Friday, April 27, 2012

Rupert Sheldrake and Morphic Resonance

Rupert Sheldrake is a trained and accomplished plant biologist and holds a doctorate in biochemistry.  He is most well-known, however, for his pursuit of a new explanation for evidence that  defied explanation by the conventional theories of evolution and materialism.  

The controversial new explanation that he offers burst onto the public stage in 1981 with the publication of his book entitled A New Science of Life: the Hypothesis of Causative Formation.  The senior editor of the journal Nature wrote an un-signed editorial about it, entitled "A book for burning?" and pronouncing its ideas "heresy."  Nature is an extremely prestigious and oft-cited forum, and the controversy that ensued effectively altered Dr. Sheldrake's career path for the rest of his life.  

The substance of that first book has since been republished and updated under a new title, Morphic Resonance: the Nature of Causative Formation.  The Greek word morph means "shape"or "form" -- we are familiar with it in many words, including "metamorphosis" ("change-form"), "anthropomorphic" ("man-form-like"), and even "morphine" (a name chosen to refer to the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus, whose name comes from the same root and means "shaper" -- he could take many forms). The term as Dr. Sheldrake uses it refers to the different forms and families of biological species, and his theory of "morphic resonance" proposes that the different forms arose from a process other than molecular changes at the genetic level (variation in form based on genetic molecular changes being the current orthodox and accepted view).  

Instead, he proposes that there are "fields" (energy fields or, more broadly, fields of some type of force) which he calls "morphogenetic fields" -- "form-generating" or "form-producing" fields -- which act to organize the biological material at all levels into their characteristic forms, and that these fields give rise to all the different families of the biological world.  In fact, going beyond this, he also proposes that morphogenetic fields act upon and organize inorganic matter.  However, in the field of biology, he points to evidence discovered by genetic researchers which suggests that the genes between different species differ much less radically than expected, suggesting the possibility that something else might be responsible for the divergence of widely different species with nearly-identical genes.  

He also points to research which has shown that physical traits engendered in adults of a type of water flea (genus Daphnia) are passed on to their offspring.  These fleas "develop large protective spines when predators are around; their offspring also have these spines, even when not exposed to predators" (Morphic Resonance, xxi).  Similarly, he points to research showing that the other members of a species of lab rats which previously learned to negotiate a maze appear to be able to negotiate that maze more readily than lab rats whose species did not learn that maze (4).  That is to say, lab rats who did not previously learn the maze but whose fellows from the same species did, appear to have statistically significantly better scores on a maze once some members of their species take the time to learn it!  The radical implications of such a proposal -- and the reason that it provokes such vitriolic reaction among defenders of orthodoxy -- become immediately clear.

The implications include the idea that these resonance fields can change over time, altering the morphogenetic forces that shape both organic and inorganic matter.  This radical suggestion upends the idea of "laws of physics" -- unchanging and unbreakable rules that existed from the beginning of the universe -- and replaces them with something that Dr. Sheldrake says are more akin to "habits" -- trends that can become ingrained and exert enormous influence, but which can be changed over time, and to which new "habits" can always be added!

His theory is also radical in that it suggests that forces external to the organism -- residing outside the structure of the cells and genes -- can mysteriously influence thought, learning, and morphology.  If rats in New York can somehow get the benefit of the learning achieved by rats in London, then the nature of learning and consciousness and the mind is very different from what we are generally led to believe.  This is the connection to Dr. Sheldrake's work with telepathy and other "psi" phenomena.  He believes that, just as the form-generating force may reside somewhere outside of the actual molecular structure and the genetic material, so too might consciousness and awareness and memory reside somehow outside of the matter of the brain (and points to research which appears to provide evidence to support such a theory).

This type of hypothesis would allow for the kinds of apparently telepathic connections between organisms which appear to defy the conventional theories -- including some of the more "mundane" (perhaps) manifestations such as "telephone telepathy" (when you are thinking about someone and they call -- an experience we all have quite frequently but usually chalk up to coincidence: could it be that in fact your consciousness received extrasensory notification from the caller before your phone even received their call?) and "pet telepathy" (dogs and cats who appear to know when their owner is coming home, even before they would expect to know based on one of the five physical senses).

Dr. Sheldrake's work appears to resonate with many subjects discussed elsewhere on this blog, such as the documented premonitions of disaster prior to the voyage of the Titanic, or the remarkable communication through dreams discussed in this previous post and related in this moving account by Daniel P. Reid.  There is also the extremely important theory proposed by Lucy Wyatt that astral travel or what we might term some form of shamanism was central to advanced ancient civilizations, including that of ancient Egypt.  The thread of shamanism clearly runs through ancient advanced civilizations, as we have discussed previously (in connection with the work of Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend in Hamlet's Mill and of John Anthony West in Serpent in the Sky). The possibility that consciousness can transcend the physical brain, which Dr. Sheldrake examines, is clearly related to this thread as well.

I also find it extremely interesting that Dr. Sheldrake originally came to this theory in part through his observations of plant biology.  We have previously discussed at some length the work of another accomplished plant biologist, J.C. Willis, who -- like Dr. Sheldrake -- believed in some form of evolution to explain the diversity of species, but who found that the evidence does not support the dogma of neo-Darwinism.  Dr. Willis also came to the conclusion that there was some external and invisible principle at work in the universe which gives rise to all the different forms, but that it could not be the mechanism proposed by the neo-Darwinians.  He thought perhaps that this force might be chemical, or even possibly electrical, saying:
There might for example be (probably is) some physical or chemical law that at present we do not know, compelling genes or chromosomes to behave in a certain way. [Here there is a footnote, which reads: "My friend Dr C. Balfour Stewart suggests that it is probably electrical, as is probably the splitting of the chromosomes in reproduction."] page 46 of  The Course of Evolution (1940).
Dr. Sheldrake notes that Darwin himself appeared to accept the idea that acquired traits could be passed on to successive generations (so-called "Lamarckian inheritance," sometimes called "epigenetics" in its more modern form by researchers who admit that the evidence appears to point to some reason to suspect that something "over and above" strict genetic information may dictate inherited characteristics, the prefix epi- indicating "other than" or "over and above") (Morphic Resonance, xxi).  It is the position of neo-Darwinism, not original Darwinism, that rejects the inheritance of acquired characteristics. 

Finally, whether one accepts the theory that Dr. Sheldrake advances or not, his work also exposes another theme which runs through many posts on this blog and runs through the Mathisen Corollary book as well, and that is the withering criticism that is immediately leveled at anyone who dares to challenge the quasi-religious tenets of current scientific orthodoxy (note that his work was labeled as "heresy" when it was first published, as if the editors of Nature were protecting a sacred religion).  Other examples can be seen in previous posts, such as "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists" and "Read Dr. Daniel Botkin's article, 'Absolute certainty is not scientific.'"

The vehemence and viciousness of this certain reaction (and the damage that it can do to one's academic career) no doubt discourages a great many academics from examining areas that might otherwise be explored, and serves to choke off wide swathes of potentially fruitful fields of human inquiry.  This is very unfortunate -- even tragic.  It also makes the willingness of Dr. Sheldrake to publish his conclusions all the more courageous, and whether one agrees with his conclusions or not we should all be grateful for his perseverance.

Dr. Sheldrake's other books include: