Escaping the Flames?

Rupert Sheldrake. A New Science of Life, 3rd edition, Icon Books, 2009.

When this book was first published nearly 30 years ago, it received truly excellent publicity, when the then editor of Nature magazine, John Maddox, described it as a heresy and a suitable candidate for burning. Not surprisingly many people bought the book to see what the fuss was about. Looking at it now, I am not sure that many of those who did so would have followed the rather technical nature of many of the arguments within the book.

Like most lay people, I would have assumed that the huge strides in conventional biology over the last generation, the age of the genetic revolution, would have even more sidelined Sheldrake, who remains a voice crying in, if not the wilderness, then a very sparsely inhabited place. Sheldrake will have none of this however, and claims that gaps in biological knowledge make his theory even more credible. This would seem to suggest that the famous morphic and morphogenetic fields are 'fields of the gaps'

Within the main book however, a separate problem arises, for they are seen to explain everything. Of course, I am not in a position to evaluate the numerous technical points, but even as a lay person I can see that if you invent some hypothetical entity for which there is no direct evidence, then ascribe to it just such properties are needed to explain X, Y and Z, then it will indeed easily explain X, Y and Z. But this sort of thing doesn't impress mainstream scientists, because it doesn't actually lead anywhere.
Sheldrake has all along advocated experiments to test his hypothesis, and that rather separates him from a large proportion of the general run of pseudo-scientists, but it is not clear that even if his predications were realised, that they would automatically prove his hypothesis or rule out others.

For, to take an example not used in his book; UK students tend to score higher and higher marks on standard exams such as the GCSE. This is often ascribed to the questions getting easier, though others would argue that is because the pupils are taught better or more thoroughly coached. Sheldrake would explain it by the students interacting with the morphic fields of previous takers. It is not clear how one separates any of these out.

Thus while Sheldrake may (or may not, I wouldn't know) highlight genuine anomalies, for example, changes in the melting point of certain substances, or ease of making crystals, and his suggestion that the "laws" of nature are not fixed and immutable, has a good Fortean ring to it, his general hypothesis looks just all embracing and metaphysical to look like good modern science. It seeking to explain everything, it simply sidelines lots of what we already know.

Despite the introduction's appeal to secular science, and the suggestion that he is discarding ancient metaphysical baggage, it is clear that the actual appeal is quite the opposite. Sheldrake's constant attacks on 'materialism' and 'mechanism' show that what really appals him is the disenchantment of nature in modernity. This is very evident in several of his other books, and it is the content of these which gives rise to the suspicion that for all its experimental and at least quasi scientific veneer, the real purpose of the theory of 'morphic resonance' is to act as the intelligent designers put it, as wedge or perhaps a jemmy to prize open the door of scientific naturalism. -- Peter Rogerson. (Oroginally published on the Magonia Blog, April 2009)

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