Episode #18 A Kingdom of Their Own - How Fungi Shape Our World with Merlin Sheldrake
Fungi have shaped our world for billions of years and are present in us, on us, and in nearly every environment. They are one of the oldest lifeforms found on earth and throughout time formed landscapes and helped to give rise to the plant and animal kingdoms. These organisms forge mutually beneficial life-sustaining partnerships with us and can teach us a great deal about whole systems thinking.
Our guest is Merlin Sheldrake, biologist and best-selling author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures.
Merlin has spent his career investigating the role fungi play in supporting life on our planet, including the relationships between humans and fungi. Merlin posits, “All plants depend on fungi to survive, which means that all the food we eat, and the health of the soil in which it grows, depends on fungal activity. Fungal medicines and foods have played pivotal roles in human health for an unknowably long time, and have been responsible for some of the most dramatic breakthroughs in modern medicine.”
In this episode, Dr. Weil, Dr. Maizes, and Sheldrake discuss how the symbiotic nature of fungi challenges our perception of self. Dr. Maizes discusses their use in mental health and asks why mushrooms are popular in some cultures and avoided in others. Dr. Weil describes the medicinal and culinary use of fungi. Sheldrake discusses significant fungal properties and shares the many benefits they bring to humankind.
Please note, the show will not advise, diagnose, or treat medical conditions. Always seek the advice of your physician or healthcare provider for questions regarding your health.
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Victoria: Hi Andy.
Dr. Weil: Hi Victoria.
Victoria: So today we are going to be talking about mushrooms, not just mushrooms as food or the psychedelic properties of mushrooms, but rather the ecological lessons, uh, fungi as decomposers, as symbiotes as potential building materials.
Dr. Weil: And our guest is a long-time friend of mine. Someone I knew from the time he was quite young Merlin, Sheldrake, English mycologist botanist naturalist, and an excellent writer whose recent book Entangled Life is a best-seller.
Victoria: Well, let's welcome him.
Victoria: Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and the best-selling author of Entangled Life. How fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures. He received a PhD in tropical ecology from Cambridge University. Merlin is a brewer and a fermenter, and he's fascinated by the relationships that arise between humans and other organisms. Welcome Merlin.
Merlin: Thanks Victoria. It's great to be here.
Victoria: I want to start with then a concept of symbiosis, which is a major theme of your book. You remind us that all life is interdependent, which is really an ecological perspective. And I'm hoping you can give some examples.
Merlin: There are so many examples. I mean, you can think of ourselves as symbiotic organisms. Um, I'm sure you've discussed microbiome on your podcast in past episodes and, and we contain, um, many, many micros, more microbial cells than our own cells, bacterial cells, fungal cells.
And we wouldn't be able to grow and reproduce and behave as we do without these organisms that live in and on us. And so you can think of us as a collective, as a kind of ecosystem, but this runs all the way down. Bacteria and large bacteria can have smaller bacteria living inside them. And even large viruses can have small viruses living inside them.
So really there is nothing in life, which is not symbiotic. It's really symbiotic symbiosis all the way down. Donna Haraway had a great line that they're the smallest unit of analysis is the relationship. And I think this is one of the insights that thinking about symbiosis.
Victoria: So Andy I want to point it to you. And, I'm wondering how you have thought about an ecological perspective and integrative medicine.
Dr. Weil: You know, uh, I remember going to mushroom conferences in the early days in the 1970s. And I remember hearing for the first time about mycorrhizal relationships that the root hairs of trees were sheathed with a mycelium of mushrooms and that the two organisms needed each other. And that was to me, that was a revolutionary idea. I'd never heard that before in my studies with biology. And then as I found that this really extended to all plants, not just trees, uh, and that there was this web, the tangled web of life that Merlin has written very lyrically about and we are connected with that as well. You know, we are one with that. So I think. One thing to learn from all this is that there's no such thing as separation that we're not separate. I think that's just remarkable also that while there are, uh, hostile organisms out there or organisms that can do us harm, it is also possible to live in, um, If not mutually beneficial, at least neutral relationships with them.
And I think in integrative medicine, that's a major philosophical point. You know, rather than trying to wipe out what we see as bad organisms, uh, it's possible to increase natural defenses so that we strike a balance with them.
