Photography by Polly Borland
Rupert Sheldrake gazes, rapt, at the TV monitor. The videotape he is showing as part of a public lecture at Cambridge University portends, in his view, nothing less than the shattering of modern biology. It also features a cute dog. The tape, produced by an Austrian television station, looks more like a low-budget domestic farce than a paradigm smasher. On the right side of the split screen, the dog's owner, a woman named Pam Smart, is shown gadding about the English village of Ramsbottom. On the left side, her terrier-cross, Jaytee, who has remained at home, lies curled up at the feet of Pam's mother, Muriel. Beneath each of these slow-moving dramas, synchronized videotape counters tick by, confirming that the camera locked on Jaytee and the camera tracking Pam show simultaneous activity. Suddenly, a researcher accompanying Pam tells her it's time to leave. Eleven seconds later, as Pam exits a churchyard and strides toward a taxi stand to get a ride home, Jaytee rises and trots to a window. The Austrian reporter's voice-over states the dog waited patiently there for 15 minutes until his mistress walked in through the door.
The implication: Though Pam was several miles away, Jaytee sensed, somehow, the moment she formed the intent to return home.
In itself, of course, the Austrian tape proves nothing—it could be coincidence or a hoax. Indeed, that’s the judgment of Richard Wiseman, a British psychology researcher and avid debunker of pseudoscientific claims. Wiseman and two colleagues ran four owner-anticipation experiments with Jaytee and Pam and, in the August 1998 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, they concluded: “In all four experiments Jaytee failed to accurately detect when [Smart] set off to return home.” Sheldrake contends that Wiseman’s team arbitrarily established a two-minute waiting period as the criterion for owner anticipation and ignored the dog’s behavior after the return signal. “Wiseman’s own data shows the dog spent most of its time at the window when Pam was on her way home,” he argues. In any case, Sheldrake says, he has produced more than 200 similar tapes and found three dogs that anticipate their owners’ return 80 percent of the time.
Controversy follows Sheldrake at every turn, and little wonder. The existence of telepathy, a radical notion by itself, is just a subset of Sheldrake’s larger premises—that invisible, but nonetheless pervasive “morphic fields” are responsible for both the shape and behavior of all things, from atoms to zebras, organizing them much as a magnetic field lines up iron filings. Just as controversial is Sheldrake’s hypothesis that these fields broadcast across time and space, a phenomenon he calls morphic resonance. Result: A carrot seed grows into the shape of a carrot because it is directed by the cumulative morphic resonance of all previous carrots. A million blind African termites build a 10-foot-tall nest, featuring top-to-bottom ventilation shafts and other complex architectures, because they are guided by the morphic resonance of previous termite nests. A newspaper crossword puzzle is easier to solve late in the day, because the morphic resonance broadcast by thousands of successful solvers facilitates the task. A dog anticipates its owner’s return because the bond they forge through close association is what Sheldrake terms a “social” morphic field, which stretches, but does not break, when they are apart. Sheldrake contends the same transcendental bonding explains how pigeons home, fish school, and dogs and cats find owners who have moved hundreds of miles away. Humans, Sheldrake says, retain only vestiges of morphic-resonance telepathy, possibly because telephones and mass media make the ability less necessary for survival. In animals, he contends, it remains robust.
Sheldrake says humans retain only vestiges of morphic-
resonance telepathy becausetelephones and mass media
make the ability less necessary for survival
Sheldrake’s theories certainly seem to resonate with the public. His fifth and latest book, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals, resides near the top of popular science best-seller lists worldwide, with 75,000 hardcover copies sold in the United States alone. Moreover, Sheldrake has impressive academic credentials. A former research fellow of the Royal Society, he was director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology at Clare College at Cambridge University and a Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard.
But these days, he is unaffiliated with any university and is viewed as a pariah by many of his peers. “Morphic resonance is rubbish,” says Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London. “It is unmitigated junk, and a great insult to people who do real work in the field.” In a now-famous editorial in the British science journal Nature, former editor John Maddox went further, terming A New Science of Life, a book in which Sheldrake outlines many of his theories, “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.”
DANCES WITH DOGS:
Sheldrake contends that a variety of messages can be communicated telepathically between animals and humans, including fear, alarm, excitement, calls for help, anticipation of arrivals or departures, and distress.
