Nurse, Paul, “What is Life?: Five Great Ideas in Biology”, WW Norton and Co., 2021. I’m placing this book out of order here, its American edition just released this year and I’ve only just read it, because I concur that this is an excellent introduction to its topic and should be accessible to a broad audience, one without an academic background in biology. It does what Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, does for its readers, presents in a compact and cogent way the central ideas for understanding the science of life. Nurse, is a Nobel Prize winning geneticist and cell biologist, who has dedicated his research life to the study of the cell and what sets this class of matter apart and unique, looking into its structure, chemistry/metabolism, reproduction, evolution and the relationships and communication which must occur within and between cells. He looks into what genetics is and isn’t capable of, what it seems to control, the genes for 20,000 some different proteins included within our DNA, while leaving open to question the instructions and detailed directions, how the growth and development of an organism is actually determined.
The reader will benefit from having some basic understanding of chemistry to fully grasp what he writes here, but this is an excellent starting point. At 143 pages this book shouldn’t scare off the reader. This is a window into life and should peek the readers interest as Nurse reveals what he still finds so fascinating about life and this world.
Al-Khalili, Jim and Johnjoe McFadden, “Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology”, Broadway Books, 2016. In the world of science, quantum biology is a toddler. Quantum mechanics itself only began a hundred plus years ago and quickly began redefining the way that physicists look at the world. Today most branches of science are transforming themselves, aligning themselves with this new reality of physics. This may be impacting none of the sciences more than it is biology and the life sciences. What was once limited to the quantum world of elementary particles so much smaller than we can see even with technology’s assistance, today we are finding quantum actions behind even the most simple processes up to and including the energy and origins of life. Mass and energy lie at the heart of everything and life is a very particular case of highly complex ordering of that mass and energy, intricately linked in coherent relationships, borne out of seemingly random, chaotic, actions at a subatomic level. In these systems/organisms life has evolved effective patterns that ‘feed’ on themselves, self-regulating, self-maintaining, able to reproduce with great ‘fidelity’ to one’s parent organisms, energy dissipating structures, dynamic, balanced between stasis or death and a runaway consumption of one’s self,, a conflagration. Patterns built on more basic patterns, conformed into very particular resonant structures which are additive and transformative, never perfect, evolving towards greater complexity and capacity, structures that ‘live’ in relationship to one another in a supportive manner, dynamic, time limited and ‘stable’ in a self-reinforcing sense…existing in different states, simultaneously. Follow Al-Khalili and McFadden down part of a ‘proven’ path. Ball, Philip, “Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way It Does”, University of Chicago Press, 2016. This is a gorgeous book. It is the author’s intent to elicit the wonder and awe in his readers in this presentation of the beauty and patterns of the natural world. Ball has three other titles in which he pursues the topics of shape, flow and branching in nature, examining each in terms of the science and mathematics acting through them. This volume is more introductory and a vehicle to hook the reader and draw them in refuting any possibility that such beauty is merely random. There is a set of guiding rules which go to defining a world of possibility and probability. Pattern, Ball argues, is not narrowly deterministic, a hard repeat, nor is it the result of ‘intelligent design’, the god behind all things. Ball presents a world of recognizable pattern. Like nature in general, organisms are the product of a universe and its ‘recipes’ which permit an infinite variety of alternatives, instantly recognizable and accessible to us as pattern seeking beings. Details and a more exhaustive explanation are within Ball’s other volumes.
Ball, Philip, “Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics is Different”, University of Chicago Press, 2018. “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” Since Niels Bohr said this many years ago, quantum mechanics has only been getting more ‘shocking’. We now realize that it’s not really telling us that “weird” things happen out of sight, on the tiniest level, in the atomic world: rather, everything is quantum. But if quantum mechanics is correct, what seems obvious and right in our everyday world is built on foundations that don’t seem obvious or right at all—or even possible. An exhilarating tour of the contemporary quantum landscape, Beyond Weird is a book about what quantum physics really means—and what it doesn’t. Science writer Philip Ball offers an up-to-date, accessible account of the quest to come to grips with the most fundamental theories of physical reality, and to explain how its counterintuitive principles underpin the world we experience. Over the past decade it has become clear that quantum physics is less a theory about particles and waves, uncertainty and fuzziness, than a theory about information and knowledge—about what can be known, and how we can know it. Discoveries and experiments over the past few decades have called into question the meanings and limits of space and time, cause and effect, and, ultimately, of knowledge itself. The quantum world Ball shows us isn’t a different world. It is our world, and if anything deserves to be called “weird,” it’s us.
Citro, Massimo, “The Basic Code of the Universe: The Science of the Invisible in Physics, Medicine, and Spirituality”, Park Street Press, 2011. Citro is a medical doctor, with broad interests. I found his explanations of many quantum behaviors more accessible than those given by many physicists, perhaps due to my own background in horticulture and the life sciences. His book is more accessible to the laymen and does not demand extensive scientific research to explain phenomenon on the human body, though it would help. He relies on experimentation and observation and is less restricted when conventional theory falls short of an adequate explanation. He considers the efficacy of homeopathic therapies and looks into the ‘memory’ of water to ‘hold information’ that the body can read much as it might an electromagnetic signal I found this book to be very helpful and informative. Citro is still much attuned to a world of wonder and awe, a world that conventional theory tends to chase out, leaving as off limits ‘holes’ in our understanding.
