Sunday, November 18, 2012

100 Books #110 - Nicholas P. Money's TRIUMPH OF THE FUNGI: A ROTTEN HISTORY

When the author gets out of his own way and just lets us enjoy his material, Triumph of the Fungi: A Rotten History is as interesting and entertaining a book on the subject as one could wish. From Dutch Elm disease to the Potato Blight, Money surveys the history of fungal plant pathogens and their economic and aesthetic impact on the landscape in just the right amount of detail; one feels like a mycologist but isn't having to slog through a lot of soil chemistry data, which is enormously appealing to a lay reader like me.

What isn't appealing is a prevalence of what I can only describe as authorial snottiness; Money lets his personal opinion intrude on his storytelling just enough to be annoying, if not downright offensive: in his speculations about the origins of Dutch Elm disease, for instance, he tells us "I'm all in favor of blaming the Chinese, but in this instance they seem faultless"; pages later, describing the efforts of an early pioneer in research on a disease that all but wiped out coffee production on Ceylon/Sri Lanka, a pioneer who just happened also to be a reverend, he describes him as "a curate with presumable devotion to Christian superstitions" for really no reason at all other than to sound like a jerk, it feels like (to this reader, anyway).* Honestly, I can't believe an editor let stuff like this slide. Once I noticed this tendency, I couldn't stop seeing it, which often spoiled my enjoyment of a book for whom I am exactly the audience.

This is especially frustrating because the book is also full of fascinating bombshells of insight, as when Money points out how the results of a lot of early researchers in to Dutch Elm Disease had their results pretty much ignored because they were women, and a lot of dumb theories and ideas that came from men got credence, "frustrated progress in understanding the nature of the problem." Or when one Thomas Lipton -- yeah, that Thomas Lipton -- saw opportunity on Ceylon and started buying up rust-fungus-ruined coffee plantations to grow cheap tea on.* Or that "Plant pathologists can serve a [sic] excellent vectors of fungal disease." Or that the chromosomes packed into the zoospores of the potato blight fungus contain around 22,500 genes (for comparison, human chromosomes encode around 24,000).

See? Fascinating!

And we won't even talk about the chapter on chocolate. Oh my!** (Well, okay, maybe a little "...imagine massively swollen gentials in response to an infection of  your pituitary gland and you'll grasp a human analogue of this plant disease.")

But then the obnoxiousness makes a return in a chapter about fungal pathogens on rubber trees, in which the author makes as many condom jokes as he possibly can and throws in one about an exporter waiting anxiously for a rubber stamp in a colonial office. Har.

Overall, though, this is a great read. I especially appreciate the criticisms of modern agriculture that are gently buried in this text: fungal disease epidemics only really happen in monocultures; the bigger the plantation**, the bigger the problem. And while Money (wonderful name for a writer about economic threats such as these, eh) never says it outright, really, the worst thing that ever happened to these plants we exploit isn't really the fungi; it's us. Or maybe we're the best thing. Maybe these plants, like some have said that maize/corn does, are actually exploiting us, giving us a little something useful in exchange for our efforts to spread them, keep them bug and disease free, and in general let them take over the earth at the expense of other plants not "smart" enough to provide something we find useful or tasty?

And then, maybe, aren't the fungi the really smart ones, since they've let us humans do all the work of setting them vast banquet tables for them to enjoy?

Lots to think about, when we think about fungi, no?

*Oddly, the victim of this barb, Rev. Miles Berkeley, gets spoken of in seriously glowing terms later in the book. So, you know, why even make a remark like that in the first place? Once I got to the chapter wherein Money describes Berkeley as a "great man" all I could think about was this stupid dis earlier in the book. ARGH.

**And this after Lipton got into the retail business after his family fled the potato famine in Ireland, so "it might be said that Lipton was an improbable beneficiary... of two of history's worst fungal epidemics."

***Theobroma cacao... food of the gods, threatened by, among other things, Witches' broom/escoba de bruja.

****Some nicely subtle digs at slavery there, too.


  1. When you mentioned this on twitter, I was thinking about human fungal diseases, and I didn't think I'd want to read about those. ;) This does sound interesting.

    1. Hee hee. Yeah, that might be a bit nastier, but still kind of gruesomely fascinating. This guy has written a bunch of other books about fungi, so maybe that will happen!


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