Entangled Life, by Sheldrake

Thursday January 21, 2021

Would you like to simulate a night at the bar with your smart friend who's just really into 'shrooms? Then Entangled Life is for you! Explore lots of symbioses and ask questions like "Is nature fundamentally competitive or cooperative?" (page 210) It's a good time!

Sheldrake spins a charming tale, but may be taking some liberties. For example, he claims on page 129 that "Miycorrhizal fungi soon found their way into The Lord of the Rings." The quotes he follows this with do not clearly support that claim, and there's no further evidence to be found in the text or endnotes.

The author at one point addresses concerns about anthropomorphism, especially relevant to considerations of "intelligent" behaviors, but has few reservations about using metaphor freely. This isn't all bad.

"It is well-established in the sciences that metaphors can help to generate new ways of thinking. The biochemist Joseph Needham described a working analogy as a "net of coordinates" that could be used to arrange an otherwise formless mass of information, much as a sculptor might use a wire frame to provide support for wet clay. The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin pointed out that it is impossible to "do the work of science" without using metaphors, given that almost "the entire body of science is an attempt to explain phenomena that cannot be experienced directly by human beings." Metaphors and analogies, in turn, come laced with human stories and values, meaning that no discussion of scientific ideas–this one included–can be free of cultural bias." (page 211)

Together with frequent stories, it makes for engaging reading. I generally prefer the viewpoint he gives a paragraph to on page 174, when he quotes Toby Spibille: "I try just to look at the system and let the lichen be a lichen."


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