Biologist Rupert Sheldrake shares a few thoughts on ESP, memory fields, the physics of angels, and other everyday occurrences in a creative universe
Sheldrake’s theory about the pigeons is based on a wider idea he’s been working on for at least 30 years. Though he’s a plant biochemist by training, he’s spent his career thinking about morphology—from the Greek word morphe—meaning the study of forms. He believes that pigeons, like all things in nature, look and act as they do because they’re shaped by invisible fields that carry the memory of how their predecessors looked and acted in the past. The idea is not entirely new. As far back as the 1920s, Sheldrake notes, certain open-minded researchers suggested that what they called "morphogenetic fields" somehow determined how living things take shape.
Other observers liken his theory to certain Hindu concepts, or Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious. Sheldrake agrees—as readers will see in the following interview, which first appeared in John David Ebert’s Twilight of the Clockwork God: Conversations on Science and Spirituality at the End of an Age. But Sheldrake thinks that his ideas are testable. That’s a crucial difference—and a central concern in all his work. Sheldrake is a critic ofmainstream science, but not of science per se. He remains a firm believer in the power of experiment to yield truths about nature. "Seeing nature" in the Zen sense, in a sudden flash of insight, is not enough for a bodhisattva of the new biology like Sheldrake. The eureka moment must be proven repeatable, so that others can find their way to the same insight, step by step. While the case for Sheldrake’s own theory may not yet be overwhelming, that could change.
Sheldrake’s key idea is that nature has what amounts to a memory. This memory is conveyed through time and space by what he calls "morphic fields." These fields shape everything, from atoms and molecules to hurricanes and jaguars. How a jaguar looks and behaves, for instance, is not so much about its genes as about the memory of jaguarness carried in its morphic field. Rather than being encoded with certain traits, genes may be tuned, like transistors, to the jaguar channel—all jaguar, all the time. The process of converting this memory into an actual thing, out of the past into the present, is what Sheldrake calls "morphic resonance."
"All this obviously contrasts with currently orthodox theories," he writes. The editor of the British science journal Nature put it more bluntly, calling Sheldrake’s first book, A New Science of Life, published in 1981, "the best candidate for book burning" he’d seen in years. And no wonder. Sheldrake challenges a central belief of mainstream science, centuries old, that nature is a kind of "eternal machine" driven by fixed laws. Instead, says Sheldrake, the more we learn, the more the universe seems alive. Sheldrake’s universe is a creature of habit that often gets stuck in its ways, sometimes for eons at a stretch; but it can also be wildly creative as it evolves through time.
Sheldrake was born in Newark-on-Trent, England, in 1942. Fascinated by the natural world as a child, he knew from an early age that he wanted to be a biologist. But as an undergraduate at Cambridge, he discovered that his chosen field was focused on breaking down life forms to their cells and genes. He couldn’t quite say why that troubled him until he happened to read an essay about the scientific insights of the German writer Goethe (1749–1832), a brilliant observer of nature with a special interest in how everything from clouds to leaves take shape. It was Sheldrake’s first glimpse of a holistic approach to biology that had actually been around for centuries.
He left Cambridge to work at an agricultural institute in southern India in 1974. He lived in India for six years (and met his wife, Jill Purce, there; they have two sons). Along with his crop research he began studying Indian thought, a quest that finally led this one-time teenage atheist and soldier of science back to his Christian roots. He spent a year and a half living in a Christian ashram, the home of a man who was to play a crucial role in his life, Bede Griffiths. The English Benedictine monk helped the young biologist find a "bridge" between the insights of East and West, and to begin writing his controversial A New Science of Life.
Sheldrake explored the philosophical dimensions of his theory in his second book, The Presence of the Past (1988). In The Rebirth of Nature (1991), he traces both the rise of mechanistic science and the growing discontent with it, despite its tremendous successes. In Seven Experiments That Could Change the World: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science (1994), Sheldrake begins calling for new "grassroots" research on the amazing mysteries that lie right under our noses. After all, this was the approach of Darwin and others before the rise of beehive-style science in the 20th century. He renews the call in Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (1999). Whether such homegrown experimentation proves Sheldrake’s theory right or wrong, a more democratic science, driven by curiosity rather than aggression and greed, would be an earthshaking, and perhaps earth-saving, revolution in itself.
