A Book for Burning?
Some have dismissed his controversial ideas as pseudoscience. To others he is a visionary genius of the stature of Darwin or Einstein. British scientist Rupert Sheldrake has proposed an astonishing hypothesis about the nature of living things, memory, social patterns and perhaps the very nature of physical laws. Time, and the rigors of the scientific method, will prove who is right.
Photo: Kathleen Thormod Carr
A Book for Burning?
(C) 1983 by Daniel Drasin. All rights reserved
Author's note, December 1999: Since this article was written, Dr. Sheldrake has refined his nomenclature:
• The term "morphogenetic field" is now reserved strictly for biological phenomena.
• The general term is now "morphic field."
A BOOK FOR BURNING?
Some have dismissed his controversial ideas as pseudo-science. To others, he is a visionary genius of the stature of Darwin or Einstein. British scientist Rupert Sheldrake has proposed an astonishing hypothesis about the nature of living things. Time, and the rigors of scientific method, will prove who is right.
This article was published in July, 1983 as a special report by the Values And Lifestyles (VALS) program at SRI International, Menlo Park, CA, and also as a feature article in the Summer, 1984 edition of New Realities magazine. The author wishes to thank New Dimensions Radio, San Francisco, for permission to include excerpts from its broadcast transcripts.
When I first heard Lyall Watson's account of the now-legendary "Hundredth Monkey" story I was enchanted by its implications: What if new and more viable patterns of perception and behavior could actually "explode" throughout a species once enough individuals had learned them? Could this kind of miraculous evolutionary leap save our own species from self-annihilation in the nick of time?
When I later heard that the original studies -- of an island population of monkeys off Japan -- might not have been rigorously documented, instant despair set in. So imagine my delight when I discovered Rupert Sheldrake's remarkable book A New Science of Life. Dr. Sheldrake, a British biologist with impeccable credentials in both science and philosophy, suggests that this sort of "contagion" has, in fact, been scientifically documented countless times--only to be explained-away, buried, or forgotten because it made little sense within the current scientific "paradigm," or world-view.
Sheldrake follows this revelation with an equally stunning suggestion: that there may in fact be no fixed laws in the universe -- only habit patterns, more or less deeply ingrained, and subject to change. These patterns may be carried through all of space and time by "morphogenetic (form-giving) fields". Such intangible but "intelligent" fields would largely determine not only the mind-boggling patterns of animal instinct, but the very shape and structure of living organisms. They would also help explain the mysterious processes of learning and memory, and many of the well-documented but elusive phenomena studied by crystallographers, quantum physicists--and parapsychologists.
Sheldrake's elegant, far-reaching field theory, the "Hypothesis of Formative Causation", could, if confirmed, easily shake the foundations of the sciences and reverberate deeply into such diverse fields as technology, the humanities, psychology, philosophy and religion. Because it seems to illuminate the universal phenomenon of habit, it could also shed light on the process of change--the breaking of habit--and could therefore help to transform our lives in ways we can presently only begin to imagine.
Not unexpectedly, Sheldrake's radical theory has been hotly controversial. When A New Science of Life was first published in England in 1981, reaction was swift: Some members of the scientific community immediately hailed Sheldrake as the next Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud or Einstein, while more conservative voices angrily denounced his book as "an infuriating tract, not to be taken seriously", and went so far as to suggest that it be burned!
Rupert Sheldrake is a man of many dimensions: an impeccable, Cambridge-educated scientist in his early forties; a pleasant, disarmingly well-informed lecturer with a quick, subtle wit and the endearing manner of an ageless British schoolboy. He is also a teacher, a traveler and a walking encyclopedia of both Eastern and Western philosophy. He is equally at home in his busy agricultural research center in southern India, in his quiet home town of Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire, and among the leading-edge cognoscenti on the California coast where he visits and lectures each spring.
We first met by "sheer coincidence" in Stockholm in late 1981, and immediately began a series of tape recordings which was to continue in San Francisco during 1982 and 1983, and which miraculously evolved into the following interview:
Q: Dr. Sheldrake, what started you on your search for this new hypothesis?