Darwin, Charles, “On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition”, ed. David Quamman, Stirling Signature, 2011. This is on my list. It is Charles Darwin’s great book, as he wrote it, except festooned in this volume with lively filigree–historical prints, old photographs, graphic figures, cartoons from the time, portraits of Darwin and his colleagues, extracts from his letters and his Beagle journal, assorted other bells and whistles. Editor Quammna writes, “my conviction that On the Origin of Species is, like Shakespeare and Mozart and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a fundamental pillar of human culture, to which every literate person should be directly exposed. You can page through article after article about evolution, you can watch programs on the Discovery Channel until your eyelids melt, but you don’t really know what Charles Darwin thought about evolution until you’ve read what he wrote. If illustrations and other editorial sugaring help bring people to the text itself, I thought, so be it.
England, Jeremy. Jeremy England is right in the middle of all of this constructing mathematical models of organic, living, dissipative systems at MIT. He has published several technical papers on the topic, while others have written them up in more understandable lay terms. Keep your eye on him and look for the work of others as well on complexity and dissipative systems and structures. See England, for a lay article describing his work.
Gleick, James, “Chaos: Making A New Science”, Penguin,1987. I read this shortly after it came out. It is very accessible. It was an early and concise look into the new science of ‘chaos theory’ whereby science began to study order and the formation of pattern where previously all seemed erratic, chaotic and without pattern. Our modern understanding is that order arises naturally out of ‘chaos’, or at least what we commonly perceive as chaos.
Greene, Brian, “The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory”, Vintage, 2000. This is the widely acclaimed book upon which the PBS series is based. It is an excellent introduction to quantum theory and its applications in astronomy and cosmology, the story of the universe. Quantum physics operates everywhere in everything and is essential to understanding chemistry and the dynamic world within which life exists. It is at this most basic level at which the energies that drive all things are derived.
Greene, Brian, “Until the End of Time: Mind. Matter and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe”, Alfred Knopf, 2020. One can always delve deeper into a topic and explore its branches beyond where one ever thought they’d go.
Ho, Mae-Wan, “The Living Rainbow H2O”, World Scientific Press, 2012. This work focuses on the physics and chemistry of water and its possible roles in organisms. This was my first ‘dive’ into the reformed ‘science’ of water. From this I went on to Pollack’s work.
Ho, Mae-Wan, “The Rainbow and the Worm”, 3rd ed., World Scientific Press, 2008. I read Ho’s first edition of this title in the ’90’s, my introduction to quantum biology…there was nothing else quite like it in the mid ’90’s. This is the 3rd expanded edition which spends much time looking into the role of water and first introduced me to Prigogine’s work.
Kauffman, Stuart, “At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity”, Oxford University Press, 1995. Kauffman is widely recognized for his work on self-organization and complexity building. He and others have done important work on the modeling of natural and human systems, including technology, and how they share a process of evolution. Evolutionary processes are probabilistic not deterministic. Their models give us a predictive power and suggest that nature is evolving toward an undetermined state, not a particular outcome. This is supported by nature’s adaptive power, evolving in response to changing conditions.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants”, Milkweed Editions 2015. Author, Kimmerer, is a native American and professor of ecology at SUNY with a PhD in plant ecology. This may seem an odd inclusion, but in Kimmerer’s discussion of gratitude, of inclusion and connection, of the pathway we share with all of life, I see something we as a society have long denied to the detriment of all things, including ourselves. Were we to have followed this more inclusive and gracious view of the world and its organisms, we would not have made many of our mistakes and would be open to the ideas I discuss in these posts. It is not because of some native-American lack of intellectual sophistication that they can look at the world as they do, it is our own philosophical rejection of a shared journey that has separated us from life, that does us and the world damage. Many native people’s traditionally erected no barriers between themselves and the rest of the world while modern western society has and continuously places itself in an unsupportable, superior, position. As science continues to evolve its understanding of nature and life, it is tending to resonate more with these more inclusive indigenous beliefs, while because of our own, unsupported as they are, we are pushing back, against nature, with increasing energy, even violence. We still cling to a world view that sees ‘man’ as superior, the pinnacle of life and evolution.
Lane, Nick, “The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution and the Origins of Complex Life”, W.W. Norton, 2014. This book examines life from an energy perspective, looking closely at the energy producing mitochondria and how organisms could have possibly evolved from earlier forms. All organisms require energy to grow, sustain and reproduce themselves. It considers many of the questions of how life may have begun and progressively developed from simpler to more complex forms. He attempts to lay out a ‘path’ through known organisms to illustrate it, while noting the ‘holes’, the still inexplicable gaps in the story. This book examines the problem from the organism’s perspective, not from the broader physical capacities of nature. It notes particular problem areas in the early evolution of the cell, what preceded DNA, how was life able to reproduce itself with fidelity to its parent’s form prior to this. It worries over those many instances in which evolution seemed to take a leap, the classic ‘chicken or egg’ questions.
