Rupert Sheldrake, New Paradigm Biologist Par Excellence, part 1
This is the latest in a series of articles following on from my conversation with Anders Bolling, fellow writer on Medium, for his Mind the Shift podcast last week, in which I’ll discuss some of the material we didn’t have time for. One of our main topics was new paradigm science. In earlier articles I’ve described some books on that theme in general, then in the previous one I focussed on biology. I’ll now discuss in two articles the life and work of one specific new paradigm biologist, perhaps the most outstanding of them all.
I assume that many Medium readers will be familiar with the name Rupert Sheldrake, and perhaps some of his books. For them, hopefully these articles will offer some deeper insight into this fascinating man. For anyone who hasn’t heard of him before, all I can say is, you have been missing something.
He tells his story in the Introduction to one of the books I’ll be discussing in part 2, Natural Grace¹. From an early age he was interested in plants and animals, and knew that he wanted to study biology. He did this at the University of Cambridge. He was, however, greatly disappointed: “A great gulf opened between my original inspiration — namely an interest in life and actual living organisms — and the kind of biology I was taught: orthodox, mechanistic biology which essentially denies the life of organisms, and treats them as machines. I had to learn that you can’t respond emotionally to animals and plants. You can’t connect with them in any way except by detached objective reason, by dissecting or manipulating them, and cutting them into pieces… I was dissecting them into smaller and smaller bits, getting down to the molecular level and seeing them as evolving by blind chance and blind forces of natural selection… The first thing we did in the Biochemistry Department was to kill the organisms we were studying and then grind them up to extract the DNA, the enzymes and so on”.
He says: “I felt more and more that there was something wrong but I couldn’t put my finger on it”. The problem was that “no one else seemed to think that there was anything wrong”. So, even at that early age, he clearly identified himself as an outsider. Then, upon reading about Goethe, he discovered that a different kind of science was possible, “a holistic science that integrated direct experience and understanding. It didn’t involve breaking everything down into pieces and denying the evidence of one’s senses”. He had discovered a different kind of natural science.
He was so excited by this prospect that he decided to study the history of science and philosophy. He was offered a fellowship at Harvard where he spent a year doing just that. He was deeply influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which had just come out: “It made me realise that the mechanistic theory of life was what Kuhn called a paradigm, a collectively held model of reality, a belief system”. He then became excited by the prospect of a radical change in science, that a paradigm shift might be possible.
He didn’t like the education system : “I soon discovered in the United States, university students are treated like children, told exactly what to read and then tested to make sure they have read it”. He therefore decided that he didn’t need the degree he was supposed to be getting, and “spent a wonderful year at Harvard, freed from the tyranny of exams, tests and so on. I could do exactly as I liked, go to any lectures in any subject, read anything. It was wonderful”.
He then went back to Cambridge, and did a PhD on the development of plants. At this period of his life he was an atheist: “When I was about fourteen my biology master at school had convinced me that religion was a thing of the past, and science was the thing of the future. Religion shackled man to superstition, priests and dogma; but science liberated man and enabled him to march forward to a new era of prosperity and brotherhood. Technological progress would bring about this kind of heaven on earth, through man’s own reason, not through blind faith and mumbo-jumbo”. Sound familiar? The same silly story is still being repeated today.
This “optimistic, atheistic and humanistic attitude” lasted a long time. Sheldrake was deeply interested in science, but perhaps not the sort of science of which his old biology teacher would have approved: “new ideas in quantum theory, the philosophy of science, parapsychology, alternative medicine, and the holistic philosophy of nature”.
He then became a Research Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and of the Royal Society, and was free to do whatever research he liked. He travelled to Malaya via India and Sri Lanka: “that was a real eye-opener. Being in Asia showed me totally different ways of looking at the world”. The materialist paradigm that he was taught at Cambridge seems to be more of a Western problem, and does not stretch worldwide.
Upon his return to Cambridge he started to formulate the idea of morphic resonance, “the basis of memory in nature”. This is the work for which he is most famous now, but such a theory, “the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and collective memories within species”, didn’t go down well with his colleagues in the science labs. They weren’t overtly hostile, however, merely ridiculed him.
It then became clear to him that his future didn’t lie in biochemistry, because he wanted to work with whole organisms. So he resigned his fellowship at Cambridge and got a job in Hyderabad, south India, working on the physiology of tropical crops. He did this because he wanted to be in India, having become interested in Indian philosophy, and drawn to the Hindu tradition. While there he also became interested in Sufism; he even had a Sufi teacher. However, he eventually found himself drawn back to the Christian tradition, in which he began to find a new meaning through the influence of Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk living there: “He made the bridge between the two much easier for me to cross”. Sheldrake lived in his ashram for over a year and a half before returning to England.
From these biographical details we can see that, from the outset, Sheldrake was a free spirit and natural scientific heretic. We can easily see therefore how he might be a significant figure in the move towards a reunification of science and religion/spirituality. Since those early days he has developed his thinking in the field of holistic biology, what we might call new paradigm biology, and other ‘heretical’ ideas. He has written several books, which I’ll discuss in chronological order, along with some more biographical material, in the following article.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Bloomsbury, 1997