An Interview with
Merlin Sheldrake speaks with Mónica Belevan
Hello. I am Mónica Belevan, Chief Concept Officer at Accursed Share. I’m here to introduce our collaboration with Merlin Sheldrake, the author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Future, and the winner of this year’s Royal Society Science Book Prize.
Merlin is a biologist with a PhD 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. He studies the relationships that form between plants and the symbiotic fungi that live in their roots, known as mycorrhizal fungi.
This collaboration is made possible by Wilmore Academy, a marketplace enabling artists and academics to launch NFTs in support of research.
Good morning, Merlin. It is a pleasure to have you here with us today.
Morning, Mónica, it’s great to be here.
Thank you. Where are you right now?
I’m in England, in Nottinghamshire.
Lovely. So over the past five or so years, fungi began to appear prominently in the Zeitgeist and your book hints strongly as to why that may be. In Entangled Life, you cite network scientist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi saying: “It was not until the mid-90s that networks started to enter the public consciousness, extremely recent history that has already changed culture, but that is also still finding new shapes.” This extends to your theme, mycorrhizal networks, as network thinking came into the mainstream with such force that one can hardly imagine life before it, unless one is old enough to remember it. In many ways, the world before networks subsists only as memory, which is of course itself a form of information processing. As a man of both worlds, what drew you to the study of fungi, and what keeps you there?
So many things, I think, like many people who study fungi: the more I find out about them, the more I want to know. And so I spiral deeper and deeper into fascination and wonder, but maybe—to name or pick out a couple of themes that endure—one is just my astonishment at how much these organisms do and have done to create and support the biosphere within which we exist, whether it’s as decomposers or as symbiotic organisms that underlie many of the great world-making relationships, like land plants, for example. We might get into that later.
The abilities that fungi have, the things that they can do, defy my animal imagination and just draw me in on a basic wonder and awe level. But besides that, I found that thinking about fungi makes me more aware of the shimmering networks of interrelationship and interconnection which is the living world. It’s very easy for us to think in our individualised cultures and lives of the world as being made out of discrete units of stuff. But in fact this is a fallacy, and fungi remind us of this; fungi form physical connections between different organisms. They are living networks, and so they draw me into a more interconnected and holistic worldview, which I find good medicine for my human-centeredness.
And, finally, they’re so strange, they trick me out of so many of my preconceptions about how the world works: they lure me into new possibilities. They decompose many of the tired categories that I organise my life with, that I’ve inherited from the culture I have grown up within. And so I feel that thinking about fungi makes the world look different and can generate new ways of thinking, and I find that enormously stimulating.
I love that they challenge all our priors. And the book is really mind-boggling! One of its great merits is how successfully and artfully it articulates a very difficult conversation around information and its transmission. While you explicitly acknowledge the limitations of analogies in your book, your literary sensibility is such that you also have to see them as continuous affordances for further networking. I’d like to play a little bit with this poetic license as we go further into our conversation.
Entangled Life establishes that the study of fungi complicates notions of identity, autonomy, individuality, intelligence—all themes which speak to contemporary transformations in Web3. Recent developments in crypto, for example, have focused on questions around the nature of blockchain-based decentralisation, especially through the rise of executive collectives known as DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations), which explore localized models of governance in service of specific objectives. So this is similar in some ways to how fungi navigate decisions concerning behavioral responses on everything from trade to trade-offs through decentralized decision-making. Can you tell us a bit more about what this is and how it works for fungi?
So fungi are able to navigate their environments, make decisions between alternative courses of action, form enormously elaborate and complicated relationships; produce systems of chemical enzymes doing something completely different over their transport material around themselves, while constantly re-modeling themselves. And they’re able to do all of this without a brain, they don’t have a central place where they link perception and action as centralised organisms—with brains, with hearts—organisms which model many of our systems of governance, as with capital cities, heads of state, you know—we see this language trickling into all sorts of conversations. It is confusing for us to understand how fungi are able to do this, how they are able to behave, to live their lives bathed in fields of sensory information doing things we can’t do, and so this is a decentralised way of life, a decentralised mode of existence, and a good example of fungal behaviours that challenge our animal imaginations.