Merlin: That's so interesting, isn't it? This idea of balance and context, there's this, um, as well as the, uh, the mycorrhizal fungi that live in plant roots the fungi that live in plant leaves and implant shoots called endophytic fungi and there's a great study that came out recently talking about a fungus, which causes a disease called watery soft rock to causes plants, to soften and lose their various parts of their bodies. And, um, and the studies showed that if you infect this pathogenic fungus, so what we think of as a pathogenic fungus with a virus, the fungus stops being a pathogen and switches to become a mutually beneficial endophytes, which protects the plant from disease.
And I think this really illustrates this point so, so well that rigid categories don't do as much good when thinking about relationships.
Victoria: So, um, you used a few words that some of our listeners may not be especially familiar with mycorrhizal relationships and mycelium. I'm wondering if we could just take one step backwards and give some definitions?
Merlin: Most fungi live most of their lives as mycelium, which is a branching fusing network of tubular cells. And it's how fungi feed. It's a way for them to insinuate themselves with their surroundings, which they then digest and absorb. Mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of fungi. So they're the places where the fungi produced spores and, uh, which allowed them to disperse themselves.
Dr. Weil: You know, in integrative medicine, we are teaching physicians to use medicinal mushrooms and there's tremendous interest in this at the moment and also a great deal of commercial activity around the mushroom products and medicinal mushrooms and research on this.
And one of the questions that comes up is, is it desirable to take just the mycelium of mushroom of medicinal mushrooms or better take the fruit bodies or take both, you know, do these have different chemistry, different properties. Are there answers to these questions?
Merlin: I think this, this debate has become quite polarized and I don't think it needs to be polarized at all. The different parts of the fungal organism do different things. They have different biological roles and they are metabolically active in different kinds of ways. And you don't need to look at, uh, say a mushroom a reishi mushroom with a shiny brown scalp on the top to know that the mushroom produces pigment compounds that are not found in the, mycelium which are not shiny and brown.
Um, so so I think it depends on what you're looking for so if, for example, if we're talking about psilocybin mushrooms, um, and using those in a medicinal context psilocybin is produced the mushrooms, but not on the whole of the mycelium. And so there'd be no point taking mycelium if you wanted to have a psilocybin medicinal experience.
And so I think the question is, what compounds are you interested in and where are those produced. And that will vary from mushroom to mushroom and from complaints to complaints because different fractions of bioactive compounds are produced in different relations in the, mycelium and the fruit body. So I think it's an, it depends on so.
Victoria: Uh, so I want to pull us now back out a little bit, Andy I've sometimes heard you say that, um, all countries are either mycophilic meaning they love mushrooms or mycophobic, meaning they fear mushrooms. And why is that? I mean, we're not particularly that way about plants, although I guess we have some history with plants as well.
Dr. Weil: Well, first of all, I didn't say that Victoria was quoting Gordon Wasson, who was the first person who, the person who rediscovered the use of, uh, of psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico and wrote a monumental work called Mushrooms, Russia, and History. And he proposed that all cultures can be divided into mycophilic and mycophobic.
Uh, the Slavic cultures, he was married to an ethnic Russian woman, which started him on this, uh, Slavic cultures, Asian cultures are generally very mycophilic and the English-speaking world is the opposite pole of mycophobic, you know why this is, I have no idea. One odd example from the East is that in India and yoga philosophy, mushrooms are classified in the lowest energetic character category of foods that also includes spoiled and rotten things. Um, so that's an exception, but I remember growing up in my household, my mother was definitely afraid of mushrooms. I know she thought that, uh, she didn't buy supermarket mushrooms because she thought a poisonous one could have slipped in. And she warned me not to touch mushrooms that came up on our lawn, uh, because they were probably poisonous. So that was an attitude that was very common in the culture that I grew up with.
Victoria: Merlin, do you have an answer for why we have this cultural divide?
Merlin: Well, I think it's maybe a little bit, um, less clear cuts in many cases. For example I read a paper recently talking about the attitudes to mushrooms of indigenous peoples in the far Eastern peninsula. So the very far, far East of Russia and historically in the early part of the 20th century, they were, um, pretty mycophobic to use Watson’s classification mushrooms.
