Entangled Life

If you’ve interacted with me at all in the last month or so, I’ve likely found a way to mention the fact that I’m reading a book about fungi, it’s awesome, and everyone should read it too.

There are so many incredible passages in Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures. It was really a transformative read in a time when it’s hard to feel a sense of wonder.

Fungus and Selfhood

Just using language to discuss fungi is challenging. It’s a singular entity but made of a multitude. It’s an it and a they at the same time. When we say “it”, we generally refer to the mycelium, yet mycelium is an entity made of a multitude of threads called hyphae, and we discuss “their” behaviors.

It’s a true network based life form. The multitudes wander out and about, and when hyphal tips wander in the same place, they’ll recognize each other. Hyphae fuse together when they recognize one another from the same mycelial network. If they are not of the same multitude, then any number of other interactions can happen – exchange, competition.

The swarm of hyphae are comparable to ants, bees, termites. Individually, these animals can’t figure out very much, but as a network they survive and thrive. (Similarly, no single neuronal connection in our brain is intelligent.)

“Fungi, like plants, are decentralized organisms. There are no operational centers, no capital cities, no seats of government. Control is dispersed: Mycelial coordination takes place both everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. A fragment of mycelium can regenerate an entire network, meaning that a single mycelial individual—if you’re brave enough to use that word—is potentially immortal.

What if we were to lean a little more in the direction of thinking of ourselves as a singular multitude? How would we treat other people, if we felt that each of us was a carrier of all of humanity’s collective accomplishments, ambitions, discoveries, and desires? Maybe we wouldn’t treat each other like we’re expendable. I’m passionate about my own individuality, and the selfhood of individuals, but recently it feels like we have veered dramatically in the direction of brutal individualism at the expense of others. You catch my drift.

Softening Vexed Hierarchies

The English language is reductive in discussing fungi, an “it” and a “they” at the same time. There are implications to this:

“…these organisms don’t look like us or outwardly behave like us – or have brains – they have traditionally been allocated a position somewhere at the bottom of the scale. Too often, they are thought of as the inert backdrop to animal life. Yet many are capable of sophisticated behaviors that prompt us to think in new ways about what it means for organisms to “solve problems,” “communicate,” “make decisions,” “learn,” and “remember.” As we do so, some of the vexed hierarchies that underpin modern thought start to soften. As they soften, our ruinous attitudes toward the more-than-human world may start to change.”

Are network-based life-forms like fungi or slime molds capable of a form of cognition? Can we think of their behavior as intelligent? If other organisms’ intelligence didn’t look like ours, then how might it appear? Would we even notice it?

The English language centers human beings. We put ourselves at the apex of intelligence, of survival, of evolution, and of importance. Our way must clearly be the best way. But if we can soften these “vexed hierarchies” and consider the ways in which other beings survive and thrive, perhaps there are things we could learn. Perhaps we would consider the selfhood of other beings as vital as our own, and subjugate the planet a little less aggressively than we currently do.

How we define intelligence and cognition is a question of taste. For many, the brain-centric view is too limited. The idea that a neat line can be drawn that separates nonhumans from humans with “real minds” and “real comprehension” has been curtly dismissed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as an “archaic myth.” Brains didn’t evolve their tricks from scratch, and many of their characteristics reflect more ancient processes that existed long before recognizable brains arose.”

Man, Machine, Fungi

Finally, particularly since I work in the field and sometimes the techno-centrism and sometimes techno-supremacy as the way to save the world is a bit too much, this excellent passage to really ground things:

“The wood wide web is a no less anthropomorphic term. Not only are humans the only organisms to build machines but the Internet and World Wide Web are some of the most overtly politicized technologies that exist today. Using machine metaphors to understand other organisms can be as problematic as borrowing concepts from human social lives. In reality, organisms grow; machines are built. Organisms continually remake themselves; machines are maintained by humans. Organisms self-organize; machines are organized by humans.

Machines are made by man, thus machines reflect our convictions about organization, collaboration, communication, learning, and decision-making. If we can soften our convictions about how these things happen, perhaps we can discover new models. I like to imagine what an internet with the behaviors of fungi underpinning it might look like.

Other great stuff in this book: a chapter about truffles for foodies, a chapter about medicinal use of fungi, discussions about why it’s difficult to get funding for fungal research, and more. There’s so much here.

Also Reading:

The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution – This is fun, but a little repetitive. How many next level geniuses are there!? Anyways, I’m halfway through.

The Dark Forest – Damn good science fiction! The translation leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s worth the thrill. Part 2 of a trilogy. You have to read the first one or else this will be a very odd read.

And this is not a book, but it has stayed with me for a few months now.

Happy reading.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds ...

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