Steve Paulson (00:15):
Last summer, I got obsessed with the many mushrooms I'd see on my hikes in a nearby forest. I downloaded an app on my phone to help identify them and it was like I'd stumbled into Alice's Wonderland. Just the names alone were great: American slippery jack, crested coral, stinking riddle gill, golden chanterelle, scurfy twiglet, scarlet waxcap. I was hooked, partly because I had just read Merlin Sheldrake's book, Entangled Life, which is a deep dive into the weird and wonderful world of mushrooms and other fungi. What's astonishing is how ubiquitous they are. As Sheldrake writes, they are inside you and around you. They're eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing, and killing plants, producing foods, making medicines, manipulating animal behavior, and influencing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere. I'm Steve Paulson, and I want to welcome you to a new episode in our series on Kinship With the More Than Human World.
Steve Paulson (01:22):
This is different from what you normally hear on To The Best Of Our Knowledge. It's a single long interview, which we just don't have time for on the radio show, and I have to say, we cover a lot of ground in this conversation. My guest, Merlin Sheldrake is a tropical biologist, an avid fermenter and brewer, and very much a big picture thinker. He says the fungal world challenges a lot of our preconceptions about what form a living organism can take. For one thing, fungi often live in wet, black networks. Think of the mycelial threads that can stretch underground across an entire forest. As Sheldrake says, fungi play games with individuality. They can also blow your mind. We'll talk about the strange properties of psychedelic mushrooms and also the stoned ape theory, the rather outrageous idea that magic mushrooms helped shape the evolution of human consciousness. So buckle up and enjoy the ride. Here is Merlin Sheldrake. Merlin, fungi seem to go way back in your life. When did you first get interested in them?
Merlin Sheldrake (02:35):
I think there are lots of levels, lots of ways in for me. One was, as a child thinking about decomposition, how things change, how things rot. I would take compost into the gardens, the compost heap, and it would turn into soil. I'd see leaves, they would turn into soil and blocks of wood that would decompose and how this process of decomposition happened would puzzle me. Someone explained to me after a while that this was because of fungi. So I became interested in these organisms, which are out of sight, but which are responsible for so much. I became very curious about their astonishing power, their transformative power. I was a child who was interested in mushrooms, of course, and watched them spring up out of the ground and they'd grow so fast and then vanish again, mysteriously from where they came.
Steve Paulson (03:21):
Well, going back to your childhood, you tell a wonderful story in your book about how your father, Rupert Sheldrake, who is himself a biologist introduced you to how things decompose.
Merlin Sheldrake (03:32):
Yes. So I had piles of leaves in the garden that I would create by raking them into heaps. I'd hide in these piles of leaves and jump into them from the branches of a tree. It was a kind of den for me, a place to hide and a place to explore. The leaf piles would shrink over time, though, and it became harder to submerge myself and so I would inquire. Through one of these inquiries when I was asking my father more about decomposition, which seems, to me, such a strange thing to understand as a child, how this could happen.
Merlin Sheldrake (04:06):
So he proposed an experiment where we got a plastic bottle and cut off the top and put layers of soil and sand and dead leaves and then added some earthworms so you could see through the side of the bottle, the clear plastic of the bottle and see these layers, which were initially very distinct, had these sharp edges. You could see them starting to mix and blend into one another. He explained that this was being conducted by worms, this process of mixing and blending, but there were creatures smaller than worms, very much smaller than worms that did similar things. So this was a way to get an intuitive sense of how this kind of transformative and mixing could take place. It really helped me to get a sense of what was going on in my leaf piles.
Steve Paulson (04:48):
Well, one thing that I find so interesting about that story is I think most people would find this slimy rotting stuff to be revolting. Until very recently, I think actually most people, at least in the West and Western culture, have considered fungi revolting. This is the stuff that stinks, that can make you sick, but something has happened very recently and fungi, especially mushrooms, are now very cool. Can you explain what has happened? Why has all of this changed?