So when thinking about how fungi are able to solve problems and do the things they do, this idea of decentralisation is a big one that we will keep bumping up against. So it’s interesting to see these decentralised organisational structures emerge within some of these newer technologies like blockchain, as you say, although I think there is quite a long history of humans attempting to throw off rigid vertical constraints, control structures and hierarchies and replace them with agrarian models, participatory models. I think of the Protestant nonconformists of the 17th century—the Diggers, and the Renters and the Levellers, the Quakers—throwing off old, very rigid and hierarchical models, and exploring new forms of governance, new forms of collective decision-making and possibility, organised around spiritual and political objectives. So it’s interesting to see these behaviours repeat themselves in different manners and modes, depending on the technologies of the day.
It really is. It’s fascinating how we seem to have both compulsions within ourselves to hierarchise and to de-hierarchize at once, and cyclically. So this is just the latest iteration in something that is a sort of repeating motif in recorded history. If only we were as consistent as fungi with it!
So one of the things that makes our collaboration so interesting to me is how it could be read as a manner of appendix to your book, a continuation and extension pack on fungi for Web3. In reading it, it came to my attention that the identification of fungi as a separate natural kingdom coincides in time with the earliest inception of the Internet and the first flush of cybernetics; it all happens more or less at the same time. And all of these are spheres which have moved towards a greater interpretive convergence in decades since; each can extend and expand on the imagination and the language of the other.
In this context, the blockchain being the latest chapter in the evolution of the Internet is perhaps as interesting a development to mycologists as fungi should be to anyone in Web3. I can tell you that, on our end, Entangled Life has already been added to Accursed Share’s library because it provides such an exciting heuristic through which to explain our corner of the world to the curious within and without it. And I would be curious to know what happened, conversely: when did you first hear of the blockchain? And what clicked when you did, if anything? And in developing your first Web3 project with us, what have you discovered or confirmed about your intuitions of the space?
I can’t remember when I first heard the word “blockchain”, but I don’t think anything clicked when it happened, and I don’t think anything has clicked since, if I’m honest! But I think the main thing that strikes me about this space is the astonishing flux that is underway and the great number of open questions it invites, and also the confusion, and the disruptive potential, and the fact that that potential is potential, rather than something that has been fully realised yet. So I’m intrigued to see where it will go, but it feels like a big stirring, a big flux, with a lot of hype, and a lot of careful thinking, as well.
It is. As a latecomer myself, I see it as an enormous possibility space. And I think that what makes it most tantalising is that it’s really opening up a series of conversations that cannot be had in ordinary frames, and so that kind of expansion is very, very rich.
Tell me a little bit about how this might connect, for example, to collective memory, and to the blockchain as a ledger, by maybe enabling or facilitating it for humans.
I think a lot in processial terms; in terms of the universe as made up of processes, and I have learned these ways of thinking from a number of eminent processual thinkers, most intimately, Alfred North Whitehead. Heraclitus was perhaps the originator of this, although it’s an intuition that you can find in many wisdom and spiritual traditions around the world: the idea being that the universe is made up of processes, not made up of things. And everything starts to change when you see the world as made up of processes rather than things. For example, our bodies, which we think of as enduring stuff, become—really—patterns of stability through which stuff is passing; the material that makes up your body is different material, the molecules and atoms are different from those that made up your body several years ago.
And so with this in mind, I think a lot about the ways that organisms map their own history in their bodies. Trees and fungi are both examples of organisms that grow from tips and leave behind them, in the form of trunks and branches, a sort of cartographical representation of their history, of the place that they have been in the branching and the twisting and the fusing of their bodies. And so you can see the flow of time embodied in the present moment. And perhaps the blockchain is a little like this, in the sense that the chain of blocks represents a flow of time, inscriptions of what was happening in different moments in time. That this is, similarly, some kind of a record of the passage of time, which is inscribed and maintained in the present moment.
I think maybe one of the differences between [the blockchain] and fungi is that plants and fungi tend to branch and branch and branch whereas blockchains only really work if you can achieve consensus. Somehow, of course, there can be hard forks, but those are somewhat less frequent occurrences. So, they may be moving in opposite directions, plants and fungi more towards divergence, and blockchains more towards convergence and consensus, but still, that’s one point of overlap that I’ve thought of in relation to processual views of the world and the ways that we inscribe the passage of time and that continual state of becoming.
