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with a fungus
“Our guest this
evening is Pilobolus crystallinus, author of the award-winning best
seller, “Do We Need Mankind? A Fungal Perspective”.”
— from Diane Pleninger’s
“Interview With a Fungus”
By Diane Brooks Pleninger
D.P. Good evening, viewers. Our guest this evening is
Pilobolus crystallinus, author of the award-winning best seller, “Do
We Need Mankind? A Fungal Perspective”. Mr.Pilobolus is a member
of the kingdom Fungi, class Zygomycetes. He is a scholar, lecturer, dung-dweller
and author of numerous scientific articles and papers as well as several
books for popular audiences. Welcome, Mr. Pilobolus.
P.c. Thank you, Diane. Good to be here.
D.P. Mr. Pilobolus, your most recent work raises tantalizing
questions about the future of the biosphere and the role that you and
other inhabitants of this planet will play in it.Tell us how you came
to write this book.
P.c. The book resulted from a series of
symposia I attended over the past two centuries under the sponsorship
of the World Federation of Fungi, on the topic, “What Does Nature
Need?” The Academy of the WFF is constituted of one delegate from
each family of fungi. I was fortunate to represent the Pilobolaceae. Conferences
were held decadally in many different parts of the world. Matters particular
to the host locale were given close consideration, but the global perspective
of the Academy was never eclipsed.
D.P. The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been a revolutionary
period in the biosphere. How have fungi been affected by the events of
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 niche, we are drivers of the carbon cycle, elite teams of detritivores
whose mission is to digest organic matter and return the component parts
to the 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. So the fungi play two very distinct roles worldwide, and
both roles are critical to maintaining the biosphere in good working order.
D.P. Where 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
existence 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, the honeymoon didn’t last very long.
D.P. What happened to end it?
P.c. Two things happened. Agriculture was one. Mono-cropping
husbandry led to concentrations of plant and animal populations that were
vulnerable 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 certain
animals, among them humans. However, there is no credible scientific evidence
that ergot evolved in C. purpurea with harm to megafauna in mind.
The same may be said of Aspergillus flavus, which occurs
on nuts and grains in the field and in storage. The aflatoxins produced
by A. flavus are among the most powerful poisons and carcinogens on earth.
Introduced into human environments, they are nothing less than weapons
of mass destruction. To A. flavus, they are merely metabolic byproducts,
with perhaps a touch of self-defence function as well.
The other change for the worse resulted from transportation.
The rapid movement of species around the globe 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 mirrors the unhappy experience of animal and viral microorganisms
implicated in plagues and epidemics. The real culprits, of course, are
the humans who transport exotics from continent to continent without considering
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 summarize
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
appealing. The ideal individual was to be educated and enlightened, someone
we’d all like to know. However, as a practical matter, the culture
of enlightened individualism reformed itself after a brief period into
a cult of personal freedom.
Over the next several centuries, unbridled personal freedom
distributions of natural resources led to the creation of certain wealthy
and isolated colonies of humans. Their prosperity excited envy and 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 – for meat in daily diets, for manufactured
goods, for personal comfort, for leisure activities – put enormous
stress on the biosphere.
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 effor ts to exclude us – you will
see that environmental issues were at the forefront of concern in all
the wealthier nations for the past century and a half. Treaties, regulations,
protocols and public opinion were all used to stem the tide of harmful
practices. But events outstripped them. Chief among these events was population
growth. Population growth outpaced the effectiveness of trade boycotts.
The offenders were able to simply form trade blocks of their own. Population
growth outran the ability of the media to cultivate public awareness of
environmental issues. And of course, population growth added to the pressure
on the biosphere as more and more people demanded higher standards of
A couple of analogies can help us visualize what was happening.
One is the 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 sort of universal solvent. Nothing could contain it. Affluence was a
marker of evolutionary s uccess. Eventually, the cultural and political
meanings intersected and in many parts of the world, it became seditious
to propose programmes regulating or moderating affluence. 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, the culture itself – ecame subjects of human amusement.
This unrelenting, self-referential entertainment left a large part of
mankind chronically inebriated and fundamentally uneducable. The ideal
of public education was a notable casualty. I discuss this phenomenon
fully in my chapter, “The Second Fermentation.”
D.P. Many times in your book, you mention what in earlier centuries
would have been called “values” – altruism, moderation,
that sort of thing. How do the 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. In fact, I have
devoted an entire chapter to formal fungal theology.
D.P. Can you tell us briefly about fungal theology?
P.c. There are two major systems of mycotheism in the fungal
world. The more recent religion is only about 50m years old, but it has
a strong representation among the younger orders. The older religion is
more widespread, although it is also more rationalized from the original
texts. Overall, 99.4% of fungi are adherents of one or the other faith.
important thing to note is that there are no tensions, no doctrinal disputes
between the two theisms. 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 mankind 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 in the system is to encourage institutionalized
mycotheism. As a result, we are widely considered to be the polity most
capable of reaching consensus amongst ourselves and acting in concert
upon that consensus.
D.P. How do you describe the present relationship between nature
and mankind? Conflict? Détente? Symbiosis?
P.c. I can only speak for the fungi, who characterize mankind
as expendable. My chapter, “Many Keystones, One Arch,” explores
the uses that mankind has made of the fungi, which range from antibiotics
and immunosuppressants to papermaking to bread, beer, cheeses and wines
and the familiar delights of mycophagy. 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
skins, in their homes, underground, in the stratosphere. After intensive
analysis of these data, 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
concerning the place of mankind in the world ecosystem. We evaluated the
state of the biosphere, giving due weight to mankind’s most recent
energy policies, bioengineering innovations, developments in agriculture,
industry and transportation, the efforts made toward 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
at 9.6 on a scale of disturbance ranging from zero to ten. Based upon
these findings, the Academy adopted a position statement which we presented
to the WFF. I have taken the title of that statement for my last chapter,
“The Knot of a Thousand Tyings.”
D.P. Can you summarize this position statement for us?
P.c. 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.”
D.P. And here, we must encourage our listeners to read your book.
“Do We Need Mankind? A Fungal Perspective”. Pilobolus crystallinus,
thank you so much for joining us today.
P.c. Thank you for having me, Diane.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited and Shell International Limited
2004. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.