CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Radical Mycology:
A Treatise On Seeing & Working With Fungi

By Peter McCoy
Chthaeus Press, Portland, Oregon
ISBN: 978-0-9863996-0-2
646 pages; $49.95

As with the previous reviewer, I too eagerly awaited arrival of the big new book on Radical Mycology. I’m pretty sure I also heard it land with a thud outside my front door (it’s a really really big book!). And to be sure, there is much to like about this book. Probably most of it. There are great and well-written chapters on the different kinds of fungi, on mycorrhizal relationships and their importance to the environment, on cultivation of edible mushrooms, and on psychedelic mushrooms—to name just a few of the major sections of this nearly- 700-page tome.

But there were several parts to this book that left me scratching my head. The parts of the book I don’t like have to do with stuff that’s not modern science, like alchemy, “biodynamism,” Doctrine of Signatures, homeopathics (and “mycomeiopathics”), etc. I enjoy reading about stuff like that on occasion but I hate to see it mixed in with a book that offers scientific info as it can conflate things, making it seem to be on par with or accepted right alongside current scientific thought (thus testable/verifiable facts). Which it is not. Alchemy may be radical, but it’s not science. “Biodynamic” may be a hot buzzword right now (“You can really taste the difference with this new biodynamically produced wine.” “Oh, I know what you mean!”) but it’s nothing new. It’s an old concept. Indeed it represents an old-fashioned set of beliefs that were in place before science came along. Science allows one to gain knowledge through observations and tests and thus better understand how things work and to make predictions (about health, engineering, agriculture, the weather … just about anything really). Science need not be terribly sophisticated. And it certainly does not require the user to have a PhD; anyone, even a child can do science. Even so there is an anti-scientific movement afoot in some circles of society right now that I cannot understand. Science has obviated the need for old-fashioned belief systems like biodynamism or alchemy. Why do we need to go back five hundred or a thousand years to the days when we had no understanding of how things worked?

There is plenty of good science about fungi in Radical Mycology. Even in these sophisticated times, there’s plenty that science still has not figured out regarding fungi. Radical Mycology puts forth theories that offer interesting explanations for things that we simply don’t fully understand but many are entirely implausible and easily disproven. Chapter 3 attempts to put forth radical, if illogical, ideas on how all life arose on Earth. Spoiler alert: it was via lichens from space. That early life may have arrived from outer space and seeded the planet (Theory of Panspermia) is not terribly far-fetched. Lichens are pretty tough. They might even survive a trip across the solar system. But the notion that a lichen (or any multicelled eukaryote) arrived on Earth, then gave rise to lineages of more—and less—sophisticated eukaryotes and prokaryotes, goes against all scientific evidence accumulated over centuries. All ways of determining phylogeny (biochemical, physiological, DNA, molecular clock, fossil, and more) all come up with the same thing. That is, first came prokaryote, then eukaryote life. Furthermore, eukaryotes have ancient prokaryotes inside their cells as organelles. Even more unlikely is that lichens came down from space and started it all. There are many reasons but mostly it’s that they’re made of pretty advance eukaryotes, plus photobionts.

Much of what author Peter McCoy pieces together as an Origins story comes from a Bioessays paper written in 1999 by Patrick Forterre. This scientist is famous for A) being cocksure and very full of himself B) opening his mouth prematurely (I would suggest that it is to get attention) and C) later recanting entirely everything and going in a new direction. But once the horse has left the stable, it’s often too late to close the barn door. If you are going to argue that life began with a eukaryote, then evolved into more complex and less complex life forms like bacteria and archaea (as he did in that one paper), then you need some amazing data. Extraordinary claims need to be backed by extraordinary data. He had none. Not even ordinary data. It turned out he had no data … under scrutiny—science—his argument fell apart. He has published many papers since but amazingly you won’t see that 1999 Bioessays paper cited. Not by Forterre anyway.

As I had said at the outset, there is much to like about Radical Mycology. At times Radical Mycology reaches a little too far into the clouds and I realize that’s the spirit of this book but I think would prefer a more grounded and down-to-earth text.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi