have involved sinking his face into the soil to get its scent and vibrations.
What is a fungus?
Fungi make up their own kingdom of life, as broad a category as animals or plants – although they’re more closely related to animals than plants. Like animals and plants, fungi have DNA-containing nuclei within their cells, which makes them eukaryotes, as opposed to prokaryotes like bacteria. Fungi don’t make their own food by eating light and carbon dioxide as plants do in photosynthesis. They are more like animals, and have to find food ready-made and then digest it. The fungal kingdom is extremely diverse, and according to our best estimates, only around six per cent of fungal species have been described.
In the book you take both LSD and naturally fermented cider made from Newton’s apples. Which experience would you repeat?
Oh, I wouldn’t choose between them if I could help it. I ended up in quite different states of mind with each; both had their benefits. The LSD experience I describe in the book was part of a clinical trial in a hospital, which constrained the experience somewhat. The cider drinking took place in a more everyday setting. I now think of LSD as being like a large forest, much of it unvisited. Alcohol by comparison feels like a garden: more familiar, with fewer surprises.
Is it possible to say that fungi are intelligent?
There are many definitions of intelligence. Traditionally, intelligence has been thought of in animal-centric terms as something that requires a brain (although Darwin, rather pragmatically, thought of it as the ability of an organism to do what it had to in order to survive). Some argue that it is less helpful to think about whether organisms are intelligent or not, and more productive to ask to what degree an organism might display intelligent behaviours, and today there are a welcome variety of definitions in circulation. Most refer to the ability of an organism to solve problems, adapt to new situations, and make choices between alternative courses of action. According to these more inclusive perspectives, more or less all life-forms qualify as intelligent to some degree. Fungi certainly do.
Please define the term “mycelium”, which appears a lot in your book.
Some fungi, like yeasts, are single-celled and reproduce by budding in two. However, most fungi live as networks of tubular cells that branch and fuse and tangle with each other. What emerges is known as mycelium: flexible networks of cells that ceaselessly remodel themselves. The vast majority of fungi live most of their lives as mycelial networks. It’s how they feed. Unlike animals, which put food in their bodies, fungi put their bodies in their food. Mycelium is perhaps the most efficient way to do so. Like the word “tree”, mycelium is a generic term. Different species of fungus form different types of mycelial network. Some fungi, like moulds, grow into ephemeral puffs that don’t range very far; some form vast networks that can forage over great distances. One of the largest known organisms is a mycelial network in Oregon that sprawls over ten square kilometres, weighs hundreds of tonnes, and is somewhere between 2000 and 8000 years old.
What influence did Terence McKenna [the so-called “magic mushroom guru”, who died in 2000 and was interviewed in Idler issue one, 1993] have on your work?
Tragically Terence died when I was 13, so I never got to spend time with him as an adult. As a youngster, I was always struck by his sing-song voice and ability to tell stories, and I’m sure that my appreciation of stories – and the manner of their telling – has something to do with him. I continue to be inspired by his ability to reimagine relationships between humans and the more-than-human world in a playful way. And I’m regularly struck by his gift for thinking broadly across disciplines with little regard for borders and boundaries.
Merlin’s book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by is published by The Bodley Head in September 2020
This is an extract from a longer piece in Idler #74, September/October 2020. Copies available here