While out of work with a cold, I read Mark Leviton’s interview with Rupert Sheldrake [“Wrong Turn,” February 2013]. Though I found the interview thought provoking, I was reluctant to buy into aspects of Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance. Then I read an article in The New York Times about Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos. Nagel’s “landmark challenge to the materialist view of the mind” echoed much of what I had just read in the Sheldrake interview. Coincidence?
Rupert Sheldrake says that if the genes in our cells are all the same, then the development of some cells into arms and others into legs must depend on nongenetic influences. Please, don’t tell me that someone with a PhD in biochemistry doesn’t know about differential gene expression!
Initially I found Rupert Sheldrake glib, but as I pushed through the interview, I began agreeing with a lot of what he had to say and even thinking of potential applications for some of his ideas. The only problem I had was with the way Sheldrake and the interviewer refer to morphic resonance as a “theory.” It may be a philosophy, a hypothesis, or an ideology, but it’s not a theory. A theory is a testable hypothesis that has survived the rigors of peer review. Much of Sheldrake’s philosophy, while fascinating, has not been reviewed and does not sound testable.
Although I empathize with Sheldrake’s frustration, I still believe the peer-review process is necessary to maintain the integrity of scientific reasoning. Plenty of evidence-backed, tested, and confirmed hypotheses end up failing peer review. It takes years, even decades, for review to be complete, and many scientists will be dead before their work becomes a theory. That’s OK, though, because science is bigger than any one person.
I read with dismay the interview with Rupert Sheldrake, who manages to distort science in general and misrepresent the findings of some scientists in particular, all in an attempt to shore up his morphic-field theory.
He claims that the Human Genome Project failed to deliver on explaining how heritability works, but that was never a goal of the project. He says that Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication relies entirely on the anecdotal “experiences of rose growers, chicken breeders, and pigeon fanciers,” when this is patently false to anyone who has looked at the book’s nearly two thousand, mostly scientific, references. And Sheldrake claims that the ability of cells with identical genes to develop into different tissues is a problem for science, when in fact this is an active area of research in evolutionary developmental biology.
To support his morphic-field theory, Sheldrake offers a hodgepodge of studies. About one of them he himself says on his website, “These tests were unsupervised, and there is no guarantee that some people did not cheat.” Such a bizarre qualifier makes me question the validity of the rest of his research.
Sheldrake seems to declare himself a scientific maverick simply by virtue of having had his work rejected by other scientists. But he is not like Galileo, whose truly revolutionary (and legitimate) theories were initially rejected by his peers. Rather, Sheldrake has simply taken a “wrong turn” himself.
“Wrong Turn” was just that. The editors made a wrong turn when allowing such a ludicrous idea as “morphic resonance” any semblance of scientific credibility. Rupert Sheldrake’s notions lend fuel to the idea of intelligent design. I have relished your magazine in the past but, being a practicing scientist, I will not continue if this is the path you are on.
Rupert Sheldrake opines that inadequate information is being delivered by the Human Genome Project, saying, “Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured down the drain.” But his portrayal of the project as a “failure” is misplaced.
In fact modern genetics could be singled out among the branches of science for its tremendous success. We are still young in our understanding of the workings of genomes and their products, but we are maturing at a pace akin to the growth of the Internet. Navigating and exploring the genome will be a continuing task of scientists in decades to come.
The results of science contain an abundance of what Sheldrake would likely term “failures.” Experimentation means not knowing what will happen. More important, some of the most meaningful discoveries are those that show us just how much is yet unknown. Yes, there are dogmas in science. Yes, there is ambition. But there is also change, and that is the true success of the sciences.
If I were a biologist, I would find many of Rupert Sheldrake’s claims to be maddening and insulting. But I am not a biologist. I am an artist, a composer, and an improviser. Every time I sit down to create or play with a group of musicians, I feel as if I am trying to tap into something outside of me, something greater than myself. When it works, the result is often incredibly synchronistic. For that and many other reasons I find myself completely at home with Sheldrake’s theories. I also prefer to root for the underdog who is taking on the established order.
