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|This article's lead section may not adequately summarize all of its contents. (September 2010)|
|Born||28 June 1942 |
|Education||M.A. (Cantab), Ph.D.|
|Alma mater||University of Cambridge, Harvard University|
|Occupation||Biochemist, parapsychologist, writer|
|Employer||Perrot-Warrick Project, administered by Trinity College, Cambridge|
Alfred Rupert Sheldrake (born 28 June 1942) is an English scientist and author. He is known for having proposed a non-genetic account of morphogenesis and for his research into parapsychology. His books and papers stem from his theory of morphic resonance, and cover topics such as animal and plant development and behaviour, memory, telepathy,perception and cognition in general. His publications include A New Science of Life (1981),Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (1995), Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999), The Sense of Being Stared At (2003), and The Science Delusion: Freeing the spirit of enquiry (2012).
Early life and education
Sheldrake was born in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire to Doris (née Tebbutt) and Reginald Alfred Sheldrake (b.1903), a family of Methodists. His father graduated from Nottingham University with a degree in pharmacy, was also an amateur naturalist and microscopist, and encouraged his son's interest in plants and animals.
He attended Worksop College, an Anglican boarding-school, and specialized in science. Sheldrake obtained a scholarship to studyBiology at Clare College, Cambridge. He specialized in biochemistry, graduated with double-first-class honours, and won the University Botany Prize. He won a Frank Knox fellowship to study philosophy and history at Harvard University at around the time Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) was published, which he writes informed his view on the extent to which themechanistic theory of life is just a paradigm. He returned to Cambridge, where he obtained his Ph.D. in biochemistry.
Sheldrake became a Fellow at Clare College where he was Director of Studies in Biochemistry and Cell biology, and a Research Fellow of the Royal Society. From 1974 to 1985 he worked in Hyderabad in India as Principal Plant Physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. For a year and a half he lived in the ashram of Bede Griffiths, where he wrote his first book,A New Science of Life.
As a biochemist, Sheldrake researched the role of auxin, a plant hormone, in the cellular differentiation of a plant's vascular system. He ended this line of study when he concluded, "The system is circular, it does not explain how [differentiation is] established to start with. After nine years of intensive study, it became clear to me that biochemistry would not solve the problem of why things have the basic shape they do." More recently, drawing on the work of French philosopher Henri Bergson, Sheldrake has proposed that memory is inherent to all organically formed structures and systems. Where Bergson denied that personal memories and habits are stored in brain tissue, Sheldrake goes a step further by arguing that bodily forms and instincts, while expressed through genes, do not have their primary origin in them. Instead, his hypothesis states, the organism develops under the influence of previous similar organisms, by a mechanism he has dubbed morphic resonance.
From September 2005 until 2010, Sheldrake received the Perrott-Warrick Scholarship for psychical research and parapsychology, which is administered by Trinity College, Cambridge. Sheldrake then took his current position as Academic Director for the Learning and Thinking Program at The Graduate Institute in Bethany, Connecticut.
In April 2008, Sheldrake was stabbed in the leg during a lecture at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was presenting as part of the tenth annual International Conference on Science and Consciousness. Sheldrake has since recovered. The assailant, Japanese-born laborer Kazuki Hirano, allegedly stabbed Sheldrake because he believed that Sheldrake was using mind-controltechniques on him. He had followed Sheldrake to New Mexico from England to purportedly ask him how to block mental telepathy when he stabbed him. Sheldrake fears that if he is released and extradited to Japan, he will continue to stalk him.
Sheldrake has a Methodist background but after a spell as an atheist found himself being drawn back to Christianity when in India, and is now an Anglican.
Sheldrake has made appearances in popular media, both on radio and on television. He was one of the subjects of a six-part documentary series called Heretic, broadcast on BBC 2 in 1994. On May 18, 2009, he appeared on The Museum of Curiosity on BBC Radio 4.