So we're not sort of as things that could be harvested and eaten in any kind of serious way. But influenced by Russian communist, Russians, and border guards and other officials who were very keen on mushrooms this culture has flipped to a heavy mycophilia in a post-Communist era. So I think this category can be very fluid but as to why these, I mean, it's, it's definitely pronounced that you have you know English-speaking well, this on the whole, um, there's less international then other costs in Slavic and East Asian cultures, but why that is I'm not sure it might have something to do with the fact that the Western taxonomic system has a very poor grasp of mushrooms, um, since the classical period.
And so it's much, if so, without a good way, a reliable way to order and to discern um, poisonous much from some non-poisonous mushrooms, um, perhaps sprung up this air of caution that you shouldn't touch, like Andy's mother warning him, that he shouldn't touch the mushrooms on the lawn in case they were poisonous because without a reliable way to tell whether they were a poison, this is actually put a rational attitude.
Dr. Weil: I had dinner, uh, some years ago with a man, a native Austrian who was the technical director of, uh, one of the very large, uh, producers of botanical medicines. Very good quality. And he had lived all over the world and he said that he was struck by how fearful the English-speaking world was of nature in contrast Germanic speaking countries. So maybe the attitude toward mushrooms is a part of something larger there.
Merlin: Yeah. And it might also be to do with the deaths that decay the association of machines with death and decay and the need for certain human cultures to, to elevate themselves above those.
Dr. Weil: And they appear out of nowhere. You know, it's hard to understand how mushrooms grow and that must've been very mysterious and puzzling to people and magical, and maybe also caused fear and wonder.
Victoria: So the death and decay is also associated with something that is now being seen as one of the great talents of mushrooms, which is decomposition and the hope that some species may actually be the solution for a toxic waste that we actually have no idea how to break down and make safe again. What do you think is the full potential for a fungi in this, uh, particular arena?
Merlin: I think there's huge potential. Uh, and this has been demonstrated in countless studies that have shown fungi to have powerful appetites for all sorts of compounds that we think of as pollutants. Applying these, these findings to real world scenarios with polluted environments is much more complicated because you can't always just inoculate an environment with a, with an organism, they expect it to thrive. And, and what's more the history of human interventions, ecologically speaking, um, meaning well, uh, has, is listed with disasters you know we've introduced many different species to many different environments and it's all just gone wrong. So it's not straightforward. I think some of the perhaps more practical approaches are those that involve having rather than waiting till a pollutant has ended up in the environment is to divert, uh, pollutants on their way to the environment and then break them down in specially built facilities where you can house the fungi in ideal conditions in big vats and fermenters. And all of this kind of technology is very well established.
Dr. Weil: What do you think about the potential for, uh, obtaining quantities of high-quality protein from mushrooms and having this be a new food source that might replace some of the animal foods that we're now dependent on?
Merlin: I think this is very exciting. Um, especially in mycelium-based foods, I'm using mycelium as either to scaffold for other types of cellular agriculture or, um, just eating various different types of processed mycelium if you think about miso, it's a kind of mycelium food, you know, you, you grow in mycelium through grains or through beans and what you're eating in the end is digested grains and beans, but also lots of mycelium, same with tempeh. So there's a rich culinary history. And I think, uh, has a lot of potential moving forward because you'll be able to grow mycelium very quickly in controlled conditions, which don't depend on clearing forests or, or otherwise disrupting, um, ecosystems.
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Well, one particular place that almost all of us are familiar with fungi has to do with fermentation of yeast. And, uh, most of us enjoy an occasional alcoholic beverage, or perhaps a piece of bread. And those are really you know, the, the magic of, uh, adding yeast to other substances. And I understand that you have been a brewer fermenter and you tell some wonderful stories Andy, you as well have been a bread baker, and I don't know as much about your brewing history, but maybe speak to that use of a fungi a bit.
Dr. Weil: Well, I make, uh, I'm not so much of a brewer, but I have been making a tempeh fairly regularly. Natto so another, uh, which actually Merlin I conferred on fermented beverages like kvass made from beets.
I'm a great fan of fermented foods. And as you know, Victoria, we recommend them very frequently to our patients because I think this is one of the best things that you can do for your gut microbiome.