Laszlo, Ervin, “Science and the Akashic Field”, Inner Traditions, 2004. Laszlo, once a concert pianist, has become over his life, a giant in the field of systems theory, a master of merging fields of science, themselves created by much more narrowly focused experts. This has been an emerging trend over the last four and five decades as the need for a wholistic understanding arose after a couple centuries of specialization. Always controversial, Laszlo is never afraid to tackle big ideas and with others has begun to reconcile physics, with philosophy and spirituality. Akashic fields are an ancient concept that is beginning to find a home in the esoteric world of quantum field theories. For me, Laszlo’s work meshes well with that of Sheldrake and Ho. I also find it, in concept to be consistent with Kauffman and Schrodinger, while most of the others listed here could still have their work nested comfortably under the umbrella of his larger idea. Greene and Ball will almost surely bridle at the suggestion. There are many competing quantum theories whose popularity and acceptance wax and wane. Many physicists argue, understandably for their own or that which most strongly supports their own work.
Lefever, Rene, “The rehabilitation of irreversible processes and dissipative structures’ 50th anniversary”, Albert Goldbeter, “Dissipative structures in biological systems: bistability, oscillations, spatial patterns and waves”; The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, vol. 376, issue 2124, 2018. This issue is themed and titled, ‘Dissipative structures in matter out of equilibrium: from chemistry, photonics and biology (part 1)’ The first piece is introductory and reviews the life work of Ilya Prigogine. This entire collection of nine scientific articles published in the Royal Society’s journal discuss ‘dissipative structures’ both physical and biological. The seven I haven’t noted here require more familiarity with the science and jargon, are very technical and math heavy. I’ve read the two listed here from the volume.
Margulis, Lynn, “Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution”, University of California Press, 1997. Margulis, has always been controversial, maybe due more to her personality than her ideas, not to mention being an outspoken woman in a very man’s world. She is credited with the idea of endosymbiosis in the evolution of the modern eukaryotic cell, which is the basic building block of all higher organisms. According to Margulis, and supported by many others today, eukaryotic cells, through endosymbiosis, evolved through a series of symbiotic partnerships involving several different kinds of simpler, bacterial or prokaryotic cells. The smaller partners invaded larger host cells and eventually evolved into three different kinds of organelles: mitochondria, the energy producing organelles found in relatively large numbers in every eukaryote cell; chloroplasts, responsible for photosynthesis within plant cells; and flagella, the structures, along with cilia which provide the motile force of animal cells. The last of these are less accepted. Mitochondria, to this day, still retain some of their original DNA within themselves (See Nick Lane’s book above.) These organelles did not evolve from the simpler cell’s DNA, but instead resulted from particular ‘infections’, a processes now grouped with others as a form of ‘horizontal gene transfer’ a transfer of genetic material between two individuals of different species, a non-sexual process. This is a central element in our understanding of the evolution of cellular life.
Pollack, Gerald, “Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life”, Ebner and Sons, 2001. This is an earlier presentation of Pollack’s theories and studies of the water molecule within organisms and gels. Pollack, a professor of bioengineering, at the University of Washington, takes a close look at the assumptions mainstream science has carried along its way and the ‘problems’ this has created to our understanding. These problems he has taken as jumping off points looking for more coherent and explanative answers. This is a fascinating read as both of his books provide the reader with a much deeper understanding of water and its role in the world around us. It’s an eye opener.
Pollack, Gerald, “The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor”, Ebner and Sons, 2013. This is essential to anyone following the life sciences. Pollack operates a lab at the University of Washington dedicated to the science of water and its essential role in all living organisms. Water has long been taken as neutral, a mere ‘blank’ carrier. Pollack goes into depth here and offers many insights into its ‘behavior’ when in relationship with proteins, its capacity for flow and charge and what this means for an organism, offering insights into topics such as the inexplicable movement of water and nutrients, in both directions, simultaneously, in a plant’s phloem tissue, on demand as needed, and a tree’s capacity to draw water 1, 2, 3 hundred feet and higher into its upper canopy. He argues convincingly, and with experimental support, that water, under the proper conditions, such as those when in relationship with proteins and gels, shifts into a fourth phase, changing its structure and acquiring unique capacities which go to active support of organisms.There are strong tie ins here with Mae Wan Ho’s work as well as Ilya Prigogine’s.
Prigogine, Ilya. “The Rehabilitation of Irreversible Processes and Dissipative Structures’ 50th anniversary”, an article on the work of Prigogine upon whose ideas upon which much of this is built. This is an overview of the man’s work which necessarily gets fairly technical without getting into the math. “The End of Certainty”, First Free Press, 1997, is one of his more accessible books. It would be best to read some of the other authors here to have some kind of base knowledge of quantum, linear and the physics of unstable systems, but at some point you’ll have to just dive in.
Nicolis, G. and Ilya Prigogine, “Exploring Complexity: An Introduction”, 1989. If you’re patient and want to dig into Prigogine more, read this, a book he coauthored with Gregoire Nicolis. Don’t let the esoteric equations presented scare you, they can be skimmed over, spend your time on the discussion and important points that explain them. I think Nicolis, a professor of theoretical physical chemistry and physics, helped contribute to this book’s capacity to explain the topic to the non-scientist. The book does invest much of itself in explaining many of the more essential chemistry and physics concepts necessary to understand the processes contributing to the development of complexity as well as the processes occurring continuously within living organisms, far out of equilibrium, dissipative structures. Take your time and read some of the other books here first.