Merlin Sheldrake (05:21):
I think it's an important to note that mushrooms have been pretty cool in other parts of the world for some time in East Asian countries, in China, in Japan and Korea, for example, mushrooms are enjoyed as a great delicacy, and often in quite slimy preparations of the sort that might repulse people in England or America. So cultural attitudes to mushrooms vary, but it's certainly true that in England and in North America, that there's a suspicion of mushrooms and fungi. That might be to do with the fact that some of them are poisonous, and it might have to do with the fact that mushrooms associate with decomposing matter, and so they have the filth label.
Merlin Sheldrake (06:08):
It's changed recently for, I think, a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that we know more about the fungal world. This is a really big deal, because it's often the case that humans are suspicious of that, which we are ignorant about. So the more we can dispel our ignorance, the more we can learn about the amazing habits and tendencies of these organisms, but that's not it. I think there are other reasons too. Psychedelics, I think, the resurgence of interest in psychedelics is a big one, much of the recent work on psychedelics has taken place with psilocybin, which is produced by so-called magic mushrooms.
Steve Paulson (06:41):
That's really, in the resurgence and interest in psychedelics is really over the last decade or two.
Merlin Sheldrake (06:47):
Absolutely. Yeah. I think the amazing power of psilocybin to change people's minds generates a curiosity about the organisms to produce it, but other reasons. Some lived their lives as mycelia, which are these living branching, fusing networks of tubular cells. Networks have become a master concept and network thinking is used to make sense of all sorts of subjects, not just the digital networks of the worldwide web and the physical networks of routers and cables that make up the internet, but all sorts of other areas of human interest. So there's a network thing I think that fungi have that tune into to some of this psychosis.
Steve Paulson (07:25):
Well, we should talk about what exactly fungi are, because I think for the non-expert, we usually do think about mushrooms, but I know they are only a tiny portion of all the fungi out there. So what are fungi?
Merlin Sheldrake (07:37):
They are a kingdom of life, so that's a broader category as animals or plants, a very diverse kingdom of life. There are lots of ways to be a fungus and a very small part of the fungal world, a very small number of fungal species produced mushrooms, the mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi, that place, where they make spores in order to themselves a bit, like how plants make seeds to disperse themselves. But most fungi live most of their lives is mycelium, which are branching, fusing networks of tubular cells and that's how fungi feed. So they're not like plants in the sense that plants photosynthesize and make their own energy from sunlight and carbon dioxide. They more like animals in their nutritional strategy in the sense that they have to find food in the world already made as it were.
Steve Paulson (08:26):
When you say they feed through their mycelium? How do they do that?
Merlin Sheldrake (08:31):
Well, mycelium is the way that they insinuate themselves within their source of food. So an animal like us might find some food and put it inside their body, but a fungus will put their body inside the food and to do this, they grow as these very flexible networks. These fluid networks are called mycelial networks and that allows them to tunnel into their food source upon which they secrete digestive enzymes and then absorb the digestive surroundings hence themselves.
Steve Paulson (09:01):
What would be some examples of that of how they go inside their food source and then start eating?
Merlin Sheldrake (09:08):
Well, there are lots of cases. If you think about a rotting log, for example, if you break up in a rotting log, you might well find fungal mycelium there. All of what you see, the decaying wood, a spongy, decaying wood, that's been made spongy and pale white or brown, depending by the activity of fungi secreting enzymes, and absorbing what they can. Fungi can digest very recalcitrant materials. There are wonderful studies which show the traces left behind on minerals as fungi have etched their way into these rocks, and you can see the grooves left behind after they have had their way with these minerals and rocks.
Steve Paulson (09:52):
Isn't that what lichens basically do? The lichens that we see growing on rocks, they're eating the rocks, aren't they?
Merlin Sheldrake (09:59):
That's right. Many lichens are eating rocks, not all, but many do. They're able to do so by the force of their growth, which breaks up the substrate physically, but also by producing acid and other chemicals, which help to dissolve and bind the minerals of the rock and convert them into a form that the fungus the lichen can absorb.
