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  • Writer's pictureMrill Ingram

Changing Minds: Inspiration from Lynn Margulis, Suzanne Simard, & Merlin Sheldrake

Sometimes I imagine my brain as working like a centrifuge. My focus perpetually spun out and away from tangible specific details toward a larger universe of ideas, some of them gauzy and loose, but always entrancing. How thrilled I am to entertain patterns and narrative that connect and resonate across worlds! But then, not unusually, I experience an ensuing concern and let down. How do I possibly make big, exciting patterns and associations matter to the specific nitty gritty of life?  With time, I've learned how to let this concern go a bit and just lean into what attracts me. But I have to admit to a persistent sense of vulnerability to the question, "so what does that mean right now? How do I see this on the ground? How to put that into action?" 


Answering those latter questions requires immense patience and dedication. It means thinking big while keeping your hands in the Earth, ground truthing ideas, and empathetically listening to very different points of view. It means being vulnerable to words like unrealistic, romantic, or activist. I think this takes a brave person.


I thought a lot about this while reading Merlin Sheldrake's "Entangled Life, how fungi make our worlds." With beautiful storytelling and historical and contemporary examples of the symbiotic relationships that fungi destroy and create, he offers insight into struggles around evolutionary theory as people have adapted it to emerging knowledge about fungal life. The book includes entertaining accounts of challenges to accepted, for example early 19th century resistance to the idea that a "single organism" like lichen, might contain two separate evolutionary lineages. Species evolution was understood to change like a "tree of life," a very resilient metaphor. Thus, species should branch out, not meld together. Also strongly influenced by the dominant narrative of life to be what Aldous Huxley described as a "gladiator's show," many biologists outright rejected ideas of a more symbiotic, subtle shape to the evolutionary process, describing as "sensational romance," what would later come to be universally accepted as symbiosis


But for people involved in such shifts, battling for new ideas is often anything but entertaining. It might be academic but that doesn't mean it isn't emotionally and politically charged and with great implications for one's personal livelihood and society in general. You catch a whiff of this when Sheldrake relates being described as "the biological left" by a colleague referring to Sheldrake's interests in fungal relationships that challenge long-held and prevailing ideas of individual and self-interest as driving forces for evolution. Sheldrake's book relates how current struggles to make sense of fungal behavior (am I allowed to call it that?!) range from seeing strategic decision-making of individual species shaped by limited resources to diverse, context-dependent "decentralized logics of life."


Nothing is easy about changing scientific minds, even as the entire system of academic research is supposedly set up to do so. According to Thomas Kuhn's ideas of scientific revolution, change occurs when the number of challenges builds up over time, ultimately creating a crisis during which larger paradigm shifts occur. Thus, crisis is internal to progress. But try telling that to scientists vigorously defending the status quo.


Thinking about revolutionary ideas such as heliocentrism or plate tectonics, one can appreciate the theoretical rupture. Looking at evolution since Darwin, however, it can seem more like a long conversation, only occasionally getting overheated. Although individuals have taken Darwin's ideas off in radical and sometimes scarily wrongheaded directions such as eugenics and social Darwinism, many contemporary thinkers continue to return to the original work and find specific resonance with their current work, including on symbiosis and the integration of human and nonhuman worlds. Sheldrake himself cites a passage in which Darwin uses his own body to describe a flowers shape as one example of Darwin's own openness to metaphor in thinking through new ideas.


But a closer look reveals plenty of boundary work around interpretations of Darwin, and that crises in science are rarely confined to a conversation about science. Take Suzanne Simard, whose work on forests and networks of relationships, especially communication and nutrient exchange between tree roots and fungi, have opened up some good-sized holes in long held conclusions about forest ecology and management.


...forest ecologists “had been squirming for a while and feeling uncomfortable with how the message had morphed in the public literature.

Her work, which suggests that that via mycorrhizal networks trees share resources, even among different species, with impressive ramifications for forestry practices and more broadly evolutionary concepts of the individual and species. Simard's arguments are rooted in years of painstaking scientific experiments, but she has also ridden a wave of popular interest in her ideas, jumping on the term "wood wide web" and writing a popular book about "mother trees" as accumulators of resources and wisdom in a forest's ecology.[1] That book came out in 2021. By 2023 several articles had been published arguing for more caution in accepting her science.


I looked at three of those articles in top research journals, and each of them enumerate a list of questions related to Simard's methodology and conclusions. All three are also framed by a common concern to ratchet back enthusiasm and support for Simard's ideas, because legitimacy cannot be conferred just because the notion of "mother tree" enchants the public; scientists much be much more careful with popular ideas. The papers place full responsibility for Simard's popularity on her work, completely ignoring that mass public opinion, rather than being incited by a single issue or event, is most often created by a number of factors coming together. And rather than complementing Simard for asking good questions and laying out foundations for more investigation where it's needed, the responses are more like hard slaps with a ruler, or even suspension from school.


