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Complex life may only exist because of millions of years of groundwork by fungi (theconversation.com)
230 points by pradpk on May 29, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 83 comments

This is tangentially related:

I've had a pet theory for a while (which may not be original, idk) that a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox Great Filter is literally the existence of huge amounts of Fossil Fuels. It took millions of years of dead biological life on our planet to build up the supplies we have, and the big ol' meteor that hit us some 60 million years ago helped not only kill off a bunch of that life to create oil but set the stage for actual intelligent life. Without lots of oil, we wouldn't have hit the industrial age, we couldn't manufacture renewable energy sources, we couldn't make plastic, we couldn't make rocket fuel, electricity wouldn't be as widespread, basically everything would be different.

If oil were substantially less common, its feasible that we'd still live in a 1800s-esque society with some form of civilization development, but would be have radio? Certainly not space travel.

Point being: M-class planets might be pretty common in the universe, maybe cellular and even multicellular life is less common, maybe intelligent/sentient live is even less common, maybe civilization is even less common. And we've only really "existed" for a few tens of thousand years in the grand scheme of billions of years, those years littered with possible extinction-like events both man-made and natural. Combine all of those probabilities together, with the reality that we may have just "missed" another species on the timeline of the universe, and it seems more likely than not that we're alone in this galaxy.

Which is actually pretty awesome if you think about it. The whole playground is our's; let's go take it.

There is another well known corollary -- if we consume the bulk of fossil fuels this time around, it's unlikely that recovery after a major civilisation collapse would be possible.

Naturally the kind of leadership that declines to consider what will happen over the next 20-30 years is even less likely to be concerned about the subsequent 200-300.

> There is another well known corollary -- if we consume the bulk of fossil fuels this time around, it's unlikely that recovery after a major civilisation collapse would be possible.

There will still be coal. Coal reserves are unbelievable.

Even if we consume that too, we should be fine so as long as there is wood. You can power cars and tanks with wood.


If we have no trees left... there are probably other, more pressing, concerns. For humans, that is.

The good thing about Earth is that there is life, not just humans. Other species may take our place if we fail, in time. Emphasis on may, since evolution doesn't guarantee this. But it seems that at least on this planet intelligence has been consistently rewarded (primates, birds, dolphins, octopuses).

If there is life, there will be an energy source. No matter what it is, that energy source can be harvested by machines too. It may take longer for a civilization to do so, depending on the difficulty of the power source. But in the end, it doesn't really matter. We are dealing with cosmological time scales after all.

Even dolphins would be able to develop an industrialized civilization. No coal needed, they can just exploit temperature gradients. Metalworking would be more difficult, but that's their problem to solve. Right after they solve fine object manipulation.

Hence I said 'bulk of fossil fuels', not 'some, but leave plenty of coal behind'.

In either case, the fossil fuels that are increasingly difficult / expensive to obtain now, in an era with comparatively abundant free energy, would be even more difficult / expensive to obtain in an energy-scarce world.

And yes, I'm aware that things can burn. As a species we've known how to burn things for a very long time, but the industrial revolution really only kicked off when we used coal to power steam engines. Wood - even charcoal - simply doesn't burn hot enough for much beyond food and brass.

> Even dolphins would be able to develop an industrialized civilization.

Well you've lost me there.

Indeed, I've read a long thread on a world building site where it seemed conclusive that a sea based intelligence could never discover some key technology like metallurgy without being bootstrapped by an external civilization... and dolphins don't have hands like octopus.

Dude, this is way out there, especially that dolphin part. Dolphins? They don’t got symbolic language.

I’m afraid we’re the only game in town.

Why? My instinct is the opposite: if 6 billion people die, we drop two orders of magnitude in biodiversity, most biomes die more or less completely (save a couple pioneer species) then we have 100 million people still living in nooks and crannies. Worst case in air conditioned spaces near nuclear plants. And those people re-engineer society in a more stable way.

