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  • Claire L. Evans’ project
    Polytopia
    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.


    Mushrooms and their mycelium are quiet allies that are essential for our healthy existence. They are enigmatic, have a sense of humor, and socially as well as spiritually, bond together all that admire them. They have much to teach us.
    -Paul Stamets


    If the ego is not regularly and repeatedly dissolved in the unbounded hyperspace of the Transcendent Other, there will always be slow drift away from the sense of self a part of nature's larger whole.
    -Terrence McKenna


    A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table, having coffee, when I suddenly noticed a new development in my bonsai plant. At the foot of the pygmy pine was sprouting, of all things, a mushroom. The physical recoil this realization triggered in me is beyond description. I nearly spilled my drink in my impulse to first spring away — then draw towards — this fungus. How had this happened? My god, how do mushrooms work?

    As it turns out, the soil of my potted bonsai was rich with mycelium. Mycelium is the fungal "root," if you will, the vegetative body of the organism, which can net, spread, propagate, and convey nutrients over great distances, eventually sprouting fruiting bodies — mushrooms. This meant that no matter how many little brown mushrooms I plucked out of my houseplant, more popped into place. Thus began my journey into mycophilia.

    Being a fickle bedroom hobbyist, I sacrificed the bonsai, relinquishing 1,000 years of Japanese history to my fungal visitor. After all, what is more ancient, more venerable, than a mushroom? Fungi were the first organisms to come to land, and survived the cataclysmic asteroid impacts of geological history — visitors to our planet 420 million years ago would have encountered a landscape dominated by 30-foot-tall prototaxites, fungal pillars dwarfing the surrounding landscape. And, lest you think this kind of cyclopean 'shroom has gone the way of the dinosaurs, the largest known organism on our planet today is a 2,400-year old, 2,200 acre honey mushroom mycelium in Eastern Oregon.

    Furthermore, we're more closely related to these behemoths than you might imagine: even though the animal kingdom branched off from its fungal counterpart some 600 million years ago, we still share over half our DNA with fungi. Historically, culturally, and biologically, we are incredibly close to mushrooms. That closeness can be exploited to our benefit: many powerful antibiotics against bacteria come from fungi, while anti-fungal antibiotics tend to harm us, precisely because of our intimately interlinked relationship with mushrooms. Some scientists posit reorganizing traditional biological classification to include a animalia-fungi superkingdom called "Opisthokontum."

    Far-out scholar Terrence McKenna, in his book Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, took this connection further, arguing that the so-called missing link between our ancestors and language-using, symbol-toting Homo Sapiens (or Homo Spiritualis, as he puts it) is not an evolutionary phase but an interaction with entheogens — namely, "magic" mushrooms. McKenna argued that early man, foraging for food in the African grasslands, would have inevitably consumed varieties of fungal hallucinogen, triggering the semiotically complex transcendence (and the various perceptual advantages) of the psychedelic experience. It's this psychosymbiotic mingling with the "vegetable mind" of the natural world that triggered those things which separate us from the animals: use of symbols, language, ritual, and abstract representation. Over centuries, this experience would have been ritualized, this dip into the howling Tao codified; what remains today are merely symbols, hidden in plain sight in many of the religious traditions of the world. This theory, now dubbed the "Stoned Ape Theory of Human Evolution," is fascinating — and I whole-heartedly recommend McKenna's book, which is essentially a natural history of the human relationship to drugs.

    American mycologist Paul Stamets, in his 2008 TED Talk, Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, argues that the structure of mycelium is a neuromicrological network with universal properties. In the image below, I've placed an electron micrograph of fungal mycelium next to an image of dark matter. Beneath that, a visualization of the network structure of the Internet by Hal Burch and Bill Cheswick, courtesy of Lumeta Corporation.





    Can you tell the difference?

    Stamets, who calls mycelium "Earth's Natural Internet," puts it this way:

    I believe the invention of the computer Internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously proven biologically successful model. The earth invented the computer internet for its own benefit, and we, now, being the top organism on this planet, [are] trying to allocate resources in order to protect the biosphere.

    Going way out, dark matter conforms to the same mycelial archetype. I believe matter begets life, life becomes single cells, single cells become strings, strings become chains, chains network. And this is the paradigm that we see throughout the universe.


    Stamets, being a mycologist, understands the fundamental structure of information, of the physical universe itself, as adhering to a "mycelial archetype." To him, everything is mushroom — while McKenna, his visionary counterpart, reads the history of human culture through a mycophilic lens. Of course, both men experimented extensively with the mental states associated with ritualized consumption of a certain variety of mushroom, but this shouldn't lessen the impact of their profound, macrocosmic reading of the humble fungus (although it's interesting to think of mushrooms as doing their own psychedelic PR).

