Dogmas and pet theories

May 5, 1995

Rupert Sheldrake, regarded as a heretic by many biologists, argues for experiments that he believes could revolutionise understanding of the mind.

The still-dominant paradigm in institutional biology, the machine theory of life, is over three and a half centuries old. In the scientific revolution of the 17th century, Descartes and his fellow mechanists explicitly rejected the old doctrine taught all over medieval Europe advocating that people, plants and animals were shaped and organised by invisible souls. This was, in turn, one version of the animistic thinking found in traditional cultures all over the world. The English word "animal" reveals these assumptions through its derivation from "anima", the Latin word for soul.

The mechanistic theory proclaimed that the universe and everything within it were soulless. Plants and animals, and the human body, too, were inanimate machines, devoid of any mysterious life-principle. The only exception was a small region of the human brain, the pineal gland, in which the rational mind interacted in an unexplained way with the machinery of the nervous system. The modern theory is essentially the same, except that the supposed seat of the mind has shifted a couple of inches into the cerebral cortex. Many modern mechanists seek to dissolve the mystery of the mind by asserting that consciousness is nothing but an aspect of the physico-chemical functioning of the brain.

From the 17th century right up to the 1920s, the mechanistic school of biology was opposed by vitalists, who believed living organisms were truly alive, animated by a life-principle not reducible to the physics and chemistry of inanimate matter. Mechanists denounced vitalism as heresy, or dismissed it as a superstition that would be swept away by the progress of rational understanding.

The main alternative to the mechanistic paradigm today is not a return to old-style vitalism, but the holistic or organismic approach. Instead of taking the machine as its central metaphor, it treats living organisms as organisms.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead proposed in the 1920s that the metaphor of the organism could unify the sciences and transcend the old vitalist-mechanist controversy. From this point of view, not only microbes, plants and animals are treated as organisms, but also atoms, molecules, crystals, societies, planets, solar systems and galaxies. The Gaia hypothesis, the idea of the Earth as a living organism, is an example of this approach. The new cosmology provides another. Rather than seeing the universe as a machine slowly running out of steam, since the 1960s the cosmos has looked more like a developing organism, starting very small, and developing ever more complex patterns of organisation within itself as it grows.

The holistic approach emphasises that at each level of organisation, organisms have an integrity that cannot be understood simply from a study of their parts. Within biology, one way of thinking about this wholeness is in terms of biological fields, morphogenetic fields that shape the developing forms of plants and animals. Such fields are, I suggest, responsible not only for morphogenesis, but also for the organisation of instincts and behaviour, for mental activity and for the co-ordination of individual organisms within societies. The generic name for these organising fields is morphic fields. I propose that these fields have an inherent memory, given by a process called morphic resonance, involving the influence of like upon like through space and time. The result is that each member of a species both draws upon and contributes to a collective memory. In the human realm, a similar conception is already familiar in the form of C. G. Jung's notion of the collective unconscious.

In my book, Seven Experiments that Could Change the World: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science I describe seven ways in which inexpensive research could open up science in general and biology and psychology in particular. One example concerns the uncanny powers of domestic animals. Most households in Britain have pets, and these are the animals we know best. This vast body of experience has been ignored by institutional science, and even by parapsychologists. But if we pay attention to the plentiful evidence, rather than dismissing it, several common patterns emerge, some of which suggest the existence of modes of communication unknown to science.

The behaviour on which I have concentrated concerns the ability of dogs and cats to know when their owners are coming home. The animals go to a window, door or gate to wait for their owners, often half an hour or more before their return. In many cases, this reaction cannot be explained in terms of routine or the expectation of people at home, because the absent person returns at irregular and unexpected times. For example, I know of more than 20 people whose partners work irregular hours and do not usually telephone to say when they are coming home, but they know from the pets' behaviour when the person is on the way, and prepare a meal accordingly.

Several have performed simple experiments by coming home at random times and by unusual means, for example being driven by a friend in an unfamiliar car. Their dogs still reacted, usually responding at the very time they set out to come home. In some cases, when people took taxis, the dog reacted not at at moment they got into the taxi, but when they telephoned for it. Several such experiments have been recorded on video, and more could well be carried out in student research projects. The results so far suggest pets can pick up their owners' intentions from miles away in a manner that cannot be explained in terms of conventional senses or physical forces. This could be called a psychic or telepathic effect, but I prefer to think in terms of a morphic field linking pet to owner.

Another line of research concerns the well-known feeling of being stared at from behind. This effect implies that the mind of the starer can reach out to touch the person stared at and has many implications for our understanding of consciousness. Again, this phenomenon has been neglected by science, and yet it can be investigated by simple experiments that cost almost nothing. Some have been carried out as student projects in schools. The results so far suggest the effect is real and cannot be explained in conventional scientific terms.

Research on subjects such as these has been inhibited for decades by taboos against the "paranormal". But the phenomena themselves are normal enough. Millions of people have experienced them, and their existence is usually regarded as a matter of common sense. Such phenomena imply the existence of invisible interconnections so far ignored by science.

Rupert Sheldrake, a former director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology, Clare College, Cambridge, is a fellow of the Institute of Noetic Science, San Francisco.

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