CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Entangled Life

By Merlin Sheldrake
2020, Random House
ISBN-10 052550311
ISBN-13 978-0525510314
Hardback: 368 pages

Blurbed by such luminaries as Paul Stamets and Andrew Weil, Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life can be regarded as the book equivalent of the recent film Fantastic Fungi and perhaps the fungal equivalent of Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. As such, it is destined to become an extremely popular item. Let this review be at once a strong recommendation and a caveat.

Entangled Life ranges far and wide in its enthusiasm for all things fungal. Its chapters cover what Sheldrake calls “the living labyrinth of mycelia,” the evolution of fungi, lichens, psychoactive mushrooms, radical mycology (Peter McCoy & Co.), and the transformative talents of yeasts. The book’s writing is fueled by Sheldrake’s polymath sensibility: he plays the accordion in a UK indie rock band called The Gentle Mystics; he is a keen fermenter who has stolen apples from Isaac Newton’s celebrated apple tree and made cider out of them, a fact he documents in the book; and his scientific curiosity is not restricted to mycology. If he occasionally snorts fungal spores, at least he doesn’t recommend this potentially hazardous activity to the book’s readers.

I especially liked the chapters on lichens and myco-heterotrophic plants such as Indian pipes and coral root (Corallorhiza sp.), since those organisms are not commonly dealt with in books of this sort. Indeed, Sheldrake studied the so-called “ghost plant” Voyria when he left his native England to do fieldwork at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. This myco-heterotroph from the tropics has a positive aversion to sunlight, so you tend to find it almost exclusively in dark jungles. Sheldrake provides the reader with a very good description of its behavior. Another admirable chapter is the one that discusses how yeasts succeeded in domesticating us.

As befits his magician’s first name, Sheldrake often pulls wonders out of his hat, but sometimes he doesn’t. He almost never pulls taxonomy out of his hat, in fact. For instance, he doesn’t indicate which fungal species any of the myco-heterotrophs he describes like to hang out with, although he says, with respect to Voyria, that its partner “is the most abundant mycorrhizal fungus in the forest.” What fungus is that? I wondered. Nor does he mention species names when discussing either arboreal or ectomycorrhizal relationships. And he doesn’t distinguish between temperate and tropical mycorrhizal species, the latter of which are far less frequent than the former. It’s entirely possible that his editor at Random House gave him this advice: Please, Merlin, no binomials, for such entangled words will weaken your book’s sales.

Not only does Entangled Life ignore species names, but it often ignores specifics, too. At one point Sheldrake says: “We [Homo sapiens] outperform rodents and dogs in detecting certain odors.” This surprised me, and I immediately thought, Which odors? He doesn’t say. At another point, he writes: “How a [mushroom] is described will depend on the physiology of the person describing it.” Does this mean that if a taxonomist has a large head, the mushrooms he or she describes will all have large caps? I was left scratching my own head.

Sometimes Sheldrake suggests that psychoactive mushrooms boast superpowers. “Can these fungi [Psilocybe species] be thought of as borrowing a human brain to think with?” he asks. This comment could have been made by the perpetually spaced out Terrence McKenna, whose name appears in Entangled Life perhaps too often. Sometimes, too, Sheldrake seems not to have done his necessary homework … even though the book contains a bounty of notes and a lengthy bibliography. For example, he refers to “a psilocybe-producing lichen that grows in the Ecuadorian Amazon.” Here he has turned a speculation into a factoid, for the authors of the paper on this lichen, Dictyomena huaorani, write: “Our analyses were not able to determine conclusively the presence of hallucinogenic substances.” (Note: “Psilocybe-producing” should probably be “psilocin-producing.”)

But I should also mention that some of Sheldrake’s speculations are genuinely compelling. At one point, he’s discussing the puppeteering of ants by Ophiocordyceps species, and he wonders if, given the putative production of ergot-like alkaloids by the fungus, these alkaloids “might have a role in the manipulation of ant behavior.” A very interesting idea. And since those same alkaloids are among the chemicals from which LSD is derived, you could perhaps argue that the ants are taking what amounts to a deadly acid trip. 

My complaints aside, Entangled Life is just the sort of book I’d give to a citizen scientist if he or she is eager to learn about fungi. Since Paul Stamets is one of Sheldrake’s tutors, I’d also give it to individuals who believe that fungi can be used to save the planet. Yet I probably wouldn’t give it to an academic mycologist or a fungal systematist. Even so, I did quote the first sentence from the book’s next-to-the-last paragraph (“Fungi might make mushrooms, but first they must unmake something else”) to an academic mycologist friend, and he responded by saying, “Ah, perfect wording!”

— Review by Lawrence Millman
— Originally published in Fungi