Rupert Sheldrake rattles science's collective cages right good!
by Milo Clark

In 1981, rising star biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake published A New Science of Life, The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance. The book outraged that paragon of science, John Maddox, curmudgeonly editor of "Nature" and self-styled arbiter of the field. Maddox shattered his editorial ethics and battered his scientific cool with his rage. Galileo, Copernicus and myriad others later vindicated by science for their heresies giggled up their sleeves. Maddox roared:

"Books rightly command respect, even affection. They are the products of sustained creative work, and even if their author's ambitions are not fully realized, find a niche somewhere as pebbles on the beach of scholarship and literature. And even bad books should not be burned; works such as Mein Kampf have become historical documents for those concerned with the pathology of politics. But what is to be made of Rupert Sheldrake's book A New Science of Life . . . ? This infuriating tract has been widely hailed by the newspapers and popular science magazines as the ‘answer' to materialistic science. . . . His book is the best candidate for burning there has been in many years."

"Nature" 24 September 1981.

Not since Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis had the Grand Negus of "Nature" come so unglued. Sheldrake's morphic resonance hypothesis can only be radical or even unscientific to a dedicated scientific ostrich. The uncommon outrage of Maddox at so sensible a proposition says more about social irrelevance of a decadent theology than libraries of treatises, polemics, rants and raves.

Any decent animist, reasonable Polynesian initiate in mana or run-of-the- mill shaman will agree with Dr. Sheldrake. As will most any Buddhist worth his dharma or Hindu, Taoist or Shinto adherent worthy of her robes. For the more scientific or intellectual westerner, Gregory Bateson, biologist (as is Sheldrake), goes to elaborate lengths to describe the "patterns which connect."

Bateson looks to homology and homonyms for his references. Across animal kingdoms, the hand of a human resonates positively with the paw of a bear. Across languages, "ma" is frequently used in naming "mother." Sheldrake notes that biology, for example, while heavily involved with DNA still can't answer the reasonable question of how a gene knows to order the heart or ear or stomach in an unborn kitten much less in a human fetus.

Sheldrake postulates "morphic fields" as a testable hypothesis. As that form is pure scientific method: develop a hypothesis and then test it, Sheldrake believes himself to be conforming to the hoary tenets of scientific theology on which he had theretofore based a spectacular early career.

Whatever may be the outcome of the scientific squabbling over morphic resonance and the rest of Sheldrake's postulations, morphic resonance allows for entertaining speculations across vast territories of mind, body and spirit. The Hundredth Monkey story as does the Butterfly's Flatulence story are popular examples titillating many new paradigmers.

Thomas Kuhn is normally credited with the abysmally pretentious idea of paradigm shift. Bateson, Bohm, Hawkins and Sheldrake have given it form. I wish, however, that Kuhn had chosen a less arrogant phrase. Maybe a simpler expression such as "mindshift" would do better and be less offputting as the Brits would say.

As bamboo spreads without flowering but rarely and then quite inconspicuously; Sheldrake and the others involved in opening minds to other possibilities plant concepts which grow persistently wherever the soil, water and sun are allowed.

Sheldrake came upon his hypothesis while spending three years in India with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. The book was written during the next year and a half spent with Dom Bede Griffiths, a Christian in Hindu robes, at the Shantivanam Ashram in the Trichinopoly District of Tamil Nadu. As bamboo is prolific in these areas, perhaps he came to his clarity in the morphic resonance of bamboo.

Let us then listen carefully to these most powerful and useful of grasses.

17 March 1997:

St. Patrick, you may let the snakes back into Ireland now. They have so much to teach us.
If we will listen.

Published March 24, 1997
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