Steve Paulson (10:23):
Now, you said that fungi are their own kingdom in the kingdom of life. There are plants, there are animals and there are fungi. I think most of us assume that okay, they're not exactly plants, but they're kind of like plants. They look like a different kind of plant. I think we don't quite appreciate how radically different they are from plants. Can you explain that?
Merlin Sheldrake (10:46):
Well, they're actually more closely related to animals than plants. If you look at an evolutionary tree, you would see the fungi branch off at a point closer to the animal branch and the plant branch, so they're different from plants in a number of ways. The main way, as I said, is the way that they source their food, which is by digesting things in the world rather than by photosynthesizing as most plants do. Not all plants photosynthesize, some have lost the ability to do so because they depend on their relationships with fungi. We think of them plant-like, and they were actually considered to be plants until in the 1960s when they won their independence, taxonomically speaking, and they were recognized as a distinct kingdom. I think they've lumped in with the plants because they share some of these characteristics in that they tend to grow, grow places rather than go places as an animal might.
Steve Paulson (11:36):
Merlin Sheldrake (11:36):
They have a vegetative lifestyle that you could mistake in mycelial network for an entangled system of roots. So there are some loose analogies, and they face similar challenges as being organisms that don't run around with motile bodies. So they face challenges that are a bit like the challenges that plants would face. For example, with a plant, they would make no sense to have a brain as an animal does, because you'd be very vulnerable to a herbivore coming in, just eating it. So plants like fungi tend to have very decentralized bodies where things can regenerate very easily. You can destroy 99%of a fungal network, just take 1% and it can regenerate a whole new network, so there's a great flexibility that comes from their sedentary lifestyles.
Steve Paulson (12:21):
Well, and if you actually think about it, it's mind-blowing because some of these mycelial networks are huge. They can go for miles, actually, the biggest ones. To think that somehow it's all a part of one, well, actually that's an interesting question. Is this just one organism, this large mycelial network, or are they made up of lots of different organisms?
Merlin Sheldrake (12:43):
Well, it depends. Fungi play games with individuality. I think we tend to think about individuals as an unproblematic concept because on the whole, we live an individualistic society and humans are relatively straightforward to detect as individuals because we have a body which is separate from another body. We tend not to think about that too much, but fungi really play games with this because you can divide a mycelial network in two, and then you have two mycelial networks, but they will be genetically identical. So is that two fungi or two individuals ? Is that one individual divided in two?
Merlin Sheldrake (13:19):
If you take a fragment of that network and regenerate a whole other network similar, different networks can fuse and their genetic contents can mingle, making it difficult to define an individual on genetic grounds. Besides, fungi have all sorts of intimate symbiotic relationships through which they form functioning physiological bodies that are not made up of just the fungus, or just their other partner, whether a plant or bacteria, but a whole consortium of organisms that contributes to the overall operation of that symbiotic organism that can liken. So when it comes to these really large fungal networks, like the networks of Armillaria in Oregon have received a lot of attention, and I imagine so. These are assessed by genetics, it's a bit like paternity testing or forensics, looking at genetic fingerprints.
Steve Paulson (14:12):
We should talk some about this particular mycelia network in Oregon. So it covers what, 10 square kilometers and apparently it's thousands of years old. I guess the question is that one single living organism?
Merlin Sheldrake (14:26):
Yes. So the idea is that it is a single living organism because it is a single genotype. It would be possible, for example, to take lots of different samples of this network at different points within this area, and you could find that it was all genetically identical, but you could also imagine a situation where that part of the network had been severed from other parts of the network. Then you say, "Well, is it actually contiguous, physiologically contiguous with the rest of the network?" Then you'd have to do some soul searching about whether that counted as the same, but these really large organism, there is many questions. Rather like the enormous networks of clonal seagrasses for example, or aspens, this is such a different way of being from humans and our concepts [crosstalk 00:15:12]
Steve Paulson (15:12):
Going back to this idea of there's no brain, obviously, there's no single command center, there's no heart. It's like there's no one place that makes the whole thing go, and yet there's all this communication. There's signals constantly, messages, information being passed through the network. You wonder, how does that work? Who makes that happen?
