The Scientist as Heretic
When Biologist Rupert Sheldrake published his first and only hook, A New Science of Life, in 1981, the academic community almost literally went ape. Nature—the most prestigious scientific journal in the English-speaking world—fulminated that “this infuriating tract … is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years”; to make sure that nobody missed the point, the editors repeated this call for an auto da fe in a banner headline: “A BOOK FOR BURNING.” Other outcries of rage came from all sectors of the scientific community—bout so did voices coming to Dr. Sheldrake’s defense, including New Scientist magazine, Brain/Mind Bulletin, the late Arthur Koestler, and Nobel physicist Dr. Brian Josephson. The Tarrytown Conference Center in New York has offered a $10,000 prize for the best experiment to confirm or refute Sheldrake’s theory, a Dutch foundation has added another $5,000, and the letters columns of science magazines are full of debate, pro and con. At the age of 41, Rupert Sheldrake—a former director of biochemistry studies at Cambridge University—is the most controversial scientist on Earth.
What is at stake in the Sheldrake scandale is a testable scientific hypothesis which, if confirmed, will knock the underpinnings from the materialist theory of the universe. It would also build a conceptual bridge from psychology to quantum mechanics, almost creating, what physicists call a GUT (a “Grand Unified Theory”) which could have implications for every field of scientific investigation, and for religion, philosophy, and daily life as well. And the first two experiments that have attempted to test Sheldrake’s theory have tended to verify it.
The Sheldrake hypothesis is that in addition to the fields already known to science—the gravitational field, the electromagnetic field, etc.—there are in nature morphogenetic fields, which he defines as “invisible organizing structures that mold or shape things like crystals, plants and animals, and also have an organizing effect on behavior.” These morphogenetic fields contain information gathered from all past history and evolution—somewhat in the manner of Freud’s “racial memory,” Jung’s “collective unconscious,” or, for that matter, Timothy Leary’s “neurogenetic circuit.” Biological theory considers the passing of such specific “memories” through the genes to be an impossibility. Sheldrake, however, sidesteps that problem by claiming that his fields exist apart from material structures entirely.
To clarify his point, Dr. Sheldrake often uses the analogy of a TV set. The approach taken by conventional biology and genetics, he says, is comparable to explaining the workings of the TV in local and mechanistic terms—as if the pictures on the screen came from specified circuits within the individual TV set. Actually, that TV set (and all others) receives invisible information from a nonlocal source: a TV studio broadcasting from somewhere else. Our brains are like these TV sets, says Sheldrake, and morphogenetic fields broadcast information to us in a similarly nonlocal manner.
This is where Sheldrake’s critics are most alarmed. If such an idea is feasible, they point out, there is no reason why telepathy could not exist, no reason why prayer cannot be effective, no reason why all sorts of religious and superstitious notions might not he true … They view Sheldrake, then, as an enemy of science, an enemy of materialism, a Trojan Horse trying to smuggle metaphysics back into the world of science after they thought it had been stamped out. To all of which Sheldrake replied, with a gentle smile, that his theory will stand or fall on experimental evidence and he is content to wait for that verdict.
An even more controversial part of Sheldrake’s hypothesis is his concept of morphic resonance, which holds that similar structures can be in communication across time and space via morphogenetic fields. This concept is known in anthropology as the theory of “the magical link” and is regarded as characteristic of primitive societies; it explains why a shaman believes that sticking pins in a doll will cause pain to the person whom the doll represents. Sheldrake says that whether morphic resonance would justify such shamanic beliefs is a question that remains to he answered; his theory merely asserts that there are widely known examples in biology and crystal chemistry where some such nonlocal resonance seems to he occurring. The following interview examines some of this evidence; meanwhile, Sheldrake’s general approach has received unexpected support from a series of recent experiments by quantum physicist Alain Aspect, which showed that similar nonlocal connections, not explicable in mechanical terms, do occur at the subatomic level.
