A Challenge to Categorical Thinking


You humans don’t get us. We remain an enigma to you. Most of you think we’re plants because we’re sedentary. You swarm the forests and pick us like berries. At the grocery store you put us between tomatoes and potatoes. In doing so you forget that we also appear as a gray film in your damp bathrooms, or more nastily, on your skin. We can be so animalistic! It’s time to bust open a couple old categories.

Our Latin name, fungus, originally referred to sponges, but because mushrooms and sponges are so similar, at some point we mushrooms got the name. Sponges live in water and are unequivocally recognized as animals. Whereas we continue to be seen as plants and get thrown into frying pans as such.

Of course, this is because so few people actually look at our DNA. It reveals that we’re more animal than plant. It also recounts that approximately 800 million years ago, our cellular lineage separated from the line humans would follow. Human evolutionary lineage separated from that of green plants much earlier on.

We mushrooms have cell walls in common with plants—animals and humans do not. What plants do that we don’t is photosynthesis, which draws life energy from the air. We on the other hand love to eat—just like humans and animals. In fact, we function just like the human small intestine, we are basically a single digestive organ. We break up our food with enzymes and absorb nutrients with our cell membranes. Important in doing so is as large an absorptive surface as possible, and precisely this is our specialty. Even the darling field mushrooms among us have filaments stretching for kilometers underground. These filaments, or hyphae: that’s us. What you call a mushroom is only our fruit. Our hyphae should not be confused with the roots of plants (which absorb water and minerals from the soil). No, we are hyphae, and we decompose the soil itself, eat and digest its biomass. That’s why we are so vulnerable to heavy metals, which are highly prevalent in most forest soils. That is, in turn, a reason why there are so many indoor sites for mushroom cultivation these days. This facilitates mass production, but it also maintains the soil quality. Not so romantic, of course.

Full disclosure: we mushrooms also have partnerships. They can be both sexual and asexual, just like yours. Our offspring originate from intimacy between male and female hyphae below ground, or more officially, above ground via the confluence of variously sexed spores. Some of us can reproduce without sex, via division, for example. Sometimes it’s reassuring that you humans can’t do that. Further, certain mushrooms enter into symbiosis with other species, such as the chanterelle and the beech or spruce tree – both partners profit from the bond. Other cases are entirely parasitic – one partner exploits the other until it dies. That’s nothing new for you though.

For you who have conceived all of life in the categories plant, animal, human, I realize the existence of something else seems unfathomable. But let’s face the fact that we—as opposed to you—do not allow ourselves to be assigned any other category. We recommend: plant, mushroom, animal. Considering our mass, altogether a quarter of the overall biomass of our planet, I think this breakdown is appropriate.

Where you belong is up to you.


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