44 pages 1 hour read

Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures was written in 2020 by mycologist Merlin Sheldrake, a PhD graduate from the University of Cambridge and a former research fellow for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, whose academic research is primarily focused on fungal biology and Amazonian ethnobotany. Entangled Life is Sheldrake’s first book and reflects his lifelong fascination with the complex world of the fungi kingdom.

The book received positive reviews upon publication, with many critics from major publications like the New York Times placing Sheldrake as a newcomer along the great modern nature writers. It was included in Time magazine’s “100 Must-Read Books of 2020” list. Entangled Life won several awards, including the Wainwright Prize for Global Conservation Writing and the 2021 Royal Society Science Book Prize. It was shortlisted for the 2021 British Book Awards in the Non-Fiction: Narrative Book of the Year category.

This book references the 2021 Random House paperback edition of Entangled Life.

Plot Summary

Entangled Life comprises eight chapters, each focused on a different aspect of fungal life. The first chapter explores the chemical signals that fungi use to lure other organisms toward them, either to eat or to be eaten. The chapter primarily centers on truffle mushrooms, using a combination of history, personal account, and scientific analysis to explore the reasons why truffles evolved such a pungent smell and how that smell has shaped the way humans interact with them. The chapter also touches on worm-eating fungi, which lure nematodes as food.

The second chapter introduces mycelial networks, the complex tangle of filaments that make up most of fungal life. Sheldrake explores how these networks have shown “intelligence” in various laboratory studies: They are able to solve mazes, remember information, and pass chemical signals, electric impulses, and nutrients over huge distances. These adaptations have allowed fungi to occupy nearly every habitat on the planet.

Chapter 3 introduces lichens and the concept of symbiosis. Lichens are miniature ecosystems that exist as single organisms, calling into question the basic notion of what constitutes individuality. The study of lichens has led to the discovery of symbiosis and the idea that all life on earth might inherently rely on other life for survival. This chapter also discusses extremophiles—organisms, many of which are lichens, that can live in the most inhospitable conditions on earth.

The fourth chapter outlines various methods by which fungi control the minds and actions of humans, animals, and insects. It focuses primarily on psilocybin mushrooms and cordyceps fungi. Psilocybin has been used as a mind-altering substance for thousands of years, and cutting-edge research shows that it is an effective treatment for severe mental illness. Cordyceps, which have become popular in the human imagination, are the “zombie fungi” that infect insects and cause them to march to their deaths, all for the benefit of the fungi.

Chapters 5 and 6 delve deeper into mycelia, exploring how fungi helped root-bearing plants come to exist, proliferate, and evolve. These chapters also introduce what Sheldrake is hesitant to call the “wood wide web,” a complex system of mycelia, bacteria, plant roots, and other matter that underlie every ecosystem. The study of these concepts is just beginning, but the findings have the potential to change the world.

Sheldrake ends the book by discussing the future of mycological research, especially how fungi may be used to save the environment. Several companies and a wide network of amateur enthusiasts have begun to develop methods of using fungi to build new things, to influence damaged environments, and to consume harmful waste. Sheldrake suggests that the study of fungi is not only a way to shift our perception of the world but may even be a way to adapt to the human-altered environment and continue to survive.