That’s not a worst case or best case scenario, it’s a middle way. Worst case scenarios though could still include human survival through genetic modification (planet run by teenagers with bioengineered lungs) or underground air conditioned tunnels.

I just find total human extinction almost entirely implausible. Can you describe a scenario where that is the likely outcome?

It seems like 1000 PPM of CO2 is guaranteed, 5000 is theoretically possible but the lethal concentration for total human extinction is 10,000... is that even possible?

Or are we worried about temperature? Or cropland death?

> And those people re-engineer society in a more stable way.

I am envious of your optimism, but I see no evidence to suggest that small communities of highly stressed and resource-starved humans can produce anything better than a much larger number of relatively non-stressed humans with easy access to abundant resources.

I wasn't proposing any particular scenario that would cause a civilisational collapse, merely that a large supply of free, easy to obtain, high-density energy may be a prerequisite for any transition to an industrial age (and naturally all that may follow). I accept we only have one data point to hand, but it doesn't contradict this proposition.

This is a pretty scary thought. We have one shot. If we waste it our species won't escape the planet for another million years, if ever. If we manage it, the stars are our's.

If that isn't another low probability Great Filter, I don't know what is. Gravity is the ultimate cage.

If the knowledge survives, maybe clear-cutting forests will be enough of a boost to jump forward straight to renewables.

> the big ol' meteor that hit us some 60 million years ago helped not only kill off a bunch of that life to create oil

Most fossil fuels come from plankton and algae sediments deposited over millions of years, not from one big meteor impact.

> If oil were substantially less common, its feasible that we'd still live in a 1800s-esque society with some form of civilization development, but would we have radio? Certainly not space travel.

We don't have space travel now...

We... most certainly DO have space travel now.

Only for values of "travel" that consist entirely of beginning in a particular location, and then staying there.

Still counts as space travel.

In much the same way jumping counts as air travel.

I thought being in a plane in the air counted as air travel and being in a spacecraft in space counted as a space travel?

While we are capable of (human) space travel, it's currently only really for science. On the other hand, people travel by air all the time for practical reasons.

It's been a long time since humans were far enough from Earth that their spacecraft didn't experience significant atmospheric drag.

I don't get it... is this one of those "The moon landing was fake" things or are you like not aware that we've traveled to the moon?

For any meaningful sense of "space travel", the moon and the earth are not in different locations.

Nor are we able to stay on the moon, though that is a weaker point.

Depends on whether you consider the ISS to be a destination in space.

I think a civilization could make a pretty good go at things without fossil fuels. The 2 big use cases for fossil fuel are the temperature of the heat itself (for things like smelting), but also how simple it is to make a steam engine with energy dense fuels (cars/trains/planes/electricity). Temperature wise, a lot of metals can be smelted with clever oven design using wood/charcoal (though another planet wont have exactly wood, obviously). Energy wise, wind mills and water wheels have been in use for thousands of years, and after the discovery of electricity, its reasonably simple to turn that mechanical energy into electricity (using wood-smelted metals).

> Without lots of oil, we wouldn't have hit the industrial age

I don't think this is true. The industrial age was, to begin with, powered by solid fuel; charcoal and coke. The abundance of coal accelerated the industrial revolution, but is essentially fungible with charcoal derived from wood. Oil came somewhat later, and rather than enabling new applications, mostly just replaced the use of solid fuels. Rocketry was pioneered with non-fossil fuels such as alcohol, as oil refinement wasn't initially good enough to enable their use. Particularly, the sulphur content made it too corrosive.

More than anything industrialization seems to be predicated by innovation; particularly the revolutionary invention of machine tools, which allowed accurate machinery to be made. Early mills were powered by water and wind, later moving to solid fuelled steam engines.

> the big ol' meteor [...] set the stage for actual intelligent life

I'm not convinced by this. Although this freed up evolutionary niches and enabled the dominance of mammals over reptiles, and the mammalian neocortex is regarded as providing higher intelligent functioning, we have observed conventionally neocortical activities in reptiles and birds. The meteor may have actually delayed the development of high intelligence, as it wiped out the animals large enough to support the brain metabolism we expect to be necessary.