A: Since my student days, and throughout my career as a working biologist, I have been deeply intrigued by the problem of morphogenesis -- of how the actual forms of living things come into being. You see, a seed or fertilized egg has very little form. But as it develops you get more and more complexity, form and order. How this happens is an extremely central problem in biology, but after decades of efforts our attempts at explaining it in terms of chemistry and physics alone have met with very little success. We know a lot about DNA, its structure, how it codes for the sequence of amino acids and proteins, and about the chemical changes in organisms as they develop. But these in themselves don't tell us why an organism takes a particular form any more than analyzing bricks can tell us how a building gets its overall plan or design.
Q: Why can't the chemical structure of DNA adequately explain form?
A: Because what the DNA carries is simply a set of coded instructions -- and these instructions are the same in every cell of the body. Everyone agrees, in fact, that something else must act upon the DNA to unlock and interpret the code, and then to cause different parts of the genetic information to be expressed as each cell comes into being.
The conventional mechanistic or atomistic theory of science says that everything can be explained in terms of smaller and smaller units. So in orthodox biology the order and pattern of the developing whole is seen as somehow arising from complicated interactions among the parts. The problem with this is that in living organisms removing parts doesn't destroy the "wholeness" of the system. If you cut off part of an embryo, the remaining part gives rise not to part of an organism, but to a smaller whole organism. (See fig. 1) Bits of plants can grow back into whole plants. Cut the legs off a newt, and it can grow new legs. Cut flatworms into small bits and each bit can grow into an entire organism. Then there are other unexplained phenomena such as algae and other organisms joining up into a more highly organized relationship, and the coming together of the physically separate hyphae to form the myceliae that grow into whole mushrooms. So there's this curious property of "wholeness" associated with organisms that's difficult to explain in terms of interactions among the parts. (See fig. 2)
Q: When did biologists first begin to recognize these problems?
A: It was back in the nineteenth century. The facts of biology showed that organisms were really more than the sum of their parts. So embryologists tried to think of ways in which this quality of wholeness could be understood. In the 1920's, two embryologists, Gurwitsch and Weiss, independently put forward the idea of "morphogenetic fields" -- that the organism is associated with a field that shapes and molds it. The attractive feature of field theories is that fields have this property of wholeness and continuity. Cut a magnet in half, and you're left not with two half-magnets, but two whole magnets, each embedded in a complete field. Another attractive quality of fields is that they are purely spatial structures -- intangible patterns that structure the space in which tangible things move. No one's ever touched, felt or seen a gravitational or magnetic field. So if you thought of organisms being shaped by fields, it made these phenomena in embryology and regeneration easier to understand.
Q: Is the idea of "morphogenetic fields" taken seriously today?
A: Yes, it is. In fact, about half the people working in embryology and experimental biology regularly use the phrase. The problem is that nobody's been able to say what they are and how they work. Clearly they must be something more than, say, electromagnetic fields if they're able to do what they're supposed to do. The hard-line mechanists in fact say that this is introducing a "mystical factor" -- nothing but vitalism and the idea of the soul in a new guise. Faced with this kind of attack, many people have backed down and said "Oh, no, this is nothing new. It's just a way of speaking about conventional kinds of physical and chemical interactions which will eventually be understood". However, during the past 50 or 60 years a new approach has been under development -- largely among people who've actually worked on living embryos rather than disconnected bits of tissues in laboratories. This is the "holistic" or "organismic" approach put forward in the west by Alfred North Whitehead and others. In this view, nature is seen as composed of hierarchies of autonomous levels of wholeness and organization, or "holons", to use Arthur Koestler's term. For example, cells inside a tissue, inside an organ, inside a whole organism. In the inorganic realm you would have subatomic particles, atoms, molecules and crystals. In the holistic approach, a morphogenetic field governs each of these wholes. The problem with this view has been that morphogenetic fields are often seen as changeless "archetypal forms". The Christian Neo-Platonists would say "ideas in the mind of God". But such philosophical concepts aren't testable hypotheses that can lead to experiments and further development.
Q: How, then, does your own hypothesis differ from this "Platonic" picture of morphogenetic fields?
