Interview with Merlin Sheldrake, Author of Entangled Life
Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and a writer with a background in plant sciences, microbiology, ecology, and the history and philosophy of science. He received a Ph.D. in tropical ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama, where he was a pre-doctoral research fellow of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Merlin’s research ranges from fungal biology, to the history of Amazonian ethnobotany, to the relationship between sound and form in resonant systems. A keen brewer and fermenter, he is fascinated by the relationships that arise between humans and more-than-human organisms. He is also a musician who performs on the piano and accordion.
J.P. HARPIGNIES: One of the most extraordinary things about your book, at least for me, was your explanation of how important fungal species were to creating the biosphere as we know it, making it possible for plants to come onto dry land. And to this day, you say that 90% of plant species depend in some way on a relationship with fungal species to survive or to function. So my first question to you is: How is it, given how fundamental these fungi are to life on Earth, that so little is known about them in so many domains; that there are still so many mysteries about them; that there are so few people studying them; and that so little money and research is being done compared to fields such as neuroscience or physics? Because if we literally don’t understand the ground beneath our feet, shouldn’t we be studying this domain more intensely? Why do you think we’re not?
MERLIN SHELDRAKE: It’s a good question, and a really important one for us to reckon with, because our neglect of this kingdom of life is causing us to do harm to the biosphere, and ultimately to ourselves. I think there are a few reasons for this neglect. One of them is that most of fungal life is lived hidden from our view. We see mushrooms that pop up above the ground, but fungal life is lived either as single-celled yeasts which are invisible, to our eyes at least, and otherwise as mycelial networks, which live their lives entombed in their food source and out of our sight. It is only relatively recently that we have developed technologies that allow us to study fungal diversity and behavior. For example, DNA sequencing allows us to profile microbial communities in the soil and in animal and plant tissues, and has played a big part in the current revolution in our understanding of microbes.
And then there are disciplinary issues. Fungi weren’t considered to be their own kingdom of life until the ’60s. Viewed as a type of plant, they were lumped in with the plant sciences. There are departments of animal sciences, departments of plant sciences, but no departments of fungal science. This taxonomic wrinkle has led to an entrenched disciplinary bias: mycologists have long existed in dusty corners of plant sciences departments which has restricted their access to funding and students.
And there are other reasons. There’s a cultural suspicion of fungi in many parts of the world. You don’t find it so much in East Asian countries — China and Japan, for example, which are historically mycophilic…
JP: Ah yes, Wasson’s famous distinction ofmycophobic and mycophilic cultures.
MERLIN: Absolutely. I don’t think this is a distinction we should use to govern our lives in a major way, but you definitely see cultural aversion to fungi and you see cultural attraction to fungi in some parts of the world.
JP: And Anglo Saxons have historically been somewhat mycophobic, so because so much science is done in English these days, that could be another reason, right?
MERLIN: Exactly. So there are these various reasons, but thankfully it’s starting to change, and hopefully we’re going to see a much bigger investment in the fungal sciences, with more young people getting excited about fungi and deciding to go into do research on fungal subjects.
JP: The next thing I wanted to discuss with you is the fact that lichens became a sort of gateway to symbiosis as a concept in Western science. It’s really the first organism that forced science to reckon with the fact that there existed something that wasn’t actually a discreet organism, but a symbiont. And then in recent years, very recent years, we discovered that it’s actually a more complex symbiont than we even thought. So could you talk a little bit about symbiosis and lichens?
MERLIN: Of course: lichens are iconic organisms because of this, I think, and they’ve been gateway organisms for our understanding of reciprocal and mutually beneficial interaction in the natural world. Before the realization that lichens were symbiotic organisms, within the modern European sciences at least, if a microbe lived in close contact with another organism it was thought of as a germ or a parasitic agent of disease. So when the botanist Simon Schwendener came up with the “dual hypothesis” of lichens, as he called it, he was laughed out of the house because it seemed preposterous that organisms could share bodily space in a mutually beneficial way. A few years later, Albert Frank, another biologist, coined the word symbiosis to describe the living together of fungus and of algae — the photosynthetic component in lichens. Frank intended the term symbiosis to describe the living together of different organisms in a way that didn’t presume the relationship to be either parasitic or mutually beneficial: symbiosis could mean parasitism and it could mean pathogen, but it could also mean something more than that. This opened up new biological possibilities, and soon afterwards, new symbiotic discoveries were made: the symbiotic nature of corals and other sea organisms, and of plants and mycorrhizal fungi, for example. It’s a good example of the way that words do conceptual work for us.
JP: Yeah. New words can open up the possibility of seeing things we couldn’t see before. I wanted to explore metaphors a bit with you. You talk a lot about this sort of battle of metaphors in this realm. We went from a kind of very primitive Social Darwinism that thought everything in nature had to be a fierce competition. It was all “red in tooth and claw,” and then this idea that symbiosis in nature was possible emerged. We already see that in someone like Alexander von Humboldt in the early 19th century, and then with Kropotkin, with Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902, and then more recently even some New Agey, sort of cuddly, friendly views of nature.
With some contemporary forest ecologists such as Suzanne Simard who study the relationships of trees with mycorrhizal networks, we get some family metaphors. They discuss “communities of trees,” “mother trees” that share nutrients with offspring, and so on. So there’s this whole battle of metaphors, and it seems really important. We can’t live without metaphors, but at the same time they can lock us into constrained ways of seeing the world, whether we are rabid Social Darwinists locked into this idea of social competition, or we can go too far the other way and think everything is warm and fuzzy in nature. You have some really fascinating parts in the book about metaphors, so I’d be curious to hear you share your thoughts on that.
MERLIN: I think it’s most helpful to think of collaboration as always an alloy of cooperation and competition. Think of families, think of jazz bands — all kinds of collaborations. There’s always a bit of cooperation, a bit of competition. These dynamics are basic facts of our social lives. If we think of collaboration as always being some sort of blend of cooperation or competition, then we can enter a bigger room, and don’t have to remain locked into a dualistic framework, squabbling about whether nature is fundamentally competitive or fundamentally cooperative. In any case, it can be helpful to think about competition in new ways: the word comes from the Latin “to strive together,” for instance.
Metaphors are a non-negotiable feature of our lives, whether we’re scientists or not. We have to use metaphors to understand and process and discuss ideas. Certainly, in the sciences they’re essential given that most of science has to do with phenomena which are out of the reach of our immediate senses. We are always striving to understand, striving to describe, striving to come up with images for things we aren’t able to detect directly. We may as well make peace with the fact that we will always need metaphors, and then work out how we can use metaphors to our best advantage. For me, the main thing is to remember that our metaphors are metaphors, to remember that we’re telling a story, and to remember that there are different stories we can tell. Ideally, it strikes me, we want a plurality of stories about various phenomena.
JP: It’s what the Buddhists call “not mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.” Right?
MERLIN: Yes. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called it “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” which happens when we mistake our maps for reality. All these metaphors help us to see in different ways. As long as we remember that they are metaphors — and that there are a variety of metaphors on offer — we can do our best to ensure that we have a balanced narrative diet.
JP: Well that’s the hard part because both the rigid scientific establishment forgets that at times, and then the counter-culture or the “radical mycology” wing, which we’ll get into in a little bit, also forgets that, so sometimes people can get trapped in their own maps, I think. But certainly a lot of interesting metaphors come up in the mycelial world: the “wood wide web” is one. Paul Stamets actually calls it “the mycelial Internet,” I think. And then there are also metaphors borrowed from neuroscience, e.g. that mycelia are like neural connections. They’re all useful, but some people do go overboard and identify with the metaphor so much that it becomes limiting, in my view.
MERLIN: As we all do. I think it is actually helpful to use fungal networks themselves as metaphors to understand other phenomena. If we flip these roles, we can see mycelial networks as metaphorical feedstock for other discussions.
JP: That’s a very good launching place for my next question. Mycelial networks are a great gateway, again to use that term, to understand that nature can no longer be understood as a competition between discreet species with precise boundaries. It’s so clear from your book that there are these incredibly complex networks in which it becomes impossible to differentiate species with absolute clarity. Everything is part of an active, functioning whole system that’s ever shifting in its boundaries.
It reminded me a bit of the Buddhist idea that there’s no “Self” as we normally think of it. Whenever we think of our self, we think of our body, but we’re actually breathing in other species all the time. And now with the discovery of our internal microbiome, we know that we co-exist with all these colonies of bacteria and viruses, without which we couldn’t function. Or we think of our minds and our ideas as our own, but obviously they came from elsewhere, from our education, families, communities, etc.
So it seemed to be very similar, this idea that once you really look at the fungal world, it’s impossible to think of it as anything but this incredibly complex, shifting system in which it’s very hard to differentiate a particular species. I guess that all of Ecology teaches us that more and more, but the fungal world seems to be really the poster child for that fact. And it’s amazing how little we understand about it, getting back to the first point we discussed. What are your thoughts about that?