Quamman, David, “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin”, W.W. Norton, 2006. This is an insightful essay on who this man Darwin was. It is also an interesting look into the times of the man that would redefine so much of science today, giving us some foundation for questioning those who have since used some of Darwin’s ideas for their own purposes.
Quamman, David, “The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life”, Simon and Schuster, 2018. Quamman presents the idea that evolution is not ‘linear’, that it does not always follow the commonly used bifurcating and branching structure of a ‘tree’, new species always forming from ‘old’, that there can be a sharing of genetic material that connects these lines in places, that we should think of it as a more web like structure, that there can be a sharing of genetic material across these lines, that new species aren’t always a ‘simple’ branching from what came before. He also spends much space looking into the function ribosomes and ribosomal DNA, which are responsible for the production of every cell’s DNA. Here he gets into the competing theories and personalities of some of the researchers themselves illustrating the complexity and beauty of the any living organism.
Rovelli, Carlo, “Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution”, Riverhead Books, 2021. Yes, another Rovelli book. Rovelli is a gifted communicator when it comes to ‘translating’ the abstract and obscure concepts of quantum physics for the interested layperson, he is also brilliant and widely read himself, which in his case, enables him in his task as a communicator. Many scientists spend most of their lives immersed in the narrow, focused world of their work…Rovelli remains engaged, at the same time, in the larger world in which you and I live. These are all ‘short’ in pages books. If you have only the time to read one, read this one. If you have more, read his “Seven Brief Lessons” book first.
The Helgoland of the title, refers to a little island in the North Sea where a young Werner Heisenberg isolated himself to think of the questions that were vexing him, his peers and the scientist guiding him along, Niels Bohr. There he came up with the general outlines of what would become central to the development of quantum physics. Rovelli here interprets that as the idea that we, all of us need to change the way that we think about the world from that of one comprised of isolated and independent ‘objects’, with ‘fixed’, inherent properties which can be understood when broken into their parts, and begin thinking instead of it as an incredibly complex and interactive universe of ongoing ‘events’. Heisenberg and his contemporaries begin to define the ‘world’ which at the subatomic world is exactly that, a world in which the stuff of matter, which comprises the substance of everything, exists in a never ending dynamic state, continuously forming and, in physicists terms, annihilating itself, at a rate fantastically beyond our abilities to perceive it. As even more stable matter such as that of common metals and rock accrete into large enough masses for us to perceive, it is these larger complex forms which we as other larger, complex forms ourselves, can interact with…all while the frenetic action and transformations occur ‘beneath’ our awareness. What we can interact with becomes then ‘real’. That which we can’t or don’t, remains ‘unreal’. In a sense what we are capable of sensing is the mass ‘behavior’ of the multitude of actions. We experience what appears to be the ‘stable’ center of massive, ongoing and ‘chaotic’ flux. The world, at this finer ‘grain’ is one of uncertainty, of probability. As the actions accumulate the vast majority of these ‘interactions’ are consistent with the patterns of a particular system. Every ‘object’ and species is ‘generated’ by the interactions that ‘dominate’ its particular system. These interactions include those between other systems. We, humans, tend to separate these interacting systems into discrete objects, which they are not. We, all things, are probabilistic events. In a sense, our capacity to perceive is set by what physicist might refer to as ‘granularity’. We exist at a large enough scale, living at the ‘speed’ that we do, that very much smaller and faster, as well as that very much larger and slower, passes beyond our ability to perceive it…but it does and all of this comes with consequence.
In quantum physics, those of us who have dabbled in it, generally remember the idea that subatomic particles can exist in multiple states at the same time. They can behave as both particle and wave…and that only when we ‘measure’ them, when those objects are ‘observed’, do they become one or the other. This idea of the observer to me was always confusing. It seemed to state that nothing existed unless some human was there to ‘measure’ or observe it and that simply cannot be true. As the science has moved ahead this idea of the ‘observer’ has broadened into this idea of events and interactions. The interactions themselves are the ‘measurements’. Today it is more widely understood that everything, literally, exists in its countless, never ending interactions. Those are what are doing the ‘measuring’, in every instant, an assessment, a becoming and an ending. This speaks volumes when we examine our own lives and attempt to define life and just what is an organism. Here is where the idea of dissipative, non-equilibrium thermodynamic systems, that others like Prigogine, developed, really comes into being, the idea that organisms, all of them, are these ongoing systems, or in Rovelli’s words, events, each conducting a continuous flow of matter and energy, of nutrients. At every level, an organism is metabolizing in that instant before passing it on, out of its system…The result of all of this are the dynamic, limited and amazing organisms which surround and support us. We are ourselves each a functioning, dynamic system existing only from this moment to the next…in relationship with all of the systems around us.
