|The essay below is relatively short and worth reading.
Interview with a fungus
From The World in 2004 print edition
The essay competition run by Royal Dutch/Shell and The Economist has
reached its fourth year. This time the question posed was "Do we need
nature?" Nearly 6,000 people, from all over the world, offered answers.
The first prize of $20,000 was won by Diane Brooks Pleninger from
Anchorage, Alaska, whose essay, printed here in slightly abridged form,
inverted the question neatly and informatively
D.P. Good evening, viewers. Our guest is Pilobolus crystallinus, author
the award winning bestseller, "Do We Need Mankind? A Fungal
Mr Pilobolus is a member of the kingdom Fungi, class Zygomycetes. He is
scholar, lecturer, dung-dweller and author. Welcome, Mr Pilobolus.
P.c. Thank you, Diane. Good to be here.
D.P. Mr Pilobolus, your most recent book raises tantalising questions
about the future
of the biosphere and the role that you and other inhabitants will play
it. Tell us how
you came to write it.
P.c. The book resulted from a series of symposia I attended over the
two centuries under the sponsorship of the World Federation of Fungi, on
the topic, "What Does Nature Need?" The Academy of the WFF is
of one delegate from each family of fungi. I was fortunate to represent
D.P. The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been a revolutionary period
the biosphere. How have fungi been affected by the events of modern
P.c. The modern history of the fungi, which I date from about 400m years
ago, has been a remarkable success story. The fungi occupy two vital
niches in nature whose importance has never been challenged. In one
we are drivers of the carbon cycle, elite teams of detritivores whose
mission is to digest organic matter and return the component parts to
ecological system. Without our work, life on earth would long since have
ground to a halt for lack of raw materials. In another niche, we act in
partnership with the roots of plants to extend their reach into the soil
environment and enhance their uptake of water and nutrients. These
partnerships are called mycorrhizas?myco for the fungus, rhiza for the
root. Animals in turn feed on plants and benefit from this arrangement.
the fungi play two very distinct roles worldwide, and both roles are
critical to maintaining the biosphere.
D.P. When does mankind come into your history?
P.c. Mankind comes into our history about 20,000 years ago, at the time
they discovered the uses of alcoholic fermentation. We credit the genus
Saccharomyces with this development. Ancestral spores of that yeast
settled in a pot of gruel prepared by a group of hominids whose
up to that point was best described as nasty, brutish and short. This
began what we call the honeymoon period in the relationship of man and
fungus. Unfortunately, it didn't last long.
D.P. What happened to end it?
P.c. Two things. Agriculture was one. Monocropping and animal husbandry
led to concentrations of plant and animal populations that were
to certain of our members, particularly the smuts, rusts, mildews and
blights. Some crops and herds proved to be sensitive to basic fungal
metabolites. For instance, my colleague Claviceps purpurea produces the
biochemical ergot. Ergot causes gangrene, madness and death in humans.
However, there is no credible scientific evidence that it evolved in C.
purpurea with harm to mega-fauna in mind. The same may be said of
Aspergillus flavus, which occurs on nuts and grains. The afla-toxins
produced by A. flavus are among the most powerful poisons and
on earth. To A. flavus, they are merely metabolic by-products, with a
touch of self-defence function as well.
The other change for the worse resulted from transportation. The rapid
movement of species allowed no time for immunities to develop in local
populations. Many fungal species have been vilified for causing mass
exterminations of elms, chestnuts, potatoes and other plants. This
the unhappy experience of animal and viral micro-organisms implicated in
plagues and epidemics. The real culprits, of course, are the humans who
transport exotics from continent to continent.
D.P. As you see it, what has been the human purpose during recent
P.c. With the advantage of hindsight, I think we can summarise it as a
failed experiment in individualism. The idea of the individual?and there
is no fungal equivalent?arose during a period of rapid change in human
society. In the abstract, individualism looked defensible, even
The ideal individual was to be educated and enlightened, someone we'd
like to know. However, as a practical matter, the culture of enlightened
individualism reformed itself after a brief period into a cult of
freedom. Over the next several centuries, unbridled personal freedom and
chance distributions of natural resources led to the creation of certain
wealthy and isolated colonies of humans. Their prosperity excited envy
the rest of the world did what they could to emulate them. Large
populations of humans moved from a very simple experience of the natural
world to the expectation of a lifestyle similar to what the exploiters
were enjoying. This clamour for plenitude put enormous stress on the
D.P. As we know, humans failed to reverse this trend. Can you explain
their failure to act?