Merlin Sheldrake (15:35):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, we're so used to having centralized bodies and living in centralized societies that it's very difficult for us to understand this, but our brains didn't devolve their tricks from scratch. Being electrically excitable, flexible networks as they are, they share a lot with many other types of organism who also form electrically excitable, flexible networks. Bacteria, even colonies of bacteria can communicate with each other using waves of electrical excitation, a bit like the actual potentials that pass through our nerves, fungi certainly can also. So I think if we imagine the fungal network, this is obviously a loose analogy, but if you imagine the fungal network as not containing flexible networks like we do, but just being a flexible network allows it to sense and respond to its environment. It's based in the further sensory information. It can integrate these data streams as a little bit everywhere at once, and nowhere in particular.
Steve Paulson (16:40):
I have to say, this gives a whole new meaning to the idea of kinship, that ecologically, we're all related to each other. This takes it to a whole different level.
Merlin Sheldrake (16:50):
I think it's really important to think about the things that we should share with organisms that we often think of as very distant from us, rather than the things that make us different. We become very fixated on concepts like brains, and I can understand why, and it's difficult not to be. But when we think about the things that we share, like the ability to be electrically excited and to communicate through cell networks, then I think the living world opens up to us in a different way. I find this a very helpful way to remind myself that I'm a part of this living world, not apart from it.
Steve Paulson (17:26):
Well, there's been a lot of attention recently to how plants, trees, for instance, can signal to each other. Apparently, they often do this through the mycelial networks, that their root systems are connected to, and they can signal that there is trouble, there's a predator around, or they're being attacked, or they're in need of more water or something like that. Somehow, this information is passed and the mycelium are part of that whole process. Well, it raises the question of, are the mycelia just like the cable line that these messages are being communicated through, or are the mycelium themselves somehow intelligent in some way?
Merlin Sheldrake (18:09):
I subscribe to views of intelligence that don't locate it by definition in animal brains. I think that intelligence involves information processing, making decisions, choosing between alternative courses of action, adjusting to one's environment. I would think of fungal network as intelligent in the sense that they're able to respond to their surroundings and to change their behavior in a way which is important for them.
Steve Paulson (18:39):
Are they making decisions or do they just have automatic responses to whatever the, I don't know, chemical or electrical signals are that they're getting?
Merlin Sheldrake (18:48):
I think there are lots of situations where fungi are very indeterminate. It's very hard to predict their behavior and their responses. I think there are lots of situations where the options that fungi face where they could realistically go one way or another. So I would think of options as entailing decisions, whether or not those decisions are made in an animal brain or by a decentralized or organism like a fungus, that doesn't strike me as too much of a problem. But when it comes to thinking about these shared networks with plants, I do think that the emphasis is perhaps a little unfair or it distorts the picture somewhat, because we think of plants as being connected by the fungal networks as if plants would've routers in the internet and the fungi with the cables, but fungi are not just passive cables. Now, every link in one of these worldwide webs, as they've come to be known, every link is a fungus with the life of its own, and this fungus has its own needs and interests and history and evolutionary history, it's very much an agent in this relationship.
Merlin Sheldrake (19:49):
Fungi can control the flow of material through their networks. If you think about a mushroom growing, that's a hydraulic feat and it's this water flowing into that certain area of a fungal network to inflate the mushroom with water. So that just illustrates the degree to which they can control flow through themselves. So if you take this view, then it looks somewhat different because rather than one plant actively signaling to another plant, it becomes a situation where fungus is connected to multiple plants as a portfolio of plant partners. The fungus can shift a little bit of nutrients over here to support this plant that might be signaling, or shift this signaling compound over here to a plant that might not have been exposed to a pest yet. Of course, it's very difficult to resolve cause and effect within living networks. So the thing I really like to do is actually hold both of these in mind at once to take a plant-centric view, a phyto-centric view and a micro-centric view and to let both be true.