My pet theory to Fermi Paradox is much more bleak: This is a very very young universe and we are probably the first and the oldest advanced civilization.

We might have 'aliens' and ET beyond our visible universe but they are further down the timeline. Maybe, like you said, cellular life exists else where but they need billions more years to reach our stage.

I kind of am extremely weary of any kind of alien talk. Heaven's Gate and Scientology all revolve around some form of alien-worship, and they were and are extremely destructive and evil religions.

Don’t forget carbon in the biosphere was at historic lows before humans started freeing it. Carbon is permanently sequestered forever in the ocean by crustaceans, and without humans freeing up coal and oil, life would have slowly strangled. There will likely be no second chance for intelligent life after us.

You're ignoring that a very very small probability multiplied by a very very very large number (of galaxies, hence stars and hence planets) can be a very large number.

Check out this sobering talk by Dr Sid Smith where he says the same thing wrt oils and fossil fuels.


havent u heard of steampunk? ;)

The role of fungi in earth's ecology is endlessly fascinating.

In addition to laying the groundwork for complex life, there's evidence they helped in the emergence of intelligence and consciousness[1] as well as helping save honeybees[2]

[1] https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsif.2014... (pdf link)

[2] https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/10/09/446928755/co...

Can you explain more how your first link relates to the emergence of consciousness? I skimmed the linked paper and it didn't seem to be drawing any links with human history or evolution. I find both psychedelic drugs and the "hard problem" of consciousness to be deeply interesting, but I've never been persuaded by the Terence McKenna-type arguments that try to connect the two.

As I understand it, the research aims to show how the network effects of neurons compares between subjects that consumed a placebo vs those that consumed psilocybin from psychedelic fungi.

See also Terence Mckenna's stoned ape theory:



Yes it's "a little" out there, but I think it's actually quite plausible.

It's certainly interesting, but what is the explanation for how consuming Psilocybe mushrooms could have effects across generations? Is it that an organism having had that experience might have altered behavior leading to advantages in natural/sexual selection? Or that psilocybin literally alters something physiological or [epi]genetic? Basically how could psilocybin cause a permanent (since it has persisted long after humans stopped frequently consuming psilocybin, assuming that was ever a thing), multigenerational increase in intelligence over a very long period of time?

I think the theory kind of relies on the notion that there are certain 'inductive leaps' which are hard for the natural mind to make independently, but this knowledge can then be socially transmitted after induction with relative ease. Ex. "Rubbing sticks together a certain way makes fire" is fairly hard to discover with no a priori knowledge, but if demonstrated the meme propagates quickly.

Whether psychedelics are actually effective at producing 'inductive leaps' is something that is under-researched as a result of legal status. There were some very interesting study results around this from the 60s, but more research is needed (many used subjective measures). How can inductive leaps be quantified? Perhaps some sort of expert-peer-grading?

Well the simplest explanation is the classic nature vs. nurture, paired with selective breeding. If you are raised by hippie shroom eating chimp parents, you'll probably be attracted to a different sort of mate than if you are raised in a warrior clan. This sort of taming can happen within 3-4 generations and have permanent effects.

Dmitry Belyayev was able to produce a tame variety of the red fox within 4 generations of breeding: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitry_Belyayev_(zoologist)#Be...

It's not at all clear to me that humans, ancient or modern, are tamer than other great apes. Chimps in particular are notoriously violent (have you ever seen that picture of a shaved ape? That thing could tear you to shreds!), however other great apes are significantly more pleasant. Also modern humans have an incredible capacity for violence, and there is a lot of archeological evidence to suggest that ancient humans did as well.

He was also able to anti-tame them quite quickly as well.

I have a feeling an alien human researcher would say the same about us if they had witnessed a Walmart on a black Friday.