Sheldrake has entered into a scientific wager with fellow biologist Lewis Wolpert on the importance of DNA in the developing organism. Wolpert bet Sheldrake "a case of fine port, Quinta do Vesuvio 2005" that by the First of May 2029, "given the genome of a fertilised egg of an animal or plant, we will be able to predict in at least one case all the details of the organism that develops from it, including any abnormalities." Sheldrake denies that DNA contains a blueprint of morphological development. If the outcome is not obvious, the BritishRoyal Society will be asked to determine the winner.
"Morphic field" is a term introduced by Sheldrake. He proposes that there is a field within and around a "morphic unit" which organizes its characteristic structure and pattern of activity. According to Sheldrake, the "morphic field" underlies the formation and behaviour of "holons" and "morphic units", and can be set up by the repetition of similar acts or thoughts. The hypothesis is that a particular form belonging to a certain group, which has already established its (collective) "morphic field", will tune into that "morphic field". The particular form will read the collective information through the process of "morphic resonance", using it to guide its own development. This development of the particular form will then provide, again through "morphic resonance", a feedback to the "morphic field" of that group, thus strengthening it with its own experience, resulting in new information being added (i.e. stored in the database). Sheldrake regards the "morphic fields" as a universal database for both organic (genetic) and abstract (mental) forms.
That a mode of transmission of shared informational patterns and archetypes might exist did gain some tacit acceptance when it was proposed as the theory of the collective unconscious by renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung. According to Sheldrake, the theory of "morphic fields" might provide an explanation for Jung's concept as well. Also, he agrees that the concept of akashic records, term from Vedas representing the "library" of all the experiences and memories of human minds (souls) through their physical lifetime, can be related to "morphic fields", since one's past (an akashic record) is a mental form, consisting of thoughts as simpler mental forms (all processed by the same brain), and a group of similar or related mental forms also have their associated (collective) "morphic field". (Sheldrake's view on memory-traces is that they are non-local, and not located in the brain.)
Essential to Sheldrake's model is the hypothesis of morphic resonance. This is a feedback mechanism between the field and the corresponding forms of morphic units. The greater the degree of similarity, the greater the resonance, leading to habituation or persistence of particular forms. So, the existence of a morphic field makes the existence of a new similar form easier.
Sheldrake proposes that the process of morphic resonance leads to stable morphic fields, which are significantly easier to tune into. He suggests that this is the means by which simpler organic forms synergetically self-organize into more complex ones, and that this model allows a different explanation for the process of evolution itself, as an addition to Darwin's evolutionary processes of selection and variation.
- For the concept in developmental biology, see Morphogenetic field.
Morphogenetic fields are defined by Sheldrake as the subset of morphic fields which influence, and are influenced by living things.
The term [morphic fields] is more general in its meaning than morphogenetic fields, and includes other kinds of organizing fields in addition to those of morphogenesis; the organizing fields of animal and human behaviour, of social and cultural systems, and of mental activity can all be regarded as morphic fields which contain an inherent memory.—Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past (Chapter 6, page 112)
The term morphogenetic field generally referred to a "collection of cells by whose interactions a particular organ formed" in 1920s and 1930s experimental embryology. "The genetics program of biology was originally in direct opposition to the concept of morphogenetic fields... an alternative to the gene as the unit of ontogeny." Due to the success of genetics, the term fell into widespread disfavor in the 1960s, although it could be still be found in developmental biology literature regarding limb and heart fields. "In such instances, no claims are usually made other than that these areas of mesoderm are destined to form these particular structures". Sheldrake commented on the distinction between his usage and that of the biologist, whom he said uses the term "morphic field" as a heuristicdevice, which is conceptually distinct from his own use of the term. He says that most biologists regard morphogenetic fields as "a way of thinking about morphogenesis rather than something that really exists."
A New Science of Life
In his first book, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance, Sheldrake proposed that phenomena – particularly biological ones – become more probable the more often they occur, and therefore biological growth and behaviour become guided into patterns laid down by previous similar events. As a result, newly acquired behaviors are subject to inheritance by subsequent generations – a form of Lamarckism. He suggested that this underlies many aspects of science, from evolution to laws of nature. Indeed, he suggested that the laws of nature are mutable habits that have evolved since the Big Bang.
