(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘identity

“Attend to mushrooms and all other things will answer up”*…

Travis Boyer: Crush Blue, 2020

The living– and conscious?– infrastructure of the biosphere…

Imagine that you are afloat on your back in the sea. You have some sense of its vast, unknowable depths—worlds of life are surely darting about beneath you. Now imagine lying in a field, or on the forest floor. The same applies, though we rarely think of it: the dirt beneath you, whether a mile or a foot deep, is teeming with more organisms than researchers can quantify. Their best guess is that there are as many as one billion microbes in a single teaspoon of soil. Plant roots plunge and swerve like superhighways with an infinite number of on-ramps. And everywhere there are probing fungi.

Fungi are classified as their own kingdom, separate from plants and animals. They are often microscopic and reside mostly out of sight—mainly underground—but as Merlin Sheldrake writes in Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, they support and sustain nearly all living systems. Fungi are nature’s premiere destroyers and creators, digesting the world’s dead and leaving behind new soil. When millions of hair-like fungal threads—called hyphae—coalesce, felting themselves into complex shapes, they emerge from the ground as mushrooms. A mushroom is to a fungus as a pear is to a pear tree: the organism’s fruiting body, with spores instead of seeds. Mushrooms disperse spores by elaborate means: some species generate puffs of air to send them aloft, while others eject them by means of tiny, specialized catapults so they accelerate ten thousand times faster than a space shuttle during launch.

But Sheldrake is most interested in fungi’s other wonders—specifically, how they challenge our understanding of nonhuman intelligence and stretch the notion of biological individuality. Fungi infiltrate the roots of almost every plant, determining so much about its life that researchers are now asking whether plants can be considered plants without them. They are similarly interwoven throughout the human body, busily performing functions necessary to our health and well-being or, depending on the fungi’s species and lifestyle, wreaking havoc. All of this prompts doubts about what we thought we knew to be the boundaries between one organism and another…

ungi themselves form large networks of hyphae strands in order to feed. These strands, when massed together, are called mycelium. The total length of mycelium threaded through the globe’s uppermost four inches of soil is believed to be enough to span half the width of our galaxy. Mycelium is constantly moving, probing its surroundings in every direction and coordinating its movements over long distances. When food is found—a nice chunk of rotting wood, for example—disparate parts of the mycelium redirect to coalesce around it, excrete enzymes that digest it externally, and then absorb it. As Sheldrake puts it, “The difference between animals and fungi is simple: Animals put food in their bodies, whereas fungi put their bodies in the food.”

Fungi are literally woven into the roots and bodies of nearly every plant grown in natural conditions. “A plant’s fungal partners,” Sheldrake writes, “can have a noticeable impact on its growth.” In one striking example, he describes an experiment in which strawberries grown with different fungal partners changed their sweetness and shape. Bumblebees seemed able to discern the difference and were more attracted to the flowers of strawberry plants grown with certain fungal species. Elsewhere he discusses an experiment in which researchers took fungi that inhabited the roots of a species of coastal grass that grew readily in saltwater and added it to a dry-land grass that could not tolerate the sea. Suddenly the dry-land grass did just fine in brine.

Much has been written lately about trees communicating and sharing resources among themselves; healthy trees have been documented moving resources toward trees that have fallen ill. This is often characterized as friendship or altruism between trees, but it is not at all clear whether trees pass information or nutrients intentionally. What is clear, though, is that the fungal networks entwined in every tree root make this communication possible. “Why might it benefit a fungus to pass a warning between the multiple plants that it lives with?” Sheldrake asks. The answer is survival. “If a fungus is connected to several plants and one is attacked by aphids, the fungus will suffer as well as the plant,” he writes. “It is the fungus that stands to benefit from keeping the healthy plant alive.”…

Fungi are genetically closer to animals than to plants, and similar enough to humans at the molecular level that we benefit from many of their biochemical innovations. In fact, many of our pharmaceuticals are borrowed innovations from fungi. Penicillin, discovered in 1928 by the Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming, is a compound produced by fungus for protection against bacterial infection. The anti-cancer drug Taxol was originally isolated from the fungi that live inside yew trees. More than half of all enzymes used in industry are generated by fungi, Sheldrake notes, and 15 percent of all vaccines are produced using yeast. We are, as he puts it, “borrowing a fungal solution and rehousing it within our own bodies.”..

