Metaphorically Speaking

Metaphors bias our conception of the other; yet, there is no other way to effectively speak of the other than through metaphor, given that our culture by definition will have no words for it, having no prior experience of being other. This inevitably biases any manner of inquiry into the other.

Back in a forest, hunting for truffles, I found myself once again searching for language to describe the lives of these remarkable organisms. Perfumers and wine tasters use metaphors to articulate differences in aromas. A chemical becomes “cut grass,” “sweaty mango,” “grapefruit and hot horses.” Without these references, we would be unable to imagine it. [...]. Correlating human language with an odor involves judgment and prejudice. Our descriptions warp and deform the phenomena we describe, but sometimes this is the only way to talk about features of the world: to say what they are like but are not. Might this also be the case when we talk about other organisms?

Boil it down and there aren’t many other options. Fungi may not have brains, but their many options entail decisions. Their fickle environments entail improvisation. Their trials entail errors. Whether in the homing response of hyphae within a mycelial network, the sexual attraction between two hyphae in separate mycelial networks, the vital fascination between a mycorrhizal hypha and a plant root, or the fatal attraction of a nematode to a fungal toxic droplet, fungi actively sense and interpret their worlds, even if we have no way of knowing what it is like for a hypha to sense or interpret. Perhaps it isn’t so strange to think of fungi as articulating themselves using a chemical vocabulary, arranged and rearranged in such a way that it might be interpreted by other organisms, whether nematode, tree root, truffle dog, or New York restaurateur. Sometimes—as with truffles—these molecules might translate into a chemical language we can, in our way, understand. The vast majority will always pass over our heads, or under our feet.

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It is well-established in the sciences that metaphors can help to generate new ways of thinking. The biochemist Joseph Needham described a working analogy as a “net of coordinates” that could be used to arrange an otherwise formless mass of information, much as a sculptor might use a wire frame to provide support for wet clay. The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin pointed out that it is impossible to “do the work of science” without using metaphors, given that almost “the entire body of modern science is an attempt to explain phenomena that cannot be experienced directly by human beings.” Metaphors and analogies, in turn, come laced with human stories and values, meaning that no discussion of scientific ideas—this one included—can be free of cultural bias.

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entangled-life Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. ↩︎ 1 2