Sunday Times, 19 February 2012
Richard Dawkins will barely give him the time of day and many other scientists hint darkly that he has gone mad. Since 1981, when a leader in the journal Nature accused him of “pseudoscience” and “finding a place for magic within scientific discussion”, Rupert Sheldrake has been outlawed by the science establishment.
But, before he went rogue, he was accepted as a very distinguished biochemist indeed so he cannot easily be dismissed as an ill-informed fantasist. The origin of his heresy lay in his conviction that biochemistry alone could not solve the problem of how organisms assumed their final form, the process of morphogenesis. He alighted on the idea of morphic resonance. We are all surrounded by as yet undetected fields, which carry information from the past that forms new organisms. Not only that, they carry our memories and store skills. So, thanks to morphic resonance, the first person who learns to ride a bike makes it easier for the second person and so on.
In a series of books, Sheldrake has explored the evidence for and the implications of this idea. This involves ordinary phenomena such as dogs who know when their owner is coming home and the way people seem to know they are being stared at, as well as critiques of the whole edifice of materialist science.
The Science Delusion (a dig at Dawkins’s 2006 atheist tract The God Delusion) is a systematic summary of Sheldrake’s thought. It questions what he describes as the 10 core beliefs of orthodox materialist science. So he asks: Is nature mechanical? Are the laws of nature fixed? Are minds confined to brains? And so on. The book rambles a bit, but, on the whole, it’s a brisk and entertaining read that may not convince you of all his arguments but should convince you he is not mad.
There are two aspects to this: Sheldrake’s own scientific theories and his broad critique of contemporary science. Morphic resonance is widely derided and narrowly supported. Most of the experimental evidence is contested, though Sheldrake claims there are “statistically significant” results for occurrences such as knowing that someone is staring at your back, for the transmission of skills and for dogs’ awareness of a returning owner.
This points to a perennial failing of the institution of science (and, in fairness, of most institutions) — dogmatic vanity.
He also comes up with a rather brilliant and, to me, unexpected example that does seem to be adequately explained by his theory. Ever since IQ tests were started, people around the world appear to have been scoring ever higher marks, a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect. This is so far inexplicable, but what is certain is that there cannot be any such rise in real intelligence. But morphic resonance would, indeed, predict such a result since the more people did IQ tests, the higher the scores would be.
Sheldrake extends his theory to take in psychic phenomena and the possibility of survival after death, and brings in discussions of the efficacy of alternative medicine and the meaning of the placebo effect. His idea that our memories are stored in his fields rather than our heads is also a rebuke to current neuroscience, which tends to assume everything must be discoverable within the physical structure of our brains.
Morphic resonance may be a step too far for you. I simply can’t tell whether it makes sense or not and it is certainly highly speculative. But the very fact of the theory does make a reasonable point that tends to be forgotten. Science is not an unchanging edifice of knowledge, it is constantly in flux and one age’s certainties are often overthrown in an instant, as Newton was by Einstein. Currently, the glaring failure of genetics to produce the medical outcomes we were promised could signal that the human genome is not, after all, our destiny or our identity.
This points to a perennial failing of the institution of science (and, in fairness, of most institutions) — dogmatic vanity. Here Sheldrake is at his most incisive. He is good on certain types of dogmatism. Notably there is the widespread conviction that our consciousness is an illusion — “a magical mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads”, in the words of the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. This is dogmatism because, for Humphrey, consciousness must be an illusion since materialist science can find no way in which matter could become conscious. But, of course, it is nonsense because who is suffering from the illusion? — me, my consciousness or, in Sheldrake’s words, “Illusion is a mode of consciousness.”
He also quotes the philosopher Paul Churchland, who says mental states cannot exist because they cannot be reduced to the language of neuroscience. There is, I need hardly point out, no such language.
Then there is the disastrous advent of the new scientism — the belief that science and only science is the way to truth and that it will, ultimately, find all truth. This is faith not science and, latterly, it has morphed into the ravings of the militant atheists. Scientism, as Sheldrake repeatedly shows, closes minds. For example, scientists frequently ignore the possibility of experimental bias in the determination to get the results they want. They are often corrupted — usually by drugs companies — to produce commercially favourable results. Furthermore, the peer-review system of scientific journals often fails. Marc Hauser, the Harvard professor who was found guilty of falsifying results in experiments on monkeys, was exposed not by peer reviewers but by a whistle-blowing student. Science is a method that aspires to a superhuman perspective, an aspiration constantly thwarted by its human practitioners.
Sheldrake, the highly speculative theorist, is fascinating but his ideas often feel like a bit of a cul-de-sac since it is not clear where they can currently be taken. Sheldrake, the critic of science as it is now proselytised, is an invaluable mosquito buzzing around some complacent and intolerant heads.