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Cross-Cultural Psychology

Why We Should Be Pleased When There's a Fungus Among Us

Michael Hathaway's book explains the hidden lives of mushrooms and much more.

Key points

  • "What a Mushroom Lives For" explains how the world looks to mushrooms and how these fungi shape numerous ecosystems and human cultures.
  • The next time you eat a mushroom, Hathaway's book may make you wonder what it is like to be a mushroom and appreciate these fungi in new ways.
  • His book carefully explains a global “mushroom renaissance" and argues against human exceptionalism.
Source: Princeton University Press, used with permission
Source: Princeton University Press, used with permission

When Dr. Michael Hathaway's new book What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make arrived at my door, I made the mistake—as many people do—of deciding to flip through it and add it to my ever-growing "to be read" pile. Three hours later, I was still "flipping through it" and was hoping he could take the time to answer a few questions about his fascinating book that has aptly been described as follows: "A surprise-filled journey into science and human culture, this exciting and provocative book shows how fungi shape our planet and our lives in strange, diverse, and often unimaginable ways." Michael's discussion of mushrooms as dynamic "actors" made me think deeply about how mushrooms, other fungi, and all sorts of flora and nonhuman animals are anything but mere automatons.

Here's what he had to say about his journeys into a world about which I previously knew next to nothing.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write What a Mushroom Lives For?

Michael Hathaway: I wrote this book because I was part of an amazing collaborative group of anthropologists who went around the world to study this one mushroom, called “matsutake” by the Japanese who deeply love them and highly value them. We are called the Matsutake Worlds Research Group, and Anna Tsing had already written her amazing book, The Mushroom at the End of the World. We agreed to create a trilogy, following this mushroom, and I was up for the second book. However, at one point, I just started to get fascinated with the world as experienced by fungi themselves, so not just as delicious or poisonous things, but deeply complex life forms. This led me to spend several years doing a deep dive into reading scientific studies on how fungi carry out their lives.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

MH: As an anthropologist, I was trained to study human cultures, so that part came easily to me: I spent years living in Southwest China, speak Mandarin Chinese, and was deeply interested in the lives of the Yi and Tibetan people who live there. I was also a passionate mushroom hunter, but I had not really thought before about the life world of the mushrooms themselves. I was also trained to study science in an anthropological way, trying to decode how scientists’ cultural assumptions might influence how they approached their questions and experiments.1

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

MH: The book describes mushrooms as “world makers.” Usually, many think of humans as the only species that can actively make worlds come into being. However, I wanted to show that even mushrooms are constantly acting in the world and making lots of decisions. I also show how collectively, these mushrooms’ actions are deeply shaping the world we live in, helping create a green planet. I give a new history of how life on the planet evolved, where life moved from the oceans to the land, and the atmosphere became filled with oxygen. Mushrooms were a key part to these stories, and yet few of us have heard this.

I was also surprised to learn that of all the cultures in the world, the British have been some of the most “myco-phobic,” fearing mushrooms. I realized that my own Anglo-American upbringing was shaped by this legacy, and my parents and neighbors were nervous when as a child, I started to eat wild mushrooms. When I went to live in China for the first time, I was dazzled by the mushroom markets with dozens of wild species, and this was my first experience in a “myco-philic” culture that loved eating them and had found many powerful medicines among them. My book helps show how this British legacy might have shaped the science around mushrooms, tending to see them more as agents of disease rather than the critical life partners they are to almost all plants on Earth.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

MH: I am excited about what some call a “mushroom renaissance” happening these days. There is booming interest in mushrooms, as new foods (including as alternatives to animal meat), medicines, and even sources of building material or as ways to remediate pollution such as cleaning up oil spills. What I think makes my book different is that I open up more of the life world of mushrooms themselves, showing us how they interpret the world, and engage with trees, insects, and other mushrooms. I think most books still take a more human-centered approach, showing how mushrooms can be useful for us. That’s fine in part because we have often ignored mushrooms or been afraid of them, it’s important to appreciate their potential value to us. Yet, I do find it quite mind-bending and wonderful to deeply imagine and begin to understand the life worlds of other organisms, our relatives. Even in the heart of a big city, I delight in the lichens that quietly live on buildings and sidewalks.

Many people see mushrooms as being so different from people, but don’t know that like us they breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide and they need to eat other living things.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the fascinating lives of mushrooms, they'll appreciate them more and not only look at them as a delicious food item?

MH: Yes, so much! I hope that we start to shift away from what some people call “human exceptionalism,” basically the idea that humans are totally different from all other animals, or even all other organisms. I think, Marc, that your writings have been so powerful in helping us to appreciate the complex emotional lives of our fellow animals, and I know you are now interested in plants. I think it is important that we start challenging this assumption that only humans have language, culture, intelligence, and so forth and we recognize other living beings as having their own intrinsic worth and complexity. A lot of us feel this, but many scientists were trained to be skeptical of seeing other animals as being human-like. I think we do need to be careful about this. As an anthropologist who sees so many ways to be human in this world, with thousands of cultures, I am also interested in the diversity of ways of being animal, plant, and fungal. We are only just starting on this journey to open up these other worlds and deeply appreciate their own wonderful distinctions.


In conversation with Dr. Michael Hathaway, Professor of Anthropology at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Associate Member of the School for International Studies, and the Director of SFU's David Lam Centre for Asian Studies.

1) I am hoping to connect with a wide readership. I have a few pages that are fairly academic, where I get down deep into some philosophical questions about how we know what we know about the world, but overall, the book describes my own journey of discovery, so it shows how my view of the world started to change. I think readers can relate and see how my whole perspective was shifted by the mushrooms. I was delighted that Anna Tsing’s book reached a wide audience, inspiring artists and many others, and was translated into a dozen languages.

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