Steve Paulson (20:48):
There's a number that you mentioned in your book that I just found astonishing that there is something like six times as many fungal species as plant species. That blows my mind.
Merlin Sheldrake (21:00):
Yeah, that's just an estimate. The estimated number of fungal species ranges from 2.2 to 3.8 million species, only about 8% of which have been described, so I think that forms a pretty good [crosstalk 00:21:14]
Steve Paulson (21:13):
Wait, you're saying more than 90% of fungal species out there have not been scientifically identified?
Merlin Sheldrake (21:19):
That's right. I think that really neatly summarizes our ignorance.
Steve Paulson (21:24):
There's been a lot of attention, really, especially in the last decade or so about trying to imagine the world from a plants' point of view. I'm wondering if there's a comparable effort maybe by you to try to imagine from the fungus point of view. What does the world look like from the perspective of a fungus? Do you try to do that?
Merlin Sheldrake (21:45):
I do try to do that. I don't have a great deal of confidence in my ability to succeed in doing so, but I feel like it's good manners to at least try to think about what life might be like for the organisms that we are in awe of. Well, imagine that you are a network and that one part of you is growing inside the roots of a plant, inside the cells of a plant and engaged in a very intimate cellular molecular dialogue with this plant, producing plant growth hormones that change plant behavior, plants producing fungal growth hormones that can change fungal behavior. That's just one little part of you. Then another part of you is growing into another plant root, and in fact, maybe 200 little branches of your network are growing to different roots of some of the same plants, some of different plants, all of which will be experiencing slightly different conditions at different moments in time, but they're all connected.
Merlin Sheldrake (22:39):
So part of that network will range out into the soil, and some of you might be totally embedded within a real bustle of activity as an animal body decays in sort of a wild orgy of microbial consumption. Somehow, there's a lot of experience going on while being in all of these different places at once. I think of our minds as being more like fungal networks in our bodies because our minds are the most indeterminate parts of ourselves. If you could draw a portrait of the mind, I think it would look maybe something like a fungal network, but mind maps certainly do. We can actually imagine this because our mind's working quite in nonlinear, parallel ways.
Steve Paulson (23:27):
My guest is the biologist Merlin Seldrake, the author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape our Futures. This conversation is part of our series on Kinship With the More than Human World. Merlin, you are a tropical ecologist by training. Your PhD is based on your research on underground fungal networks in Panama, so obviously, you're very steeped in the science, but there was something else I got as I was reading your book. It's a very sensuous read. All the smells and tastes and the feeling that you're digging in the dirt and the bubbling jars of alcohol that you have fermented, it really feels like you were inhabiting the world of fungi. I'm assuming that you did that as you were writing the book. How did you stay so close to the fungal world while you were working on this?
Merlin Sheldrake (24:24):
Well, I made an effort to, because I find that if I'm sitting at my computer pushing around little buttons and looking at digital characters all the time, which is what writing a book really is. It's very easy to become separated from the living world and the world of more than human organisms. I felt that I really had to maintain my contact with the fungal kingdom, because otherwise, I'd just become too abstract and I'd just write a textbook. So this involved going outside, involved burying my hands in the soil. It involved running around my truffle hunters. It involved brewing and having a close relationship with the yeasts and jars and bottles. I found that this really helped to help me keep the focus steady on the mysteries of fungal life, on the things that we can't easily explain, the things that invoke awe and astonishment and curiosity. So I found it a helpful process to be practically engaged, tasting. I like tasting things, smelling things-
Steve Paulson (25:27):
You eat a lot of mushrooms, I take it?
Merlin Sheldrake (25:29):
I used to eat mushrooms at least one every other day. When I was writing the book I still tried to do so, but that was extreme mushroom to use.
Steve Paulson (25:35):
That's a lot of mushrooms. Well, I saw a photo of how you grew mushrooms on one of the first copies of your published book when it came off the press.
Merlin Sheldrake (25:46):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). This is exactly what I was saying. This was the way of making a real statement of the fact that this book is part of the world that I've been discussing.