A: I'm suggesting that morphogenetic fields actually exist. That they're not just a way of thinking about something else. I'm also suggesting that the M-fields of a given species, rather than being "eternal", are derived from the average of the actual forms of previous members of the same species. The M-field of a cat, for example, would in some sense be cat-shaped. The kitten embryo, as it's developing, would be tuning into, or sharing in, the morphogenetic fields of its species. The actual form of the new cat would simultaneously feed back into the field, and through it would be connected up with other members of the same species. This theory would predict that these fields, at a higher level, also control the movements and behavior of animals, and are responsible for their patterns of instinct.
Another key feature of my hypothesis is that this connection of similar things works from the past -- and it wouldn't matter how far away in the past. This would imply a new kind of causal connection across space -- and time -- of a kind that we don't admit in present-day physics.
Q: Are you saying we inherit a "species memory"?
A: Yes, but not in the strict genetic sense. "Heredity" simply means that which is passed down to us. Unfortunately, it has come to be limited to, and synonymous with, genetic inheritance.
Q: Where, then, does DNA fit into the picture?
A: The M-field theory doesn't deny the importance of DNA or conventional genetics -- it just says it's not enough. We can see this by simple analogy with a television set. Imagine you'd never seen one before and tried to explain the pictures appearing on the screen. Your first hypothesis might be that there are small people inside the set. But by looking inside it you'd find there is no one there. A more sophisticated theory might then be that the pictures arise through complicated interactions among the parts of the set. This would seem most convincing: remove some parts and the small people disappear. Put them back and they reappear. Mess about with the tuning components and you get a distorted picture. Now if someone tried to persuade you that the small people were actually real people in a distant place and that invisible vibratory influences transmitted from there were entering the set and interacting with the hardware to give rise to the pictures, you might not be very likely to accept it. You might in fact say that there was no need for these obscurantist theories about vibrations! To prove your objection you might try to weigh the set switched on and off. No difference, of course. Conclusive proof that nothing is entering the set! You might even believe that after many years of detailed research and analysis of the copper wires and silicon transistors, involving large grants and so forth, it might finally be possible to understand this thing in terms of interactions among the parts. That, I think, is the state of modern, mechanistic biology. I believe we've got to go beyond that now and incorporate it into a broader vision.
What I'm suggesting is that the DNA and the chemical aspects of inheritance correspond to the "tuning system". The DNA and the proteins it makes have to be right -- quite finely tuned, as it were -- to tune into the characteristic M-fields of the species. Genetic or other changes, then, would change the tuning and lead to distortions or changes of form or behavior.
Q: How would M-fields work? How would they interact with the organisms or systems they control?
A: At each level of organization in nature, there's a certain degree of freedom -- of unpredictability or indeterminism. At the sub-atomic level, we know it through studies on quantum indeterminism. I think the way M-fields work is by acting on that instability in very subtle ways. They wouldn't apply force or "push" things into shape, but would rather have a quality of "attraction" that, as it were, invites an unpredictable process to go one way rather than another.
M-fields would also have a hierarchical relationship. The fields of the organism would work on the organs, those of the organs on the tissues, and those of the tissues on the cells. The same, I think, would be true of crystals, molecules and atoms.
Q: How would you go about detecting these fields and how would you quantify them?
A: They would be detected the same way other fields are detected -- by their effects upon known systems. For example, if a hundred lab animals gave you a certain effect, and a thousand gave you so much more, that would be one kind of quantification. As far as the mathematics are concerned, Rene Thom, who is best known for his differential topology and Catastrophe Theory, is beginning to provide a mathematical basis for describing morphogenetic fields.
This as all quite primitive of course. Assuming M-fields exist, we're somewhere in a state corresponding to the 17th or early 18th century with magnetic fields, whose full mathematics didn't come about until the 1860's. So this isn't a fully developed theory. But backed up by experimental evidence, it can lead to a great deal of further research and development.
Q: What would be the largest "wholes" to which M-fields would apply? Could you have fields which included all of life, or the planet, or galaxies?
A: Actually, there are no arbitrary limits, but for now the highest level I'm considering is the kinds of organisms which can most easily be investigated by the natural sciences. As any number of phenomena would suggest, there may also be morphogenetic fields for cultural, social or ethnic wholes.