We know that fungi maintain “countless channels of chemical communication with other organisms,” and that they are constantly processing diverse information about their environment. Some can recognize color, thanks to receptors sensitive to blue and red light, though it is not entirely clear what they do with that information. Some even have opsins, light-detecting proteins also found within the rods and cones of the animal eye. One fungus, Phycomyces blakesleeanus, has a sensitivity to light similar to that of a human eye and can “detect light at levels as low as that provided by a single star” to help it decide where to grow. It is also able to sense the presence of nearby objects and will bend away from them before ever making contact. Still other fungi recognize texture; according to Sheldrake, the bean rust fungus has been demonstrated to detect grooves in artificial surfaces “three times shallower than the gap between the laser tracks on a CD.”

Can fungi, then, be said to have a mind of their own? That is, as Sheldrake puts it, a “question of taste”—there is no settled scientific definition for “intelligence,” not even for animals. The Latin root of the word means “to choose between,” an action fungi clearly do all the time. But the application of this kind of term to fungi is loaded with something more mystical than that simple definition and demands a willingness to rattle our sense of where we ourselves fall in the imagined hierarchy of life. If fungi can be said to think, it is a form of cognition so utterly different that we strain to see it.

After all, philosophers of mind like Daniel Dennett argue that drawing any neat line between nonhumans and humans with “real minds” is an “archaic myth.” Our brains evolved from nonmental material. “Brains are just one such network,” Sheldrake writes, “one way of processing information.” We still don’t know how the excitement of brain cells gives rise to experience. Can we really dismiss the possibility of cognition in an organism that clearly adapts, learns, and makes decisions simply based on the lack of a brain structure analogous to ours?

Perhaps there is intelligent life all around us, and our view is too human-centric to notice. Are fungi intelligent? Sheldrake reserves judgment, deferring instead to scientific mystery: “A sophisticated understanding of mycelium is yet to emerge.” Still, after spending long enough in the atmosphere of Sheldrake’s sporulating mind, I began to adopt the fungal perspective. I can’t help now but see something like a mind wherever there might be fungal threads—which is to say everywhere, a mesh-like entangled whole, all over the earth.

Fungi challenge our understanding of nonhuman intelligence and complicate the boundaries between one organism and another: “Our Silent Partners“– Zoë Schlanger (@zoeschlanger) reviewing Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures in @nybooks.

Why did the mushroom go to the party? Because he was a fungi.” – Lewis Tomlinson

* A. R. Ammons


As we ponder partnership, we might spare a thought for Jens Wilhelm August Lind; he died on this date in 1939. An apothecary, botanist and mycologist, he published a full account of all fungi collected in Denmark by his teacher, Emil Rostrup. Combining his pharmaceutical and mycological knowledge, he was early in experimenting with chemical control of plant pathogens.

Lind also collaborated with Knud Jessen on an account on the immigration history of weeds to Denmark.

Gravestone of Jens Lind and wife Gunild, at Viborg Cemetery


“Who are you?”*…



Detail of the François kratēr: the ship of Theseus (fragment from vase) source


In the metaphysics of identity, “the ship of Theseus” (legendary Greek hero and founder of Athens) is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.  One of the oldest concepts in Western philosophy, it was discussed by the likes of Heraclitus and Plato by ca. 500-400 BC; it first appeared in written form in Plutarch:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same…

Vita Thesei, 22-23

Philosophers and theorists of identity still wrestle with the questions it raises…

Suppose that the famous ship has been kept in a harbor as a museum piece, and as the years went by some of the wooden parts began to rot and were replaced by new ones; then, after a century or so, all of the parts had been replaced.   The question then is if the “restored” ship is still the same object as the original.

If it is then supposed that each of the removed pieces were stored in a warehouse, and after the century, technology developed to cure their rotting and enabled them to be put back together to make a ship, then the question is if this “reconstructed” ship is still the original ship.  And if so, then what of the restored ship in the harbor?

Explore the puzzle at “The Ship of Theseus and the Question of Identity, ” “This thought experiment will have you questioning your identity,” “Identity, Persistence, and the Ship of Theseus,” and “Ship of Theseus.”

And for nifty list of appearances by the paradox in pop culture, see here.

* Peter Townsend and The Who


As we interrogate identity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1856 that Millard Fillmore was nominated for the Presidency by the (altogether-accurately named far right nativist) Know-Nothing Party.  Fillmore, who had been elected Vice President in 1848 had ascended to the presidency in 1850, when Zachary Taylor died, but then failed to get his own party’s– the Whig’s– nomination to run for re-election in 1852.  In 1856, Fillmore turned to the Know-Nothings in (an ultimately unsuccessful) attempt actually to be elected to the highest office.