Steve Paulson (25:56):
Did you eat your book then?
Merlin Sheldrake (25:58):
Yeah. Yeah. I ate the mushrooms that grew from the books, partly to eat my words because I'd always loved the idea of eating my words, but also to turn what was largely a digital process into something analog and something so analog that I could eat it.
Steve Paulson (26:12):
Clearly, you have spent a lot of time experimenting with various forms of fermentation, especially brews of alcohol.
Merlin Sheldrake (26:21):
Yes. I find it's a really helpful way to get new perspective on ecology more generally. If you were doing a lacto ferment with just a simple sauerkraut for example, this is not just one type of microbe that's undertaking this process. It's an ecological succession and you can then taste the chemical transformation with your own mouth, so you taste it every three or four days. You can see how this is changing over time. It's a reminder that we live our lives and the whole biosphere is made up of very slow, some fast, some slow ecological cycles as chemical transformation is taking place.
Steve Paulson (26:57):
So basically, what you're saying is that yeast is yet another kind of fungus that we haven't really talked about yet.
Merlin Sheldrake (27:04):
Yeah. Yeast is another fungus, but also that yeast doesn't do its work all by itself. There are other bacterial populations and there are many different types of yeast if you do a wild fermented alcohol, rather than adding yeast bought in a packet, so you are dealing with populations here.
Steve Paulson (27:18):
So you've done a lot of experimenting with this, what, you just throw together different ingredients and see what comes out and what tastes good?
Merlin Sheldrake (27:27):
It depends. Some things I've made before I really like, and I'd make again. Meads, for example, I like making dry meads.
Steve Paulson (27:34):
Mead is made from honey, right?
Merlin Sheldrake (27:36):
Honey, yeah. So you'd get some honey and you'd dilute it with water and add a few bits of different things, depending how you're going to make it, and then let it ferment.
Steve Paulson (27:47):
You also write about how you sometimes go back to historical texts, what people wrote about, the fermented drinks they made hundreds, maybe even thousands of years ago, and you try to reproduce what they made.
Merlin Sheldrake (27:59):
Yes. This I find a really fascinating process because yeast were only described as a biological organism in the 19th century, and yet humans have worked with yeast for an unknowably long time. In these old brewing recipes, yeast were a silent companion. They were an invisible participant in human culture, and by brewing these texts into being, it felt like I could somehow come closer to what life might have been like. If you are practicing history, you read through a lot of reading of documents, but for me, this was another way of interpreting documents without not just reading it, but brewing it into being, brewing it into flavor, brewing it into taste, and then you get all sorts of strange results. Some of them taste amazing. Some of them taste strange. Some of them have different effects on you. Some make you excitable. Some make you laugh, some make you drowsy, and many of these were medicinal.
Steve Paulson (28:51):
So are some of these historical brews that you have recreated, or are they totally different from any of the alcohol that we would buy now?
Merlin Sheldrake (29:00):
Some of them, yes, especially the beers. I made a gruit ale. They were type of are made from many different things, but I was making them from bog myrtle and yarrow. We think of beer as being made of hops and barley, but it was only in the 17th century that hops became a staple part of beer. It was before that hops were one herb among many that people could use to create a bitter flavor in the beer, a bitterness to cut the sweet roundedness of the mold. Hops have various roles within herbal medicine. Hops help you go to sleep. They're a cousin of cannabis and there is something that relaxes you.
Steve Paulson (29:37):
So we've talked about how the consumption of this kind of alcohol will change your mind. Of, course there is a very notable way that fungi can change human consciousness and that's through psychedelic mushrooms, psilocybin, which can quite literally blow your mind. I understand why humans would be so attracted to psychedelic mushrooms, but why would mushrooms have this capacity? What's in it for the mushrooms.
Merlin Sheldrake (30:05):
That's a great question without a great answer. What's interesting is that the fungi that produce psilocybin there's a gene cluster that the fungi need to produce psilocybin, not just one gene. But this gene cluster has been passed between fungal lineages by what's called horizontal gene transfer and would suggest that it has adaptive value to the fungi that could produce psilocybin. The question is, I think the original question is what is that adaptive value?
