The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, by Rupert Sheldrake, Coronet, RRP£19.99, 400 pages
The subtitle of this book is more accurate than the title. An experienced scientist, Rupert Sheldrake is a robust and eloquent defender of science and the crucial role it plays in modern society. At the same time, he wants to challenge some of the assumptions or “dogmas” on which it is based, and through free inquiry to look again at the fundamentals. Whether scientists are an established priesthood, as he describes them in The Science Delusion, is up for debate. But it is certainly as difficult to contest the conventional wisdom today as it ever has been in the past. Changes of mind are nearly always painful for all concerned.
The biologist Thomas Henry Huxley once said: “It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and end as superstitions.” This is where Sheldrake comes in. He traces the development of what he calls the 10 core beliefs of the current scientific creed: among them the belief that everything is essentially mechanical; that the total amount of matter and energy in the universe is always the same (apart from during the Big Bang, when it all started); that the laws of nature are fixed and always will be; that nature has no purpose and works only by chance; that all biological inheritance is material; that minds are nothing but the activities of brains; that such unexplained phenomena as telepathy are illusory; and that mechanistic medicine is the kind that really works. As you would imagine, Richard Dawkins is not exactly an ally.
I doubt if all scientists would accept this description of their beliefs. Indeed, in the book Sheldrake has a tendency to caricature people or ideas he does not agree with. Nonetheless, he makes some telling points. The idea that nature is subject to “laws” is a very human way of looking at the natural world. “Constants” are frequently inconstant. We suffer from misleading illusions of objectivity. We are not machines and, however hard we try, our behaviour cannot be described as mechanical. Even our bodies are influenced by placebos as well as medicine. Our understanding of the universe is notoriously limited, as illustrated by the current search for dark energy and the Higgs boson.
What then is at the core of Sheldrake’s alternative philosophy? At the risk of oversimplifying complex and wide-ranging arguments, it is “morphic resonance”. According to this, systems of all kinds, whether molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, societies or individual minds, are self-organising, so that at each level the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and the parts themselves are wholes made up of other parts. The wholeness of each level depends on an organising or morphic field that shapes future development and in the case of plants and animals, their behaviour.
Such fields, arising from the past, represent a cumulative collective memory across time and space. They are fields of probability similar to quantum fields, and they work by imposing patterns on otherwise random events. In this way, once a pattern has been established, it influences other patterns. It is thus “an ongoing creativity” establishing new habits and regularities as nature evolves. Laws of nature should rather be regarded as habits. New forms and patterns evolve spontaneously and are subject to natural selection. Those that survive are likely to appear again as new habits build up, and through repetition become increasingly habitual.
Can morphic resonance be demonstrated? How does it work? Can it be said to have purpose, and if so what purpose? Sheldrake does his best to answer these questions but the evidence is inevitably somewhat anecdotal, and even when tested in statistical surveys remains inconclusive and open to alternative interpretation. Definition of consciousness and its relation to the physical brain has been argued over for centuries. The same goes for such phenomena as precognition, telepathy and the paranormal.
Whether or not the theory of morphic resonance can provide a framework for answers, Sheldrake raises questions that are useful in themselves. The hostility with which his ideas have been received in some quarters may itself be a recommendation. Whatever else, he cannot be dismissed as a nutcase. Certainly we need to accept the limitations of much current dogma and keep our minds as open as we reasonably can. Sheldrake may help us to do so through this well-written, challenging and always interesting book.
Sir Crispin Tickell is a fellow of the Oxford Martin School and a member of its advisory council