MERLIN: One of the fascinating things about fungi is that they form literal connections between organisms. Ecology deals with interactions between organisms, and the ways that all organisms are open systems in constant interplay with their surroundings, whether they be other organisms or bio-geochemical cycles or physical features of the world. Fungi form actual physical connections between organisms, for instance in the case of the ‘wood wide web’, making literal this fundamental feature of ecology. They make it very obvious and easy for us to understand the interconnectedness of the natural world. So I think fungal networks are a great reminder, a kind of mnemonic, of this basic feature of life and of the physical universe.
JP: I wanted to jump into another fascinating aspect of your book. You have one foot in each of two different worlds, one very firmly planted in rigorous science and academia. You have a doctorate in tropical ecology and your academic and scientific credentials are tip-top, and your book has an almost 50-page bibliography and as many pages of detailed notes, so you’re obviously an extremely serious and rigorous scientist, but you have also had, from your childhood, a unique exposure to the counterculture. You describe in your book the scientific work that’s being done in the academy, but also this very fascinating, very dynamic movement of sorts of “radical mycology,” which includes people like our good friend Paul Stamets, and Peter McCoy. I was wondering if there’s any tension there for you, because these are two very different worlds and an enormous amount of great interest is happening in that radical mycology world, but often with a type of enthusiasm and linguistic exuberance that academics tend to frown upon. How do you reconcile that tension?
MERLIN: It’s an interesting question. We often think of academia as an inward-looking community of scholars who talk with each other and not so much to the outer world, but the development of the natural sciences over the course of the last few hundred years has been driven by amateurs, or passionate enthusiasts. The word amateur comes from the Latin “to love” — I don’t like to use the word amateur in a derogatory way. Much of human inquiry into the natural world has been conducted by amateurs because for much of the history of science there have been no other ways to do it: there haven’t always been university departments where you could go and make this kind of investigation. Darwin is a great example. He performed experiments with earthworms in his garden and raised pigeons, and regularly corresponded with pigeon breeders and pigeon fanciers. He grew different varieties of apples in his garden, and he competed with his cousin every year to see who could grow the biggest pear, which became a source of much family entertainment. In the fungal sciences, amateurs have played essential roles because mycology hasn’t had a formal disciplinary home for that long. The American Mycological Society was only founded in the ’70s, for example. This is very recent.
I use the concept of radical mycology, which is Peter McCoy’s term, to describe people who are trying to use fungi to produce radical solutions to many of our big problems. You can see them as part of a larger dynamic within the natural sciences, people who are doing their own investigations outside the purview of formal university departments. So I don’t really see so much of a tension. I just see them contributing different types of knowledge and expertise. In many cases, radical mycologists can be more wild and free in their experimentation.
JP: They’re also very result oriented. They want to use their work for mycological bioremediation of toxins, to create non-toxic packaging and materials, in the case of Ecovative. And of course to perfect ways of getting high…which we’ll get into in a minute. It’s certainly a fascinating world. I loved a quote in your book in which you cite some academic mycologist complaining about his students, saying, “We don’t know what to do; we want to study yeasts, but these young people want to save the world.”
MERLIN: Yeah, that was a professor talking to Paul Stamets, actually. And he said, “Paul, what do we do?” I think that really sums it up. It’s exactly what you describe, but it’s funny because there would be few academic mycologists who would argue with the fact that their student recruitment numbers have gone up hugely because of the work of Paul and others, these myco-evangelists, you might call them, who have spread a passion and enthusiasm for fungi.
JP: It’s probably one of the few fields of study in which that peaceful coexistence is possible, perhaps because it was so marked by its historical foundation by inspired amateurs, as you described. This is an aside, but your writing really has the quality of those great 19th century naturalist-generalists. A part of it might be your family background steeped in an excellent British erudition and broad intellectual vision. I admire that in your writing, its elegance, rich with literary and philosophical references. There is a quality of your writing that is in the best possible sense, reminiscent of the 19th century Von Humboldt type of naturalist, except you’re obviously equipped with much better microscopes and DNA analysis, so it’s the best of both worlds in that sense.
Anyway, another thing I want to get into, because I think people will be very interested in it, is a little bit of your personal story and how it relates to the whole psychedelic aspect of this. I love the anecdote you tell of being 7 years old visiting Terence McKenna in Hawaii with your father. You had a bad cold, and you were in bed, and Terence McKenna came in the room, and you thought as he started mixing up herbs that he was preparing something to help you heal, but of course Terence, completely obsessed as he was with psychedelics, was actually mixing up a bunch of Salvia divinorum. I thought that was so typically Terence. I love that story.
So you have this unique back-story of having been introduced to many of these radical mycological figures in the psychedelic domain from a very young age, yet you describe your entry point into psychedelics, at least in the book, with an LSD experience in which you were trying to find some creative way into a particular research project you were doing. Had you not had a bunch of experience with psilocybin before that? Or, were you, because of some of the people you had known, reticent to get too deeply immersed in that world? To the extent you’re comfortable discussing it, what is your psychedelic trajectory?
MERLIN: Good question. Terence was a big figure in my life and had an amazing ability to tell stories. As a very charismatic and powerful teller of tales, he left a big impression on me. So, yes, I’m definitely interested in these subjects. When I was a teenager, there was a big magic mushroom boom in England and Holland, because a loophole in the law made it possible to sell magic mushrooms openly, so long as they were fresh. This boom lasted about two years, then the government closed it down. But in this period of time, I did experiment with them because you could just walk down the High Street and there were vendors selling them in crates, perfectly legally. People were writing about them in ways they hadn’t been able to write about them before, and there was a period of psychedelic experimentation on a national scale. So I participated in that, and it ignited an interest in these topics and in these subjects and substances, and their power to change the way that we think, feel, and imagine.
JP: I knew Terence also, and Terence was one of the great storytellers, as you say. Perhaps he had the greatest gift of gab of just about any human being, but many of his ideas, in my view, especially some of his more ambitious philosophical ideas, like the “stoned monkey theory” of evolution, were on shaky ground. You seem to take a very friendly and open-minded but skeptical view of some of those ideas, and you point out, interestingly, that psilocybin mushrooms developed psilocybin millions of years before there were hominids walking around.
That raises a whole issue, because I think that the psychedelic world has a tendency, perhaps because of the nature of psychedelic substances themselves, and perhaps because of the nature of that particular subculture, to be very passionate, enthusiastic and exuberant linguistically. One example is that quite a few people have experiences in which they feel that they’re relating to an alien intelligence, to “plant intelligence” in their journeys. It’s a very powerful, subjective feeling for many people, but that’s hard to reconcile with a more dispassionate look at the natural world. Do you have that problem, trying to reconcile your subjective experiences with your more cold-headed observations of the natural world?
MERLIN: I think the dynamic you describe reflects a bigger dynamic within the natural sciences which struggles to reconcile the existence of consciousness and subjective experience at all with the materialist, unconscious, purposeless universe, which we’re told is the basic fact of existence. Within the natural sciences at large, this tension is sometimes called the “hard problem of consciousness.” How can subjective experience exist at all, given that matter is feeling-less, purposeless, meaningless, and supposedly lacks every kind of quality that characterize conscious experience? The existence of consciousness is a great puzzle. You can experience consciousness from the inside only, by definition. So these subjective experiences in a psychedelic setting are remarkable and puzzling, but so are subjective experiences in any setting, and that helps me ground my thinking about psychedelics because it makes it all seem a bit less peculiar. I mean, it makes the psychedelic states of consciousness seem less peculiar relative to non-psychedelic states of consciousness, but it makes consciousness overall seem more peculiar.
JP: Do you have any sympathy for pan-psychic philosophies that feel that consciousness is embedded in the universe at every level? There’s a long tradition of that in the West in very many different forms.
MERLIN: I do. I find it very hard to imagine how we could go from meaningless, purposeless, quality-less, feeling-less, experience-less matter into rich, subjective lived experience, unless some of those qualities were a fundamental feature of the matter and energy that make us up. So I do have time for it. I think it’s a fascinating field of inquiry, and one that’s really starting to help us to contend with some bigger questions about the natural world and our place in it.
JP: Another great passion of yours, which there are some great stories about in the book, is your love of fermenting. You’re a great fermenter. I especially love that story about stealing Newton’s apples to make hard cider. You also tell a great anecdote about being very young and your father explaining decomposition to you when you wondered where the fallen leaves in your yard went to, and how that was foundational in your interest in the natural world. But where did that passion for yeast and fermentation come from, and has it gotten you in trouble at all?
MERLIN: I think an interest in decomposition — Why do things change? Why do things transform? How does a log turn into soil? When I found out about decomposition, it was just huge news. We live in a space that decomposition leaves behind. And so the organisms that decompose the world are fundamental to everything we know and everything we can do, but we see it most of all by what is left behind, the empty space that is left behind, the negative space that is left behind. So it’s sometimes hard for us to notice. Learning about decomposition was a big moment for me, and it continues to drive my interest in microbes and fungi and these other organisms that decompose and rearrange the world. That’s partly why I like fermentation. It’s a fascinating process because you are essentially domesticating decomposition. You’re taking a bio-geochemical process and housing it in a jar in your kitchen in a way that you can not only see, not only smell, but taste. It’s easier to taste that than to taste soil or to taste a rotting log. We’re encouraged not to do that as children. So I see fermentation is a way to notice, to know with as many senses as possible, this transformational power of microbes and microorganisms. I think that this underlies my fascination with fermentation, aside from the amazing flavors and the health benefits. Another reason is it connects us with our history because fermentation has been a big part of human life for as long as we can know, because before fridges, how do you preserve food? Almost all those preservation techniques were fermentative ones.