In spite of such scorn (or, worse, anonymity—a half dozen developmental biologists in the United States claimed they knew little or nothing of his work), Sheldrake soldiers on. Here at Cambridge’s Union Society Hall, a severely Edwardian venue with ugly wallpaper, leather armchairs, poor heating, and foxhunt prints on the wall, he is showing his videotape and speaking about his theories to 75 students and faculty members as part of the society’s guest speakers program. His presentation brings hearty applause. If Sheldrake is deluded, he ushers more people into his fanciful realm every day.
That evening, returning to London on the 9:27 express, Sheldrake fights back fatigue. Clad in olive—olive tie, olive jacket, olive pants, and rather ratty olive down coat—his longish, graying hair is in a disarray of ringlets. He is thin; six inches of untethered belt-end flop across his lap. He has pale lab-dweller skin, watery blue eyes, and a soft, lilting voice. Now 58 years old, he impresses even his harshest critics with his politesse. Says Maddox: “He is one of the nicest and most well-mannered men I have ever met.”
But nothing in Sheldrake’s gentle demeanor should be interpreted as a lack of determination. He has pushed the hypothesis of morphic resonance for 20 years and claims, rather bitingly, that his motivation is a too-rare reverence for science as a vehicle for addressing deep, difficult questions. “My way of thinking about science is that major unsolved problems are the most interesting things to work on. I have noticed that many of my colleagues take the opposite view: that major, unsolved problems need to be denied, because recognizing them would show that science is radically incomplete.”
“The idea that the whole truth can be found via reductionism, examining the smallest particles, has never been proved,” says Sheldrake. “It’s an article of faith”
Sheldrake is not the first to posit the existence of morphic fields. In the early 1920s, three biologists—Hans Spemann, Alexander Gurwitsch, and Paul Weiss—independently proposed that fields govern the shape of growing organisms. Gurwitsch was, in particular, astonished by the activity of fungi. How is it, he wondered, that fungal threads, which live apart and free in the soil, converge to make a mushroom? As Gurwitsch hypothesized: “The place of the embryonal formative process is a field, the boundaries of which, in general, do not coincide with those of the embryo but surpass them.” Sheldrake’s embellishment of morphic fields is the idea of morphic resonance. Early biologists imagined relatively discrete morphic fields surrounding and shaping each plant or animal. Sheldrake hatched the idea that each field broadcasts from the past into the future and infinitely across space.
Morphic resonance would dictate that any acquired characteristic, whether a behavior or a shape, can be inherited. Acquired-characteristic inheritance is known as Lamarckism, after French biologist Jean-Baptiste de Monet de Lamarck, who proposed the idea in 1809, and is today almost universally rejected in favor of evolution by natural selection of random genetic mutations. Bucking this trend, Sheldrake fills much of his 1988 book The Presence of the Past with experimental evidence for acquired-characteristic inheritance. One example: In 1923, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov trained mice to run to a feeding place when an electric bell was rung. The first generation required an average of 300 trials to learn, the second 100, the third 30, and the fourth 10. Pavlov was stumped when a new, unrelated strain of mice did not display the same learning increments, but to Sheldrake, that outcome makes perfect sense. The result would not be repeatable because the new mice had a head start. “Subsequent mice would be influenced by morphic resonance from those in the first experiment,” he says.
Some later experiments on other creatures imply that acquired shape-changes can be inherited. In one, reported in 1975 by C.H. Waddington, professor of animal genetics at Edinburgh University, embryonic fruit flies that mutated in response to high temperatures or exposure to ether began giving birth to similarly mutated offspring in as few as eight generations.
Critics assert such studies have not been reliably replicated, and abundant laboratory and cultural evidence points in the opposite direction. Lamarck and his followers should have realized, wrote marine biologist J.R. Whitaker, that “a millennium of circumcision rites by the Semitic races had certainly failed, for example, to result in the birth of males without foreskins.”
Sheldrake’s response: “I would not expect, on the basis of morphic resonance, that mutilations would be hereditary. They are changes imposed on the organism, which it suffers passively, rather than changes it has made as a result of its own activity. The latter would be expected to have an influence by morphic resonance, not the former.”
The whole line of inquiry is utter nonsense, say Sheldrake’s critics. Sheldrake’s basic folly, argues Wolpert, is that he is pushing the notion of morphic resonance at precisely the time when strictly biochemical analysis of cell structure and organization is close to providing a comprehensive explanation for morphogenesis, the process by which living creatures acquire their shapes.