Sheldrake has also collaborated on several published dialogues and trialogues with the likes of chaos theorist Ralph Abraham, the late philosopher of consciousness Terence McKenna, and theologian Matthew Fox. That tradition continues in his chat with Ebert, a former editor with the Joseph Campbell Foundation whose book contains interviews with a number of thinkers, all sharing an openness to the idea that the cosmos is less a machine than a living organism. Ebert concludes that both science and religion must confront this growing awareness, each in its own way. He and Sheldrake discuss the existence of souls, ghosts, reincarnation, telepathy, and angels—subjects certainly worthy of speculation if indeed we are the children of a universe that can be playful, when it needs to be.
Ebert: Joseph Campbell once suggested that the early idea of morphogenetic fields reminded him of the Hindu concept of maya—the field of space-time that gives birth to the forms of the world. You wrote your first book while living in an ashram in India. Do you think its content was influenced at all by a resonance with the traditions of Indian thought?
Sheldrake: I think it probably was, but the basic idea of morphic resonance and morphic fields came to me in Cambridge, before I went to live in India. My thinking about morphogenetic fields was influenced by the holistic tradition in developmental biology, where these fields are fairly widely accepted. The idea of an influence through time—what I call morphic resonance—was inspired by the French philosopher Henri Bergson in his book Matter and Memory, where he argues that memory is not stored in a material form in the brain. I realized that Bergson’s ideas on memory, which were completely new and incredibly exciting to me, could be generalized, and it was really through reflecting on his thought that I came to my ideas.
When I went to work in India I kept thinking about those ideas, which indeed had much in common with Indian thought. In Cambridge, I found that many people simply couldn’t understand what I was going on about—particularly scientists. They thought the idea was too ridiculous to take seriously. When I arrived in India and discussed it with Hindu friends and colleagues, they had the opposite view: "There’s nothing new in this," they said, "it was all known millennia ago to the ancient rishis." So they found the ideas perfectly acceptable; the only thing was, they weren’t particularly interested in extending them into a scientific hypothesis.
After five years at the agricultural institute, I went to the ashram to write my book. The climate of Indian thought was a very fertile one for me, and it enabled me to go on thinking about these ideas in a much more favorable environment than I would have had in Cambridge. But the germs of these ideas, the roots of my own thought, are in Western philosophy and science rather than Oriental philosophy. So, it’s a kind of convergence.
You see evolutionary history as a tension between the two forces: habit—or what you call morphic resonance—and creativity, which involves the appearance of new morphic fields. But in the case of mass extinctions, you suggested once that "the ghosts of dead species would still be haunting the world, that the fields of the dinosaurs would still be potentially present if you could tune in to them." Would you comment on how it might be possible for extinct species to reappear?
Well, I don’t have in mind some kind of Jurassic Park scenario. I was thinking that the fields would remain present, but the conditions for tuning in to them are no longer there if the species is extinct, so they’re not expressed. However, it’s a well-known fact in evolutionary studies that some of the features of extinct species can reappear again and again—both as occasional mutations and turning up in the fossil record. And when the features of extinct species re-appear, they’re usually given the name "atavism," which implies a kind of throwback to an ancestral form. Darwin was very interested in atavisms for the same reasons I am, that they seem to imply a kind of memory of what went before.
Do you think that morphic fields could account for the existence of ghosts?
Well, the fields represent a kind of memory. If places have memories, then I suppose it’s possible for a type of ghostly phenomena to be built into their fields. This is a very hazy area of speculation and not one I’ve thought through rigorously. I’ve had no incentive to think it through rigorously because it’s so hard to think of repeatable experiments with ghosts. But ghosts do seem to be a kind of memory thing, and morphic fields have to do with memory, so there may well be a connection.