    Mycelium, an intertwined network of cells permeating virtually all land masses of Earth, is not something to take lightly. It literally engulfs the soil beneath us in a sentient web, rising up beneath our footsteps, hungry for nutrients. There is something beautiful and horrifying, ancient and keenly technological about these organisms, a complexity it may take a psychedelically-informed, non-institutional mind to fully appreciate.

    In any case, it beats a tiny tree.
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    One of Buckminster Fuller's most interesting conceits was his dislike of specialization, which he likened to a kind of intellectual prison, restraining "bright" people from truly understanding the complex, and general, systems of which they were a part. After all, he argued, what causes extinction in the animal kingdom? Overspecialization. Of course, it's logical, and it's s problem we see over and over again in human history, from the Industrial Revolution displacing specialized factory workers to the often daunting gap of comprehension between the social and "hard" sciences. As soon as we become specialists in a single subject, we tend to lose interest in, or the capacity to cope with, other subjects, and in the greater whole. Tunnel vision, if you will.

    As it turns out, this particular Bucky ramble has considerable scientific credibility now that the fields of complexity theory and biological evolution are coming head-to-head. Microbiologist Carl Woese, talking to Wired, put it this way: "Twentieth-century biology was structured according to a linear, Newtonian worldview. Linear thinking is not the kind of thinking that's needed to study evolution. It doesn't help you understand the nature of systems. " In other words, evolution — the success and development of species — is not just a linear process, driven by specific biologically advantageous genetic traits, but a complex process, one ruled by yet-to-be-quantified rules of complexity and emergence. With emergence phenomena, evolution occurs not only in individuals, but in systems and groups; if we consider an ant or bee colony as a kind of "superorganism" that develops independently from its members, then the individual characteristics of a bee are only one part of a complex, evolutionary entity — the hive. And, as it turns out, increased levels of complexity do not slow or hinder the evolutionary process.

    In suit, biologists now find it makes scientific sense to examine human beings as emergent systems — "superorganisms" of millions of molecules, much like bees in a hive. From there, It's not much of a conceptual leap to apply that thinking to human groups; i.e. we are all involved with one another, on an evolutionary level, just as all our cells work together to cobble together the thing we call "life." After all, we are one of the few species to evolve social systems.

    In any case, Buckminster Fuller's points about humans having "innate comprehensivity" and the human race being a giant system living on "Spaceship Earth" suddenly seem woozily prescient. Carl Woese again: "Man is the one who's undergoing this incredible evolution now...the social processes by which man is evolving are creating a whole new level of organization."

    It begs the question: what are these social processes "by which man is evolving?" Dare we assume that Woese is referring, in part, to the Internet? It's certainly tempting to compare the web's self-navigating push-button organization with these "superorganisms" of the current biological discourse. If the social system in a colony of leafcutter ants can compel them to build magnificent chambered nests underground despite the fact that their individual ant brains don't amount to much, what can our social systems do for us? Despite the oil-slick of drivel floating atop the quotidian Internet, look at what we have at our fingertips: instant self-publishing, the capacity to push information quickly to people across the globe, tools for mass organization, immediate answers to questions it would have taken our parents weeks to research. Our own version of the leafcutter's underground castles doesn't seem so far off.

    Buckminster Fuller might have agreed.

    "The computer as a superspecialist can persevere, day and night, day after day, in picking out the pink from the blue at superhumanly sustainable speeds. The computer can also operate in degrees of cold or heat at which man would perish. Man is going to be displaced altogether as a specialist by the computer. Man himself is being forced to reestablish, employ, and enjoy his innate 'comprehensivity.' Coping with the totality of Spaceship Earth and universe is ahead for all of us. Evolution is apparently intent that man fulfill a much greater destiny than that of being a simple muscle and reflex machine — a slave automaton — automation displaces the automaton."


    The saving grace of our species, the "evolutionary antibody to the extinction of humanity through specialization," in Fuller's view, was the computer: a machine (or machines) designed solely to follow specialized, technical pursuits to their logical ends. As soon as we no longer have to concern ourselves with the specific aspects of our fields of study, and we can outsource the menial tasks which tie up our minds, he argued, we can become generalists again. This may not be a matter of choice: as specialists, we're nothing compared to computers. It's essentially an evolutionary decision. Of course, talking about evolutionary emergence and widespread computer use in the same breath smacks a little of the technological singularity, but that's a subject for another post.



    Singularity aside, when we hand over the keys to the computers, we're ostensibly left with the capacity to pursue real, comprehensive, systems-understanding intelligence. Which is our real strong suit — the intellectual style of a curious child before being socialized. And, if current complexity science is correct, it may be to humanity's evolutionary advantage to stay this way: curious, general, and collaborative.
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