Sheldrake's primary focus in this book is morphogenesis, which includes both embryonic cell differentiation and the development of the embryo as a whole. In chapter 2, "Three Theories of Morphogenesis," Sheldrake states that there are three historical approaches to morphogenesis: materialism (August Weismann), vitalism (Hans Driesch), and organicism (Alfred North Whitehead). Sheldrake describes his own hypothesis as fitting within the third tradition, which rejects a vitalistic principle exclusive to life but also denies that a strictly materialistic explanation will ever account for the holistic nature of organic forms. The next three chapters address form as a general topic, the traditional concept of morphogenetic fields, and the possibility that past forms directly influence current organic activity. He introduces his main idea in chapter 6, "Formative Causation and Morphogenesis" and devotes the remaining chapters to subsidiary topics such as inheritance, behavior, instinct and learning, and so on.
The book was discussed in a variety of scientific and religious publications, receiving mixed reviews. Then in September 1981, Naturepublished an editorial written by John Maddox, the journal's senior editor, entitled "A book for burning?" In it, Maddox said:
Sheldrake's argument is an exercise in pseudo-science. Many readers will be left with the impression that Sheldrake has succeeded in finding a place for magic within scientific discussion – and this, indeed, may have been a part of the objective of writing such a book.
Maddox's comments raised what Anthony Freeman called "a storm of controversy". The New Scientist inquired whether Nature had abandoned the scientific method for "trial by editorial".
Maddox did not act concerned by the criticism his comments received, and according to Freeman, the "furore that grew out of the assault in Nature put an end to [Sheldrake's] academic career and made him persona non grata in the scientific community." In a 1994 BBC documentary on Sheldrake's theory, Maddox elaborated on his views:
Sheldrake's is not a scientific theory. Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned, in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy.
The Presence of the Past
The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (1988) puts forward morphic resonance, one aspect of the "formative causation" hypothesis Sheldrake introduced in A New Science of Life, and presents evidence for it.
Sheldrake writes, "Since these past organisms are similar to each other rather than identical, when a subsequent organism comes under their collective influence, its morphogenetic fields are not sharply defined, but consist of a composite of previous similar forms. This process is analogous to composite photography, in which 'average' pictures are produced by superimposing a number of similar images. Morphogenetic fields are 'probability structures,' in which the influence of the most common past types combines to increase the probability that such types will occur again."
In support of his hypothesis, Sheldrake cites replications of William McDougall's experiment with rats in a water maze and Mae-Wan Ho's replication of CH Waddington's experiment with fruit flies, as well as several psychology experiments involving human learning. Sheldrake contends that a number of biological anomalies are resolved by morphic resonance, including personal memory (which he contends would otherwise require the existence of an elaborate information-storage mechanism in the brain), atavism and parallel evolution. He argues that the existence of organizing fields – with or without inherent memory – would explain phenomena ranging from coordinated behavior among social insects, flocks of birds and schools of fish to the regeneration of severed limbs by salamanders or a sense of phantom limbs among amputees, as the organizing field of a limb would remain even after the limb itself had been lost.
Seven Experiments That Could Change the World
In 1994 Sheldrake proposed a list of Seven Experiments That Could Change the World, which included, among other things, the seed of his study of Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home (1999). In Seven Experiments ... he encouraged lay people to contribute to scientific research, and argued that scientific experiments similar to his own could be conducted on a shoestring budget.
The Sense of Being Stared At
In 2003, Sheldrake published The Sense of Being Stared At on the psychic staring effect, including an experiment where blindfolded subjects guessed whether persons were staring at them or at another target. He reported that, in tens of thousands of trials, 60% of subjects reported being stared at when being stared at; 50% of subjects reported being stared at when they were not being stared at. According to Sheldrake, this suggested a weak sense of being stared at but no sense of not being stared at. He also claimed that these experiments were widely repeated, in schools in Connecticut and Toronto and a science museum in Amsterdam, with consistent results.