Rupert Sheldrake was a plant physiologist and a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, with degrees from Cambridge and Harvard, when he first went to Asia in 1968 to study tropical plants. The exposure to alternative philosophies there, he says, brought to the surface his long-festering doubts about the completeness and adequacy of materialism. Since 1974 he has lived in India most of the time, continuing his scientific research and studying Hindu and Moslem philosophies, including Sufism.
Interviewer Robert Anton Wilson found Sheldrake “surprisingly youthful-looking” and says: “He seems modest, generous in his judgments, and totally free of bitterness toward those who have so roundly denounced him. Unlike other scientific heretics I have met, he is not in the least grandiose, has no resentments against his critics, and never once compared himself to Galileo. His attitude seems to be: ‘I have had a remarkable idea. Now let’s do the research and find out if I’m right!’ A cat climbed around on him and his chair while we spoke, and he petted it affectionately. I had the feeling that he had considerable experience with meditation: he seemed centered, free of nervous fidgets, totally at one with me and my questions. Most of his answers began with a soft ‘hmm’ sound and a pause, as he thought care-fully before speaking.”
Robert Anton Wilson: Let’s begin with the first data you found to support your ideas—William McDougall’s rat experiments at Harvard back in the 20s. Can you describe these experiments briefly?
Rupert Sheldrake: Well, McDougall first began to test learning in rats by running them through a water maze. Twenty-two generations of rats later, he found that even rats descended from parents selected for being generally slow learners were finding the solution to this same maze almost ten times faster than the first generation had. There is no explanation for this within existing biology. My hypothesis is that the information was carried to the later-generation rats by the morphogenetic fields, invisible pattern-making structures in nature. Incidentally, McDougall’s experiments were later repeated in Scotland and Australia, and then even the first generation of rats mastered the same maze as fast as McDougall’s fastest learners. You can see that such data badly need an explanation: information is getting transmitted across time and space that seems to affect all rats; it cannot be transmitted by genes, so I am suggesting a field that can serve as transmitting agent.
Wilson: Most of the criticisms of your theory that I’ve seen suggest that this sort of nonlocal action, or action-at-a-distance, is metaphysical and “spooky.” What is your answer to such objections?
Sheldrake: I have not come across that kind of objection from physicists. They are accustomed to dealing with elusive and invisible and peculiar fields; in modern physics, there isn’t any solid matter anymore. In quantum field theory, for instance, all the fundamental particles within the atom seem to be governed by mysterious and most peculiar fields. My problem is mostly with people who actually don’t know very much about science, people who aren’t conversant with existing field theories.
Wilson: Most criticism seems to come from biologists, doesn’t it?
Sheldrake: Oh, yes. But if you look at the mechanistic theories that many biologists use to explain living processes, you will see that they are reducing things to the categories of nineteenth-century physics and chemistry. Mechanistic is the last survival of the nineteenth-century worldview in science, a kind of living fossil.
Wilson: You have spoken of your theory of morphic resonance as showing that “like influences like.” Isn’t that part of what alarms your critics? It sounds very much like magical thinking, and like the medieval hermeticists with their tables of “correspondences” showing how Mars is like Tuesday and both are like the color red and therefore, if you wear red on Tuesday, you’ll become martial.
Sheldrake: I admit my theory is similar to certain things in the hermetic tradition, but I don’t see what’s wrong with that. Newton’s concept of gravity as action-at-a-distance strongly resembled the hermetic astrological tradition; we know he read hermetic treatises about the influence of the moon and the planets on Earth, and that did encourage him to think about the invisible field he called gravity. There may be similar links between hermeticism and what I am saying about morphogenetic fields—but when I say “like influences like,” I don’t mean anything as baroque as that. I am talking about things that really are alike—about rats influencing rats (as in the experiments we mentioned earlier), or about crystals influencing crystals. There is a great mystery about crystal growth, in that once a crystal is created, it immediately becomes easier and quicker to duplicate it elsewhere. The conventional explanation is that molecules are carried about from laboratory to laboratory on the clothing of migratory chemists. I think my morphogenetic fields are more plausible than all those hypothetical migratory chemists.
Wilson: Aside from the rat experiments, and the mysterious appearance of what looks like “learning” in crystals, what experiments have been directly influenced by your theory, and how have they worked out?