I'd particularly look for these fields in social insects such as termites, who perform incredible cooperative feats of morphogenesis such as building complex mounds, and tunneling from both ends to meet precisely in the middle. Marais, the South African biologist, believed that termites had a sort of "group mind". He put metal plates through nests to prevent any kind of communication, and the tunnels came together exactly on opposite sides of the plate. Now, what the mechanists say when confronted with this, is that the termites must have been signalling to each other by tapping on the metal plate. This is possible, of course, but is itself only a speculation. The important thing from a scientific viewpoint is that one could construct an experiment to conclusively rule out such effects.
Q: Would the effect of morphogenetic fields fall off with distance, and could you shield them?
A: I don't think these fields are influenced by separation in space, nor should their effects fall off according to an inverse square law. But since they do depend on "morphic resonance", or the effects of similarity, local environmental conditions may introduce differences in organisms which may in effect weaken the influence.
One shouldn't be too dogmatic at this stage, but I don't think they're likely to be shieldable. Shieldability is in fact a specific feature of electric and magnetic fields. You can't shield gravity, for example.
Q: What are M-fields "made of"? Are they a new kind of energy?
A: They relate to energy, but I don't think of them as being energetic in the usual sense. You could just as well ask what gravitational fields are made of. The most common answer would be "curved space". The whole concept of fields in general is a very difficult thing to grasp.
Newton had this same problem. When he introduced the concept of action across space through gravitational fields, people couldn't grasp it because they believed causation could work only by pushing or pulling -- by direct mechanical connection. Even Newton himself couldn't grasp it and called it an "occult force" -- meaning a hidden force. But gradually people got used to it and it just became part of the conventional wisdom. However, we've still retained a very primitive notion of action through time.
Q: Wouldn't your theory also imply a different view of time itself?
A: Yes. We usually think of time being stretched out like space. If a year is one unit long, ten years ago would mean ten units back. But it may instead be that the whole of the past is, as it were, "pressed up against", or "collapsed immediately behind", the present, so that any part of the past would be equally accessible.
Q: One of your critics has described as "grotesque" the idea that these fields could act across both space and time. How would you respond to that?
A: When it first came to me, I, myself, thought it so improbable that it couldn't possibly be true. If it were, people must have noticed it. But looking into the literature on animal behavior, I found that in fact this kind of effect has been noticed. So I visited various rat labs in England and without exception scientists told me that subsequent batches of rats learn tricks very much quicker than earlier ones. The usual explanation is that the scientists get better at doing the experiment. But this doesn't explain why it happens when students or technicians take over. In the end, these phenomena are simply brushed aside.
My theory also predicts that even the forms of crystals should be determined by morphogenetic fields. Newly synthesized chemicals shouldn't have M-fields for their crystals, so they should be very difficult to crystallize at first but easier as time goes on. I asked crystallographer colleagues at Cambridge if this sort of thing ever happens and they said "Oh, sure it does. Everyone knows that things get easier to crystallize as time goes on. It's in the elementary textbooks as just one of the established facts." Again, they say people get better at doing it, which may, of course, be true. But that doesn't explain why contaminant crystals turn up all at once in similar industrial processes around the world, where people are trying not to produce them. Another explanation is that "seed" crystals travel around as dust particles in the air, to settle out in the test tubes in labs around the world, or that they are carried from lab to lab on the clothing or the beards of migrant scientists! This too is conceivable, if somewhat implausible, but again, proper experimental design can rule out such explanations.
All sciences have their folklore, by the way, and its always very revealing. The anomalous phenomena that people recognize and talk about in pubs after hours but can't explain, reside in this area. They don't get into textbooks except in the most general terms.
Q: Haven't some experiments already been done specifically to test for this kind of effect?
A: Well, one of the longest and most exhaustive series of experiments in the history of experimental psychology was conducted to test Lamarck's theory that acquired characteristics could be inherited genetically. The tests ran for 34 years, involved thousands of rats on three continents, and in the end disproved Lamarck's ideas. But the results were quite amazing, and would seem to confirm precisely the effects of "morphic resonance" I'm predicting.