Yes, I think that the blockchain gives us a new sense of what a permanent record can be, and in a way, the idea is that it should also entail a sort of accountability. But yes, these are the notches on the blockchain, which are all traceable, and so you have a complete archive of all the operations on it.
In relation to your mentioning of the processual, you’ve told us fungi predate vertebrates, they certainly predate us humans. They have served as training wheels for plant life to take hold on land, they are integral to metabolising all life on earth, and to its future. As with geology, I suppose, fungi have their own timescale, one that may have proven almost unimaginable to us until quite recently. This made me think of Nick Land’s 2016 remark on the blockchain as “artificial absolute time, for the first time ever in human history”, which results in “a scrambling of our sense of pre and post”.
As a mycologist, you have been operating in a similar timespace for the entirety of your career. Mycelium is, if anything, the original blockchain, so there’s a sense in which you have been in this space before any of us. What can you tell us about how mycelial timescapes behave? And, on a completely speculative plane, how could they conceivably develop?
I think one of the ways in which they’re timescapes is as portraits of time; representing, in a kind of cartographical way, their recent history as mapped in space—time mapped in space in the form of the trails and entanglements left by multiple growing tips, as they grow outwards. And in terms of deep time, they’re very old indeed, over a billion years of fungal evolution has shaped life on Earth, but one of the fascinating things about them is that, when we find fossil fungi, they look very much like fungi do today. And when we find fossil animals, you see whole new, crazy bestiaries of forms. So animal evolution is characterized by great flux and a variety of forms. Although there are very many ways to be a fungus—you can have mycelial networks that sprawl across kilometers, and you can have mycelial networks that are small enough to fit on a speck of house dust—the basic network lifestyle has remained remarkably consistent. It’s almost like they’ve solved a fundamental problem already. Although they continue to evolve and respond to new challenges, there’s something that’s clicked and clicked quite some time ago. So when thinking speculatively about future fungal timescapes, I can imagine them doing rather like the things they have done in the past, forming networks and, through their flexibility and collaborative nature, enter into all sorts of new relationships and encounters and opportunistically make something of them, tangling life’s stories together, tangling different kingdoms of life together, and creating a fertile compost for the future becoming of life on Earth.
Tell me about your unique scanning process and what it is that the scans show, as it is truly very few among the uninitiated who will have seen anything like them before. You guided our Brand Director Filipe Medeiros as he worked off hundreds of your proprietary scans to arrive at an aesthetic for this project. The results are as dazzling as they are surprising. What was this process like for you? And what do you think of the connections between art and science, which are very palpable in your book?
So first of all, the scans are made using what’s called a confocal laser scanning microscope. First, with the roots, you clear them using chemicals so that they are permeable to light and then stain, using fluorescent dyes, the plant material and the fungal material. You stain them using different fluorescent dyes and then you embed them in resin. And when you put them into this confocal laser scanning microscope, you shine different lasers—one laser excites the fungal material, or the fluorescent dye in the fungal material, and one laser excites the fluorescent dye in the plant material and collects those data streams on different channels. And so what you end up with is a rendition of the fungus and a rendition of the plant material. And when you scan, slice after slice down through the sample, you end up with a stack of those images, which you can then render into three dimensional scans, which is what these pieces are made from.
So it’s a way to look inside roots and to see the way that these different organisms are relating in physical space and revealing the astonishing intimacy of this relationship, as if these plants are some kind of a prosthetic organ of the fungus and likewise: the fungus is a kind of prosthetic organ of the plants, and neither could live without the other, plants could not have evolved without these fungal companions. This is a way to see and feel, I find, that intimacy, this world-changing intimacy. So when it comes to science and arts, I’ve always found it frustrating that these things should be seen as entirely different departments of human life. Both what we call science and what we call the arts arise from human faculties of imagination, wonder and curiosity, they’re both about the phenomena unfolding around us and with our abilities to meaningfully experience those phenomena. And so this division feels artificial, I think it’s a bifurcation that’s thrown up all sorts of boundaries that we stumble over, mistaking them for natural features of our minds. This goes right back to a centuries old bifurcation of the world into primary qualities and secondary qualities: it’s something that we find in Galileo. But scientists are and have always been intuitive, whole, creative, emotional, human beings trying to make sense of a world that was never meant to be catalogued and systematised, and they have to communicate their insights in imaginative language composed of analogy and metaphor. And so I fight to find the places where borders become porous, or where they are thin, and the whole pantomime absurdity of this division-making habit that we have becomes clear. I find the fun in those moments and laugh and also busily get on with inquiring with all my faculties, as a whole human being, rather than dividing my mind up into departments. It’s more fun that way.
