Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

AuthorMerlin Sheldrake
FinishedJune 12, 2022
Rating4.8 / 5

Goodreads link

Sheldrake writes beautifully about fungi, his life-long journey to understand them better, and how they bring together so many parts of life. I learned a lot about fungi and nature and how interconnected everything is and also how little we know about fungi.

My unfiltered notes

  • Fungi helped with evolution — helped plants get out of the water by letting them tap existing fungi root networks. Today more than 90% plants rely on fungi networks - “Wood Wide Web”
  • “Fungi are metabolic wizards”. Some can even tap radiation energy
  • Mushrooms are the flowering part of fungi that produce spores. Some release spores without mushrooms really fast - some accelerates 10x faster than a space shuttle after launch…??
  • Banana has fungal disease and faces extinction??
  • People have used mold and fungi to treat wounds and as medicine! Eventually penicillin (modern medicine)
  • 60% of enzymes used in industry generated by fungi. 15% of all vaccines come from engineered yeast. Even Citric acid (used in fizzy drinks) come from fungi
  • Textiles can be made by mycelium to replace plastic and leather!!!!???
  • Slime molds have no brain but are super smart!! Can find shortest path in labyrinth
  • In science intelligence had this elistist hierarchy. But many animals have sophisticated problem solving and communication skills even if they’re in the “lower” party of this rigid hierarchy
  • Microbes! We have more microbes than our own cells. Where do we as humans start and stop?? (Eg organ transplants blur this boundary too)
  • Lol he does a science study where he is asked to take lsd in a lab. “I lay on the hospital bed with my eyes closed, and wondered what it was like to be a fungus”

Chapter 1

  • “A ripe truffle broadcasts an unambiguous summons in chemical lingua franca”
  • Hifer branch and fuse to become mycelial network
  • Fusing between hifer is known as homing/honing and they need to attract to itself.
  • A minus and plus hifer need to fuse to have sex. One is maternal and other paternal. But it’s not like plus or minus corresponds to one always. “It is as if all humans were both male and female, and equally able to play the part of mother and father” — LIKE IN LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS
  • We aren’t sure how fungi sexual attraction works!
  • Some predatory fungi trap nematode worms. Most of these decompose rotting plant matter but sometimes they issue nematode attracting hormones when the norms are nearby so they can eat them!! Sometimes the fungi create poison or nets or nooses to trap the worm and eat it grossss

Chapter 2

  • Mycelial hyphi can take both paths if a path forks. Is good at finding shortest path and out of labyrinth. Good at branching. “Is this organism single or plural? … probably both”
  • Researchers can use mycelial networks and other natural networks like slime mold networks to model human networks!!
  • How do mycelium know when to create dense or sparse network when exploring! They start dense in exploratory mode. Competitive links thicken and the other ones withdraw
  • Bioluminescent fungi
  • Mycelial network is decentralized. No operational center. Control is dispersed!!!!! A fragment of mycelium is immortal and can spread whenever
  • Animals put food in their bodies. Fungi put their bodies in the food
  • Mycelial network is a map of fungus’s recent history. The hyphae is the tip that represents the present going into the figure. The rest of the network was where it’s gone
  • Mycelium is polyphony in music . No main voice or lead singer or central planning. Nonetheless a form emerges!!
  • Hyphae grow into many structures. Including mushroom!
  • Mycelial networks are fantastically complex networks of electrically excitable cells — like brains — but they’re not like human brains
  • But they are brain like. Can combine mycelial network into brain like circuits and gates
  • “Towards fungal computer” — Adamazky - COOL!!!! Using fungal networks as computer
  • Intelligence is measured in human ways now but there could be many more types of intelligence unlike human language and cognition etc
  • Intelligent behavior can arise without brains!
  • Single neuronal circuit (or termite) doesn’t rise to intelligent but large number of these circuits can “build a network from which surprising phenomena can emerge. In this view, complex behaviors, including minds, … arise out of complex networks of neurons flexibly remodeling themselves”. Brains are just one such network

Chapter 3

  • Some lichen can survive in space so well they’ve become ideal models of life forms for astrobiological research
  • Lichen are fungus + algae. In schwenden’s view fungus is parasite and algae is slave in the relationship lol.
  • Darwin’s hypothesis is that new species diverge. But the Dual Hypothesis is that some new species form by converging (like lichen being formed by algae and fungus)
  • Interplanetary life? Did life on earth come from space?
  • Horizontal gene transfer — bacteria do this (getting genes from peers not from parents). Means genes can converge !! Speeding up evolution
  • Lichens can survive in space
  • Astrobiology
  • Eukaryotes are bacteria eaten by single cell organism. Like mitochondria and chloroplasts. Endo-Symbiotic theory — also follows Dual Hypothesis. Lynn margliss. Whole suites of abilities have been acquired in a flash in evolution!!
  • The emergent forms of lichen are super interesting from astrobiological POV. lichen is more than sum of its parts!!
  • Lichens are microplanets!!! Bc it contains both photosynthetic and non photosynthetic parts
  • Fungi and algae make relationships under so many circumstances. One critical condition for symbiotic relationship = “Each partner had to be able to do something the other couldn’t achieve on its own. The identity of the partners didn’t matter so much as it’s ecological fit” They are singing a metabolic song neither could sing on their own!!!! So sweet
  • “Lichens are places where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism. They flicker between wholes and collections of parts”
  • Scribella - lichen have contaminants consistently!!! Additional symbiotic partners!!! Since lichens are microbiomes. They find stable partnerships. Like yeast!!! “A crucial third partner in the symbiosis”. So cool!
  • Lichen symbiosis is not as locked in as researchers initially thought. A lot of players can form lichen. Less about the singer than songs. The lichen is dynamic system. It’s not Dual Hypothesis — more than two players involved.
  • Queer theory for lichens — lichens are queer beings that present humans to think beyond the rigid binary framework. No organism can be prized apart from its microbiology. “Life is nested biomes all the way down”
  • holibiont — assemblage of organisms that act as a unit. Lichens of this world - more than the sums of their parts. We need words that don’t just describe neatly bounded autonomous individuals
  • “There have never been individuals. We are all lichens”

Chapter 4

  • Some fungi take over insects and make them do things they wouldn’t do to help spread spores. Some fungi give ants Summit Disease - making them climb heights they normally wouldn’t. Zombie fungi.
  • “It’s likely that fungi have been manipulating animal minds for much of the time that there have been minds to manipulate”
  • McKenna thinks human language and culture began with psilocybin mushrooms in
  • Some fungus infect cicadas and disintegrate a third of their bodies but they still mate bc nervous system works
  • Psilocybin reduces DMN (default mode network) of brain activity — that is when you are not focusing on much and self reflecting and thinking of past or future. “Capital city of the brain”
  • With DMN shut down cerebral connectivity explodes, new neural pathways
  • Traditional drugs or therapy are thought to bypass conscious mind. Whereas psychedelic drugs triggers change of mind which triggers change of symptoms. Psychedelics release our normal mental habits and open new cognitive abilities and also our sense of self.
  • Psilocybin is a way of fungi to borrow a human body and to wear human minds and occupy human senses. Fungi can use psilocybin to influence humans!
  • Is human altered state an extended phenotype of psilocybin/fungi? What is the purpose of magic mushroom? They existed long before humans.
  • In 1930s the West rediscovers magic mushrooms in Oaxaca (Mexican people were using it as centers of spirituality)
  • “The effects of psilocybin on human minds stretch the limits of what seems possible”

Chapter 5

  • Plants are currently 80 percent of life forms on the planet. Before plants came to land most of life was in the water. The soils nutrients were all locked in the rocks.
  • It was only by striking up alliances with fungi that algae could make it out of water onto land
  • Fungi + algae can combine to make lichen…. Or stay separate as in mycorrhizal relationship. This is when plant and fungi stay separate and what happens in when mycorrhizal fungi grow in plant roots. It’s a many to many relationship. “By partnering, plants gain a prosthetic fungus and fungi gain a prosthetic plant. Both use the other to extend their reach”
  • Plants = fungi that have learned to farm algae and vice versa
  • Plants need phosphorus to grow. Fungi are good at getting that from the soil
  • Plants grow differently when growing with different mycorrhizal strains!!!!!!
  • Bc it’s so hard to do things in lab setting researchers know more about what mycorrhizal fungi are capable of doing and less of what they are actually doing
  • Plants and fungi are in open relationships lol. The more promiscuous trees who can be with multiple fungi are able to spread faster
  • Fungi can determine which plants grow where
  • Fungi and plants must constantly define their relationship. Not evolution but involution.
  • Organic and sustainable farming soil is way more rich of mycorrhizal fungi
  • Fungi are “ecosystem engineers”. Without fungi the ground washes away
  • Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man start — end of the stick? Halfway up the stick? The handle of the stick? Mycorrhizal relationships make us think similarly.