The series was begun at Harvard in 1920, by William McDougall, who measured the number of errors his rats made in escaping from a water maze. After twenty generations, his rats were learning over ten times quicker, although he'd bred only the slowest- learning rats to avoid experimental bias. (See fig. 3) From time to time he also tested untrained rats of the same strain. To his amazement, he found that they, too, were learning very much more quickly. These inexplicable results really threw the biological world into a turmoil when they were published in the 1930's.
One of McDougall's critics was F.A.E. Crew, at Edinburgh University, who duplicated the experiment because he didn't believe it was possible. He used the same breed of standard laboratory rat -- not descended from McDougall's rats. To his surprise, his rats' rate of learning began where McDougall's had left off. Some of them were getting it consistently right the first time. Crew eventually gave up, foxed by these results he hadn't expected and couldn't explain.
A similar series of experiments was then started by W.E. Agar, in Melbourne, who continued them for 25 years. Fifty generations of rats. And he, too, observed much the same result. However, Agar also had an untrained control line of rats which he tested in each generation. He found the same results that McDougall had got: The untrained rats were also getting better and better.
Of course, this demonstrated that whatever effect these men were detecting, it wasn't due to any sort of genetic modification. The final paper came out in 1954 and the biological world breathed a sigh of relief. The textbooks of the 1950's say things like "...as is well known, Agar conclusively discredited McDougall's Lamarckian work on rats", and that seemed to be the end of it. Now it's true they discredited McDougall's conclusions, but they actually reconfirmed his very striking and amazing results. These results, by the way, were never followed up, and they've been lying there in the archives of biology ever since.
Q: Have these effects been observed in other animals?
A: They have. The behaviorist B.F. Skinner for many years did experiments in which standard pigeons were trained, using an elaborate and difficult training procedure, to peck at lighted panels in standard "Skinner boxes". In 1961 Brown and Jenkins, who were doing standard Skinner-type pigeon research, noticed that their pigeons immediately cottoned onto pecking at the lighted panels. The whole of this lengthy training procedure was quite unnecessary. The way they wrote up their paper implied that perhaps people had been stupid not to have noticed this before.
Q: How would your M-field theory relate to the theory of evolution as we understand it today?
A: The theory of evolution contains three main elements. One is natural selection, which is uncontroversial. But then there's the question of how form and behavior are inherited, and then also of how change, or originality, comes about.
I think my theory helps us see evolution differently in several ways. First, it provides a model of inheritance which allows for the passing on of acquired characteristics without genetic modification. So you could have more rapid learning by whole species.
Secondly, it means that we can think of effects in evolution where one species, through some change that "jolts" its tuning system, tunes into the fields of another species quite distant in space. I think that would help to account for some puzzling evolutionary convergences and parallelisms. In Australia, for example, the marsupials have evolved parallel forms to dogs, mice and many other mammalian types that occur elsewhere.
The theory also predicts that the M-fields of long-extinct species should still be around, and through these kinds of tuning shifts sufficiently similar species could pick up some of their characteristics. It's quite an amazing thought, really, but think again of the television analogy: destroying a TV receiver wouldn't have the slightest effect on the broadcasting station. If you look into the literature on teratology -- the study of freaks and monstrosities -- you find numerous examples of mutant types called atavisms, or reversions to remote ancestral forms. Examples would include three-toed horses, and human babies born with tails.
Now these tuning shifts may come about through changes in the DNA, but they may also be due to environmental effects which involve no genetic changes at all. For example, if you take fruit fly eggs about three hours old and expose them to ether for an hour, a significant portion of them will produce not the usual two-winged fruit fly, but four-winged flies resembling the ancestors of this group of insects which existed tens of millions of years ago. (See fig. 4) And, interestingly, the more this experiment is performed, the greater the proportion of mutants to normal flies.
When we come to the question of the creation of new fields, we're right back on the borderline of science and philosophy where you'll never get clear agreement anyway. The materialists will say all innovation must be due to chance mutations and the nonmaterialists would say there's a creative factor underlying nature and guiding these things. Natural science -- and this includes my own hypothesis -- deals with regularity or repetition in nature, not originality or creativity, so from a scientific point of view this will always remain a wide-open question.
Q: Could the field of genetic engineering provide a testing-ground for your hypothesis?
A: Ordinary hybridization would do just as well. Some of the tests I'm proposing involve studying the forms of hybrids and in particular the phenomenon of dominance.