Steve Paulson (30:30):
Yeah. Why would the mushrooms want to have this capacity to affect not just humans, but animals also, who would be eating their mushrooms?
Merlin Sheldrake (30:41):
The short answer is no one knows, and the speculation is that when the ability to produce psilocybin came about, the fungi that produced it were living in close quarters with lots of insects and insects that might eat or compete with these fungi, and that the psilocybin might have helped deter insect fungivores by taking their minds off their next meal, or [crosstalk 00:31:06]
Steve Paulson (31:05):
The insects are getting high.
Merlin Sheldrake (31:10):
Yeah, or killing their appetites, generally, befuddling them. So that's one possibility, but then another possibility because lots of insects today can eat psilocybin mushrooms, no problem and don't seem to suffer any ill effect. So if it was a deterrent, it doesn't seem to be very effective, and so it's possible that it could also have served somehow as a lure to attract certain types of insect to help the mushroom spread their spores. It could have been both at once. Of course, it could have attracted some insects and repelled others. That's a consensus speculation about the earliest days of psilocybin, but of course there's a long time since then; that's about 75 million years ago.
Merlin Sheldrake (31:49):
With humans, the fate of psilocybin mushrooms has transformed in just the last 60 to 70 years when an American scientist called Richard Schultes went and described psilocybin mushroom use among the Mazatec people in Mexico, discatalyzed a big part of what we think of as the '60s psychedelic counterculture and everything that have sprung from there. So when Schultes described maybe one or two species that could produce psilocybin, now we know if nearly 200 that can produces psilocybin because of the [crosstalk 00:32:18].
Steve Paulson (32:18):
Oh, that's interesting.
Merlin Sheldrake (32:19):
These species are being cultivated, grown out windows sills, and closets, in warehouses in Holland, transported around the world. It's a new story of domestication underway, and it just shows you how quickly the evolutionary fortunes of relationships can transform.
Steve Paulson (32:35):
Yeah. Well speaking psilocybin and evolution, I have to ask you about the stoned ape theory, which was formulated by Terrence McKenna, who you knew, I know as a child. Your family was friends with him and he had this idea that somehow the evolution of human consciousness goes hand-in-hand with the consumption of magic mushrooms by our ancient ancestors. Can you explain that theory?
Merlin Sheldrake (33:00):
Yeah. So there are a number of different versions of it, but I think at its core is that between about three million years ago and about 200,000 years ago, when recognizable humans first appear in the fossil record, there is a huge increase in brains size. So in a three million year sprint our brains, I think they quadrupled or quintupled in size. It's a remarkable, very noticeable trend, and so the question is why? So people have all sorts of theories. a very commonly accepted one is that it's to do with our domestic question of fire and the cooking of food, because once we start cooking food, then we can acquire a lot more energy from a given amount of food. We have to spend less time foraging for food, looking for food, finding food.
Merlin Sheldrake (33:52):
We also have to spend less bodily energy digesting it, which means that our brains, which are enormously hungry, metabolically speaking, our brains way are 2% of our body mass, but take 20% of our energy at rest. This allowed us to feed these very hungry brains. I think this is very persuasive, but Terrence's view was that this boom in brain size had been caused by people eating magic mushrooms, which brought about profound changes in their experience, mystical experiences, which opened them up to completely new ways of knowing, perceiving, and communicating, and that what we think of as modern humanity has its roots in these ancient psychedelic experiences.
Merlin Sheldrake (34:35):
I think the stoned ape hypothesis, something that we are unlikely to be able to prove either way. I have a lot of time for the idea that psychedelics have played an important role in our evolution because they play an important role wherever we see them used today, and they play an important role in almost every traditional society that we know of, so human intoxication is definitely not a new thing. Quite exactly what role they had to play though, remains a mystery. We think about natural and cultural evolution as is if they were separate, but they can actually be connected. You can imagine a situation we're at home and ate a little magic mushrooms and then had the idea to domesticate fire, and then that domestication of fire led to a whole cascade of biological change, so [crosstalk 00:35:21]
Steve Paulson (35:21):
Because we do know from so much personal testimony that having a psychedelic experience, it can be terrible, but can also break open your mind so that you can see things in new ways. It can be a powerful creative force.
