Paul Stamets – The Intelligence of Mycelium

Editor’s Note:

In recent weeks, I’ve shared some audio files from my extensive archive of interviews with various mushroom luminaries. Today, it’s time to share some comments by Paul Stamets about the inherent adaptability of mycelium. Paul Stamets has studied mushrooms and mycelium for over 3 decades, and he serves as a thought leader in practical and scientific mycology. I have I have written Paul Stamets on this blog before, including a recent post about his plan to use mycelium to help prevent colony collapse disorder in honeybees.

Paul Stamets mycoboom
Paul Stamets placing a “mycoboom” filled with oyster mushroom mycelium in the water of the Puget Sound. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Paul Stamets is quite a visionary member of the mycological community, and in this audio segment he speaks eloquently about how mushroom mycelium educates itself genetically when it encounters new threats, food sources, and other organisms in its habitat. So take a minute to listen in on Mr. Mycelium as he explains how fungi are unique organisms with the potential to solve some of our most pressing problems.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

 Paul Stamets on Mycelium – Fungal Intelligence

It’s interesting to me that, time and time again, I struggle to understand the definition of “intelligence.” When I was a child, I observed my dog and thought he was an emotional, thinking creature, even though my grade-school science teacher insisted that he was lacking in both departments. Now, research suggests that dogs experience a wide array of emotions and thought patterns, and their capacity to comprehend and react to human communication speaks to a genetic and behavioral evolution of the relationship between canines and us hairless monkeys. Of course, it may just be because I now have a border collie instead of a chocolate lab, but I am even more convinced that dogs are intelligent than I was when I was a child.

When it comes to mushroom mycelium, the idea of natural, evolved intellect seems intuitive to me. I once heard an observation about evolution that struck me as appropos in the context of mycelium: many people think of evolution as a process whereby an organism improves its own chances for survival by acquiring traits that exclusively benefit the individual. Longer legs, keener vision, sharper teeth, and the like. However, this overlooks the importance of symbiotic relationships. The argument here is that evolution does not, in fact, lead to divergence of species in all instances, but rather a dramatic increase in cooperative relationships between organisms, and those species that leverage symbiosis the most effectively are really demonstrating the highest form of intelligence and adaptability.

Border collie
This guy can read your eye movements, can feel love and joy, and is far from some “dumb beast.” Photo by Lilly M. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

For an evolutionary biologist, what I am saying may sound inarticulate and spazzy, but I am thankful to mycelium for giving me a reason to think about it. When I realized the critical importance of mycorrhizal mycelium to tree and plant health, I discovered that my entire idea of evolution was rather myopic. It’s not about dominance, it’s about symbiosis. It’s not about exclusive control of certain environments and resources, it’s about the ability to create balance within the habitats that we rely on.

When I discovered some of the amazing responsiveness of mycelium, I was hard-pressed to think of fungal behavior as anything other than intelligent. I guess that makes me a kook, but yeah, I can’t say I care all that much. I’m perfectly happy to be thought of as eccentric if it means that I get to appreciate organisms for qualities that aren’t strictly about strength, toughness, and the tooth and claw selfishness that characterized by earliest notions of evolution and intelligence.


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