Q: If your theory is correct, what practical implications might it have?
A: One way it could change our ways of thinking is in the area of learning, memory and brain function. Normally we tend to assume that our memories are stored inside our brains. The theory dates back at least to Aristotle, who said memory was like the patterns left by a seal on sealing wax. This "sealing wax" theory is so predominant that even the word "impression" is derived from that metaphor. More recent theories involve "memory molecules" of RNA or other chemicals, reverberating circuits of electrical activity, changes in the synapses and so forth. Then there are rather more sophisticated theories about how memory might be stored in a holographic manner. These are all speculations, and not one of them has very much evidence in its favor.
Of course we've all heard about scientific evidence suggesting that memory must be stored in the brain. There's Lashley's work, for example -- cutting out bits of brain and getting memory losses. But curiously these losses are often only temporary and are nonspecific, depending less on on which parts were removed than on how much was cut out. Then there's the work of Penfield and others who stimulated the temporal lobes with electrodes, causing vivid flashes of memory. These are persuasive at first, but think again of the television analogy. If you remove some components and lose channels 7, 8, and 9, that doesn't mean those little people are stored inside the parts you cut out. It just means you've destroyed the tuning system, that's specific to those broadcasts. And if you took a flashlight battery and a couple of wires and started stimulating the tuning system, you could find places where the set would jump from one channel to another.
My theory, then, suggests a very different way of thinking about memory. It says that organisms are influenced by past similar organisms, and the more similar they are the greater the resonance will be. Now, what's most similar to any organism is itself in the past. So according to my theory one's brain would be tuning in to its own past states. It would simply be acting as an organizing and tuning system rather than somehow storing the memories.
The psychologist C.G. Jung collected a great deal of evidence to support his theory of a "collective unconscious". And Noam Chomsky's work in the area of language acquisition suggests the existence of an "innate grammar". But neither of these fits in at all with the mechanistic model of life, and such things have been regarded as highly suspect by mainstream biology. In the hypothesis I'm suggesting, these problems wouldn't exist. It would lead to a very different interpretation of phenomena in parapsychology and religion. For example, it might make things like telepathy much easier to understand.
The question of conscious survival of bodily death is also something one can generally not go into from a scientific point of view. But of course one of the major obstacles to such a notion is the materialist assumption that memories are stored inside the brain -- which, if you think about it, is itself very much a metaphysical assumption.
Q: How do you mean metaphysical?
A: Well, materialism is a philosophical proposition or belief system which denies that there is anything underlying or beyond physical reality. Since this view is not, itself, scientifically testable, it's just as metaphysical to assume the physical world has no source beyond itself, as to assume it has. One is, of course, entitled to either assumption. But either way is a purely philosophical position, and I don't think scientists have any special privilege to proclaim on this.
Q: If morphogenetic fields really do act across both space and time, wouldn't this have some interesting implications both in physics and in technology?
A: I think so. In physics, it might be possible to work from the M-field idea out towards the development of a unified field theory. It may help to resolve quite a number of paradoxes in modern physics, such as how the rather fuzzy, indeterminate world at the quantum level becomes the relatively predictable world we see around us. Several physicists are already very interested in the possibility that it's through the ordering effects of morphogenetic fields. M-fields also tie in particularly well with David Bohm's idea of an "implicate", or "hidden" order in nature.
On the technological level, it's possible to think about devices which would have sufficiently indeterminate elements in them that morphogenetic fields could work through them. If one could get morphic resonance between machines, it would be possible to communicate globally through an unlimited number of separate channels. Such systems could also have a built-in memory that would render obsolete many of the things that go with present-day computers. It's fun to speculate -- but far too early to say.
Q: Wouldn't one's own M-fields regulate one's state of health?
A: I think they would, and may even maintain the very form of the body despite the constant turnover of its physical constituents. An interesting thing about diseases is that they, too, have a whole characteristic set of qualities, and may be governed by M-fields of their own. Cancer included. We can see this clearly in certain kinds of plant gall, often caused by various insects, bacteria and fungi. Although their substance is that of the host organism, these pathological tumors have their own completely characteristic forms. It's likely that morphogenetic fields compete for control of physical systems: one getting stronger could weaken the hold of another one. In phenomena such as spontaneous remission and in certain nonorthodox healing methods, it may be that the body is "tuning in" to "higher level" fields.
