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What mushrooms have taught me about the meaning of life

By Nicholas P. Money


A grown-up neighbor in the English village of my childhood told stories about angels that sat upon our shoulders and fairies that lived in her snapdragons. Like the other kids, I searched her flowers for a glimpse of the sprites, but agnosticism imbibed from my parents quickly overruled this innocent play. Yet there was magic in my neighbor’s garden and I had seen real angels on her lawn: little stalked bells that poked from the dew-drenched grass on autumn mornings; evanescent beauties whose delicately balanced caps quivered to the touch. By afternoon they were gone, shriveled into the greenery. Does any living thing seem more supernatural to a child than a mushroom? Their prevalence in fairy tale illustrations and fantasy movies suggests not. Like no other species, the strangeness of fungi survives the loss of innocence about the limits of nature. They trump the supernatural, their magic intensifying as we learn more about them.

Once upon a time, I spent 30 years studying mushrooms and other fungi. Now, as my scientific interests broaden with my waistline, I would like to share three things that I have learned about the meaning of life from thinking about these extraordinary sex organs and the microbes that produce them. This mycological inquiry has revealed the following: (i) life on land would collapse without the activities of mushrooms; (ii) we owe our existence to mushrooms; and (iii) there is (probably) no God. The logic is spotless.

Mushrooms are masterpieces of natural engineering. The overnight appearance of the fruit body is a pneumatic process, with the inflation of millions of preformed cells extending the stem, pushing earth aside, and unfolding the cap. Once exposed, the gills of a meadow mushroom shed an astonishing 30,000 spores per second, delivering billions of allergenic particles into the air every day. A minority of spores alights and germinates on fertile ground and some species are capable of spawning the largest and longest-lived organisms on the planet. Mushroom colonies burrow through soil and rotting wood. Some hook into the roots of forest trees and engage in mutually supportive symbioses; others are pathogens that decorate their food sources with hardened hooves and fleshy shelves. Mushrooms work with insects too, fed by and feeding leaf-cutter ants in the New World and termites in the Old World. Among the staggering diversity of mushroom-forming fungi we also find strange apparitions including gigantic puffballs, phallic eruptions with revolting aromas, and tiny “bird’s nests” whose spore-filled eggs are splashed out by raindrops.

Mushrooms have been around for tens of millions of years and their activities are indispensable for the operation of the biosphere. Through their relationships with plants and animals, mushrooms are essential for forest and grassland ecology, climate control and atmospheric chemistry, water purification, and the maintenance of biodiversity. This first point, about the ecological significance of mushrooms, is obvious, yet the 16,000 described species of mushroom-forming fungi are members of the most poorly understood kingdom of life. The second point requires a dash of lateral thinking. Because humans evolved in ecosystems dependent upon mushrooms there would be no us without mushrooms. And no matter how superior we feel, humans remain dependent upon the continual activity of these fungi. The relationship isn’t reciprocal: without us there would definitely be mushrooms. Judged against the rest of life (and, so often, we do place ourselves against the rest of nature) humans can be considered as a recent and damaging afterthought.

Some people may find my third point more controversial. Mushrooms demonstrate, quite convincingly, that gods are figments of the hominid imagination. Carefully designed experiments with psilocybin, the hallucinogenic alkaloid from species of Psilocybe mushroom, show that spiritual feelings of kinship with something greater than oneself, mystical experiences, and other nebulous phenomena can be induced by this single chemical. Participants treated with psilocybin in a recent study at Johns Hopkins University described feeling closer to God. After ingestion, psilocybin is converted into psilocin. Psilocin is remarkably similar in chemical structure to serotonin and when it reaches the brain it docks with serotonin receptors, upsets the normal functioning of the neocortex, and can conjure deities from thin air. Belief in God has no more substance than a mushroom dream.

To sum up: life on earth depends on mushrooms, humans wouldn’t have evolved without mushrooms, and mushrooms afford formidable support for the nonexistence of God. That we are manufactured from stardust, rescued from disorder by the big reactor in the sky, and destined to diffusion, is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And while mushrooms are everywhere and will outlive us by an eternity, what marvelous and unlikely fortune to be alive at this moment!

Nicholas Money is Professor of Botany and Western Program Director at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of more than 70 peer-reviewed papers on fungal biology and has authored four books, including, Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard. The Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists (2002), and Mushroom which published in January 2012. As Director of Miami’s interdisciplinary Western Program, Dr. Money has broadened his professional interests and is examining the power of the scientific process to shape our comprehension of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything else.

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11 Responses to “What mushrooms have taught me about the meaning of life”
  1. Isabella says:

    I never realised mushrooms were so interesting. I do feel the need to comment on your third contention however. I don’t believe that the fact that feelings of being closer to God can be induced proves there is no God. It might also be argued that God gave us the capacity to have these feelings induced so we know that He is there.

    You also state that by upsetting the neocortex the brain conjures deities from thin air – but what if, in fact, it just means the brain is perceiving deities that were already there?