Rovelli, Carlo, “The Order of Time”, Riverhead Books, 2018. Another one of Rovelli’s compact little treasures. This one goes to the heart of our concept of time with its consequent implications for existence. The larger the mass the more it shapes space/time around it, ‘bending’ gravity and causing time to run slower. Time, like energy and mass are not fixed entities. This book demands that we look at several of our cornerstone assumptions upon which we build our lives and our understanding of it. Rovelli is not shy here as he shakes our understanding of the world and I found myself often having to pause before I could even get through a paragraph to wonder at what I just read. These base assumptions of the universe, we all unquestioningly hold, shape every aspect of the world we see and so, go to determining how we interpret it. Nothing is as we have learned. These are ‘conventions’, agreements and understandings we never knew at any point we had agreed to….and they effect everything. While not directly pertinent to the topic here, his single idea that we must begin to see and understand the world as events, not fixed things, as dynamic, not static, can help us to a new understanding of this world and the life in it. Nothing is by itself. Everything is an ongoing result of energies interacting with one another, coming in and out of existence, while our perceptions, in an attempt to understand this, driven by a survival need, necessarily ‘blur’ them together as what passes for real.
Rovelli, Carlo, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, Riverhead Books, 2016. If you are relatively unfamiliar with the ideas included within quantum mechanics, physics, this is an excellent place to begin. It is a good, concise, review for those whose grasp of the topic is ‘unsure’, which is going to be most of us. Rovelli’s little book does exactly what its title promises. When first published in Italy, Rovelli, who is a theoretical physicist, his specialty being loop quantum gravity, which blends theories of gravity with quantum mechanics, this book was a top seller. Check out this New York Times review and then pick this up from the library. There are many introductory books written for the layman out there, find one, or two, with which you connect. It is essential that you have a basic understanding of this topic, that the world we live in and the world of modern physics are the same. Theirs is not a separate world that exists only in a particle accelerator or the distant reaches of the universe. It is our perception that the world is fixed, that it is solid and that we each know and perceive it in the same way, that is erroneous. Much like our social and political worlds, the volatile, even ‘chaotic’, nature of matter and the universe, lies beyond our abilities to directly perceive it and the world that we ‘know’ is a blending of the underlying processes that actually make it up. If you are familiar with the term ‘maya’ in Buddhism, this gets you somewhat closer. Maya refers to the world we might commonly agree upon, the veil or mirage, we generally accept as real, a world in which perception and a kind of social agreement, tends to bias us toward as humans, a somewhat necessary agreement, that we generally accept to live in this world, so that we can share, communicate with one another, and survive. Behind this is a deeper, more complex reality, that one must grasp if one is to truly understand. Hopefully, this isn’t too confusing and not being a Buddhist or a quantum physicist, I haven’t offended too many, nor messed up the message too much.
Schrodinger, Erwin, “What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell”, 1944. Yes, the same man responsible for the paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat. No discussion of this topic can be complete without a reference to this book which is based on a series of public lectures he gave in 1943 wartime Dublin, Ireland. From genetics to quantum biology, this is the man and book that really started it, well before there were names for these things. Schrodinger preceded Watson and Crick who are credited with the discovery of DNA. He describes organisms that possess a structure he termed ‘Aperiodic Crystals’, structures that would exist at a molecular level, a structure that could faithfully be duplicated while also directing the development of the individual organism. Such a structure would be necessary to provide a species with the ability for individuals to remain true to their parents and lineage. Schrodinger, and later Prigogine, are two of the most cited physicists in this new approach to the study of life.
Sheldrake, Melvin, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”, Random House, 2020. This book is a revelation! I have spent most of my life outside amongst, growing, observing or studying plants and yet, every page here has caused me to take at least a moment to reconsider the life I’ve been so involved with. Everything here underscores what I’ve read and learned elsewhere, sometimes casting it in an entirely different ‘light’. While we learn to think of organisms as discrete individuals, fungi, a class of organism separate from the bacteria, plants, animals, even viruses which I’ve been examining, are impossible to consider on their own without looking into their vital relationships with the other forms of life. While all organisms depend in many ways, great and small, upon other organisms for their support and sustenance, fungi are nearly impossible to imagine separately, their ‘bodies’ being literally intertwined in and around those of others.
Relatively early in the book, Sheldrake describes the difference between fungi and animals in this way, animals put food into their own bodies, fungi put their bodies in their food, digesting what they require by secreting acids and then drawing the broken down nutrients back into their myclellial bodies and transporting them to where needed.
Fungi are identifiable as genetic individuals. A single individual can be confined to a solitary dust particle or cover many square miles below the land’s surface, depending on species. They live the vast majority of their lives ‘below’ our sight, in the soil or within other organisms, observable by us only with technology and inquiring minds… but for their spore producing bodies, that may burst flower-like, as mushrooms, upon the scene and disappear just as rapidly. Their bodies consist of hyphae, single celled strands of always extending growth, knitted into vast complex networks, seemingly so unlike other life forms, endlessly searching out ‘food’, appropriate fungi to ‘mate’ with and other plants and animals compatible with themselves with which they can ‘trade’ nutrients, carbon in the forms of sugars in return for phosphorous and other elemental nutrients of which they have become highly effective miners.
Sheldrake takes considerable space to define these relationships, our current knowledge of and the studies which are ongoing into the lives of fungi and what they do for us, as well as their essential roles in the ongoing experiment of life on Earth. Fungi, on earth many millions of years before either plants or animals, enable this life. They are consummate ‘social’ beings. The word, ‘entangled’, of the title refers originally to this ‘social’ aspect of life, the complex of relationships that make life not only possible, but was essential into bringing it into being. There is a lot of science here, amply footnoted and referenced in the back. This is a book that can be read through once and be valuable or one that could be studied following its leads around the earth. Sheldrake speculates, not without reason and support, that plants themselves evolved from this relationship, a joining of algae and fungi species, each contributing what it does best, each affecting the other over millions of years, algae contributing its capacity for photosynthesis, fungi its abilities to search out and find particular nutrients necessary for cell growth, developing its capacity to search across dry land and dissolve minerals from rock and soil and provide structural support.
