Rupert Sheldrake (born 28 June 1942) is an English biochemist and plant physiologist. He is known for having proposed a non-standard 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), and The Sense of Being Stared At (2003).
Sheldrake's ideas have often met with a hostile reception from some scientists, including accusations that he is engaged in pseudoscience.
Early life and education
Sheldrake was born in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire to a family of Methodists. He attended Worksop College, an Anglican boarding school, and specialized in science. His father was an amateur naturalist and microscopist who encouraged his son's interest in plants and animals.
He obtained a scholarship to study Natural Sciences at Clare College, Cambridge. He specialized in biochemistry, graduated with double-first-class honours, and won the University Botany Prize. He was awarded 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 the mechanistic theory of life is just a paradigm. He returned to Cambridge, where he obtained his Ph.D. in biochemistry.
He became a Fellow at Clare College, director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology, and a Research Fellow of the Royal Society. From 1974 to 1985, he worked in Hyderabad, India, where he was 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 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.
In September 2005, Sheldrake received the Perrott-Warrick Scholarship for psychical research and parapsychology, which is administered by Trinity College, Cambridge. As a result, he is the current Director of the Perrot-Warrick Project.
Other biographical information
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 control techniques 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. Most of the medical community believes that Hirano is either psychotic or schizophrenic.
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 the subject of a one 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"[dubious – discuss] that by the First of May of 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 British Royal 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 this concept, 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 (living) 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 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.)
Sheldrake's concept has little support in the mainstream scientific community. Members of the scientific community consider Sheldrake's concept to be unfalsifiable and therefore scientifically faulty. Thus outside the scope of main stream science, the concept Morphic field falls into the realm of pseudoscience.
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 the Darwin's evolutionary processes of selection and variation.
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)
Morphogenetic fields are said to contain the information necessary to shape the exact form of a living thing and may also shape its behaviour and coordination with other beings. The term morphogenetic field has also been used in a different sense by mainstream developmental biologists, as regions within a developing embryo that will subsequently develop into particular structures or organs. Since the 1920s, mainstream biology has used the term morphogenetic field to mean "that collection of cells by whose interactions a particular organ formed". This usage is distinct from Sheldrake's in that nothing external to the cells themselves is implicated. Sheldrake admits that biologists use the term "morphic field" as a heuristic device, 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."