Merlin Sheldrake, as per his website ( merlinsheldrake.com), is a biologist and a writer with a background in plant sciences, microbiology, ecology, and the history and philosophy of science. He received a Ph.D. in tropical ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama, where he was a predoctoral research fellow of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
Merlin’s research ranges from fungal biology, to the history of Amazonian ethnobotany, to the relationship between sound and form in resonant systems. A keen brewer and fermenter, he is fascinated by the relationships that arise between humans and more-than-human organisms. He is a musician and performs on the piano and accordion. Entangled Life is his first book.
Entangled Life is truly explosive in the manner Sheldrake upends so many longheld beliefs about evolution particularly anthropometric definitions that inevitably position humans always at the top of the intelligence rankings. He busts so many myths about about the importance of microorganisms. Shedding light on the theory of symbiotic relationships between algae and fungi is well enough but to go a step further and say that mitochondria and chlorophyll within a plant cell are the result of an astonishing symbiosis where the bacteria was engulfed the fungi and evolved to the stage is mind blowing. His chapters on truffles and lichens, that he refers to as ‘living riddles’, can be long length documentaries by themselves. The other chapters have much to offer as well in terms of the crucial role fungi can perform in environment preservation such as mycoremediation or cleaning up contaminated ecosystems. Mycofabrication, creating materials by re-composing the types of material such as mycelium foam that is used for packing as is being done by DELL for carting its servers. Mycelium leather can be used for furniture or as designer Stella McCartney is exploring– to create clothes. Researchers at NASA are interested in the potential of mycotecture and the possibility of growing structures on the Moon. These materials have proven to be lightweight, water-resistant and fire-retardant. Also stronger than concrete when subjected to bending forces, and resist compression better than wood framing. They also have a better insulation value than expanded polystyrene, and can be grown in a matter of days into an unlimited number of forms. Another fascinating discipline is bio-computing where slime mould networks are used to solve a range of geometrical problems. There is so much more about fungi Sheldrake shares that is illuminating, most significantly that living organisms have survived billions of years but are an intrinsic part of evolution. He explains this in detail.
Merlin Sheldrake’s extraordinary energy, vivacity and passion for his discipline sparkles through every page of this book. More importantly, his infectious enthusiasm to share his knowledge with the lay reader. It exudes through every word he writes. He is one flamboyant scientist to watch out for in the near future.
His exposition on microbes, the extent to which fungi have spread on earth, his worrying analysis of the impact human intervention has had on the social interrelationships of these microorganisms have to be taken cognizance of. They are alarmingly prescient given the times we live in. He brings in astrobiology, biogeochemistry, climate change, farmers rights and the impact of pharmaceutical corporates upon the farmer and his agrarian knowledge etc. Astonishing breadth of disciplines Sheldrake covers by sharing his passion for fungus. And you know what, it all rings true. There is so much logic in what he shares that at no point it feels that it is a scientist jumping all over the place in excitement. It is worth listening to.
Entangled Life borders on the technical but when a specialist’s exuberance is so infectious, it spills over easily to grip the lay reader with similar enthusiasm. So much to learn! I love it.
Merlin Sheldrake is certainly a scientist worth watching out for. He is to biology what William Dalrymple is to history. Hugely informative but both scholars wear their knowledge lightly, making it accessible to a vast circle of readers/fans.
27 Dec 2020