These early ‘plants’, cooperative symbiotic systems, were much like the Lichen of today in that they were cooperative symbionts, the individuals of which have a tendency to join with said others. These relationships served the needs of each and over millions of years, ‘plants’ gradually became more fixed genetically, the ‘plant’ itself evolving with its own particular structures, continuously, each successful change providing it with the competitive advantages recognized through the process of natural selection. Sheldrake argues that fungi served an early role as proto-roots for early plants, separate, cooperative, organisms. Over enough time plants became more as they are, multi-celled structures with differentiated tissues and complex structures, still in relationship with both mycorrhizal, exterior ‘fungal roots’, as well as arbuscular, inside their tissues, fungi, all contributing to the now more complex organism we commonly recognize as an ‘individual’ of a species.
Another major element in this book is looking into how fungi conduct these complex processes and exchanges. A fungal ‘intelligence’ is at work, making constant ‘decisions’, which direction each hyphae should grow, there is a ‘random’ exploratory state, which shifts depending on the quality and quantity of area nutrients the overall mycelial structure comes into contact with, creating shifts, earlier, paths of hyphae, unproductive, become abandoned. The same goes for the process of fungal ‘mating’ and which ‘individual’ will only contribute genetic material while the other develops the spore producing body. Fungi are not male or female, but they are + or -, requiring an appropriate partner, but their sex is fluid.
Fungi form complex relationships within the soil they occupy, or within the host’s body, producing a vast array of chemicals which they use to communicate, defend themselves and attract ‘partners’, as well as in communicating with other organisms. Their mycelium form complex networks which many researchers describe as ‘brain-like’ in that their structure resembles the complex pattern of animals brains, though there is no such recognizable organ itself, the network of mycelium being analog. Organic networks like these have been demonstrated to perform as ‘decision gates’ much as they do in the neural networks those studying artificial intelligence do. How fungi make their decisions, which way to grow, which fungi to mate with, with which other organism will they trade and how do they establish a ‘price’ or exchange value, a value which is not fixed, is a mystery. Other researchers, like forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard, expands this concept of a ‘ brain-like’ nerve system to what is sometimes being referred to as the ‘Wood Wide Web’, a system of fungal mycelium and roots that fill every cubic centimeter of soil with which connected members conduct an elaborate system of trade between individuals and species, a complex network, Simard and others argue, is largely responsible for the health of a forest, a network that senses and responds to the conditions within the organisms themselves as well as the soil and the ambient conditions within which all of this exists.
Sheldrake, and others, would argue that such networks affect, not just the health of individual members, but may even determine a given biotic community’s conditions and quality of life, its state of health. These relationships they argue, can be viewed as analogous to a climate system in terms of its nutrient cycling and the members of its community. Like the weather these countless organisms are networked in such a way that they behave in negative and positive feedback loops, switches, that maintain a soil in a dynamic state, adjusting itself in response to the many factors in play from moment to moment, delivering nutrients from areas of plenty to those of need. Change any of the species, plant, animal or fungi and the balance of the soil community and nutrient balance will change. Interestingly this balance has been found to be thrown grossly out of balance by modern chemical agriculture, typical cultural practices and even the use of lab produced fungal strains that can ‘tilt’ the balance away from a more healthy dynamic. Each species of mycorrhizal fungi brings something different to the biotic community and the dominance of one over another can undermine the balance of a given plant community…all is linked.
Fungi accomplish this physically in a variety of ways transporting nutrients by various means through its network, sometimes even in opposing directions. While it is not ‘proven’ these mycelia networks are thought to control this not just by gradients in which nutrients flow from high to low areas of concentration, but because the networks are capable of signaling and determining the flow of nutrients, hormones and enzyme catalysts they produce. Living mycelial networks produce coordinated electrical waves which are thought to coordinate the larger organism’s behavior and perhaps even signal nearby others of a pending ‘attack’ or simply enable it to read the distress signals of a neighbor under attack and thus chemically prepare its own defenses.
Sheldrake’s ideas here are supported by a growing number of researchers today. They are also supported in often surprising ways by researchers in other fields ranging from ecologists to those studying the evolution of flora, to micro-biologist and bio-chemists, and those on the cutting edge of quantum physics to those creating the expanding field of quantum biology. The time would seem ripe for an era of integration after several hundred years of reductionist study. We are perched dangerously on life’s edge today and our single minded approach, an assault really, on nature is beginning to cost us dearly and if we don’t quickly start revising our view of the world, we might damage it so severely that we too as ‘relational’ creatures will find it increasingly difficult to simply survive in a deteriorated world, so many of the relationships already broken or lost.