Sheldrake: Brain/Mind Bulletin has cooperated in a test in which their readers attempted to memorize three rhymes. One was a Japanese nursery rhyme, the second was a poem by a contemporary Japanese poet, and the third was deliberate gibberish. According to the morphogenetic field theory, the traditional nursery rhyme, having been memorized by millions and millions of Japanese children over many generations, should have created a morphic resonance which would make it measurably easier to memorize than the others. The results aren’t all in yet, but preliminary reports do suggest strongly that the traditional nursery rhyme was, in fact, learned most quickly. More recently, there was the “hidden faces” experiment.
Wilson: That was a test in which people tried to find hidden faces in pictures that looked like abstract art or random doodles?
Sheldrake: Yes. First we took two such pictures and ran tests in various countries and found out what proportion of people were to find the hidden faces with one minute to look at each. Then we showed one of the pictures on English TV, and explained to the program’s several million viewers how to find the hidden face. In the third test, we showed both pictures to groups of people outside England—people who hadn’t seen the TV show—and found out what proportion could find the faces in each picture.
Wilson: And what happened?
Sheldrake: The total number of people able to find the face in the picture not shown on TV increased by only 9 percent, which is not statistically significant. The total number of people getting the answer in the other picture, the one that was shown on TV, increased by 76 percent.
Wilson: How would you evaluate that result?
Sheldrake: Statistically, the probability is less than 1 in 100 that this result was obtained by chance. Of course, this experiment can only be regarded as preliminary, and I’m sure critics will explain the results in a way that excludes the possibility of morphic resonance. Nonetheless, I find it encouraging, and I hope to set up a much larger experiment along these lines in the near future.
Wilson: Some will say you are describing a kind of mass telepathy.
Sheldrake: Yes, the hidden-face experiment can be called mass telepathy—and the rat experiments too, for that matter. But then you would have to ask what we mean by telepathy. You would have to ask where telepathy ends and morphic resonance begins, or if they are two aspects of the same thing.
Wilson: Whether one calls it mass telepathy or morphic resonance, if it is going on all the time, isn’t there a sinister aspect to that? Some people deliberately avoid looking at violence or terrorism on TV because they believe such images “pollute the mind.” If you’re right, the images are getting at them anyway.
Sheldrake: Well, yes; I would say it is fairly clear that we can’t separate ourselves from the violence in the rest of the world. It’s around us and within us. We can’t separate ourselves from the society that is producing nuclear weapons. We’re all paying taxes. Every time we buy a post-age stamp, which is a tax, we’re perpetuating the system that generates those weapons, so we’re all part of it. If the morphogenetic fields work as I suggest, knowing that may be a good thing, because we need to realize that we are part of humanity, and that “no man is an island.” We can’t cut ourselves off, and we should know it.
Wilson: Still, it does seem creepy when one thinks about it. On the way here, I passed a theater which was showing Psycho II, which is a film I will never inflict on my nerves and glands. It is spooky to think that, when enough masochists sit through that carnage, the effect will reach out and get me, if you are right. Doesn’t that appall you?
Sheldrake: Well, it won’t get at you automatically. The rats in Australia were trying to solve the same maze as McDougall’s rats at Harvard; the people in the hidden-face experiment were looking for the hidden faces. I think you have to tune in, to focus, for morphic resonance to occur. There is no evidence that people started hallucinating those hidden faces, or dreaming about them at night. They had to be asked to look.
Wilson: On the positive side, there have been studies in the U.S. which claim to show that when a lot of people in a community start meditating, the crime rate in that community goes down. Could that also he morphic resonance?
Sheldrake: Well, one could say that. But I don’t regard morphogenetic fields as being dependent on distance, so one would have to explain why people meditating in a suburb of Chicago create only a local effect. According to my hypothesis, the effect should spread equally all around the world. Why should it be localized in the suburb where the meditators happen to park their cars? Even traditional ideas of prayer do not regard prayer as falling off in an inverse-square law, like Newton’s gravity.