Other developmental biologists agree. “There is no evidence that you need to go beyond biochemical signaling to explain morphogenesis,” says Michael Klymkowsky, a professor in the University of Colorado’s department of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. “There is no mysterious factor, no point at which you must conclude there must be something larger that directs the process. Anyone who seriously proposes that there is a force beyond gene expression, signaling molecules, differential adhesion, and those kinds of mechanisms, just doesn’t know what they are talking about. As soon as you take the organism apart, you find all the pieces.”
Sheldrake doesn’t dispute that genes play a role in morphogenesis, but he insists that the notion that biochemistry will yield the whole story is naive. “Genes code for the sequence of amino acids in proteins, and some are involved in the regulation of the expression of other genes,” he says. “But there is more to development than making the right proteins in the right cells at the right times.” Sheldrake contends that the shapes cells assume and the forms of tissues, organs, and the whole animal—in other words, morphogenesis itself—are not explained by protein synthesis alone. Genes, he says, “tune” a system to one morphic field or another in much the same way that flipping a television’s channel selector determines which programs it receives. Flipping the channel, he contends, does not prove that the show resides inside the TV—only that the channel selector played a part in the tuning process.
Klymkowsky strongly disagrees. The accurate analogy, in his view, is feedback at a rock concert. “It’s a self-amplifying process of signaling between molecules. A group of cells releases a factor, which changes gene expression in a related group of cells. It’s a subtle interplay of agonistic and antagonistic factors. The problem is that these systems are really quite complicated, and as long as we lack complete and total knowledge, it can all seem a bit mysterious.”
But there is at least a soupçon of pardon for Sheldrake in the scholarly world of developmental biology, and some sense that the mechanics of morphogenesis are not quite as settled as Wolpert and Klymkowsky suggest. “There are times when I get tired of the gene-staining crowd contending that they understand it all,” says Sue Ann Miller, a biology professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. “There is a lot of ‘black box’ stuff in developmental biology. People hypothesize about cell division, cell death, chemical morphogens, and charge fields, but it always seems to fall short of a final answer.”
In mystery novels, a “cold stare” felt on the back of her neck routinely alarms the heroine. But in the nonfiction world, could anyone really feel a stare? Many scientists consider the notion dubious, but a tangible stare fits easily into Sheldrake’s hypothesis of morphic resonance, which holds that perceptible fields bind every entity to one another and that the mind is not confined to the brain. So he developed an experiment. One blindfolded person, the subject, sits in a chair. Another person, the experimenter, sits behind the subject. In a random sequence (determined by flipping a coin), the experimenter either looks at the back of the subject or looks away. The experimenter indicates to the subject when a trial is beginning by a click of a handheld clicker. The subject then guesses “looking” or “not looking” for each trial, and the experimenter records the result. One complete test consists of 20 trials.
A version of the experiment conducted with students (pictured above) at Eton College, England’s largest independent secondary school, is included in Sheldrake’s video Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. He also collected trials from German and American grade and high schools and conducted his own with friends and family. The results were published in the 1999 issue of Biology Forum. A total of 387 subjects were more often right than wrong, as opposed to 186 who were more often wrong than right. The probability of this being a chance result is less than one in a quadrillion.
Sheldrake hypothesizes that the ability to feel a hidden predator’s stare would convey a survival advantage, so “evolution may have favored the development of this sensitivity in many species.” But skeptics view Sheldrake’s conclusions as highly suspect. Robert A. Baker, a professor emeritus of psychology from the University of Kentucky at Lexington, conducted his own “sense of being stared at” trials and publishing his findings in the March/April 2000 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. His results were no better than chance. Baker says, “I think people cheat at these tests.”
“The kind of controversy that Sheldrake’s ideas bring is healthy for biology,” adds Janis Roze, biology professor at the City University of New York. “The fact is, genes don’t behave in a neat, mechanistic way. The whole answer is probably much deeper than just genes. I think it’s imperative that we at least investigate the possible influence of fields.”
The first fields to captivate Sheldrake were the meadows around his childhood home in the idyllic Midlands market town of Newark-on-Trent, where he collected a vast personal menagerie of rabbits, frogs, turtles, insects, and other creatures. His father, an herbalist who lectured on plant sources of drugs at Nottingham University, encouraged the boy to study and learn from his charges. At “quite an early age” Sheldrake determined to become a biologist himself.
He was dismayed, then, upon entering the biochemistry department at Cambridge University. “The first thing we did when we decided to study a plant or animal was kill it, then grind it up to extract the DNA and enzymes. It was the ultimate irony—to become a biologist because you love animals, then spend a career torturing and killing them.” Moreover, the approach struck Sheldrake as incomplete. “The idea that the whole truth could be found via reductionism, examining the smallest particles, has never been proved. It’s an article of faith.”