Sheldrake, Rupert, “Morphic Resonance: The Nature of Formative Causation”, 4th ed., Park Street Press, 2009. This may seem a little off topic, and Sheldrake’s ideas are not accepted by mainstream science, but I find them fascinating. (Rupert is Melvin’s father!) He writes of ‘resonance’, of individuals in complex, harmonious relationships with established patterns. He finds the science and ideas of geneticists inadequate, capable of perhaps duplicating the intricate pieces of an organism, but seriously short of explaining an organism as a whole, its coherence as an individual as well as its intricate functioning. Sheldrake poses serious questions, questions of whether DNA alone can be the lone orchestrator of an organism, arguing strongly for other ‘epigenetic’, beyond genetics, contributors to the form and function of organisms. He suggests that there is a universal ‘memory’, that pattern, once produced, is added to a ‘library’ of possibilities. Many of his peers dismiss his theory out of hand, leaving only questions.
Sheldrake, Rupert, “The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature“, 2nd edition, icon Books, 2011. Sheldrake puts his ideas into context with this volume as he sets the stage looking into the historical philosophical, scientific and religious views of life and how they have changed over time. Our views are shaped, biased, limited by our own beliefs which operate beneath our conscious thought, causing us to alternately consider and reject particular ideas. Thinking has ‘evolved’ so that when we look back at innovators like Darwin, and the philosophical/religious thought of his time, we interpret his period differently than they would have then. History is not static…it is subject to interpretation. His ideas of evolution were based in his own times and the conflicts that we perceive today, were not the same. There was an ‘understanding’ then that Man is evolving, becoming more ‘perfect’, following God’s plan. Our own evolution as a species was not so much the issue, the issue was the other species and the links shared between us and them. We were the actors capable of perfecting this world and it was thought at the time that science and technology was the way to do this to attain God’s ultimate plan. Today’s split between God and science is a more recent development. Sheldrake lays out our long association with the idea of a mechanistic world, everything ‘mechanical’, filling a fixed role; the ideas of Plato in which form is regulated by an otherly transcendent shaping power, fixed and unevolving; and those of Aristotle who saw the form of things as inherent to each individual, everything ‘alive’ with its own ‘soul’ which guided its form and life. These three have played back and forth, the mechanistic and Platonic dominating much of modern human history, ideas which fit neatly with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, changes spontaneously generated and natural selection working its selective magic. Here is where Sheldrake begins his argument that the process is neither mechanistic nor blind, that there is an organizing power inherent in nature making life more probable, moving evolution in an ongoing process toward complexity, diversity and stability. He traces this through thinkers like Whitehead and Weismann and others to ‘habits’ of form and function and his own refined definition of morphic resonance and his hypothesis of formative causation. ‘Morphogenetic fields’, not unlike gravitational fields, influence all of the individuals of a species over the course of their development and lives. Morphogenetic fields are ‘probability structures’, in which the influence of the common past types combine to increase the probability that such types will occur again. Form and genetics serve as kinds of identifiers ‘matching’ individuals to respective fields. Nature, he argues, is evolving, including the forces and fields which govern it, layers of complexity transforming the way that it ‘works’, its creative force driving this process…the reductive, dog eat dog, idea of the survival of the fittest has never been true. Sheldrake and others see a kind of ‘dialectical dance’ over time between genetics, environment and the organism itself, each effected by and effecting the others. They replace the long held mechanistic, Platonic and Aristotelian world views with a modern, holistic philosophy of the organism…a systems approach, in which all of nature is alive! in such a world change is ‘progressive’ not random or meaningless. All that is alive can be looked at as nested systems within larger systems. The universe is not degrading, not winding down, it has a tendency toward order…that somethings don’t, proves to be the exception rather than the rule and its degradation stands out.
Simard, Suzanne, “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest”, Knopf 2021. This book is all about relationship and the vital roles they play in the lives of individuals, their wider communities and, by extension, within the processes of evolution. Dr. Simard is a forest ecologist who has built her career studying the connections between trees, their sites and the mycorrhizal fungi that connect them. She spends time discussing her family, which worked in the logging industry of old, her love of the forest, her respect and relationship with the indigenous people’s who still revere it and her life as a mom. Over her years of studying the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest she has discovered these connections often measuring the precise levels and timing of the support between and among species. Water, carbohydrates, nutrients, chemical signals in the form of proteins are shared between and across species lines, levels effected by the relatedness of individuals with networks built around ‘mother’ trees, the degree of sharing varying with genetic ‘distance’. She takes time to discuss her larger experiments in terms of what was involved, their structure and the development of her hypotheses. She also discusses the reluctance of an industry and science that is wedded to the assumptions and ‘old’ science which supported clear cutting, a notion of releasing the productive trees from the competing weedy species, which includes everything other than the marketable timber. She, and her lab at the University of British Columbia, have been defining the role of healthy forest communities in regenerating themselves in response to calamity, be they natural or the massive disturbance of clear-cut logging. They are also examining the role of the forest community in adaptation as climate change advances, the potential benefits of relationships inherent to a forest and nested in its history, adding measurable resilience to its ability to respond and adapt. Most controversial are her claims of mother trees, familial response and what some have termed the ‘wood wide web’, the system of underground rooting and mycorrhizal networks that mimic the nervous networks of animals and its function in interplant ‘communications’, memory and response…her claims of an effective intelligence built up from forest community members.