What takes foxes a number of generations to change, corporations can change in people just by altering incentives. This is the double edged sword of intelligence.

Demonstrating how we can "play god", to some degree, in some circumstances. Kinda makes you wonder if humans might be capable of more than the current state of affairs on this planet.

I would argue (and I think TM would agree) that the effects on the evolution of human society would be many times more important than any biological changes in individuals.

Saw that recently...it's cool, but there's no actual evidence that psilocybin has any of the positive evolutionary effects that Mckenna hypothesizes.

Sourcing evidence from prehistoric times is notoriously difficult. What we do know (or think we know, to be more accurate) is often pieced together from archeological finds and correlations of semi-related "facts" from various scientific fields, forming a theoretical model of "how things used to be". We do not know how accurate our models are (each person has their own).

> low doses of psilocybin improve visual acuity, particularly edge detection, meaning that the presence of psilocybin in the diet of early pack hunting primates caused the individuals who were consuming psilocybin mushrooms to be better hunters than those who were not, resulting in an increased food supply and in turn a higher rate of reproductive success.

> Then at slightly higher doses, he contended, the mushroom acts to sexually arouse, leading to a higher level of attention, more energy in the organism, and potential erection in the males, rendering it even more evolutionarily beneficial, as it would result in more offspring.

> At even higher doses, McKenna proposed that the mushroom would have acted to "dissolve boundaries," promoting community bonding and group sexual activities.

> At these higher doses, McKenna also argued that psilocybin would be triggering activity in the "language-forming region of the brain", manifesting as music and visions, thus catalyzing the emergence of language in early hominids by expanding "their arboreally evolved repertoire of troop signals."

I'm not saying we don't have evidence for what happened in prehistoric times. As you said, that's hard. But the above is the outline of Mckenna's theory, taken from wikipedia. My point, is that he makes a number of claims as to the effects of psilocybin - see above - and none of those claims of what the drug can do are backed up by evidence.

I assume that Mckenna may have been speaking from personal experience, that the drug improves visual acuity and can sexually arouse, but there's no evidence for it.

I always thought he was putting way more emphasis on the "visual acuity" part than it deserved, maybe he was grasping for something from the material science world to be able to include.

> that the drug improves visual acuity and can sexually arouse, but there's no evidence for it.

If you're referring to formal, peer reviewed studies, of course not. But the sexual arousal and community bonding aspects I'd say there's plenty of anecdotal information consistent with the possibility. This of course in no way proves that his theory has any validity to it on a historic basis, but it at least doesn't rule it out as being impossible.

The whole theory is best taken with a healthy quantity of salt (and it's best to listen to audio of it), but it is a really interesting theory/prediction. One's opinion of the plausibility is likely proportional to their experience with psychedelics, those with a lack of experience would likely have some difficulty with the "how" part.

> I'm not saying we don't have evidence for what happened in prehistoric times. As you said, that's hard. But the above is the outline of Mckenna's theory, taken from wikipedia. My point, is that he makes a number of claims as to the effects of psilocybin - see above - and none of those claims of what the drug can do are backed up by evidence.

So, what you're saying is that it's state-of-the-art work in the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology.

No. I'm saying that the effects of psilocybin claimed by Mckenna, and which are required for his theory, do not exist. Specifically, for example, psilocybin actually reduces vision, rather than improving it [1] : which invalidates Mckennas first quoted point above.

[1] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01965761

This isn't a question of "evolutionary psychology", but of neuroscience.

Am I following correctly?:

- psilocybin has been proven to reduce vision capabilities under all circumstances, and this is conclusively proven in that report?

- each of his contributing sub-theories must have been true (all are pre-requisites) for his overall theory to have some unrealized truth to it?

- there are conclusive studies demonstrating it is not possible for psilocybin to effect evolutionary psychology?

Just trying to get a clear understanding of what you are saying, and what you are not. Typing is such a low-bandwidth medium.