He was finally trumped by Gerald Ford, who was not even elected– but was appointed in 1973 by Richard Nixon– to the Vice-Presidency, then assumed the top job on Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  Ford beat back a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan to win the Republican nomination in 1976, but lost to Jimmy Carter.

Millard Fillmore, by Matthew Brady (1850)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror”*…


Anonymous, Marcia Painting Self-Portrait Using Mirror (detail), in Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, c. 1403. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Polished metal and obsidian mirrors have existed from ancient times, and because of this, historians have usually passed over the introduction of the glass mirror as if it was just another variation on an old theme. But the development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics. Polished metal mirrors of copper or bronze were very inefficient by comparison, reflecting only about 20 percent of the light; and even silver mirrors had to be exceptionally smooth to give any meaningful reflection. These were also prohibitively expensive: most medieval people would only have glimpsed their faces darkly, reflected in a pool of water.

The convex glass mirror was a Venetian invention of about 1300, possibly connected with the development of the glass lenses used in the earliest spectacles (invented in the 1280s). By the late fourteenth century, you could find such mirrors in northern Europe. The future Henry IV of England paid 6d to have the glass of a broken mirror replaced in 1387. Four years later, while traveling in Prussia, he paid £1 3s. 8d in sterling for “two mirrors of Paris” for his own use. His son, Henry V, had three mirrors in his chamber at the time of his death in 1422, two of which were together worth £1 3s. 2d. Although these were still far too expensive for an average farmer or tradesman, in 1500 the prosperous city merchant could afford such an item. In this respect, the individual with disposable income differed greatly from his ancestor in 1400: he could see his own reflection and thus knew how he appeared to the rest of the world…

The very act of a person seeing himself in a mirror or being represented in a portrait as the center of attention encouraged him to think of himself in a different way. He began to see himself as unique. Previously the parameters of individual identity had been limited to an individual’s interaction with the people around him and the religious insights he had over the course of his life. Thus individuality as we understand it today did not exist: people only understood their identity in relation to groups—their household, their manor, their town or parish—and in relation to God…

From Ian Mortimer‘s “The Mirror Effect- How the rise of mirrors in the fifteenth century shaped our idea of the individual.”

* P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves


As we snap that selfie, we might spare a thought for David Émile Durkheim; he died on this date in 1917.  A French sociologist, social psychologist and philosopher, he formally established the academic discipline and—with Karl Marx and Max Weber—is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science and father of sociology.

Kant postulates God, since without this hypothesis morality is unintelligible. We postulate a society specifically distinct from individuals, since otherwise morality has no object and duty no roots.

– Durkheim, Sociology and philosophy (1911), D. Pocock, trans. (1974), p. 51.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 15, 2016 at 1:01 am

“I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member”*…


Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Our Motto, 1883

For all of their esoteric ways, America’s early secrets societies were remarkable branding machines. They had their own slogans, their own fashions, and their own symbols and colors. They even had their own manufacturing industry that produced and sold all of these items for mass consumption.

“The secrets function less for the concealing of information than as a bonding mechanism for members,” write the authors of As Above, So Below Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930, a new book about the golden age of secret societies in America. These groups functioned not unlike street fashion or indie music—in which secret societies have contemporary corollaries—by offering experiences cloaked in hierarchy and mystery, designed to bond members together and transform their lives…

More at “The Bizarre Branding Of America’s Many, Many Secret Societies.”

* Groucho Marx


As we chant our oaths, we might pause to celebrate National Multiple Personality Day, celebrated on this date each year.  While NMPD is an occasion to raise awareness of Multiple Personality Disorder, now more commonly known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, it is also an opportunity for the exploration of one’s own– not always consistent– personality traits.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 5, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Human relationships are not rocket science—they are far, far more complicated”*…


In the English language, the word “he” is used to refer to males and “she” to refer to females. But some people identify as neither gender, or both – which is why an increasing number of US universities are making it easier for people to choose to be referred to by other pronouns…

More at “Beyond ‘he’ and ‘she’: The rise of non-binary pronouns.”

* James W. Pennebaker, The Secret Life of Pronouns


As we revel in reference, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Naguib Mahfouz; he was born on this date in 1911.  A prolific writer– he published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays over a 70-year career– he was one of the first writers in Arabic to explore Existentialist themes (e.g., the Cairo Trilogy, Adrift on the Nile).  He was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 11, 2015 at 1:01 am

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