I think so too, and fungi are litmus tests for that; they really push that limit.
You were talking about intimacy. It’s a very important theme in your book and in your entire overriding thesis. I think one of the greater graces of Entangled Life is how it weaves in human experience, family life, the anecdotal, into what might otherwise be quite technical, sublime research. Among the biggest subjacent themes of your book is intimacy, at sometimes quite unusual scales and removes. It is integral to your definition of symbiosis, for example, but you also share a great deal of your life and other lives with us, hence the entanglements. In doing so, you anchor the impenetrable and the inscrutable in the sense-making activity of human interaction to produce an epic of diplomacy and exchange, collaboration and competition amongst individuals, but also between natural kingdoms.
I strongly feel that being able to do something analogous—build affect—is essential for creators in Web3 and truly indispensable to the space’s broader success. As you may know, the Web3 promise of trustlessness is also frictionless, and I think that a danger in our space is that it isn’t slippery when wet, at least not yet. I think a lot about Wittgenstein writing in the Philosophical Investigations that “we have got onto slippery ice, where there is no friction and so, in a certain way, the conditions are ideal”. In such ideal conditions we aren’t able to walk but since we want to walk we need friction, and so: “back to the rough ground”.
Entangled Life doesn’t just teach us about networks—mycelial and otherwise—it provides us with enough of this rough ground to explore them in digestible, expressive, and inventive manners that will inform our own project design and discourse going forward. So this may seem like a bit of an odd question, Merlin, but how does one, as a human individual, write and hence think about such complex networks? What is your experience of sensemaking at the edge of such an intimate and, at the same time, alien world?
I think one of the traps that I fall into myself—and I’ve seen problems arising from this in the world at large—is that we think about networks as connections between separate entities, and so we think about these entities as separate and best connected after they’re already separate. So somehow a link in a network can speak to our deductive tendency, as much as it speaks to a holistic tendency or an interconnected tendency. But within the living world you find—and indeed, in our lives, with friendships and family members and our relationships with even more than human organisms, plants, or pets, or whoever—that the relationship shapes the identity of those doing the relating, that the relationship is as important as the entities doing the relating. And so this kind of co-creative interaction is something that you see all the time in evolution: lichens are a good example and fungi are a good example. There are many, many other examples of the relationship, and thus, the networks of the relationship, being these places where relating is almost primary to those creatures doing the relating. And so on this ground, I’ve seen networks in the living world as being about connection. So when I’m trying to think about complex networks, I think about connection, I think about the ways that I feel connection, and I imagine connection, and relate to that on a deep, intuitive, felt level, as well as on an intellectual level.
There are many ways that I’ve tried to think these things through, but music’s been very helpful for me. I find, for example, when thinking about fungal networks—this relationship of different fungal cells which branch and fuse and grow from countless tips, as they explore and model themselves—I think of polyphonic music to feel and imagine the complexity of these networks. Polyphonic music is music made up of more than one voice, when more than one part is voiced at once, and many of these voices intertwine in and around one another. And if you listen, you can hear the separate voices intertwining. But if you listen in a slightly different way, you can hear them all come together to make the piece of music that you’re hearing. I’ve used this as a metaphor to feel my way into organic network formation and in a kind of metaphorical way, just to put me in a mind and a body of this connective aspect of network formation, which I feel is very important.
That’s just marvelous. I think the fundamental affinity between what you have been exploring and what we are doing is that it really does stem from a relational ethos. That’s what drives it. That’s its founding force. And so there is an immense complementarity in that sense about shared objectives, to foment that type of thinking, which in turn results in certain tweaks to the way in which you live and the way in which you relate to others. In that sense, it has really been transfixing to read your book and feel a lot of this resonance; that this does exist, not only in small human collectives, but in the basic undergirding of nature. There’s something very, very powerful there, and I hope that we will continue this conversation and that we can teach you more about Web3 and you can teach us more about fungi, because I really think that there’s something potentially polyphonic at hand, and we might be able to explore it.