Past Imperfect

Rupert Sheldrake. The Presence of the Past. HarperCollins, 1988.

This is a profoundly old fashioned book on which one must exercise effort to realise that it is written in 1988, This is not so much because of the author's vitalist yearnings, but because of his espousal of a naive form of unilinear progressivism, in which the universe 'evolves' from quarks, through atoms, molecules, unicellular organisms, invertebrates, vertebrates, mammals, primates, hominids, savages, barbarians, onward one upward to Mr Sheldrake himself, who as a member of the white, Anglo-Saxon intelligentsia, is the very pinnacle of earthly evolution, in contradistinction to this, Darwinians argue that it does not make sense to argue that Sheldrake is 'more evolved' than a warthog or tiger; all three are fitted to their environment.

It is obvious that Sheldrake's habit theory - that Laws of nature (and of society) are not fixed, but which are habits which have evolved over time - is part of the general 'whiggish' view. The Morphic Resonance (MR) view allows for change, but slow, gradual change. Furthermore all really new things are to be seen as improvements on the past. Evidence to the contrary is the result of atavism, a throwback to earlier barbaric times, as a result of the continued influence of the morphic fields of entities/species/social orders, now extinct.

In the environmental/heredity debate MR clearly lies closer to the hereditarian position, in that people (and other mammals) are not seen as prisoners of unchanging selfish genes, but are seen as influenced less by personal intellectual activity than by transpersonal unconscious fields, forces and zeitgeist. Thus if a new termite-catching technique is established in a chimp population, it can spread without each chimp personally learning it from one who has already mastered the technique.

MR presupposes a collectvist rather than an individualistic view of society, but this is not the rational collectivism of the consciously-established co-operative commonwealth, but the collectivism of Burkean or Catholic corporate conservatism of Salazar or Dolfuss. Nations and tribes, Sheldrake assures us, have their own morphic fields, though he admits that idea was given a bad press by certain Austrian corporal.

Closely associated with the theory of MR is that of extra-cerebral memory. Quoting a group of now elderly duelists he tries to reject the idea that memory is dependent on the brain. Anyone who has seen, as I have, the results of Alzheimer's disease is going to need a lot of convincing on thas score, and references to Ian Stevenson are not enough. Indeed if one accepts the theoretical possibilities of ESP and PK Sheldrake's theory becomes dramatically testable. Maybe chimps can learn termite catching by ESP and experimenters can influence crystal growing by PK, For agnostics the possibilities of more 'normal' influences, such as increased self-confidence when it is known a task can be done, must be considered.

Sheldrake has become something of a 'Green' guru in the last couple of years, his transcendentalist anti-materialism suggesting that he implicitly accepts tie Cartesian desacralisaiion of matter, Despite his protestations to the contrary his unilinear evolutionism by which different species clearly do not have equal value suggests points of view far removed from Green thought. His is the anti-intellectual, antl-physical, anti-individualist and anti-revolutionary vision of a nineteenth-century transcendental reactionary. Presence of the Past is not a blinding intellectual breakthrough, it is empirical evidence for morphic atavism. -- Review by Peter Rogerson from Magonia 32, March 1988.


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