Paranormal and Mystery
|In morphic residence Dr Rupert Sheldrake in the London home where he has a laboratory.Some UK scientists find him too controversial to associate with,but he is respected elsewhere in Europe|
Rupert Sheldrake is a scientific heretic who refuses to be burnt at the stake. Not only are his ideas about "morphic fields"popular he also dares to take on the "scientific fundamentalists"
the rising tide of biological reductionism -
which basically sees organisms as machines
driven by their genes - and called for a new, holistic view of nature.
One of Sheldrake's most implacable critics is Professor Steven Rose of the Open University, author of the prize- winning book The Making of Memory. Rose challenged Sheldrake to test morphic resonance in the lab. The pair performed learning experiments on day-old chicks, but disagreed about the results. Rose has no time for morphic resonance. "It's rubbish and unnecessary."
|Sir John Maddox
In an article entitled "Fit for Burning?" John Maddox,editor of Nature,condemned A New Science of Life as "an infuriating tract".He did't say the book should be burned,but rejected it as an "intellectual aberration".Some readers wrote in complaining of Maddox's tone and,with all the resultant publicity,the book soon sold out.
He's been branded a heretic by many of his fellow biologists, and claimed
as a hero of the New Age. But, modest and
affable, Rupert Sheldrake appears unperturbed by the fuss generated by his
controversial ideas about how the forms of natural systems - from molecules
to human societies - evolve.
Although outside the scientific mainstream, Sheldrake still does experiments - in a small lab set up in his home on the edge of London's Hampstead Heath. The rest of the time he's out and about, lecturing or following up responses to his latest book, Seven Experiments That Could Change The World, which invites readers to participate in neglected research.
Ten years of studying plant development at Cambridge, followed by a post as a physiologist researching tropical crops in Hyderabad, India, convinced Sheldrake that there is more to life than DNA. In 1981 he stepped out of line and published A New Science of Life. This controversial book argued against
Central to Sheldrake's own holistic approach is the idea of "morphic fields" - mysterious, invisible regions of influence which guide the development of "self-organising systems", a category that includes organisms.
Of course, there is nothing new about the idea of fields - it has been known since the 19th century that electromagnetic and gravitational fields affect matter. And many biologists accept the idea of "morphogenetic fields", which shape the development of organisms. In fact, these biological fields are currently in vogue, with researchers trying to pin them down in terms of genes, chemical signals and equations.
All fields are holistic: they can't be broken down into smaller parts or analysed in terms of atoms. Sheldrake's morphic fields differ from conventional fields in that they evolve over time. Each system, for example a rabbit, has its own morphic field to which it contributes a kind of "memory". For a rabbit to develop it "tunes in" to the information about all rabbits. Sheldrake calls this "tuning in" morphic resonance.
"I'm not a 'believer' in morphic resonance," says Sheldrake "It's just a guess about how things work. I'm sure, though, that we need a hypothesis like this. In the post-Big Bang era our sense of the universe as evolutionary is increasing, until even the idea that the laws of nature are fixed is fading. There is just much more to the world than science dreams of. "If there's a connection in nature between, say, a pigeon and its loft, and you leave that out of the equation, the model - however complex - won't work. It's not a matter of employing more computers.
Despite all the controversy, Sheldrake says there is support for his ideas
in the scientific community. "The people who have attacked me are a small
but vociferous minority," Sheldrake says. "They're essentially scientific
fundamentalists. There has always been a holistic streak in biology. Most
animal be haviourists, people who study animals in the wild, are naturally
holistic in their approach. Many biologists deeply resent the way the whole
subject has been hijacked by the reduction ists and molecular biologists.
"When you look at the number of actual products to come out of genetic engineering and biotechnology, for all the billions of pounds invested, the return is pitiful. What they've actually achieved is the Flavr Savr tomato and BST [a controversial hor mone for making cows produce more milk] - not things that have changed the lot of humanity.
