Category Archives: Book review

“Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”: A Review

Sheldrake, Melvin, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”, Random House, 2020.

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 mycelial bodies and transporting them to where needed. Continue reading

“The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners and Other Ecological Anachronisms” – A Review and Thoughts on this Life

“The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners and Other Ecological Anachronisms”, Connie Barlow, Basic Books, 2000.

The titular ghosts here are the long extinct mega-fauna species that once roamed the continents for millions of years shaping the plant species in question here and, in their interactions, shaped the landscapes themselves. Now absent their animal partners, these plants still retain the characteristic structures that evolved in their long dance together, the genetic inertia contained within their DNA. These plants remain today as anachronisms, seemingly misplaced curiosities with no existing, obvious, reason for ever being, mysteries of form and function, that only begin to make sense when we look far enough back.

I only recently came across this book while doing research into my continuing interest and focus on what exactly is ‘life’ and what is it that distinguishes living organisms from other matter. This book is a little outside of this topic, but not by much. Barlow here is concerned with the process of natural selection and how species have come to acquire and retain their physical and functional characteristics, how they’ve retained them long after the shaping forces have disappeared. While there is a somewhat random element in the process of evolution, organic forms follow patterns and particular patterns are ‘selected’ over time through the ‘working’ of shaping forces. Forms are supported or not,  Once acquired they remain disappearing with a particular species when it is no longer supported enough and goes extinct. This ‘opens’ a niche for possible other species to fill.  Each species is time limited. Each is a process or event that continues so long as it is adequately supported.  It in turn fills roles in the lives of other organisms, other species. Natural selection is not some process relegated to the past, but an active, ongoing, one, though we tend to fail to see it around us. We have a tendency to expand the ‘now’ and attribute to it a precedence and persistence that it doesn’t have and so we also fail to see our own role in the continuing ‘work’ of evolution. We all know something of the concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’, a process that suggests that today’s species are the ‘best’ fit given the conditions in the world today.  Barlow, and the scientists who support this idea, argue instead that today’s species are the best fit for the past as a result of thousands, even millions of years of evolution. Today is just a moment in time. Our imagining of it as something broader and more stable is a problem. Continue reading

On Life: An Annotated Reading List of Titles Exploring the Physics, Biology, Evolution, Natural Selection and the Generative Power of Far Out of Equilibrium Dissipative Structures (Organisms)

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. Continue reading

What Do We Do When the Whole World Feels Like its Falling to Pieces?

In this blog I focus on plants.  Any gardener, botanist or horticulturist knows that plants, all living organisms, live in an incredibly complex, interwoven network of systems, each affecting the others, the health of anyone, in large part determined by the health of the ‘whole’.  Life does not and cannot exist in a vacuum.  We humans are also very much living organisms and subject to the same kind of limits as any species.  What we build and produce, including those more abstract things like our social and economic systems upon which we are very much dependent, are subject to the same natural laws and limits, whether we recognize them or not.  Very much a part of this is how we value other life collectively.  Just because many may say other people and species are of less value, does not make this fact.  The laws and ways of ‘man’ must remain within, and consistent with, the laws of nature.  We are not at liberty to treat other life as expendable.  We owe a debt and responsibility to all life.  Life permits and supports us so it is incumbent upon us to do the same for it.  Such is the natural law of reciprocity. Continue reading

The Basic Code of the Universe: The Science of the Invisible in Physics, Medicine and Spirituality – A ‘Discussion of Ideas’

A1SRgFYkq3LThe Basic Code of the Universe: The Science of the Invisible in Physics, Medicine and Spirituality, is not an ‘easy’ read…such should be expected when a book challenges not just our understanding of the world, but even the accuracy of our perceptions of itI  This is leading edge thought in the sciences today coming at a time when the basic precepts of science are being called into question by the political and religious right. The last several decades have seen an accelerating rate of scientific advancement at the same time that the general public’s understanding of it is dropping ever further behind.  Today while advocates press to re-emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in public education, another segment has been working in opposition demanding a return of public education to the ‘3 R’s’, in keeping with the ‘fundamentals’ of Christian conservatism.  This vocal minority rails against our acceptance of a science that questions their ‘world view’ arguing that science’s ‘valueless’ methods poison our ways of thinking raising doubt, putting people in conflict with their basic beliefs and the dogma they espouse.  These people question science’s relevance and wish to look no further than the fundamentalist thought of their religion.  Such doubt and rejection should be raising red flags around the world as people, drawn to their own ‘righteous’ paths, find themselves increasingly in conflict with others on their own separate path. 

I, myself, have always been drawn in many directions, fascinated by one topic then another, but over time forming a rather comprehensive overall interest in the world…more wholistic.  I will never become ‘expert’ in one thing, finding life and our place in the universe endlessly a wonder!  So, I find myself drawn into such topics as evolution, quantum biology and the physics of life, fleshing it out with studies into the particularity of place, places like South Africa, Chile, the Canary Islands and our own Pacific Coast region of North America, with their particular geologies and living communities.  I find the ‘big questions’ the most interesting and will sometimes put considerable energy into trying to understand their possible ‘answers’.  I ‘intuit’ and combine, finding that our world has been so committed to the narrow and fractured views of our countless experts that our understanding of the world and our place in it has become ever more ‘confused’…so again, I am drawn to this and books like this. Continue reading