For many years I’ve admired and enjoyed The Sun for its independent, anti-corporate stance as well as its commitment to peace, justice, and a more compassionate planet. But along with all that comes a troubling inclination toward anti-rationalist, spiritualist nonsense. Just because someone is an outsider doesn’t make his or her views correct or worth promulgating. Yes, people also laughed at Columbus and Darwin, but people laughed at Velikovsky, Lysenko, and Pons-Fleischmann too, and with good reason.
The Sun reached a nadir in this respect with its interview with Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake’s work is labeled “crackpot” because it is crackpot, and he is an exemplar of how an academic pedigree is no proof of intellectual validity. Sheldrake is wrong about, or willfully mischaracterizes, Thomas Kuhn, the Human Genome Project, and bird flight, to give just a few examples, and his statements about genetics suggest that he’s never heard of the disciplines of embryology, developmental biology, or epigenetics. Sheldrake isn’t being kept out of respected scientific journals because a cabal of cold, hidebound rationalists are conspiring against him. He is kept out because his ideas don’t stand up to skeptical inquiry. And so, much like creationists who debate evolution in op-ed pages and at school-board meetings instead of in the pages of Nature, Sheldrake promotes his wackiness in general-interest books and credulous publications like The Sun.
I completely support Sheldrake’s right to speak his opinions, but that doesn’t absolve The Sun of editorial responsibility for what it publishes. To print unchallenged unexamined claims like Sheldrake’s constitutes irresponsible, even potentially dangerous, journalism. It is the sort of thing that leads people to put faith in charm bracelets instead of seeing their oncologist, to refuse to let their children receive vaccines, or, like one person I know, to spend thousands of dollars on a bed that promises to cure you by aligning your personal magnetic fields with the earth’s.
At a time when science and skepticism are under heavy attack from both the Right (creationism, climate-change denial) and the Left (vaccinations, GMOs), it is more important than ever that the press be vigilant about claims made in the name of science. Skepticism won’t make you a better or more moral person, but an impartial, empirical, rational worldview, coupled with tolerance and kindness, may be the best hope for humanity.
Rupert Sheldrake responds:
The readers’ letters have raised a number of points, and I can’t reply to them all in this limited space. Here are my responses to the main issues:
Morphic resonance is indeed a hypothesis, and I make this very clear in my books and publications on the subject. A hypothesis is a guess about the way things might be, and testable hypotheses are fundamental to the scientific method. This hypothesis makes some people angry, but the whole point of a hypothesis is to explore new possibilities.
The hypothesis of morphic resonance is very testable, and in the latest edition of my book Morphic Resonance I summarize a series of tests that have already been carried out, give references to papers on this research in peer-reviewed journals, and discuss a series of new tests, some of which are currently underway.
The Human Genome Project was promoted with an enormous amount of hype, which helped it gain billions of dollars of funding and investment. It has been a disappointment in many ways, but it has highlighted important scientific issues, one of which is the “missing heritability problem.”
I have published more than eighty papers in peer-reviewed journals on developmental biology, animal behavior, the sense of being stared at, and telepathy. The references and full texts are on my website, www.sheldrake.org.
In my book Science Set Free I explain why I am against creationism. The hypothesis of morphic resonance is radically evolutionary. It proposes that not only living organisms evolve, but all of nature. The conventional view, rooted in seventeenth-century theology, is that nature is governed by fixed laws. The hypothesis of morphic resonance sees these regularities as more like habits. Morphic resonance is more evolutionary than neo-Darwinism, not less so.
I admire Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication because it is based on the observations and experience of many practical people. Darwin quotes letters from informants as well as articles in periodicals like The Gardeners’ Chronicle.
Some correspondents seem to think that developmental biology can be explained simply in terms of differential gene expression. This is not the case, and no one familiar with this area of research would claim that. Even the most mechanistic of biologists, such as Lewis Wolpert (with whom I have a wager about the predictive power of the genome), recognize that gene expression is itself influenced by patterns of activity covering regions much larger than individual cells. He refers to “positional information” that tells cells where they are in relation to other cells. I believe this information is contained within morphogenetic fields. Wolpert and I differ in our interpretation, but we agree that there is a need for some larger patterning set of influences that shape the way embryos and plants develop.
I am all in favor of skepticism, and my book Science Set Free is an exercise in radical skepticism. Questioning established dogmas makes the sciences more rational and scientific, not less so.