Wilson: Christian Scientists would say the effect was local in those experiments because the meditators were aiming at a local effect. They would say that the effect could spread all over the world if it were “aimed” that way.
Sheldrake: Well, if the meditators are concentrating on a local effect, that would explain why they get a local effect. That’s one possible explanation, I mean. Most people who comment on those experiments never ask why they work.
Wilson: What seems really radical in your theory is the idea that the laws of nature are not eternal and changeless. Every other system I’ve encountered, scientific or philosophical, always posits an unchanging something-or-other as its fundamental reality, yet you have an evolving something.
Sheldrake: Yes, exactly. What we call “laws of nature” may be only habits. The radical idea in my work is that everything is not fixed by timeless laws. In fact, the morphogenetic fields get a steady feedback from the world, so that these fields are continually modified. It is not a one-way process from fixed forms to phenomena, but a two-way process of con-stant change and development. Because of the extraordinary influence of Plato and Pythagoras on Western thought, the ideas of change and evolution are always getting lost in our attempts to describe them in unchanging laws. But my position is not unique. The idea of a changing reality is found in some offshoots of Buddhist philosophy in the East, and in Hegel, Bergson, and Whitehead in the West.
Wilson: Your fields make a feedback loop between what we usually call “mind” and “matter” This does open the possibility that the laws of nature can be changed by mental activity. Brian Josephson, who won the Nobel in 1973, has suggested that something of the sort may be happening in quantum mechanics—that physicists are creating the quantum effects they observe. Thinking this can give one an awesome sense of responsibility. The morphogenetic field does suggest that, to some extent, each of us is influencing the rest of the universe forever, does it not?
Sheldrake: It gives one pause for thought just to realize that one’s mental activity is affecting other people. However broadly or narrowly one interprets the morphogenetic field, it does give one a greater sense of responsibility, not only for our actions but also for our thoughts.
Wilson: It reminds me of the Christian doctrine that we should be charitable in our thoughts as well as our deeds. It also makes me think of the Buddhist concept of karma. In fact, your critics all seem to suspect you of trying to smuggle religion in the back door after they threw it out the front. What is your own religious background?
Sheldrake: My parents were devout Christians. I rebelled against that around the age of thirteen, when I came to the conclusion that most of it was rubbish. This came about because of the impact of biology; I was already interested in science in general and in biology in particular. I thought religion was all superstition and would be swept aside by the march of reason, as represented by my science masters at school. They themselves furthered this development, which was defined by them as liberating me from a superstitious frame of reference. The standard materialistic and mechanistic view influenced me for mane years—for at least fifteen years. Of course, I always thought materialism had certain limitations, as most materialists in fact do think, but it seemed more nearly right and more plausible than any other view I came across. I suppose my doubts about materialism came mostly from studying the development of form in plants at Cambridge, where I came up against the problems that reveal the limits of that kind of explanation. All scientific materialists know those limits; their faith is that better materialistic models will eventually he produced and we will then remove the limits. But then one begins to wonder if maybe we need not better models of the materialist sort but a different kind of model entirely. Then there were other influences on me—philosophical ideas, traveling in Asia and becoming exposed to other cultural perspectives. When I went to the University of Malaya in 1968 to study tropical plants, I encountered all sorts of points of view that were not familiar to me, and that had quite an influence. After I moved to India in 1974, I became increasingly interested in the varieties of Hindu and Moslem philosophy. I now consider myself a Christian—predominantly an Anglican.
Wilson: Your theory is based on biology chiefly, but at one end of the stick, so to speak, it seems to join up with Jungian concepts in psychology, and at the other end of the stick, it is strikingly similar to nonlocal theories in quantum mechanics. Did you realize that you were creating such a wide and inclusive new paradigm?