Chapter 6

  • Mycorrhizal networks can transport carbon dioxide between green plants!
  • Reed - the Wood Wide Web. Plants are not separate entities. We shouldn’t think of plants as in competition but rather as distributing resources among a community.
  • Other nutrients can pass between plants through fungal networks
  • Many plants are mycoheads where they take nutrients from other plants — either permanently or for parts of their lives. Like orchids! These are proof that fungal networks transport nutrients between plants. Mycoheads have no reason to make leaves or photosynthesize!!!
  • The direction of carbon can change a lot. Sinks and sources.
  • Plant centric view of network can distort. Paying more attention to plants than fungus makes us fungus blind
  • Fungus is not a pipeline! It is an active part of the system. fungal networks are not passive.
  • Wood wide web is a problematic metaphor bc it assumes plants are nodes and fungi are passive hyperlinks. It also assumes there’s only single kind of Wood Wide Web.
  • Fungi as brokers of entanglement- they have diverse portfolio of plants
  • Poisons and hormones can also move between plants through mycorrhizal networks. Sometimes predatory bacteria use fungal networks as highway to hunt their prey
  • Are plants warning each other actively or just eavesdropping passively? “The idea that plants are talking to each other and warning each other of attack is an anthropomorphic delusion”
  • Maybe it’s not plants helping each other out but the mycorrhizal networks distributing resources to keep as many plants alive bc it benefits them. It’s not that plants are being altruistic
  • Complex adaptive systems! Brains, fungi, termites
  • Some researchers want to use neuroscience and complex neuron networks to study ecological networks. This so cool!

Chapter 7

  • Radical chemistry = White rock fungi decompose a lot — they can break down lignon in wood. Fungal decomposition is one of largest sources of carbon emissions!
  • Fungi have survived earths five extinctions. It usually the first life to grow after nuclear explosion. Oyster mushrooms can grow from diapers
  • Radical mycology
  • Stamitz
  • Microremidation - fungi restoring contaminated ecosystems. Fungi help in environmental cleanup operations. They’re good at breaking down many things like plastic and cigarette butts. They can even help filter polluted water
  • A lot of fungal science is DIY hobbyist. Not a lot Of academic support
  • Partly this is bc remediation sector doesn’t get a lot of funding. Currently the remediation sector is filled with reluctant companies trying to fulfil a legal obligation
  • Peter McCoy and radical mycology.
  • One termite species cultivate fungi. The fungi helps them break down wood to digest
  • Ecovitiv Design- a company growing building materials out of mycelium. Even fungal leather. Mycofabrication omg. They make mycelial packing material too. Mycelial products can be composted! These are stronger than concrete and also water resistant. THIS SHIT SO COOL. They’re working with ikea to make mycelial packaging.
  • Fungal slippers. Fungal architectures. Fungal furniture. FUNGAR. Fungal computing circuits.
  • Unconventional computing industry omg. Electric circuits made of mycelial networks
  • “The fungi are at once a technology and partners with humans in a new type of relationship”
  • Mycofabrication so cool !!!!!!!
  • Paul Stamitz

Chapter 8

  • Yeast
  • Mead is fermented honey. Nature if it happens naturally and culture of humans did it
  • Yeasts have domesticated humans!?
  • In college Merlin ferments his own drinks with yeast. Then lol he starts reproducing alcoholic drinks from historical texts WHAT A NERD!!
  • Fermentation is domesticated decomposition
  • Mycophilic vs mycophobic cultures — cultures that grew either worshipping or fearing mushrooms
  • The metaphors to describe symbiosis change over time. Master and slave, etc. “the concept of symbiosis behaved like a prism through which our own social values are often dispersed.” (Jan Sap, historian)
  • In the West since evolutionary theory came about, nature as being about conflict and competition (esp within industrial capitalist society). Ideas of mutual aid and cooperation more common in Russian circles.
  • It’s impossible to do the work of science without human metaphors. Metaphors in turn come laced with human values. No discussion of scientific ideas can be free of cultural bias
  • Lol mycorrhizal networks described in so many human frameworks. It’s a socialist society - wealth of forest is distributed. It’s a biological market - plants and fungi are rational agents trading on ecological stock exchange. Or Wood Wide Web. Using machine metaphors to understand organisms can be problematic too. Organisms grow but machines are built …..
  • people like to politicize biology … biological left and right
  • Where does the arrow point? By applying human concepts like communicate to plants, are we humanizing plants? By applying plant concepts like grow and blossom to humans, are we vegetalizing humans?
  • “It’s hard to make sense of something without a little part of that something rubbing off on you”
  • “I never behave like a fungus more than when I’m studying them” LOL!
  • “Drunkenness may be the fungal eruption in us”
  • Omg so newton Apple story may or may not be myth. But a clone of the tree, grown from a sapling, is in Cambridge botanical garden. Merlin isn’t allowed to take any from the tree bc the tourists need to see the apple fall. So he comes to the garden at night and takes the apples that have already fallen and are rotting and fermented. Literally in a backpacking bag LOL. Then he juices them lol. Makes cider. Apparently it’s fucking dank


  • beautiful writing about jumping into leaves
  • “Composers make pieces of music. …Decomposers unmake pieces of life. Unless the decomposers unmake there isn’t anything for the composers to make with”