P.c It certainly wasn't for want of trying. If you visit the media
archives of mankind?and we fungi are able to do so freely in spite of
their efforts to exclude us?you will see that environmental issues were
the forefront of concern in all the wealthier nations for the past
and a half. Treaties, regulations, protocols, public opinion were used
stem the tide of harmful practices. But population growth outpaced the
effectiveness of trade boycotts and outran the ability of the media to
cultivate public awareness of environmental issues. And population
added to the pressure on the biosphere as more and more people demanded
higher standards of living.
A couple of analogies can help us visualise what was happening. One is
problem of the universal solvent. If there were such a substance, what
would you keep it in? The phenomenon of affluence turned out to be a
of universal solvent. Nothing could contain it. More insight is provided
by the old canard about bread and circuses, which refers to the
stultifying effects of amusement. Poor-quality information tends to
ferment into low-grade entertainment. Under the sulphurous glare of
continuous, worldwide news
broadcasts, human institutions?government, military, religious, culture
itself?became subjects of human amusement. This unrelenting,
self-referential entertainment left a large
part of mankind chronically inebriated and fundamentally uneducable.
D.P. Many times in your book, you mention what in earlier centuries
have been called "values"?altruism, moderation, that sort of thing. How
fungi define ethical values? Or perhaps you call them spiritual values?
P.c. (Laughs.) Much of what others consider spiritual, we call secular.
This does not mean we are without a theology. There are two major
of mycotheism in the fungal world. The more recent religion is only
50m years old, but it has a strong representation among the younger
orders. The older religion is more widespread, although it is also more
rationalised from the original texts. Overall, 99.4% of fungi are
adherents of one or the other faith. But the important thing to note is
that there are no tensions, no doctrinal disputes between the two
The core principle of both religions is identical.
D.P. And that principle is...?
P.c. Whereas the root principle of virtually all the religions of
is behaviour modification, our core religious value is species
recognition. The fungi comprise nearly a
million and a half species and uncounted millions of mating types. The
pressures that result from diversity of this magnitude cannot be
overstated. We have long recognized that the best way to maintain order
the system is to encourage institutionalized mycotheism. As a result, we
are widely considered to be the polity most capable of reaching
among ourselves and acting in concert upon that consensus.
D.P. How do you describe the present relationship between nature and
P.c. I can only speak for the fungi, who characterise mankind as
expendable. My chapter,
"Many Keystones, One Arch", explores the uses that mankind has made of
fungi, which range from antibiotics and immunosuppressants to
to bread, beer, cheeses and wines, and the familiar delights of
Our members observed and recorded millions of human-fungus interactions
over a period of two centuries. Again, humans cannot escape our
observation. We are everywhere: on their skin, in their homes,
underground, in the stratosphere. After intensive analysis of these
the Academy was not able to identify even one indispensable human-fungus
transaction. No obligate parasitism, no essential relationships, no sine
qua non. I ask readers to remember this important fact as they learn the
startling outcome of our deliberations.
D.P. Without revealing the ending to your book, can you speak briefly
about the last chapter?
P.c. Recently, the Academy convened a plenary forum to review our
on the place of man-kind in the world ecosystem. We evaluated the state
the biosphere, giving due weight to man-kind's most recent energy
policies, bioengineering innovations,
developments in agriculture, industry and transportation, the efforts
towards environmental remediation and detoxification of hazardous and
radioactive wastes. We considered the question of just how much
perturbation of the natural order we should tolerate from human
activities. We agreed that the biosphere presently stands at 9.6 on a
scale of disturbance from zero to ten. Based on these findings, the
Academy adopted a position statement which we presented to the WFF. I
taken the title of that statement for my last chapter, "The Knot of a
Thousand Tyings". I'd like to read from it, if I may.
D.P. Please do.
P.c. "Our members do not recoil from the future. We believe that life on
earth is embarked on a unique trajectory, one that will not be repeated.
We believe that the outward journey has entailed a long and intricate
interweaving of the interests of all living things. We believe that the
homeward path will entail the systematic unweaving of those threads. We
believe we are eminently suited for a role in this process."
The full version of this essay, and the seven other prize-winning
can be found at
The judging panel comprised:
Richard O'Brien, jury chairman and strategy consultant at Outsights;
Peter Warshall, editor at large, Whole Earth magazine;
Christine Loh, co-founder and CEO, Civic Exchange;
Sally Feldman, head of the School of Media, Arts and Design, University
Adrian Loader, director of strategic planning, sustainable development
external affairs, Shell International;
Bill Emmott, editor, The Economist