Rupert Sheldrake, New Paradigm Biologist Par Excellence, part 2
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, and this is now the sixth article on that theme. In the previous one, I described the early life of spiritually oriented biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Here I’ll discuss the second half of his life, his ideas and some of his more important books.
The first was called A New Science of Life¹, in which he hypothesised the theory of formative causation and morphic resonance, that memory is inherent in nature. Apart from its content, it is probably best remembered now because at the time the prestigious scientific journal Nature described it as “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years”. This was obviously because, as a review in the Observer newspaper at the time had said, “the implications are fascinating and far-reaching, and would turn upside down a lot of orthodox science”.
It is interesting that Nature was quite happy to identify itself as the modern scientific equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. The editor at the time was John Maddox . How is it possible that such an intellectual bigot, someone so fundamentally opposed to new ideas, can be employed in such a position? It suggests to me that we are in the grip of a Scientific Dictatorship. Not everyone shares my opinion, however, because he was later knighted, and made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. Perhaps the people who made those decisions are part of that dictatorship. (It was also during Maddox’s tenure that Nature had another battle with the Natural History Museum in London, some of whose staff had dared to propose a theory challenging Darwinian evolutionary theory — I’ve described that battle in this article.)
Sheldrake developed these ideas further in The Presence of the Past². This is an extraordinary book. The chapter and section headings are virtually a dictionary of new-paradigm, anti-Enlightenment terms. Here are some examples: Eternity and Evolution, Do the Laws of Nature Evolve?, Faith in God’s Purposes, Progressive Evolution, Platonic Physics and Chemistry, Platonic Biology, Why Genes are Overrated, Morphogenetic Fields (fields are an important concept in physics but not in biology), Are Memories Stored Inside the Brain?, Animal Societies as Organisms, Human Societies as Organisms, Group Minds, Myths, Rituals, Initiations, the Implicate Order, the Mystery of Creativity, Souls and Magic.
He followed on soon afterwards with The Rebirth of Nature³, which has two subtitles. On the front cover there is New Science and the Revival of Animism, whereas inside we have The Greening of Science and God. Animism and God are considered by ‘Enlightenment’ thinking to be pre-scientific ‘heresies’, which it mocks and thinks it has disposed of. Some of the chapter headings are: Mother Nature and the Desecration of the World, The Conquest of Nature and the Scientific Priesthood, Returning to Nature, The Earth Comes Back to Life, Sacred Times and Places, Evolutionary Creativity, From Humanism to Animism, and A New Renaissance.
In 1994, BBC2 television broadcast a series of six programmes, “portraits of unorthodox scientists”. This was called Heretic, and Sheldrake was invited to be one of those featured. The very title of the series again suggests that modern science, and its associated philosophy of materialism, has become a quasi-religion where dissent is not allowed. According to the BBC publicity, “Sheldrake’s offence was to challenge the theoretical core of modern genetics — that life can be explained by DNA”. At least he was being given some airtime to express his ideas, however. (This programme seems to be still available on Youtube, where the title describes Sheldrake as “the most heretical scientist of our time”.)
Following that, Sheldrake teamed up with Matthew Fox, and published two books together. He was in good company, for Fox was also something of a heretic, having been expelled from the Benedictine order by the Vatican because of his beliefs. He went on to found the movement known as Creation Spirituality.
The first book was The Physics of Angels: Exploring the Realm Where Science and Spirit Meet⁴. ‘Angels’ are obviously an outside-the-box topic in modern times, way beyond even ‘pseudoscience’. (I merely mentioned the word in a recent article, and received a mocking response.) The title is somewhat misleading, since the book is less an exploration of the physics (science) of angels, rather an exploration of the ideas of three Christians from former times about them: Dionysius The Areopagite, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Hildegard of Bingen.
Reasons for mocking belief in angels probably has something to do with their depiction in Renaissance art — winged humanoids flying around. A more credible description is provided by Lorna Byrne, an Irish peasant woman “who has now published three books on angels with whom she has been in contact since she was a little child. She was instructed not to tell of her encounters until given the word, and that word came after her husband died”. The two authors believe that “she is as authentic as they come”. She describes angels as “balls of fire” (p2). That is somewhat more in line with the ideas of modern science — everything that exists is a form of energy.
Their second book together was called Natural Grace⁵. On the theme of a new paradigm, the back cover states that they “share an interest in going beyond the current limitations of institutional science and mechanistic religion. They both believe that as the new millennium dawns, a new vision is needed which brings together science, spirituality and a sense of the sacred. Their separation underlies our present crises of ecological devastation, despair and disempowerment. How else can hope in a new sense of meaning be awakened if not by the coming together of those two powerful traditions that were rent asunder in the seventeenth century? We need a new cosmology that speaks to our hearts as well as our minds”.
In this book Sheldrake complains that “the mechanistic world-view is still the official philosophy dominating science, medicine and agriculture, generally taken for granted in the media, in politics and education, and underlying the ideology of economic development and technological progress”, even though every single feature of this world-view “has been transcended or superseded by the advances of science, which is now leading us towards a post-mechanistic world-view… The image of science that most people have is at least fifty years out of date and often a hundred years out of date. Other than habit, there is no good reason why we go on teaching an outmoded scientific ideology to schoolchildren” (p15–16).
I include the following titbit for Anders Bolling, who I think will enjoy it. In relation to the revival of an animistic worldview, Sheldrake says that “we’re not going back to the pre-mechanistic kind of animism. We are now in a post-mechanistic state, at a higher turn of the spiral, if you like. The new animism differs from the old animism in that living nature is now seen as developing and full of creativity… We now see it as an organism still growing and developing”.
Sheldrake has never been afraid to study weird, outside-the-box phenomena and ideas. He believes in parapsychology, even in animals, for example Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. Also Seven Experiments That Could Change the World.
In 2007, his belief in ESP led Richard Dawkins, in collusion with Channel 4 television, to try to ambush him. They were preparing a series called Enemies of Reason, and invited Sheldrake to participate. He reluctantly agreed, having been assured in advance that it would be a balanced and serious discussion. This turned out not to be the case; Sheldrake had in fact been set up, in order to be mocked. (I’ve described this incident in more detail in this article. You can find Sheldrake’s own account at his website.)
I think I’ve written enough now to give everyone a general picture of Sheldrake’s fertile mind. Titles of further books he has written are: Ways to Go Beyond, The Science Delusion, and Science and Spiritual Practices. (By ‘science delusion’ he means the delusion of materialism.) One that I wasn’t aware of until researching this article is The Evolutionary Mind, with Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham. So I ordered that straight away and am looking forward to its arrival.
In the next article, I turn from biology to philosophy and discuss the books of Bernardo Kastrup:
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. Blond and Briggs, 1981. I have the updated 3rd edition, Icon Books, 2009
2. HarperCollins, 1988
3. Century 1990, Rider 1991, my copy Rider 1993
4. HarperCollins, 1996. My copy, Monkfish Book Publishing, 2014
5. Bloomsbury, 1997