EDIT: -1, gosh I find it frustrating how difficult it seems to be to communicate with others on certain topics.


"The Dude" just 100,000 years earlier?

It is indeed. I'd also recommend giving this podcast [1] with Paul Stamets a listen. He's a fairly well-known mycologist who has some very interesting things to say on the topic.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPqWstVnRjQ

Stamets is an interesting guy who should never be considered an authority on anything other than the psychedelic experience. He's fun to listen to, but he's a total crank when it comes to actual reproducible science.

Interesting. I've recently gotten in to Paul Stamets and he certainly seems to be involved in a lot of research. He's also literally written the book (multiples, really) on mushroom cultivation. He started his career legally studying psychedelics through a DEA license at his university, but has since contributed to quite a bit of original research according to his own claims. He has said for example that he (in part or in whole, I can't recall) developed the method the DEA still uses for positively identifying psilocybin. It doesn't seem accurate to call him a crank. Indeed when I heard him discuss the "stoned ape theory" he said it makes sense to him, but that it is not provable in his opinion. Doesn't sound like a crank to me.

He is certainly an authority on mycology. He has found numerous species, identified mushrooms with antiviral activity for the DoD, created a mushroom-based bee-pest treatment, biological system for killing termites without poison, etc.

I wish people downvoting this comment would contribute to the discussion. Why not contribute?

I think in general Paul Stamets is not a scientist per se in the form of writing papers and doing academic research but it is hard to deny his influence as a popularizer of mycology. He also writes about the study and growing of mushrooms and these include the edible not just the psychoactive kind. I know he has done some bioremediation demonstrations but perhaps according to the poster these weren't performed with enough scientific rigor. Not everyone who studies and shares information about something does so from the confines of the traditional academic background and not everyone needs a PhD to be an expert about something so perhaps that is why some people are down voting.

Plenty of people manage to be conscious without taking mushrooms.

The idea is, culture teaches those people how to be conscious, and mushrooms bootstrapped the culture.

Not saying it’s correct, but that’s the hypothesis.

That's bullshit, people (and other animals) are conscious even without culture.

People without culture? I don't think that's a thing.

I also think comparing human level of consciousness to animal level of consciousness is a hard position to defend.

Anyway I guess you're missing the original point. What it theorizes is that some mushroom compounds might have had effect on our ancestors brains and helped them develop to what we are now, over long periods of time. A bit like agriculture or writing had a huge impact on our societies, but it's not a on/off switch, it's a very long gradual process.

I don't know if there is a lot of evidence supporting it, but it's not news that some drugs can temporarily or permanently reshape parts of our brains.

> People without culture? I don't think that's a thing.

It happens sometimes—feral children who are neglected or abandoned in various ways.

No culture would mean: no language, no domiciles, no songs, no clothing.

I’m not sure if that person would be more conscious than a dolphin, or a bear.

I acknowledge that this comment is probably low quality, but if you have ever taken magic mushrooms you realise that fungi are definitely linked to the emergence of consciousness.

This is like claiming that dripping drops of water on a circuit board, and observing that the electronics misbehave, somehow links it to the emergence of circuit design.


If you are a circuit board, getting some water on yourself would be one way to (potentially destructively) learn about what your design actually is.

Or fault injection or fuzzing, same idea. By making errors happen, you find out about possible errors that even can happen, and that tells you something about the overall design. Maybe the design cannot be fully determined this way, but a portion can be learned, maybe a portion unreachable by any other means (MRI, neural probes, etc) so research into the mind and consciousness by use of psychedelics does make sense.

It surely is in some ways. But in other ways, it sure seems like they have some sort of a special "relationship" (for utter lack of a better term) with consciousness.

Out of curiosity, have you tried them before?

> It surely is in some ways.

Yes, I agree.

I'm not convinced, from a system perspective, that disturbing a system by poking its most intimate internal parts, and in an unusual way, means that the disturbance was directly required or a part of the emergence of the system.