Karl Pribram suggests that memories are spread throughout the brain like waves, or holograms. You go further in suggesting that memories may not be stored in the brain at all, but rather that the brain acts as a tuning device and picks up memories analogous to the way a television tunes in to certain frequencies. You’ve also suggested that if memories aren’t stored in the brain, this leaves the door open for the possibility of the existence of the soul. Can you explain how your ideas on the existence of the soul fit into this paradigm?
Well, we should clarify the terms here. The traditional European view was that all animals and plants have souls—not just people—and that these souls were what organized their bodies and their instincts. In some ways, therefore, the traditional idea of soul is very similar to what I mean by morphic fields. The traditional view of the soul in Aristotle and in Saint Thomas Aquinas was not the idea of some immortal spiritual principle. It was that the soul is a part of nature, a part of physics, in the general sense. It’s that which organizes living bodies. In that sense, all morphic fields of plants and animals are like souls.
In the case of human beings the additional question arises as to whether it’s possible for the soul to persist after bodily death. Now, normally, souls are associated with bodies. And the theory I’m putting forward is one that would see the soul associated with the body and with memories coming about by morphic resonance. If it’s possible for the soul to survive the death of the body, then you could have a persistence of memory and of consciousness. From the point of view of the theory I’m putting forward, there’s nothing in the theory that says the soul has to survive the death of the body, and there’s nothing that says that it can’t. So, this is simply an open question. But it’s not one that can be decided on a priori principles.
InThe Presence of the Past, you have an interesting theory of reincarnation. You suggest that people who have memories of past lives may actually be tuning in to the memories of other people in the morphic field, and that they may not actually represent reincarnated people at all. Would you care to comment on that?
Yes. I’m suggesting that through morphic resonance we can all tune in to a kind of collective memory, memories from many people in the past. It’s theoretically possible that we could tune in to the memories of specific people. That might be explained subjectively as a memory of a past life. But this way of thinking about it doesn’t necessarily mean this has to be reincarnation. The fact that you can tune in to somebody else’s memories doesn’t prove that you are that person. Again, I would leave the question open.
But, you see, this provides a middle way of thinking about the evidence for memories of past lives. Usually the debate is polarized between people who say this is all nonsense because reincarnation is impossible—the standard scientific, skeptical view (I should say, the standard skeptical view; it’s not particularly scientific)—and the other people who say this evidence proves what we’ve always believed, namely, the reality of reincarnation. I’m suggesting that it’s possible to accept the evidence and accept the phenomenon, but without jumping to the conclusion that it has to be reincarnation.
So your theory that information can be transmitted by these nonmaterial morphic fields makes plausible a paradigm in which telepathy and ESP can be understood. Can you explain how your paradigm makes sense of such phenomena?
If people can tune in to what other people have done in the past, then telepathy is a kind of logical extension of that. If you think of somebody tuning in to somebody else’s thought a fraction of a second ago, then it becomes almost instantaneous and approaches the case of telepathy. So telepathy doesn’t seem particularly difficult in principle to explain if morphic resonance actually takes place.
Morphic fields also extend beyond the body. I think that when a person looks at something or somebody else, the image that they’re seeing is not located in their brain, but in the place where it seems to be. For example, if I looked at you, then my image of you would not be inside my head, but where you actually are. So I think that in perception we project our fields of perception, which are one kind of morphic field, which link the person who’s doing the looking to what is being looked at. This, I think, means that people can affect other people or things just by looking at them through these fields. This is what underlies my current interest in the sense of being stared at, the feeling many people have of being looked at from behind. I discuss this in Seven Experiments That Could Change the World, and since that book was published we’ve done further experiments that convince me this is indeed a real phenomenon. So, that’s not one of the things that parapsychologists usually talk about, but it follows quite naturally from the idea of morphic fields.
Some of the other phenomena of parapsychology are hard to explain from the point of view of morphic fields and morphic resonance. For example, anything to do with precognition or premonition doesn’t fit into an idea of influences just coming in from the past. So, I don’t think my ideas are going to give a blanket explanation of all parapsychological phenomena, but they are going to make some of it, at least, seem normal rather than paranormal.
InSeven Experiments you also point out that the expectations of experimenters can greatly affect the outcome of their experiments. And you even suggest that researchers might influence their experiments through psychokinesis or telepathy.
