Rupert Sheldrake was a scientific superstar; later he was mocked as a magician. A British-born biologist, a former scholar and member of the faculty at Clare College, Cambridge, and a Fellow of Harvard, he was elected at an astonishingly young age to be a researcher at the Royal Society—the College of Cardinals of the British scientific church. Francis Crick, who won a Nobel Prize with James Watson for unraveling the genetic code, regarded Sheldrake as his best pupil. By the early 1970s Sheldrake appeared to be effortlessly heading for that most glittering of academic prizes—a tenured professorship at a university of his choice.
He chose instead to go to India—to Hyderabad—to conduct research in plant physiology, not in the laboratory, but rather in the field. There in the intense sub continental summer heat, something happened. Sheldrake seems to have been struck by a sudden epiphany, an insight—heatstroke perhaps—that utterly overturned his faith in reductionism, biology’s bedrock. It was the scientific equivalent of a religious conversion. When he returned to Britain, he brought with him the manuscript of an astonishing book, A New Science of Life. Its publication in 1981 caused a storm. The tabloid press hailed it as “the answer,” and in the public’s eye, Sheldrake became the long awaited hero, the insider who had exposed the fallacy at the heart of a cold and random Darwinian world.
Yet in the cloistered precincts of academia there was alarm. Sheldrake, after all had been one of the elect, a brilliant member of the molecular biological fraternity, hard to dismiss as a crank. His utterly subversive hypothesis was treason. It necessitated vigorous refutation. The one-two punch of punishment dreamed up by the scientific Curia was mockery—followed by excommunication to the kooky fringe. They decreed that henceforth, Sheldrake would be barred from science’s hallowed halls, for ever ineligible for its Nobel Prizes. Thus in most serious journals his book was met with scorn, his ideas excoriated. The Guardian damned him as a “mystic” whose hypothesis “explained the unreal with the non-real: like multiplying zero by zero.”
It was in the pages of Nature that the anathema reached fever pitch. In a lead editorial, the magazine pronounced A New Science of Life, “heresy.” Even worse, it was magic—surely the most deadly insult one modern empiricist can hurl at another. “Many readers,” editor John Maddox thundered, “will be left with the impression that Sheldrake has succeeded in finding a place for magic within scientific discussion.” Which may, Maddox added slyly, “have been part of the objective in writing such a book.” As if that imputation of alchemy and medieval un-reason were not harsh enough to squeeze the living daylights out of the 278-page tome, Maddox, like some Renaissance Inquisitor presented with a tract arguing the case for Copernicus, ended by calling for the book to be burned.
It was clear that the mainstream scientific career of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, former fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, was now toast. How could one paper-bound book cause such a rumpus? What on earth had Sheldrake said or done?
In his book, Sheldrake kicks off by bashing reductionism, in which life boils down to chemistry, chemistry to physics; the whole is explicable by analyzing the parts. Sheldrake disagrees believing the whole to be more than the parts and he lists a plethora of biological conundrums that have piled up. For instance, he asserts that reductionism cannot explain or predict the development of the pattern or form of living things, (known as “differentiation”) nor their behavior. You just can’t get from A to Z—from egg to organism, from genotype to phenotype—deploying our current physical and chemical theories. Not even close. Instead he posits a phenomenon that you won’t find in the standard text books, namely a “field.” Modern theoretical physics is full of fields, they’re fashionable. Sheldrake’s particular field controls and determines the shape or form of any plant or animal from its simple cellular beginnings all the way to its multi cellular and vastly complex maturity. He calls it a “morphogenetic field” (a term he borrowed from embryology).There exists in his view such a field for each type of living thing which somehow regulates its growth.
So of what might these fields consist? Sheldrake has only a vague suggestions. Perhaps he writes, “chemical and biological forms are repeated not because they are determined by changeless laws, but because of a causal influence from previous similar forms. This would require an action across space and time unlike any known type of physical action”. He calls all this “the hypothesis of formative causation”—a new type of causation as yet undreamed of by modern physics.
Is Rupert Sheldrake some kind of latter day Issac Newton, proffering a new and revolutionary paradigm? Or is he a pseudo-scientific magician? Well Newton himself was both, of course. You’ll find his laws of motion in any elementary text, but little about his work on alchemy or his lifelong search for the elixir of life. John Maynard Keynes pronounced him “not the first of the age of reason but the last of the magicians.” As the great historian of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out in Newton’s supposedly mechanico-corpuscular universe, gravity interpreted as an innate attraction was nothing less than “occult,” a species of magic. To this day it remains mysterious. In the absence of the discovery of observable waves or particles, gravity is nowadays simply assumed to be an irreducible primary property of matter, like size, position, or shape. Or, who knows, like a “morphogenetic field”?
When “scientific revolutions” occur, they are often accompanied by persecution. Nicolaus Copernicus died before the church fathers could get to him, but his posthumous work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium in which he overturned Ptolemy’s geo-centric astronomy, was banned—no one was permitted, on pain of death, to quote it. Galileo disobeyed, of course, was hauled before the inquisitors, and found “vehemently suspect of heresy” for having followed Copernicus and sentenced to house arrest. His own work on astronomy, The Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, was banned too. Galileo was uncommonly well connected—and very lucky. His contemporary and fellow astronomer Giordano Bruno had fewer friends and was less favored by fate. This friar maintained not only that the earth revolved around the sun but that the sun was one of millions of identical stars and that around each were solar systems populated by intelligent life. This was not only “magic thinking” by sixteenth century standards but truly revolutionary. The church couldn’t wait to get rid of this dangerous priest, burning him to a crisp in the middle of Rome. In his sweeping intellectual dissent and reckless arrogance, Sheldrake could be said to be Bruno’s heir. They haven’t burned him yet, but he was seriously stabbed by an insane Japanese man at a public meeting a few years back, who accused him of practicing “mind control.” Such are the occupational hazards of a scientific sorcerer.September 14, 2012