Exploring the Hidden Kingdom of Fungi with Merlin Sheldrake, Ph.D.

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Nature is an assemblage of entanglements in which we are messily embedded. Humans are multi-species beings consisting of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that coordinate the task of living. In this deep dialogue we explore the fascinating world of the kingdom of fungi and its importance to all life on planet earth. They eat rock, make soil, digest pollutants, both nourish plants and cause plants to decompose, they can survive in space, induce visions, produce food, make medicine, manipulate animal behavior, and influence the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere to list a few of their activities. They live their lives largely hidden from view and over 90% of their species remain undocumented. Sheldrake says that the fungal kingdom is more closely related to the animal kingdom. Here he takes us into his research on the ecological significance of fungi and its importance to all life on planet earth. (hosted by Justine Willis Toms) 


Merlin Sheldrake, Ph.D. is a biologist and writer with a background in plant sciences, microbiology, ecology, and the history of philosophy of science. He received his Ph.D. 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 at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He's also a musician and a keen fermenter.

Merlin Sheldrake is the author of:

  • Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures (Random House 2020)

To learn more about Merlin Sheldrake go to www.merlinsheldrake.com

Topics explored in this dialogue include: 

  • What was the first experiment that Merlin’s father set up for him about soil and what is happening beneath the surface that got him interested in biology
  • What is the ecological significance of fungi
  • How can research be conducted when scientists can’t directly observe what is happening their actual behavior
  • How mycorrhizal fungi are 500 million years old and are fundamental to life on land
  • How Sheldrake’s research is less about breaking down complex systems into component parts than looking at the entanglements with other organisms and to understand the connections
  • Why he uses the metaphor of polyphonic music to describe the fungal networks
  • What were some of the results to his controlled LSD experiments conducted with scientists to study problem solving
  • What is the wood wide web of the shared networks of mycorrhizal fungi
  • Why cultivating a sense of curiosity is important for any scientific inquiry and stay in the question rather than focusing on the answer
  • How these smallest of biological entities, viruses, can contribute to some of our big evolutionary moments
  • How the language of the indigenous people the Potawatomi considers everything to be alive and is a language based on verbs not nouns, a “verbing of the world”
  • Why involution may be a better term that evolution
  • How slime molds got around the IKEA labyrinth better and faster than humans and how they are used to develop transportation systems
  • How the algorithms of slime mold behaviors can help map the actual cosmic web
  • How fungi is forming in the blasting reactor at Chernobyl after the meltdown. They seek out and grow towards radioactive hot particles as radiosynthesis as opposed to photosynthesis
  • What is Ecovative Design and some of the products it is producing on the frontiers of mycological applications
  • What is the work in Pakistan that shows polyurethane plastics being eaten by fungi
  • How Sheldrake is actually fermenting his book into beer and ingesting it
  • How Sheldrake fermented apples from both strains of apples taken from trees from Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin’s gardens
  • How David Abrams helps us to decenter our species narcissism and reductive materialist approach to the natural world

Host: Justine Willis Toms   Interview Date: 5/19/2020   Program Number: 3705

Music Playlist

From Album: Journey Between
Artist: Baka Beyond
1998 Rykodisc #HNCD 1415

Opening Essay: Track 01 Mbe
Music Break 1: Track 02 Migrations
Music Break 2: Track 06 Land’s End
Music Break 3: Track 08 Queen Of Ngorongoro