Q: If all organisms are associated with M-fields, why does regeneration occur far more readily in some than in others?
A: I think the potential for regeneration is always there, but is often blocked. Recent advances in accelerated healing by the application of electrical currents seem to suggest ways of unblocking and stimulating the regenerative process, and may lead to insights about how M-fields interact with biological systems.
Q: Have you considered the possible social implications of your theory?
A: Yes. The theory would predict that thoughts or behaviors that become habitual -- whether wholesome or unwholesome -- would be easier for other people to pick up. Now, group dynamics is not really my field, but I think it's certainly possible that this would account for some of the phenomena of mass-psychology and increased rates of learning of a variety of skills. Belief systems and habits of perception would probably have their own M-fields. I'm basically a biologist, and I can extend the theory out to some extent, but the important thing is to see whether the lab experiments work out. If they do, the way would be wide open for theorists and researchers in any number of fields to take it further.
Q: Dr. Sheldrake, how long has it taken you to develop your theory to its present stage?
A: I started thinking along these lines as an undergraduate at Cambridge. It seemed to me basically implausible that plants and animals were nothing but complicated machines. So I gave up science and did philosophy for a year at Harvard -- and then went back to science. At Cambridge I came into contact with a group of scientists and philosophers who have been meeting regularly since the 1950's, discussing these problems and groping their way toward a new paradigm, or framework. The approach was the idea that science could change -- much as Thomas Kuhn expressed it in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- and that our view of the world ought not to be a fixed one. I was involved in these discussions for years, and even after that it took a long time to form a new theory which was not merely a philosophical speculation but one which could be tested in a rigorous way.
Q: Usually we see science in one corner and philosophy in the other. You're suggesting that for you it's quite different.
A: Yes. You see, it's philosophy that essentially sets the priorities and direction of scientific inquiry, and provides the context within which scientific discoveries are interpreted. Philosophy can also give perspective and overview to our highly specialized sciences, and encourage much-needed interdisciplinary communciation. Any change in the frontiers between science and philosophy -- between physics and metaphysics, if you will -- means that one must know about and be interested in both. This has been true of many scientists who have been interested in new ways of looking at things.
I think some of the traditional systems of philosophy are very helpful indeed. I'm particularly fond of Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, who also said that the brain was like a tuning device that didn't depend on physical memory storage. His were among the seminal ideas that really started me thinking along these lines.
Q: Is there any connection between your experience in India and the development of your theory?
A: I think there is. I did much of the first draft of the book while I was in India, where I've been doing biological research for the past eight years. The atmosphere in Cambridge was of course very much a mechanistic one. People were so skeptical they began tearing my ideas to pieces before really taking them in. In India, I found not only a quiet place where I could think and work and be away from telephones and so forth, but also a much more favorable atmosphere for thinking about things like connections across time. In the West, of course, the idea of action across time has never been seriously considered. But in the East, not only has it been considered, it's one of the fundamental ideas in their theory of karma -- of actions having consequences later in time, or in the life of an apparently separate person at some time in the future. So it was much easier to think about these ideas in a context where something rather similar was taken seriously by the great majority of people.
Once I had written my first draft there, I then went back to England and circulated the typescript among over a hundred people, including a lot of very hardnosed molecular biologists and other scientists, to get their feedback. Then I sat down again and re-wrote the book in the more astringent intellectual atmosphere of England
Q: Do you think your theory can shed light on the spiritual side of life?
A: Scientific theories, by definition, deal with the regularities of physical nature and therefore cannot in themselves lead to an understanding of the realm of spirit--which is by definition beyond physical nature. My theory, then, is neutral from a spiritual standpoint. The current materialistic philosophy, on the other hand, denies a priori that anything like spirit exists. Again, this attitude is not really part of science itself, but of the philosophy or metaphysics that goes along with science.
However, my theory does imply that if habits are built up over time in physical nature, the same thing might apply in a spiritual context. I think this is often understood to be the case in the great religions. The enlightenment of the Buddha, or the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus -- a breakthrough into a new level of consciousness or being -- is considered explicitly to open the way for that kind of breakthrough for everyone.
