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July 7, 2004 9:35 PM

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Sheldrake Online:

"Heresy," Discover Magazine, August 2000

A New Science of Life
by Rupert Sheldrake

The Presence of the Past
by Rupert Sheldrake

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals
by Rupert Sheldrake

Related Resources:

The Rebirth of Nature
by Rupert Sheldrake


Psychic Pets &
Their Human Companions

by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

"This infuriating tract... is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years."

"Sheldrake is putting forward magic [deleted text below], and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy."

Reading these quotes, one might think them made by a fire-and-brimstone clergyman. One would be wrong. The speaker was Sir John Maddox, Emeritus Editor of the scientific journal Nature, speaking of fellow scientist Rupert Sheldrake. (The aforementioned deleted text was "instead of science.")

What could cause such a man of learning and knowledge to advocate book burning? What justifies condemning a new idea, as Galileo was condemned?

Rupert Sheldrake

Sheldrake's father was a pharmacist and an amateur microscopist. He learned at an early age to appreciate the beauty of nature. Between his pets and his experiments with the microscope, his course for the future was set.

Naturally, such a man studied biology. He received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge University, going on to study in various related fields.

But life doesn't go as we expect when young. He began to realize that something had gone wrong. The science he was studying had no bearing on what he had loved. This was most clear in his time at a pharmaceutical company, where his primary duty was to gas and incinerate the test animals.

In search of a broader perspective he got a fellowship to study philosophy and the history of science. Years later, he got involved with a Cambridge-based group known as the Epiphany Philosophers: scientists who studied the connections between science, philosophy, and spirituality.

It was through this group that Sheldrake would develop his most significant theory, which was nothing short of revolution. He proposed, in his 1981 book A New Science of Life, that the mechanistic theory of life was wrong.

Theories of Life

Since Descartes, science has been based on the principle of mechanism: the belief that living organisms are elaborate machines that can be understood purely in terms of the physico-chemical processes that take place within them.

This method is useful because it works. We can ask a question about the physical structure of something and get an answer for it. The problem is that it does not allow us to learn anything outside of the purely physical. In fact, according to the mechanistic theory, there is nothing beyond the physical, so any such question is meaningless. There are two primary theories that conflict with mechanism.

Vitalism is the belief that there is some non-physical force at work, some vital "stuff" that is outside of the physical laws of inanimate systems. Living organisms, vitalists say, have some additional causal factor at work. There are some good points to be made for vitalism (and many negative ones), but since Sheldrake's theory isn't vitalistic I won't go into that here.

Organicism is a belief that physical systems have an order which, at any given level of complexity, cannot be fully understood purely by the elements that compose it. In other words, the whole is more than merely the sum of its parts. Each whole can be seen as an "organism" in its own right. The difference between this and vitalism is that it doesn't presume causal influence outside of physics and chemistry. The morphic theory that Sheldrake proposes is one type of organicism.

Morphic Fields

The theory of morphic fields was independently posed in the 1920's by three scientists: Hans Spemann, Alexander Gurwitsch, and Paul Weiss. These theories were originally posed to explain aspects of development not fully understood in terms of chemistry and genetics. How can chemical processes create an arm and a leg when they are chemically identical? The morphic fields posed by Gurwitsch, for example, were to explain the development of mushrooms from separate fungal threads.

The idea of morphic fields is that they are passed from parent to child within a species. In conjunction with genetic traits, they pass hereditary information.

Sheldrake incorporated a concept known as morphic resonance. With morphic resonance, all morphic fields of a similar type can trade information. Also, this morphic resonance contains the cumulative information of the past.

There are two ways in which to look for these fields. The first is indirect: searching for the influences of morphic resonance on lifeforms. The second is direct: searching for evidence of the fields themselves. Sheldrake's research has been indirect, although he is considering more direct research methods.

The full extent of the theory is beyond this article's scope. It encompasses embryonic development, evolution, learning, cognition, memory, cultural formation, and much more. But there is one aspect of the theory that I will be focusing on.

What Pets Can Do

One of Sheldrake's more innovative research methods is how extensively he looks at our pets. Sheldrake has interviewed pet owners, animal trainers and breeders, and others who have close association with pets. In his most recent book, he explores these case histories in detail, proposing explanations for them.

The behaviors discussed include: animals waiting for their owners' return, knowing when their owners are in danger or dead, taking long journeys through unknown terrain, exhibiting directional awareness (as in a pigeon's homing ability), and displaying precognition.

Sheldrake doesn't rely solely on case histories, but also documents research done in this area, including research done in an attempt to discredit his results. He is a precise experimentalist and is careful to make clear what other factors could taint the results. Regardless, he has taken pains to control as many factors as he can, so his findings are enough to give one pause.

Statistical analysis of the times when some pets wait for their owners show that they seem to begin waiting at the time when the decision was made to come home. This happened in many cases even when the owner was told to come home by a telephone call at random times (out of range of the pet). Among the case histories, there are examples of animals waiting when no one in the house had any idea a person was coming -- such as when a son was given unexpected medical leave from the military.
There are also cases where the animal begins to wait and then seems to stop. In these cases, it corresponds to a person deciding to come home but then changing their mind or getting distracted.

The full range of what he discusses is rather fascinating, but these examples give an idea of the sort of events he is looking into. I imagine that most people who have pets need little more convincing that pets can do amazing things.

How Pets Do It

To explain these findings, Sheldrake turns to his morphic fields. The fields "contain a built-in memory given by self-resonance with a morphic unit's own past and by morphic resonance with all previous similar systems." The fields are able, therefore, to habituate a pattern of activity that has been repeated over time. Some of these abilities -- such as homing, migration, and spawning in certain species -- become instinctive to the species.

He also explores the idea of "social morphic fields" that can bind pets to their owners. When the two are separated, the field stretches, continuing to bind the two organisms and allow information to pass between them. Social fields can exist within a species, of course, but in the case of pets the bond forms with the owner.

These fields would exist all around us, but animals seem to be more in tune with them (although he does look into many instances of humans having similar experiences). We would be connected to our closest friends by social morphic fields, explaining such phenomena as answering the phone and knowing who it is going to be.

A similar thing recently happened to me. During the RG, I thought of a friend that I have not spoken to in many months. When I returned home on Sunday, I found a phone message from that friend. It had been left at around the time that I had thought of her. This has happened to me on a several occasions. Sheldrake's morphic field theory would explain these as more than just coincidences.

Final Words

Is this theory so profoundly irrational? If the theory fits the facts, explaining phenomena that many people document, and cannot be disproven, is it "magic instead of science"? Does it deserve to be condemned merely because it questions our foundations of science?

Or is it possible that we should question the foundations of science? Shouldn't we constantly seek out new, original explanations for things, and see where it takes us? The true nature of scientific thought is exploring the boundaries of knowledge and stepping outside of the confines of the established scientific paradigm. This is what all the truly great minds of science have done and it is how we, as creatures of thought and reason, should also look at the world.

© 2001 by Andrew Zimmerman Jones