Yes, it’s well-known in psychology and medicine that the experimenter’s expectations can and do influence the outcome of experiments, which is why people use blind experimental techniques to minimize the effect. The second point is a new one that I discovered by surveying the literature and lab practices from different branches of science. I found that in the physical sciences and in most of biology, people never do blind experiments. There’s no protection against possible experimenter effects. It seems quite possible that experimenters could be biasing the way they record their data. I would be very surprised if that doesn’t happen in conventional science.
But I think something more surprising and alarming might be happening, as you suggest: namely, a possible psychokinetic influence over the actual experimental system. Scientists would be completely unprepared for this if it were happening; they’d take no precautions against it. The culture of institutional science dismisses it as impossible, so there would be a great vulnerability to this effect, if it’s going on, and it might be quite common in science.
We know from the psychokinetic studies conducted by Robert Jahn of Princeton that people can influence random number generators in a rather surprising way, even at a distance. And since quantum events and random number generators are not unlike the quantum events occurring in physical, chemical, and biological systems, there’s already a precedent in experimental data for this kind of mind over matter.
InNatural Grace andThe Physics of Angels, your two books co-written with Matthew Fox, you explore the relationship between science and spirituality. In what ways do you see these two areas of discourse intersecting, and what do you see resulting from their fusion?
There are many areas of potential intersection. One is the cosmological, because when science is talking about creation, it’s getting into a realm that has been very much the preserve of religion for a long time. I’m not thinking simply of "Where did the big bang come from?" If we focus too much on the initial moments of creation, about which we know practically nothing, we get into a situation rather like that of the 18th-century Deists, who thought of God making the world machine and starting it up and then standing back and letting it go on by itself.
I’m more interested in the ongoing creativity, which is expressed in the evolutionary process—and the evolutionary process must have inherent creativity. We know that our universe is creative at all levels, physical, biological, mental, cultural, and so on. So, what is the source of this creativity? Well, it’s really a metaphysical question, and materialist science has no suggestion other than chance, which really means that it’s unintelligible, we can’t think about it. However, this does overlap with traditional areas of theological and spiritual enquiry. Therefore this is one area of discussion.
Another is the nature of the soul, the psyche, consciousness—a question about which science until very recently has had almost nothing to say, but which is obviously crucial to our understanding of ourselves and of nature. Matthew Fox and I suggest further areas to consider, such as the question of prayer and how it works. If people praying for things to happen on the other side of the world have a statistically measurable effect on what happens, you’ve got a kind of action at a distance, which is in the purview of science to investigate. This is precisely what people who pray claim can happen. So there are opportunities for discourse. As science breaks out of its narrow mechanistic view and approaches a more holistic view of nature, fruitful interaction between science and the spiritual will become more possible.
You mention that The Physics of Angels was inspired by the similarity of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ descriptions of angels as without mass or body, and the modern view of science that particles of light—photons—also have neither mass nor body.
Matthew Fox and I both found this point quite fascinating. I think that Aquinas was trying to think as logically and as rationally as he could about what it would mean to be a being with no mass that could yet move and act. If you think in those terms, I suppose you’re driven to conclusions very similar to those of Einstein and other pioneers thinking about relativity and quantum theory. Einstein’s photons of light have remarkable parallels to Aquinas’ discussions of the movements of angels. I think it’s because they were searching from similar premises, and thinking in a similarly logical way about the consequences.
Adapted from "Cellular Aging to the Physics of Angels: A Conversation with Rupert Sheldrake," fromTwilight of the Clockwork God: Conversations on Science and Spirituality at the End of an Age by John David Ebert, copyright © 1999 by John David Ebert. Used by permission of Council Oak Books, 1350 E. 15th St., Tulsa, OK 74133.
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Adapted from "Cellular Aging to the Physics of Angels: A Conversation with Rupert Sheldrake" from Twilight of the Clockwork God: Conversations on Science and Spirituality at the End of an Age by John David Ebert, copyright 1999 by John David Ebert. Used by permission of Council Oak Books, 1350 E. 15th St., Tulsa, OK 74133.