Merlin Sheldrake (35:35):
Definitely. We know that psychics have been powerful creative forces in human societies all over the world for as long as we have records. So it seems clear to me that psychics have played a very important part, whether they were responsible for this brain boom or no remains an open question.
Steve Paulson (35:53):
Now, it's worth pointing out that you knew Terrence McKenna. When you were young, you also do Paul Stamets, who is, well, not only a great expert on mushrooms, but also a proselytizer of the transformative power of psilocybin. You've known these people. They were friends of your family, and given that personal background one would assume that you've had a certain amount of personal experience with psychedelic mushrooms. Is that something you talk about?
Merlin Sheldrake (36:24):
Well, in 2004 and 2005, there was a loophole and the law discovered in England where it turns out that it was legal to sell fresh psilocybin mushrooms. If they were dry, they became a Class A or Schedule 1 equivalent. If they're fresh, they can be sold legally, and so there was a really remarkable period of time when big crates of magic mushrooms were being sold on high streets. During this period, I grew them at home and I experimented with them and a number of really fascinating and transformative experiences.
Steve Paulson (36:55):
That's a very diplomatic way of putting it. For someone listening to our conversation and maybe not wanting to go down the road of psychedelics, which, of course, are illegal in most places, how would you suggest people get closer to fungi?
Merlin Sheldrake (37:16):
Well, there are many ways. It depends on your temperament. All plants depend on fungi that live in their shoots and in their leaves, in their roots and depend on the soil created by fungal decomposition. So any process of gardening will be in part a fungal process. Then there's mushrooms, of course, and growing mushrooms is a great way to get a better feel for fungi and watching them grow is a remarkable thing. They grow so fast, you can almost watch them grow and mushroom grow kits are readily available. You can just spread them with water and then you can watch these forms erupt over the course of a few days. Then you can eat them, of course, afterwards, which is a great way to do it, or going outside looking for mushrooms; there's no foraging there, whether or not you pick the mushrooms, just going outside and opening yourself to the mushrooms that you might otherwise just pass by. Soil and composting is another great way. Anything that involves decomposition and fermentation, which is a controlled decomposition, of domesticated decomposition, a rehousing of rot, and those are just a few.
Steve Paulson (38:19):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). One final question going back to eating mushrooms. Do you have favorite mushrooms you like to eat?
Merlin Sheldrake (38:25):
I'm terrible with favorites. There are so many mushrooms to choose from.
Steve Paulson (38:30):
Well, it's just because when we go to the supermarket, there's a very limited range and I'm wondering what else we should be looking for?
Merlin Sheldrake (38:38):
I'll tell you a couple of mushrooms that I was most recently grateful for; one was the shiitaki. I had some shiitakes last night, which I love. They're very easily cultivated, and you can find them in many grocery stores and maitaki, which I had last week, which are also fantastic, good to eat. Other great ones, the lion's mane is great to eat as well. Depending on where you are right now in spring, there'll be St. George's mushrooms in England, and there'll be morels in various parts of the world. I wish I could be actually in England right now.
Steve Paulson (39:12):
Yeah, this has been and such a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Merlin Sheldrake (39:17):
Well, thanks for having me. It's been great to chat.
Steve Paulson (39:23):
That's Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and the author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. This interview is part of our podcast series on Kinship With the More Than Human World, which is produced by To The Best Of Our Knowledge in partnership with the Center for Humans in Nature, and with support from the Kalliopeia Foundation. Our sound designer is Sarah Hopefl and I'm Steve Paulson. If you want to find more in our kinship series, go to ttbook.org/kinship, where you'll see all our podcast episodes and also a lot of great essays. Thanks for joining us.