JP: But it hasn’t gotten you in trouble? You haven’t found yourself inebriated occasionally or caught stealing fruit from famous people’s gardens?
MERLIN: Well, it depends. After the Newton cider, I made another one with my brother, Cosmo, and my father. We wanted to make a cider out of Darwin’s apples. We’d call this one “Evolution,” so we had to go and get some of Darwin’s apples.
JP: But not his pears?
MERLIN: No, not the pears. There are apples growing in the grounds of his garden, and so we had to go there and get the apples, and that involved a little bit of — My father had to stay by the gateway to the orchard and stand watch and distract any possible witnesses.
JP: You were committing historic scientific crimes, stealing from Newton and Darwin!
MERLIN: I know. We were scrumping. It used to be a bigger crime because cider had value, but now most of the time these apples just fall onto the ground and rot, so I don’t feel like I’m in a terrible moral quandary. But, yes, you’ve got to be a bit careful about whose apples they are.
JP: Even though in Newton’s case, the story of the apple falling from the tree inspiring the discovery of gravity appears to be nonsense…
I’ve been very impressed with how favorably your book has been received, because sometimes it’s very difficult. My friend Jeremy Narby’s book Intelligence in Nature, which I think made some really fascinating points that dovetail with much that is in your book and was quite rigorous, did not get taken seriously by the gatekeepers when it came out, and I know your father back in the day was sometimes not treated well by the scientific establishment, quite unfairly in my view. But perhaps the times have changed. I’m impressed that the world is so open to your take on things. You are a great ambassador. You have really found a way of being very delicate and very diplomatic, while still being fully immersed in all the aspects of the topic. Have you been surprised by how well it’s done and how great the reviews have been? Or were you expecting it all along?
MERLIN: No, I definitely wasn’t expecting it. I had no idea what to expect, and so I was very encouraged to find this friendly and warm reception. It’s encouraging to me because it’s a subject I’m so interested in, and it’s nice when people can share your interests, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. So on a very homely level I’m happy that people also could get keen about this subject.
But I think it’s a lot about the time we’re in. We’re in a time of great crisis. Of course, we’ve been in crisis for a while, but something is shifting in people’s awareness of the many social and environmental injustices that we are perpetrating and being harmed by. So I think there’s an openness to revisiting and re-examining some of the concepts that we use to structure our understanding of the world we live in, and I think fungi can provide a helpful way into this revisioning. Fungi can change the way that we think, feel, and imagine, and help us enrich the concepts we use to organize the world.
On another level, it’s a very fungal moment for us. ‘Network’ has become a master concept, and partly because of the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web and the way our lives have become continuous with these digital network systems, network science is being used to make sense of almost everything you can imagine. And fungi are ancient living networks, at least a billion years old, and they oversee all these astonishing phenomena, and illustrate the foundational nature of networks, and the network nature of the universe. Perhaps this is another reason why people are interested in fungi at this moment.
Of course, there have been many people talking very passionately about fungal lives for much longer than me. Paul Stamets is a good example. Peter McCoy is another. But there are many, and so I feel like I’m just adding to the conversation that was already going on.
JP: I think that’s right, but I think because they’re so passionately in the trenches, there’s something about your book that provides a sort of an overview of the whole topic from many different angles that’s very useful and hadn’t been done before. Of course we love Paul and his genius and all his immense contributions. How can one not love Paul?
MERLIN: Absolutely. He’s been a big inspiration.
There’s that great line from the naturalist and conservationist John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” When you study fungi, because they live their lives wrapped around other organisms and embedded within features of the natural world, it’s really like that. You can’t think about fungi without thinking about other organisms. Grow a fungal network in one situation and another situation, and they’ll be different, so you have to think about context; you have to think about interactions; you have to think about symbiosis; you have to think about the interconnections between things when you think about fungi. So for me, fungi were gateway organisms, a gateway life form, a way into thinking about life and ecosystems in general. What was fun for me in writing the book was following these threads and finding myself in a completely different place than where I started. That’s part of why I think fungi make such good explanatory aids and such good model organisms for us to learn to understand and re-imagine.
JP: Maybe they’ll be the gateway to the triumph of whole systems thinking. Maybe it will be via fungi that humanity will have no choice but to accept a more complex ecological view of the world.