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Why fungi might solve the world’s problems

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Future Merlin Sheldrake

Bodley Head, pp.368, 20

The biologist Merlin Sheldrake is an intriguing character. In a video promoting the publication of his book Entangled Life, which explores the mysterious world of fungi, he cooks and eats mushrooms that have sprouted from the pages of a copy of the book. In another video, the double bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado ‘duets’ with a recording made by Michael Prime of that fungus eating the book.

Readers of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland will recognise Sheldrake from his appearance in that book, where he serves as Macfarlane’s guide to the hidden world of fungi as the two hike around Epping Forest. Sheldrake doesn’t just bring his scientific knowledge to this encounter, but also a bottle of cider that he has pressed from apples fallen from Isaac Newton’s tree in Cambridge, and which he has playfully labelled ‘Gravity’. He is a writer unafraid to admit that he finds the coming together of plant roots and fungi ‘sexy’. All of this is to say that Sheldrake is an unusual thinker — a good job, considering the unusual nature of his subject.

Fungi confuse and confound our attempts to understand them. They ‘slip around the systems of classification we build for them’, Sheldrake writes:

A single species of fungus can grow into forms that bear no resemblance to each other whatsoever… [and] many species have no distinctive characteristics that can be used to define their identity.

And yet, they have been, and are still, Sheldrake explains, vital to all life on earth. Without fungi — whose symbiotic relationship with plants enables both parties to ‘trade’ nutrients — plants would not have made the leap from sea to land some 500 million years ago:

Now they are eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behaviour and influencing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The lives of fungi alone are fascinating, but the questions and wider implications that Sheldrake teases out from them are often truly astounding. One chapter, for instance, considers Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a fungus which commandeers the bodies of carpenter ants and forces them — via chemical manipulation of their nervous systems — to climb and attach themselves to nearby plants, after which fungal growths sprout from their heads and pepper the air with spores. In one incredible passage Sheldrake writes:

Impelled by the fungus, the ant veers off the tracks of its own evolutionary story — tracks that guide its behaviours and relationships to the world and other ants — and on to the tracks of the evolutionary story of Ophiocordyceps. In physiological, behavioural and evolutionary terms, the ant becomes fungus.

Sheldrake explores the gaps we have created in our own relationship with fungi, and the implications of this. He writes of how ‘global agricultural yields have plateaued, despite a 700-fold increase in fertiliser use over the last half of the 20th century,’ and even though demand has ballooned and will double by 2050. Sheldrake argues that this is, in part, a consequence of our viewing plants as ‘autonomous individuals with neat borders’, soils as ‘more or less lifeless places’ and, by and large, developing our agricultural practices in line with these assumptions, ignoring the importance of fungi in these contexts.

Elsewhere, he describes how these gaps are often closed not by us but by the fungi themselves. He writes of how ‘most mushroom-producing fungi thrive on the mess that humans make’, citing examples such as a fungus that ‘can grow happily on a diet of used diapers’ and another that researchers have marshalled on to a diet consisting solely of used cigarette butts — both of which produce safe, edible oyster mushrooms. Utilising fungi in this way, on a global scale, Sheldrake argues, could help solve food shortages and improve air quality by providing an alternative to burning waste.

Entangled Life is an engrossing, captivating journey into the usually hidden lives of fungi. It would be an impressive offering on the subject by a mycologist at the end of their career; and yet, impressively, Sheldrake is only 28 years old. This is a rigorous, comprehensive, perspective-altering debut by a young author who, if this book is any indication, has an exciting career in not only science but also literature ahead of him.

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