The Science Delusion
Sheldrake's most recent title (2012) summarises much of his previous work and encapsulates it into a broader critique of modernmaterialism, with the title mimicking the controversial book by one of Sheldrake's critics Richard Dawkins, who wrote The God Delusion. [In an interview with Fortean Times, Sheldrake denied that Dawkins' book was the inspiration for his own. "The title was at the insistence of my publishers, and the book will be re-titled in the USA as "Science Set Free". Dawkins is far less important outside Britain (...) Dawkins is a passionate believer in materialist dogma, but the book is not a response to him - although I do object to his dumbed-down representation of science"]. Sheldrake proposes a number of questions as the theme of each chapter which seek to elaborate on his central premise that science is predicated on the belief that the nature of reality is fully understood, with only minor details needing to be filled in. This delusion is what Sheldrake argues has turned science into a series of dogmas rather than a genuinely open-minded approach to investigating phenomena, and that there exist many powerful taboos that circumscribe what scientists can legitimately direct their attention towards.
In 2003 Sheldrake published research on human telepathy in an experiment where subjects guessed which of four people was going to telephone or send an email. Sheldrake reported that the subject guesses the person correctly about 40% of the time instead of the expected 25% (p=.05).
Sheldrake's work was the theme of a plenary session titled "Anomalies of Consciousness" of the 2008 Toward a Science of Consciousness conference, where he presented his work on telepathy in animals and humans, followed by three critiques of his work on the sense of being stared at.
Sheldrake's work has little support in the mainstream scientific community. Members of the scientific community consider Sheldrake's claims to be currently unfalsifiable and therefore outside the scope of scientific experiment. The "morphic field" concept is believed by many to fall into the realm of pseudoscience.
Some within the parapsychological community have supported the theories of Sheldrake as they believe it may explain the phenomena of extrasensory perception. Paranormal writers and parapsychologists such as Arthur Koestler, Brian Inglis and John L. Randallhave supported the work of Sheldrake.
Sheldrake's ideas have resonated with the general public and some physicists such as David Bohm. The idea that fields may influence cells has even received cautious support from biologists Janis Roze and Sue Ann Miller. However, Sheldrake's work has met with a hostile reception from other scientists. Neurophysiologist and consciousness researcher Christof Koch, for example, has stated that discussing Sheldrake's ideas is a "waste of time," given the absence of hard, physical evidence and Sheldrake's lack of understanding of modern neurobiology. Henry Bauer compared Sheldrake's ideas to Wilhelm Reich's generally discredited claims oforgone energies. In his Skeptic's Dictionary, Robert Todd Carroll stated, in an article highly critical of Sheldrake's theory of morphic resonance, that "although Sheldrake commands some respect as a scientist because of his education and degree, he has clearly abandoned conventional science in favor of magical thinking."
Germano Resconi and Masoud Nikravesh are sympathetic to Sheldrake's ideas, and base their concept of morphic computing directly upon Sheldrake's morphic fields and morphogenetic fields, but acknowledge that "Morphic fields and its subset morphogenetic fields have been at the center of controversy for many years in mainstream science and the hypothesis is not accepted by some scientists who consider it a pseudoscience."
Some quantum physicists have supported Sheldrake's hypothesis. The late David Bohm suggested that Sheldrake's hypothesis was in keeping with his own ideas on what he terms "implicate" and "explicate" order. Hans-Peter Dürr has called for further discussion of Sheldrake's hypothesis, describing it as one of the first to reconcile 20th-century breakthroughs in physics, which emphasize fields and the indivisible nature of matter, with biology, which he says for the most part remains rooted in 19th-century Newtonian concepts of particles and separateness. Others, like biologist Michael Klymkowsky, disagree, contending that "[w]e live in a macroscopic world. Quantum effects are essentially irrelevant". For more details on this topic, see quantum biology.
The concept has attracted speculation from neurolinguistic programming, as an explanation for action at a distance. Sheldrake's book The Presence of the Past: A Field Theory of Life was positively reviewed by the physicist Amit Goswami.