Sheldrake: Only gradually. As you say, I started with specific problems in biology and formed a new hypothesis—morphic resonance acting through time. Of course, then I had to ask myself, If there are such field effects in plants and animals, why not in people, too? That’s where my work begins to link up with Jung. And then, going in the other direction, I asked why it should apply only to living forms. Why not crystals? When I read the literature on crystals, I realized how little was really known, and saw that my field theory might shed light there also. I never had much faith in those migratory chemists who allegedly carry molecules around on their clothes. And then I asked, If crystals, why not molecules? I found that in molecular biology there were fundamental problems in understanding protein folding, for example, and again I thought a field theory might apply. And then, why not atoms? So the morphogenetic field hypothesis—even though it started in the middle of science, so to speak (that is, in living organisms of the same order of magnitude as ourselves)—gradually developed into a theory about the microscopic and the macroscopic. Yes: it definitely has implications for both psychology and physics.
Wilson: And for religion. If prayer can be transmitted by morphogenetic fields, so can cursing, or black magic. Charles Fort claimed that people invented materialism just to shield themselves from worrying- about that. The idea of malevolent witchcraft seems to have terrorized people in the Middle Ages. Are you worried about your work giving a new rationale for such paranoias?
Sheldrake: Well, if one takes seriously these kinds of inferences, one has to take seriously both prayer and the malevolent casting of spells. But paranoids, after all, are going to he paranoid anyway. If they don’t believe in this kind of thing, they will find quite secular targets for such emotions. The fear still exists in rationalist societies, but the bad guys are not witch-doctors but Communists. Conspiracy theories of every kind abound in materialist societies and always have. In traditional spiritual societies where mental influences, good and ill, are taken seriously, people rely on spiritual means of protection, and I think that seems to work within that frame of reference.
Wilson: Does the morphogenetic field theory imply that the universe is alive? Or, at least, that it is more like a living being than like a machine?
Sheldrake: Oh, yes. Morphogenetic fields are more organic, more holistic and interconnected than any existing machines. It is easier to see morphogenetic fields arising from consciousness than from mechanism. But machines themselves arise from consciousness, do they not? Every invention represents a kind of concretization of thought. Every tape recorder, every car, every skyscraper started as a thought before becoming a physical reality. In the same way, the organizing structures I call morphogenetic fields can he seen to arise from creative acts which were in some sense conscious. But then, as I say, machines only seem dead in isolation. Consider a machine together with the human who invented it, think of them as one system, and it is obvious that machines are dependent on thoughts.
Wilson: If the morphogenetic fields evolve, and the laws of nature are only habits, a radical change in consciousness would be more than a change in consciousness, wouldn’t it? If consciousness changes sufficiently, might not all habits of the universe change?
Sheldrake: Well, if the universe is changed by our thoughts, it may not he changed very much, because there is an awful lot that is probably not influenced by our thoughts—distant galaxies, for instance.
Wilson: But your fields are not attenuated by distance, right?
Sheldrake: Correct, but they work on the like-influences-like principle: humans influencing humans, rats influencing rats, crystals influencing crystals. We are not much like White Dwarfs or Red Giants or galactic masses. Our thoughts are much more likely to affect other people—or similar life-forms on other planets.
Wilson: Still, since our bodies are made of matter, and the White Dwarfs and Red Giants are also matter, some people will see definitely transcendental implications in your theory. Do you reject such possibilities outright?
Sheldrake: Well, a transformation of consciousness of a totally new kind, which changed the matter within our bodies, could affect the potentialities of matter everywhere. That is at the basis of orthodox Christian teaching. You know, “The whole creation groaneth in travail” and “The expectation of the creature awaiteth the manifestation of the sons of God.” Christianity definitely predicts an end to ordinary history, a transformation of the very nature of the universe. In the East, similar ideas appear in Sufism and in Sri Aurobindo. I do believe that the morphogenetic fields are evolving to newer and higher levels of synthesis. At the same time, it seems to me that our nuclear arsenals have gotten us into an apocalyptical scenario. We could see a transformation of ultimate horror and disaster—and who knows what lies on the other side of it, if anything—unless we come to our senses before it is too late. This will entail a radical change in the way we think and act. If one gets past merely noticing the sorts of things we’ve been talking about and begins acting upon them—paying attention and actually changing what we do in accordance with what seem to he meaningful patterns—it makes a difference.
The Scientist as Heretic: An Interview with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in the New Age Journal in February 1984.