I will admit that this perspective is mostly logically pedantic and, perhaps naive, disregards the universal usage of psychedelics throughout human history.

I suppose the question would be, what's the evolutionary advantage to temporarily modifying your brains behavior? Any raw structural changes from the use wouldn't be passed to your offspring, leaving mostly social advantages. One could argue that sensitivity to these compounds could promote these advantages, leading to a natural selection of those with more sensitive, and perhaps necessarily more complicated, brains.

What's that social, or perhaps functional, advantage? Maybe epigenetics could have played a role, along with the occasional tribe saving, trip induced, insight?

I would very much enjoy any facts or ramblings on this topic, it's very interesting.

> have you tried them before?

No, just LSD.

> This is like claiming that dripping drops of water on a circuit board, and observing that the electronics misbehave, somehow links it to the emergence of circuit design.

Almost like claiming that smashing subatomic particles together might give insight into the relationships between and properties of said particles?

In my experience LSD is far different from Psilocybin, in that it "feels" more artificial, definitely does not give the same feeling of belonging to a greater organic whole that you may get with mushrooms.

Terrence McKenna has a theory on the evolutionary contributions psychedelics might have made: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terence_McKenna#%22Stoned_ape%...]

> Any raw structural changes from the use wouldn't be passed to your offspring, leaving mostly social advantages.

Not necessarily structural changes as a direct result of usage (but maybe), but I can easily see social changes resulting in structural changes via greater evolutionary success being passed down, as you note in your next sentence. This stuff is extremely complicated, we only have a rough idea of how it all works, and much of what we "know" is actually just theory.

> What's that social, or perhaps functional, advantage?

I would put my money on the notion that they promote things such as greater "wisdom" and behavioral strategies (via thoughtful meditation while normal neurological filters are reduced) resulting in more peaceful and successful coexistence between people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_gating https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/brain-babble/20150...

> No, just LSD.

Functionally more or less the same thing I would say.

totally. just the other day when I was tripping balls, I was thinking "Man are these fungi great chemists"

People who take mushrooms realise all sorts of things, like the existence of a UFO hiding behind Venus ready to take them to the Pleiades.

Every time studies are published, we redefine the way in which could be heading towards LUCA. Maybe life on earth existed way earlier then we expected and earth recycles everything over period of time that the traces of origin are gone.

I mean, biogeochemically, we know this to be the case. The earliest evidence of life are not fossils, but changes in atmospheric chemistry recorded in the geologic record.

There are some well reasoned arguments that life is utterly common and almost inevitable when conditions are even basically adequate.

There are also lot of theories which suggest that life started at multiple places on earth and each branch could have evolved in a very different way. More like a forest rather then single point of origin.

Sci-fi plot: Fungi are actually alien artificial life. They were designed as a huge family of microorganisms designed to recreate an alien biosphere. However, when they landed on earth, they encountered something which changed these plans.

In this vein, Fungi (the third kingdom) evolving to the dominant form of life is the premise in ‘Of Man and Manta’.


See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_Against_the_Chtorr

specifically the ontology described during a "pink storm" in A Day for Damnation. A fungal-like substance (the pink fuzz, which looks suspiciously like cottonwood storms south of Seattle) is the catalyst for the rest of the ecology.

I LOVED those books in high school! After rereading them a year or so ago, they are pretty indebted to Heinlein and Starship Troopers, but still entertaining. He also goes into preachy libertarian sometimes. This was the guy who wrote the "Trouble with Tribbles" Star Trek episode, which explored some of the same ideas.

Also, be prepared that the series was never completed (IIRC he had a son with autism that took time away from writing).

Also wrote The Flying Sorcerers with Larry Niven, relevant to the top comment, being about kickstarting an alien industrial revolution.

Without giving away too many spoilers, you might enjoy "The Expanse" books/series

That's not entirely far from the Fringe-ier parts of Star Trek: Discovery's plot.

Another theory is complex life exists because of viruses, and their ability survive and modify genetic material.

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