Merlin: It's amazing the process of fermenting as well. I like doing it not only for the flavors and for the health benefits, but also for the experience of watching and experiencing, tasting ecosystem arise and transform over time when you have a bottle of beetroots fermenting into kvass for example, in your kitchen worktop, there's an ecological succession of different waves of microbes taking over from the previous ones where they left off, which is very much how ecosystems work in the wild, out in the big world, outside and in the jar however, you can taste it happen that you can taste these chemical transformations. If you taste the ferment, as it goes along, you can really get an intuitive sense for how much of the world really works. And these big chemical weather systems that we live within, but too large for us to notice.
Dr. Weil: You know, one of my very early memories is I think I was quite young uh, occasionally my mother and grandmother would make raised donuts and they used fresh cake yeast. And I remember the smell of that, uh, when it was dissolved and began to work, I found so attractive. It was one of the most alluring aromas. I was just completely drawn to that.
Merlin: It's also, it's amazing in the natural world, how, um, how yeast play a part in, um, pollination stories. There's a type of shrew called the Malaysian Tree Shrew, which is attracted to the fermenting sugary nectar in Palm flowers and the smell of this fermentation it actually attracts the shoes to their flowers and the shoes have a way of, um, drinking this alcohol without getting terribly drunk. They have a special turbocharged enzymes, but, um, but nonetheless, you know, these aromas produced by the yeast, actually a folded into the life cycles of many organisms.
Victoria: So we are taping this
What would account for that?
Merlin: Well, I think mushrooms are really having a moment and fungi. And I think that in lockdown, people have been taking on all sorts of new projects, like baking, for example, other fungal enterprises. Of course. Um, but the mushroom growing is I see when you grow mushrooms, you see them grow and they grow so fast.
I think that's a fantastic thrill of seeing that this transformation taking place from a block of mycelium growing from waste material into these forms that just arise, you could almost see them grow. You know, I remember growing mushrooms and as a child and I would go to bed and there'd be a certain size and then I'd wake up in the morning they've doubled in size more or less, Andy why do you think that fungi you're having such a moment.
Dr. Weil: Well, you know, one reason certainly has to do with psilocybin mushrooms and there certainly has an incredible resurgence of interest in them everywhere that I have gone to speak in the past, I'd say in the past three years, no matter what the subject, whether it's about nutrition and healthy aging, integrative medicine…I get questions from all sorts of audiences about psilocybin how can I do it? And what about micro dosing and what are the benefits? And, uh, I it's phenomenal to me how this has penetrated the culture. I assume that's the same in the UK. And, uh, and in other countries now.
Merlin: Yeah, and there's massive, massive boom driven of course, in part by these studies, um, but most studies into new phenomenon don't tend to generate this much excitement and fascination. So, there's something else to it as well.
Dr. Weil: Well, I think it is penetrating mainstream culture in a remarkable way. And I must say, I, I feel very good about that. And you know, maybe this is specifically the antidote to the toxicity of the cult of the dominant culture, uh, and may bring about, you know, very good change.
Merlin: I know you have a long history of mushroom hunting and fermenting, but what's your favorite way to stay in contact with the fungal world right now?
Dr. Weil: Well, I'm a bit limited living in the Sonoran Desert and we're just not the best habitat for mushrooms. We get a good fruiting of mushrooms on top of the Santa Catalina mountains in the summer rains and in when there are very heavy rains, which there have not been for a while. While the desert floor, uh, fruits with some very unusual species like stock falls. So whenever I can to be in contact with those, uh, that makes me very happy.
I've always loved mushroom hunting in the Pacific Northwest, uh, you know, which is a wonderful habitat. Um, I, there are more and more people cultivating edible species, which is a delight. I had some very good, uh, fresh lion's mane mushrooms from a local cultivator a couple of nights ago. So I eat them whenever I can. I consume medicinal mushrooms in various forms, uh, because I think they're doing good things for my immunity and, and body defenses and, um, and mental function.
Victoria: And you brought up lion's mane, which is, um, a mushroom that you commonly recommend to people who are worried about their brains. Can you maybe give an integrative medicine tip to our listeners about the value of lion's mane mushroom?
Dr. Weil: Well, it has a unique nerve growth factor in it, and there is some good research, uh, suggesting that this benefits neurological health and cognitive function. Uh, it is perfectly safe. It has no toxicity. It's something they kept. It's also a delicious edible mushroom. Uh, it can be cultivated. There are many lion’s mane products out there. Um, and it is one that I commonly recommend to people. And it's the example in what fills a gap that we don't have anything for in conventional medicine.
