The Aliens Among Us

Speculation about an alien life form insinuating itself into our world is an enduring trope of science fiction and horror cinema, but Francis Gooding in a lengthy discussion in the 20 May 2021 London Review of Books of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Future by Merlin Sheldrake is an astonishing revelation of this metonymy, not being fictional but realistic. Not only among us already, fungi have been living here and reproducing since the early days of our planet billions of years ago, evidenced by fossilized traces in ancient rocks.

More than just the “flower” of a spore-releasing mushroom, fungus is the proliferating web of mycelium, a network of microscopic threads called hyphae. This web is found everywhere and seems to be neither plant nor animal, displaying some features of both. It has a directional memory to locate and communicate food sources, and the ability to adapt itself to its surroundings. Like neurons, the hyphae use electric signals to transmit information and control reproductive behaviour, the dissemination of spores.

“The fungus mycelium does not have a body, instead entering and possessing something else’s . . . but is a continuous mesh that envelops the earth.”

Some fungal spores have been shown to survive extraterrestrial conditions in outer space, leading one to think of panspermia, the seeding of life on earth by spores from elsewhere. While this conjecture could conceivably account for the origin of life on an originally lifeless earth in the very distant past, it only knocks back to a still earlier locale a notch on the search for the ultimate origin of all living creatures.

The science fiction writings of Polish author Stanislav Lem featured bizarre plots involving nonhuman beings on distant planets, including one in which the planet itself is the living organism.

Humans consume some fungi for nutrition, but also ingest mushrooms containing psilocybin, a compound like lysergic acid (derived from ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and other grains) having a “psychedelic” effect, altering brain networks, enhancing connectivity, and producing quasi-spiritual feelings, with an epiphany like “awareness of the wholeness of nature,” etc., at times beneficial to some, but not always, nor with all users.

More research is warranted to understand how humans and these organisms interact, and since fungi with their mysterious network of mycelium have preceded us here on earth, perhaps to them WE are the aliens.

June 16, 2021

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