Morphic resonance predicts that memories of one generation are automatically passed on to the next generation, though unconsciously, or to other conspecifics. A neuroscientist and memory expert, Steven Rose, has been critical of this view. A major reason for the criticism is that Rose does not feel there to be any anomalous phenomena which require the theory of morphic resonance as an explanation. Rose suggested an experiment to resolve the matter. In Rose's opinion the resulting study, done in collaboration with Sheldrake, disproved morphic resonance, but Sheldrake has challenged this.
Sheldrake's ideas have often met with a hostile reception from some scientists, including accusations that he is engaged inpseudoscience, and at least two respected scientists who have sought to discuss his work, thoroughgoing metaphysical naturalists Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins, reportedly refused to even examine his evidence—a fact cited as illustrating the dogmatic nature of mainstream science alluded to in Sheldrake's book The Science Delusion.
Testing formative causation
In 1990 neurobiologist Steven Rose experimented jointly with Sheldrake to test the hypothesis of morphic resonance. The experiment involved training day-old chicks to react negatively to a small yellow light when the light was followed 30 min later by an injection which caused temporary illness. Chicks become strongly averse to pecking the stimulus again. Sheldrake predicted that successive batches of day-old chicks would progressively become more averse to pecking the light for the first time, because morphic resonance would cause them to "remember" the experience of previous generations of chicks. Rose predicted that no such effect would be observed.
Rose wrote that he and several scientists who reviewed the data were convinced that there was no evidence of morphic resonance.Sheldrake, however, said that the proportion of test chicks taking longer than 10 sec for the first peck, compared with control chicks, gradually increased in successive batches and believed therefore that the experiment supported his theory.
In a separate paper, Rose responded that there were several confounding details of the experiment which skewed the results, such as the experimenter improving his skills with practice over the course of the experiment. Rose said there was no trend for an increase in the latency, in fact a slight decrease, thus disconfirming Sheldrake's prediction. In an independent analysis of the data, biologist Patrick Bateson agreed with Rose that the results ran counter to the prediction of morphic resonance.
Sheldrake responded that Rose's analysis omitted a significant portion of the data, thus skewing the results. Sheldrake contended that repeating Rose's analysis with the full set of data shows that the trends in aversion were in fact significantly different and morphic resonance was confirmed, not disconfirmed. Rose and other researchers in the field, however, rejected this interpretation of the results.
Tests of the staring effect
David Marks and John Colwell, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer (2000), criticized the experimental procedures Sheldrake had developed for tests designed to demonstrate the existence of the staring effect. Apart from the fact that Sheldrake had encouraged the involvement of lay members of the public in research of the effect, Marks and Colwell suggested that the sequences used in tests followed the same patterning that people who guess and gamble like to follow. These guessing patterns have relatively few long runs and many alternations. The non-randomness of test sequences could thus lead to implicit or explicit pattern learning when feedback is provided. When the patterns being guessed mirror naturally occurring guessing patterns, the results could go above or below chance levels even without feedback. Thus significant results could occur purely from non-random guessing. Non-randomization is one of seven flaws in parapsychological research identified by Marks.
Michael Shermer wrote in Scientific American (2005) that there were a number of objections to Sheldrake's experiments on the sense of being stared at, reiterating Marks' and Colwell's points about non-randomization and the use of unsupervised laypeople, and addingconfirmation bias and experimenter bias to the list of potential problems; he concluded that Sheldrake's claim was unfalsifiable.
Sheldrake (2004, 2005) responded to the criticisms by stating that the experiments had been widely replicated; the results from an independent meta-analysis by parapsychology researcher Dean Radin, which had excluded all data from unsupervised tests, were shown to be highly significant; and the Marks-Colwell suggestion of non-randomization had been refuted by thousands of trials with different randomization methods, including coin-tossing, yielding positive and highly statistically significant results, whatever the randomization method.
2006 British Association controversy
In September 2006, Sheldrake and Peter Fenwick (a near-death experience researcher) were invited by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) to speak at an event at the University of East Anglia, which resulted in criticism from Lord Winston, Peter Atkins, Richard Wiseman and the Royal Society.
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