Uh, so people with neuropathies with cognitive deficits are worried about that, I think it's a very good remedy to take and there was no downside to it
Merlin: And it's delicious
Dr. Weil: And it's delicious. It's great.
Victoria: Your book, title speaks to the possibility of changing our minds. You give so many different reasons from, uh, the relational qualities to symbiosis, to how we view intelligence but presumably you're also thinking about how psychedelics change one's mind.
Merlin: Definitely. Yeah, that was, um, that's the most literal level, I think. They have powerful impacts on cultures and more generally, and you can see that in a big way say in the 1950s, moving through into the sixties, uh, psychedelics became, um, taken in more mainstream ways. And those it's a huge change that those counter-cultural movements brought about.
Victoria: And yet we know that now some of the interest, um, is in folks who are, uh, not necessarily the counter-cultural, but very much in the mainstream including, Silicon Valley types and people at the end of life, uh, who want help as they
Merlin: Absolutely. And it's amazing to see these as these astonishing effects.
This really, I mean, cause like that like effects are so wide ranging and difficult to difficult to quantify, but it's fascinating to see these studies really start to get a grip on, on how they can be used to help people in particular settings for particular problems and many of these ways that psychedelics seem to help people in depression, for example, or in anxiety, and when faced with facing a terminal diagnosis, this is through by softening the edges of ourselves by creating a kind of sense of ego, dissolution of losing track of where we end and where our surroundings begin.
I think this is one of the things that fungi can do more generally, they make questions of our categories in particular categories of selfhood and individuality. And, um, I think this tells us something about, um, the problems that we have that arise in our culture, in the various different cultures. When we think about things as separated from each other by neat boundaries, by distinct, uh, edges by hard edges. Um, for example, when we think about the living world, um, as made up of, of neatly bounded individuals, we lose track of what connects them of the various processes that weave them together in the course of their lives.
Uh, so I think this speaks to this much bigger issue at play right now, the kind of medicine that I think our culture needs a softening…can we grow the boundaries of ourselves?
Victoria: That's beautifully said. Another place that you challenge the boundaries is when you speak about fungi, having intelligence said, you say fungi don't have a brain, they’re one celled organisms, Andy, some years ago, you recommended a book to me called the Soul of an Octopus. And part of that book is a focus on how intelligent octopus are, even though they have such a different brain than human beings and a distributed multicellular, perhaps brain. Where do we go with this? I mean, you know, it really does profoundly push against what we think about as intelligence.
Merlin: I think it's exciting partly because it helps to puncture our greatly overinflated, human centeredness and species narcissism and Cerebro centrists. And we're very proud of our brains and understandably so, but I think it leads us into trouble where, where we place ourselves at the top of the intelligence rankings.
Um, we create hierarchies with us, invariably sitting somewhere at the top. And we use ourselves as yardsticks by which to judge the abilities and possibilities, uh, faced by other organisms. So the idea that brains, aren't the only way to solve problems, that brains on the only way to deal intelligently with the various puzzles that are presented to living organisms, I think is very helpful for us.
And, and also it reflects a deeper evolutionary reality that brains didn't evolve their tricks from scratch, uh, and electrically excitable cells and strung into networks. And brains are just one example of that. And even in bacterial economies, you can have waves of electrical excitation that pass over these bacterial colonies and allow them to communicate with different areas and the different parts of the clinic connected to different high nutrients over here and low nutrients over there. So you don't even need to be a multicellular organism to signal using waves of electoral activity. Uh, let alone a complex, uh, higher one, like us.
Victoria: Well, Merlin, I want to thank you so much for joining us for this conversation and also for writing your wonderful book, which I'm just going to say that I listened to so not only did I have the pleasure of your words, but I had the pleasure of your voice and so I want to recommend to people Entangled Life.
Um, it's, it's a wonderful read or a wonderful listen and thank you for being with us that
Dr. Weil: It's an inspirational book and really gives a, um, a vision of the natural world that is so much more exciting and a complete then certainly the one that I grew up with a really seeing everything is interconnected and communicating uh, it's a, it's a wonderful, um, experience to read that book.
Merlin: Well, thank you both so much for your kind words and for having me.