‘Dark Life’ – Thoughts on Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

In Entangled Life Merlin Sheldrake compares fungi to dark matter. Dark matter makes up 95 per cent of the universe yet remains unknown and more than 90 per cent of fungi remain undocumented. He refers to fungi as ‘biological dark matter, or dark life.’

In this book Sheldrake explores how, beneath the surface of this world, unseen by the human eye, fungi ‘form networks of many cells known as hyphae: fine tubular structures that branch, fuse, and tangle into the anarchic filigee of mycelium.’ This ‘ecological connective tissue’ plays an essential role in the transport of nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and water to plants and trees. Mycorrhizae (from rhiza ‘roots’ and mykes ‘fungi’) attach themselves to plant and tree roots. Thus it is impossible to know where a plant ends or a fungus begins in ‘the Wood Wide Web’.

Fungi have the ability not only to manipulate the transfer of nutrients between plants but to control the behaviour of animals. The most striking example is how the ‘zombie fungus’ Ophiocordyceps unilteralis infects ants, compels them, in a syndrome known as ‘summit disease’ to leave their nests, climb the nearest plant, and bite on in a ‘death grip’. Mycelium glues their feet to the plant before fungus ‘digests the ant’s body and sprouts a stalk out of its head’, showering spores on the ants below.

Researchers ‘found that the fungus becomes, to an unsettling degree, a prosthetic organ of ants’ bodies. As much as 40 per cent of the biomass of an infected ant is fungus. Hyphae wind through their body cavities, from head to legs, enmesh their muscle fibres. And co-ordinate their activity via an interconnected mycelial network. However, in the ants’ brains, the fungus is conspicuous by its absence.’ This puts into question ‘how we define intelligence and cognition’ – ‘ the brain-centric is too limited.’

Sheldrake also explores the influence of fungi on humans and human consciousness. He explains Robert Dudley’s ‘drunken monkey hypothesis’. ‘Ten million years ago, the enzyme our bodies use to detoxify alcohol, known as alcohol dehydrogenase, or ADH4, underwent a single mutation that left it forty times more efficient. The mutation occurred in the last common ancestor we shared with gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.’ This made it possible for our predecessors to digest overripe fruit fermented by fungi and may explain the long relationship between humans and alcohol.

Yeast, a fungus, was central to the Neolithic revolution. ‘Yeasts have domesticated us’. Psilocybin, a hallucinogen produced by psyilocybe mushrooms, has been used by human cultures for millennia to induce visions and to heal and played a major role in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s. Experiments show that ‘Following an injection of psilocybin, a tumult of new neuronal pathways arise.’

Such findings break down the boundaries of self and other and pose the question who is thinking who. It is well known that humans are made up of more bacterial cells than human cells. This suggests that we are not separate individuals but holobionts – from Greek holos ‘whole’ – a word which refers ‘to an assemblage of different organisms that behaves as a unit.’ Not ‘you’ but ‘y’all.’

This book feels timely to me at this time when human behaviour is being drastically modified by a virus whose influence is being felt across the entire web of existence – human and other-than-human. It shows that human control over our entangled relationships is an error and reveals a little about the ‘dark life’, the 90 odd per cent that lies beneath the surface, ‘mystifying’, ‘other’, and its hidden influence.

It speaks deeply to me of the Annuvian, of things pertaining to Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld, the abode of the dead and the ‘spirits of Annwn’ or ‘fairies’, who oversee the visible and invisible processes of transformation of matter, of mind, and of soul. One of the kennings for mushrooms is ‘Fruits of Annwn’.

Both fungi and the fay pose a challenge to our imaginations – to think beyond the human – and to understand ourselves not as individuals but parts of a mycelial web stretching into the darkness of unthought. Our capacity to do so, as we experience this virus, and the next, and other inevitable effects of the climate crisis might not save us, but might help us to understand it was never about us, as superior thinking beings, at all.

4 thoughts on “‘Dark Life’ – Thoughts on Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

  1. Greg Hill says:

    Thinking beyond the human is certainly something we need to do, and realising that the world is, as you say, not about us, but about the whole network of life of every variety that calls Earth home.

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