Spiritual practices are often seen as helping to release the practitioner from very deeply-rooted habits. I think my theory, by exploring the inner workings of habit itself, could lead to a greater understanding of this process. Because we humans seem to have the unique capacity to change or alter habit, it may be that we are less subject to the influence of certain M-fields than are other species. This may be another way of looking at the question of free will.
Q: There have been some fairly violent attacks on your hypothesis. How have these affected you?
A: I've actually received very little criticism of the hypothesis itself in any of its details, because most of my critics haven't actually read the book. A few of them who have have read it admit that the problems I'm pointing out are real problems, but are sticking to their faith that their own methods will eventually solve them.
Q: What do you think about Nature's suggestion that your book should be burned?
A: Nature's criticisms were also very general ones. They said, essentially, that science is what the majority of scientists are doing now, and that ideas that go beyond these are pseudo-science. It was a straightforward conservative argument against any fundamentally new ideas in science, not just mine. They also said my hypothesis was untestable because my proposed experiments were so ridiculous that no self-respecting grant-giving agency would provide the money to do them. Neither of these arguments has upset me very much.
Q: What kinds of response are you getting from your peers in the scientific community?
A: There's been a surprising amount of open-mindedness among my colleagues, though more so among physicists than biologists. Until recently, the machine theory of life has hardly been challenged from within biology. But a lot of biologists are opening up now and are prepared to accept my theory gladly if it's validated, because of the problems the mechanistic theory can't handle. Many of them say they would feel a sense of release at being liberated from a rather constricting and limited framework.
Some psychologists are very open, too. For many of them the old behaviorist models have broken down and they're exploring new areas such as transpersonal psychology and other approaches with a more holistic view.
Q: Since your experimental "subjects" would presumably undergo changes in the process, can you say your experiments are truly repeatable?
A: Technically no -- and this has rather upset a few of my critics who have quite missed the point. You see, if, for example, all rats of a particular breed are in fact changed by such experiments, that would tend to support the hypothesis. Then, of course, you can always repeat the same kind of experiment, using mice or guinea pigs, or simply use a different task or trick. With crystals, of course, you'd have to start out each time with a compound that's been newly synthesized, and so forth.
Q: You've been very careful to characterize your M-field theory not as true, but as testable. What happens next?
A: Right now, my chief concern is to see the critical experiments done. You know, the traditional way of doing science has been to test hypotheses in the privacy of one's own lab, and -- if successful -- hand down the revealed truth to a passively waiting public. What I'm proposing instead is in its own way as challenging as the hypothesis itself: the decentralization of scientific inquiry. I'm therefore "broadcasting" the hypothesis to make the process of discovery a more public one. In this way, more and better experiments can be done, and many features of the hypothesis tested simultaneously. Although I have outlined three main kinds of possible experiments in my book, graduate students and others have now submitted protocols for a broad range of experiments -- some far more imaginative and less costly than any I could have thought up on my own. One experiment, involving bees, has already begun in new Zealand. Another will be underway shortly in New York. The New Scientist magazine recently held a 250 prize competition for novel experimental ideas, and the winning experimental design can be implemented at virtually no cost.
I should also mention that the Tarrytown Group in New York have offered a $10,000 first prize for the best actual experimental proof -- or disproof -- of the hypothesis. A Dutch group have recently added a $5,000 second prize to this competition. The deadline for completed experiments is December 31, 1985. Anyone seriously interested in conducting such experiments sould contact Tarrytown director Bob Schwartz at (914) 591-8200.
Q: With so many experiments happening everywhere at once, how can you be sure you won't be confronted with false or unreliable data?
A: There are all sorts of ways to check out the experimenters and experiments. And bona fide challenges to experimental results should be welcomed: they would tend to catalyze more sophisticated experimental designs and controls.
Q: What if the experiments have negative results?
A: Either way, science will benefit. If there are positive results that can be replicated, then the hypothesis will be supported. If there are no positive results at all, I will gladly modify or abandon the hypothesis. As a scientist, I'm as eager as anyone to see the results whatever they may be.
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