A dog shows it is expecting its owner home (left) even when the owner arrives unexpectedly
|Animals know a trick or two
It is not merely an innate sense of direction that gets homing pigeons home (above) - if you move their loft hundreds of miles they still find it.
"When I talk to biologists in their laboratories, most are open to my ideas and a large minority are positively sympathetic." Since A New Science of Life, funding for Sheldrake's work has come from a variety of sources such as the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California and from Lawrance Rockefeller, trustee of the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation. He also has collaborators around the world, for example at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, where scientists are investigating how pigeons home - one of the "seven experiments" suggested in his book.
Our European neighbours have responded enthusiastically to Sheldrake's views. He was a keynote speaker at the Dutch Science Week, for instance. "There's more philosophical sophistication on the Continent," he says. "Naive reductionism is not as influential there as it is here. And they are much more aware of environmental and green issues. Our reductionist biology fits in with market forces and the whole Thatcherite philosophy.
Seven Experiments That Could Change The World ventures into territory
neglected by scientific orthodoxy. The extraordinary communication powers
of animals and certain aspects of human perception, such as the sense of
being stared at, are well-attested phenomena that don't fit the conventional
mechanistic world view, Sheldrake maintains.
Nor do the "hard" sciences escape scrutiny. Constants such as the speed of light may be evolving, he claims, while experiments may be influenced by the expectations of the experimenter.
The book is a direct invitation for readers to get involved in holistic research. "These are areas where simple and cheap experiments could lead to great changes in our understanding," he says.
There's been a huge response from readers who've taken on the challenge of investigating their pets' strange powers of communication. Many say their pet knows when they are coming home. It's easy to explain this away - the pet might be responding to cues, like the behaviour of people around them who know when the owner is expected. Or maybe dogs can recognise the sound of their owner's car many miles away. But even if you remove these cues - by coming home unexpectedly, in a different vehicle - the pet (usually a dog) still responds.
The science department of Austrian Television was intrigued when it got to know about a record kept by one of Sheldrake's readers, Pam Smart from Ramsbottom in Lancashire. She travelled all over Lancashire, coming home at irregular times. Her parents, who were looking after her dog, Jaytee, noted down when Jaytee went to the window to await Pam's return. Fifty five times out of 60 Jaytee went to the window just when Pam started out for home.
Morphic resonance and crystals
"The Austrians sent over two video teams," Sheldrake says. "One went out
on the road with Pam and decided, at random,
when she should start for home. There was no way the dog, or her parents
at home, could know when she'd return. The other team was at home with Jaytee,
filming her movements."
The video recordings were then synchronised and played back side by side. "What happened was absolutely amazing. You see Pam get up, put on her coat and go out of the door. Within five seconds, before she even crosses the road to her taxi, the dog jumps up and starts wagging its tail." Sheldrake thinks people are becoming more open-minded about such phenomena, and such a tide of opinion will in turn drive scientific opinion. "Lots of people are getting interested now," he says. "The more reports I get, the better - whether anecdotes about pets of other experiments in the book. If we can first prove these are real phenomena, then we can try and work out how they happen."
Humans posess unexplained powers too. One aspect of our perception that Sheldrake is keen to explore is the sense of being stared at. In an informal survey he found 80 per cent of people can sense when someone is looking at them from behind. Traditional societies have great respect for the power - for good or evil - of the human gaze. Phrases like "I felt her eyes boring into the back of my head" abound in our culture too, yet the phenomenon has rarely been seriously investigated.
Testing the sense of being looked at is simple and costs nothing. Sheldrake reckons sensitive people - those trained in martial arts, for instance - could do more detailed investigations to find out if the effect falls off with distance, or when you look through a window. It would be interesting to know whether you can develop the faculty with practice. National Science Week is next month, and most of us will be content to admire the efforts of professionals. "If I ran Science Week I'd have a mass experiment on, say, pets, "says Sheldrake. "Then there'd be a competition to explain the findings. My guess is that most people would come up with some kind of field to explain the connections going on." Susan Aldridge
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