Jensen: In your book you say that animals are more closely related to fungi than they are to plants or protozoa or bacteria.
Stamets: Yes. For example, we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide; so do fungi. One of the big differences between animals and fungi is that animals have their stomachs on the inside. About 600 million years ago, the branch of fungi leading to animals evolved to capture nutrients by surrounding their food with cellular sacs – essentially primitive stomachs. As these organisms evolved, they developed outer layers of cells – skins, basically – to prevent moisture loss and as a barrier against infection. Their stomachs were confined within the skin. These were the earliest animals.
Mycelia took a different evolutionary path, going underground and forming a network of interwoven chains of cells, a vast food web upon which life flourished. These fungi paved the way for plants and animals. They munched rocks, producing enzymes and acids that could pull out calcium, magnesium, iron, and other minerals. In the process they converted rocks into usable foods for other species. And they still do this, of course.
Fungi are fundamental to life on earth. They are ancient, they are widespread, and they have formed partnerships with many other species.
In his post to the list, Michael asks: “are we mushrooming?” It does indeed seem like a fundamental organizing pattern for the communities of people involved in the work of opening space. Taking rock hard surfaces, creating food by chipping away at them, opening spaces, surging towards activity and doing so in partnership with many others.
The interview continues:
Jensen: Of course this raises the question of boundaries: Is that tomato-fungus-virus one entity or three? Where does one organism stop and the other begin?
Stamets: Well, humans aren’t just one organism. We are composites. Scientists label species as separate so we can communicate easily about the variety we see in nature. We need to be able to look at a tree and say it’s a Douglas fir and look at a mammal and say it’s a harbor seal. But, indeed, I speak to you as a unified composite of microbes. I guess you could say I am the “elected voice” of a microbial community. This is the way of life on our planet. It is all based on complex symbiotic relationships.
It is interesting to think about the way we put boundaries around things. We choose completely arbitrary criteria for understanding “us” and “them.” And this isn’t a spritual, inner kind of oneness; Stamets is talking about a measurable, concrete reality in the external world. Our structures and organizations are not what we think they are. Do you customers have a place on your organizational chart? Do your clients figure in your decision-making processes? What are the boundaries we have chosen for our enterprises?
And on a bigger scale, the way mushrooms organize themselves is part of our evolutionary inheritance as well:
I have long proposed that mycelia are the earth’s “natural Internet.” I’ve gotten some flak for this, but recently scientists in Great Britain have published papers about the “architecture” of a mycelium – how it’s organized. They focused on the nodes of crossing, which are the branchings that allow the mycelium, when there is a breakage or an infection, to choose an alternate route and regrow. There’s no one specific point on the network that can shut the whole operation down. These nodes of crossing, those scientists found, conform to the same mathematical optimization curves that computer scientists have developed to optimize the Internet. Or, rather, I should say that the Internet conforms to the same optimization curves as the mycelium, since the mycelium came first.
We live in a world in which this kind of organizational structure is optimal. We are not the only ones who have discovered how to do this, in fact we are late to the party. Time to reflect on the teachings our elders have for us – the networks of mushrooms and micro-organisms upon which we depend for our own lives.
Photo by Ella’s Dad