    I remember years ago, scientists providing absolute proof that smokers were wrong when they said cigarettes calm them down. They presented a battery of facts, such as increased heart rates, to show it quite simply was not the case. Now they know that cigarettes contain natural anti-depressants and that approx 1/3 of long term smokers become clinically depressed when they quit smoking.

    I tend to think that when, let’s call them “folk ideas” have been around for a long time that there is some truth to them and science is the one that needs time to catch up.

    Isabella

  2. Your passion and enthusiasm for mushrooms is admirable and charming. However, you started to lose me when you used your mushrooms to deny the existence of God.

    The Johns Hopkins study doesn’t tell us anything about God. Instead it tells us something interesting and possibly enlightening about people, and how our brains work.

    Frankly I agree with you; there probably is no God. But to use that Johns Hopkins study as a tenuous platform for your own views (IMHO) deeply undermines your otherwise excellent scholarship. If I were you, I would stick with the mushrooms. I would like to read your book, but if it mentions God in this context, then I am sorry, I won’t be buying it.

  3. Gill Daniel says:

    I often feel close to God, but have never smoked, drank, or taken any drugs. Sometimes at my darkest moments I find God there, teaching me that whatever I was mourning about can indeed be transcended if I look at it in a new Light.

    Nevertheless, mushrooms are indeed fascinating, and I would like to learn more.

  4. Richard says:

    I agree that mushrooms and fungi in general stand alone within our ecosystem. I don’t know that I could study them for 30 years, but they are a fascinating species. I do find your logic for evolution slightly flawed, with the point, humans could not exist without fungi, but fungi have no dependency on humans. This would be like saying the sun demonstrates a lack of deity, because of life’s dependency on the sun, but the sun exists with or without life. If essential components are required for more ‘evolved’ lifeforms to exist, wouldn’t ‘intelligent design’ make sure the needed components were in place at the correct time?

  5. Nancy Devand says:

    For those of us who believe it’s great for those who don’t who knows what God will do All Good things come from above.

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  8. JM Enage says:

    Very interesting study on mushrooms and their importance to man’s existence. I amazed you have spent you life studying this. But perhaps there is a vacuum in your knowledge. Mushrooms I believe are not the sonnum bonnum of life.They are a creation like you and me -nothing more. They were created by a creator God. Perhaps you will find more depth in your life and knowledge when you find this truth that has eluded you all these years.

  9. Ráelin Hansen says:

    I will add this: the most logical scientists will tell you “It cannot be known whether there is or there isn’t a God”. People like Christopher Hitchens, or Richard Dawkins, are not in fact logical at all, and are in fact as much Zealots as are the fundamentalist Christians who run around trying to convert everyone to Christianity. I find people of either persuasion equally trying to be around: they can’t feel comfortable in life without getting others to take their position. That is of course, ultimately a sad thing…

  10. John says:

    “Belief in God has no more substance than a mushroom dream.” This is a fallacy. You have provided no substance to weather or not God exists, you simply write off God because the brain reacts to a chemical? It’s not just controversial, you have provided no hard evidence. For example, I’ve never taken any kind of psychoactive drug, yet I believe in what Jesus did for man kind. None the less, you are welcome to your opinion.

  11. Zara says:

    @John: that’s because you’ve been brainwashed and probably have a deep-seated psychological need to believe. If people who are not religious suddenly feel there is a god after ingesting psilocybin then it stands to reason their changing brain-chemistry is responsible for this phenomenon (all things being equal)and thus it’s clear the brain creates its own reality. Why should this be any different when we’re not under the influence of psychotropic drugs?

    Another reason is basic human psychology: there is no objective meaning or morality in the universe, people want there to be and presto religion is born. There’s no need for evidence of the non-existence of god (which is pretty silly if you think about it: given the immense proportions of the universe how could one prove the absence of a thing other than by cataloguing everything else which is impossible): if one is rational one doesn’t feel the need to believe something without even the tiniest shred of evidence and in the case of the mythological being we call god there is nothing but the word of some very dubious individuals. The existence of god has never, ever been objectively verified: if that doesn’t tell you something about the probability of his non-existence then you’re simply unwilling to acknowledge reality.

    Take the whole story of Jezus: if I walked around in the desert for 40 days without adequate supplies of food and water, in the burning sun and without company I would start to hallucinate too, especially if I was fed a bunch of crazy bedtime stories based on nothing but the argument of authority. In this day and age you’d think scepticism would be the baseline attitude but no: when an individual claims to be Jezus we call him psychotic (can’t prove that he isn’t, can we? if all the religious mumbo-jumbo is to be believed he did say he would return so why not in the form of this poor sap?), if all over the world billions of people speak to an entity they’ve never seen or heard from (except in their overheated imagination) and celebrate his name and his supposed splendid achievements (the Holocaust and the many natural disasters are indeed pretty awesome) we call it religion and it’s perfectly socially acceptable. We live in a mad world indeed.

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