One of them, a news feature in Nature describes how forest ecologists “had been squirming for a while and feeling uncomfortable with how the message had morphed in the public literature." Authors of an opinion piece in Trends in Plant Science state, "there is no evidence from peer-reviewed published studies," a strange criticism given that there shouldn’t be -- Simmard's is both ground breaking and time-consuming research. These authors title their article, "Mother trees, altruistic fungi, and the perils of plant personification," and write that Simard's ideas "stem from a desire to humanize plant life," and use the most condemning of terms for a scientist: "anthropomorphism." A literature review in Nature Ecology & Evolution written by colleagues of Simard's argues that positive citation bias and overinterpreted results are creating scientific havoc, and that actual defensible research on common mycorrhizal networks is "presently too sparse and unsettled to inform forest management."


Looked at together these articles read like a "cease and desist" order to any scientist (specifically Suzanne Simard) who might try to engage with or broadly influence public discourse with ideas that challenge accepted forestry thinking.


I cannot defend Simard's science. But I can highlight the boundary work going on in these articles, the authors' concern over the concepts and process of scientific communication as much as the actual research itself. Apparently, everyone is just too over the moon about mother trees right now.[2] I couldn't help but wonder, if Simard had called them "king trees" might the reception have been different? I get the feeling that if us bothersome public had not jumped on Simard's ideas and she'd continued to labor away in partial obscurity, piling up her evidence over the years, these articles wouldn’t be necessary. Perhaps a few graduate students would be picking up Simard's ideas on fungal networks to pursue the incredibly labor intensive and long-term fieldwork of running experiments with trees. Meanwhile foresters would keep muttering "birch lady" at her, and evolutionary theorists would roll their eyes.


The processes of science and technology are not separated off from the rest of society, as practitioners believe themselves to be. Public discourse influences science and vice versa. Simard is a good storyteller, and maybe enjoyed herself a bit too much relating how her love for the forests drives her research. But we need to understand her popularity in context. In a 2021 essay Rob Nixon explores a larger phenomenon of public enthusiasm for ideas about plant communication, networks, and the power of trees, citing not only Simard's best seller, but Richard Powers' The Overstory and Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, David Haskell's The Song of Trees, and Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees. And these ideas have been brewing for a while. Remember Avatar (2009)? 


Nixon observes that part of the contemporary fascination with networks and resource sharing emerges from "a quest for alternative modes of being to neoliberalism." In 2014, Raul Lejano, Helen Ingram, and I published a book on social networks, describing a decades-long building fascination with networks and their role in understanding governance, policy, and grassroots environmental resistance. In a world threatened by extreme inequality and unresponsive governmental institutions, and where human success is beginning to look like surviving an episode of The Apprentice, maybe people can't be blamed for leaping on. Who could blame people for wishing for mother trees right now, for a world where those with more share with those who have less, even if they are not the same "species," whatever that is. What Rob Nixon makes very clear is that it is hardly right to shame Simard for her success. People are very ready to hear her work, and the scientific reaction -- while critique and caution are what we should all hope for -- sounds like a freakout. I hope these researchers are supporting graduate students in both working with Simard and investigating her ideas further. To not do so is to capitulate to a status quo that is killing forests.


I can't help also but remember the work of Lynn Margulis, who battered at the gates of microbiology for years with her ideas about endosymbiotic theory, which suggested that eukaryotic cells originated from symbiotic associations between different types of prokaryotic cells. For decades she gathered evidence from comparative anatomy, biochemistry, and molecular biology highlighting similarities between organelles in a cell, such as mitochondria, and chloroplasts and free-living bacteria to challenge traditional notions of evolution. Her findings emphasized symbiosis, cooperation, and lateral gene transfer as necessary to understand the diversity and complexity of life. She had achieved broad consensus around endosymbiotic theory by the time I was working as a science writer in the 1990s, but by then she'd dragged her research colleagues out of their comfort zone once more by embracing "autopoietic Gaia." Her argument again was that the unit of study in evolution should be a symbiotic system, not the individual. Autopoiesis refers to self-regulating and boundary conserving systems, ranging from as small as a cell to as large as Earth. In 1991 Science published an article on Margulis with the title "unruly Earth mother." In it she is quoted as saying that her critics "wallow in their zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin—having mistaken him." Nailed that.


The notion that science is and must be protected from narrative and social context is a well defended one. This is one of Donna Haraway's most profound arguments, that the "God's eye trick" of objectivity in the scientific process rejects any notion of social context. But if you follow the work of researchers like Margulis, Simard, and Sheldrake you can see people keeping their hand in the Earth, doing research and maintaining conversations with colleagues, while at the same time pointing out the larger patterns and narratives that are always there, shaping interpretations and conclusions. Like I said, this kind of work is brave. I think of the defensive boundary work like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls the big reveal while the giant face on the screen bellows, "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"


[1] Simard’s TED Talk, “How Trees Talk to Each Other,” has been viewed some four and a half million times and has been translated into thirty-two languages.

[2] And some even more than that. I have heard of an ecology professor who was severely harassed by a young graduate student so enamored of Simard's work that she could brook no criticism of Simard's ideas. That's dangerous for sure, but I think points more to a problem with black and white thinking and poor elementary/undergrad education.

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