Nonetheless, at Cambridge Sheldrake spent seven years exploring the biochemical basis for plant shape. He exhaustively tagged and recorded the activity of auxin, a hormone that plays a role in the differentiation of a plant’s vascular system. But, he wondered, “What controls the production and distribution of auxin?” His research suggested the answer was vascular differentiation itself, which to Sheldrake was no answer at all. “The system is circular,” he says. “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.”
Frustrated, Sheldrake resigned his Cambridge fellowship and worked for six years at an international agricultural institute at Hyderabad in southern India, improving legume crop yields for Indian subsistence farmers. It was there that he met Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk who lived in a Christian ashram, and to whom A New Science of Life is dedicated.
After more than 20 years as an atheist, Sheldrake rediscovered the Christianity of his youth through Griffiths. He remains to this day a frankly religious scientist, even producing spiritual-themed books such as Natural Grace, coauthored with renegade Episcopal priest Matthew Fox. Also while in India, he met Jill Purce, a vocal therapist whom he married in 1985.
Today, Sheldrake, Purce, and their 10- and 12-year-old sons live in a comfortable town house across the street from Hampstead Heath, the largest tract of wild land in London. It’s a set decorator’s version of a biologist’s home: old brass microscopes, an ostrich egg on the mantle, tottering piles of research papers, and thousands of books heaped on groaning shelves. Relaxing here the day after arriving home from Cambridge, Sheldrake chews a slice of whole-wheat baguette while Allegra, the cat, rubs against his shins. Over her garlic-leek soup, Purce reflects on their life together. “When I first saw him, he was giving a talk about his theories, and he did so with such a grace and lightness.” Even now, she says, “Critics go to his speeches and fly for him, but he retains the most extraordinary equanimity and graciousness.”
A frequent critique of Sheldrake’s work is that the fields he posits seem to be undetectable—his experiments and research may (or may not) imply their existence but don’t indicate what morphic fields or resonance actually are. Sheldrake responds that the phenomena may spring from the so-called quantum nonlocality that so fretted Einstein, who termed it “spooky action at a distance.” Confirmed by experiments by French physicist Alain Aspect in 1982 and independently corroborated many times since, the phenomenon is indeed unsettling: Two photons or electrons emitted by the same atom remain somehow linked, even miles apart (and, theoretically, on opposite sides of the universe), such that measuring the polar orientation of one immediately determines the orientation of the other.
Some physicists contend that other sciences haven’t properly come to terms with this astounding fact. The late theoretical physicist David Bohm, for example, proposed that reality consists of two realms: a fundamental “implicate order” that transcends time and space and an “explicate order” comprising the familiar world of flowing time and discrete objects. Considering Sheldrake’s theories in this context, Bohm proposed that “for every moment that is projected out into the explicate there would be another movement in which that moment would be injected or ‘introjected’ back into the implicate order. If you have a fairly large number of repetitions of this process, past forms would tend to be repeated or replicated in the present, and that is very similar to what Sheldrake calls a morphogenetic field and morphic resonance.” Bohm also noted that since the implicate order, by its nature, is not located anywhere, attempts to isolate or identify it would be futile.
Another physicist, Hans-Peter Dürr of the Max Planck Institute in Munich, has argued that Sheldrake’s theories are among the first to reconcile 20th-century breakthroughs in physics—which emphasize the primacy of fields and the indivisible nature of matter—with biology, which for the most part remains rooted in 19th-century Newtonian concepts of particles and separateness.
But within the embrace of “Newtonian mechanics,” contends Klymkowsky, is precisely where biology belongs. “We live in a macroscopic world. Quantum effects are essentially irrelevant,” he says, adding that even the most minute biological object is gigantic from a quantum mechanical perspective. “Biological objects behave like little machines. They are like the engine in your car. . . .The idea of being wrapped up in a field sounds warm and fuzzy, but there is no need for that hypothesis. There really is no mystery.”
To which Sheldrake responds that mystery abounds, if scientists will only perform the proper experiments. “Arthur Eddington, the physicist, said if you drag a net with a two-inch mesh through the sea, you will conclude there is no such thing as a fish that is shorter than two inches,” Sheldrake says. “The kind of questions you ask determine the kind of answers you get. The first step is to begin asking the right questions.”