The Nature Channel

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake shares a few thoughts on ESP, memory fields, the physics of angels, and other everyday occurrences in a creative universe

| January/February 2001 Issue

Venture capitalists are betting vast sums that the secret of life lies hidden in our genes. The biologist Rupert Sheldrake is putting a few hundred dollars on pigeons. Sheldrake lives in London, so we’re actually talking British pounds, but you get the picture. Forget the billions pouring into biotech. Forget the human genome project. If you really want to explore life’s mystery, build a pigeon coop and try to figure how those birds find their way home from miles and miles away. No one knows, and big science doesn’t care. But Sheldrake thinks the answer could trigger a new scientific revolution—and it may be waiting in our own backyards.

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 of

mainstream 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.


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