Van Whye, John, “Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin”, World Scientific 2013. I found this to be a very informative and readable book on Wallace’s life work, particularly on his years in the Malay. It focuses on those 8 years of his life, the hardships he endured, his insights and discoveries. It also sheds light on his relationship with the older and more renowned Darwin. Others have focused on Wallace’s inferior historical position and its unfairness, I found this to be a fair look at the man’s contributions. By any analysis the man’s dedication and brilliance can’t be denied. He revered Darwin who in many ways was an inspiration for him. In letters to him, Wallace offered his ideas on evolution before Darwin published or even formally presented his work to the Royal Society. Wallace’s ideas were much less well formed at that time as he had much less time to consider them. Wallace’s letters, along with Darwin’s friends, spurred Darwin on to formally present them, something he did simultaneously with Wallace’s paper at a meeting of the Linnean Society. This telling of their ‘story’, goes to the idea that scientific thought and knowledge, unfolds in time almost as if society is ripening, readying itself for the next break through, the same or very similar insights coming to the fore simultaneously exhibited through the works and writings of different people.
Wallace, Alfred Russel, “The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-utan, and the Bird of Paradise; a Narrative of Travel with Studies of Man and Nature”, MacMillan/Harper Brothers, 1869. This is also on my list, the man’s experiences in his own words. Van Whye’s book above is a great jumping off point, but you should really read this to grasp what this man did at a time and place that no one had before. Check out Quamman’s comments on Wallace’s book. (And, yes, Russel, is spelled with a single ‘l’.)
Willis, Kathy and Jennifer McElwain, “The Evolution of Plants”, Oxford University Press, 2014. This is a very good college level introduction to plant evolution, very accessible. Much of what has been written elsewhere about evolution concerns itself primarily with that of animals. The way evolution has played out in the plant world is different. Plants come first and animal life is forever dependent upon it. Cyanobacteria, with their capacity for photosynthesis, and much later plants, were largely responsible for providing gaseous oxygen to our atmosphere, shifting the development of life from primarily anerobic conditions to aerobic…oxygen was once ‘toxic’ to the organisms that populated the Earth life changing composition of our atmosphere. Beginning also with this Great Oxygenation Event, nearly half of the minerals now on Earth began to form, dependent as they are on the presence of oxygen and water. Over the course of the several major extinction events, plants were much less effected, than were animals with their much more rapid metabolisms of animals. Animals were thus far more susceptible to changes that plants would survive. Simply put, animals are more fragile than plants and are less capable of maintaining themselves over periods which are not supportive of them…they suffocate, dehydrate and starve over periods which established plants and their seeds endure. The cold periods of our Ice Age cycles, with the slow, inexorable advance of the polar ice sheets with Earth’s dropping average temperatures toward the equator, ‘drove’ plants, toward the equator over the course of generations, mixing them with those able to stay in place, on an oddly expanding land mass as ocean levels dropped. As the cold increased and ice sheets extended, plant species were often reduced to relatively small pockets. In those cases where species faced the barrier of east-west mountain ranges, their seed unable to leap the barrier or be assisted in doing so by animal species, plants die out. Then several thousand years later, the ice sheet began to shrink as Earth’s average temperature began to slowly rise, allowing plant ‘survivors’ to begin their ‘return’, sometimes stranding populations, in isolated refugia atop mountains and ridges, the lowlands warming beyond their capacity to survive. Over these repeated cycles many survivors altered their genetics and forms evolving into new species. This book describes the introduction and development of new plant structures, those of stems and leaves, how they shifted reproductively from spores to seeds, from single celled plants to two dimensional colonies which clung tightly to rocks, the first ‘tree-like’ plants which evolved well before the first true trees with woody stems and separate leaf tissues. Many of these ancient structures still exist in scattered species, each with DNA far different than their progenitors possessed, their ‘patterns’ repeating in more modern species. This is a straight forward presentation of evolution across Earth’s timeline. It doesn’t attempt to explain all of the how’s and why’s. It lays out an evolving timeline for plant life spending considerable space defining the environmental conditions and major changes throughout the process, as well as the more widely accepted explanations for the evolving conditions during the Earth’s larger geological periods. This book provides a very good framework on which the reader can begin his/her own explorations beyond.
Wohlleben, Peter, “The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World”, trans. Jane Billinghurst. Foreword by Tim Flannery. Greystone Books, 2016. I reference this book toward the end of part 3 of this series. Wohlleben, a German forester, has been attacked by many professional foresters and scientist for his book. I think it is an important book for the general audience to read…we can’t just restrict ourselves to the generally accepted ‘gospels’, where does that leave us? stuck in the same patterns, the good, the simply habitual and the destructive. Wohlleben’s book is immediately accessible because of his approach, drawing comparisons with human behavior, attempting to restore and build relationships between us and the green world which our society and science have driven into the corners. Wohlleben is a skilled and insightful observer and yes, plants are not people, but his book goes far in raising public interest in the intricacy and complexity of the functions of, and relationships between, plants. We do share our corresponding flow of energies within and between us. Organisms are all self-catalyzing and self-regulating. To do this all organisms unicellular, plants as well as ourselves must possess an internal coherence, an awareness, if you will of their immediate state in order to make the constant adjustments required of any organism. For this I’ll grant Wohlleben latitude in his approach. His audience is after all the lay public, not his professional and scientific peers.