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A Heretic for Our Times

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake's theories turn everything we know about the universe inside out.
 
 
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Walking to the home of maverick scientist Rupert Sheldrake in Hampstead -- London's cozy but glamorous artistic village that's been home to John Keats, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence and, more recently, novelist John LeCarre and actress Emma Thompson -- I am not surprised to find that his plain brick house looks out on Hampstead Heath. This famous (and still remarkably wild) expanse of grasslands and groves was the spot where Keats met William Wordsworth for long rambles, discussing the passions and ideas that would be immortalized in their Romantic poetry. Sheldrake, one of the world's leading spokesmen for a more holistic and democratic vision of science, might easily be grouped with the Romantics, except that his insights about the world are based on empirical research rather than poetic feelings.

Sheldrake's bold theories about how the universe works sparked controversy in 1981 with the publication of A New Science of Life . Actually it wasn't the book itself that brought Sheldrake's ideas to prominence but an incendiary editorial by the editor of the respected British journal Nature, Sir John Maddox, who fumed, "This infuriating tract…is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years." That was quite a lot of attention for a young scientist, especially one who at that time was working as a plant physiologist in India.

What so infuriated Maddox was Sheldrake's theory of "morphic resonance" -- a complicated framework of ideas proposing that nature relies upon its own set of memories, which are transmitted through time and space via "morphic fields". The theory holds that these fields, which operate much like electrical or magnetic fields, shape our entire world. A panda bear is a panda bear because it naturally tunes into morphic fields containing storehouses of information that define and govern panda bears. The same with pigeons, platinum atoms, and the oak trees on Hampstead Heath, not to mention human beings. This theory, if widely accepted, would turn our understanding of the universe inside out -- which is why Sheldrake has so often felt the wrath of orthodox scientists.

For the past 20 years, he has pursued further research on morphic fields even though no university or scientific institute would dare hire him. Much of his empirical explorations focus on unsolved phenomenon such as how pigeons and other animals find their way home from great distances, why people experience feelings in amputated limbs, why some people and animals can sense that someone is staring at them. He believes morphic resonance may offer answers to these questions.

His experimentation has been underwritten by freethinking funders like the late Lawrence Rockefeller and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, founded by Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Through the years Sheldrake has supported his family largely through lecture tours, which draw curious crowds around the world, and a series of books exploring various aspects of what is often called "New Science." He's written on ecological, spiritual, and philosophical themes, as well as a manifesto on how science could be democratized ( Seven Experiments that Could Change the World ) and a bestseller on animal behavior ( Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home ). His current research involves thousands of rigorously empirical tests probing the existence of telepathy. John Maddox nonetheless has continued to accuse him of "heresy," saying he should be "condemned in exactly the same language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo."

'Science is the last unreformed institution'

When Sheldrake answers the door, I find a tall, surprisingly youthful man in a golf shirt and Birkenstock sandals with socks who hardly seems a menacing troublemaker out to destroy civilization as we know it. He welcomes me into his home, which wonderfully fits my expectations of what a slightly bohemian biologist's house should look like: shells, antlers, giant pinecones, fossils and exotic-looking houseplants on display in comfy rooms also filled with books, art, musical instruments, oriental carpets and a few patches of peeling paint. Upstairs is his office, which overflows with scientific journals and papers, and a spacious library room crammed with books on every conceivable subject. A corner of the library houses a small laboratory, which was recently commandeered by his teenage sons as a computer center.

It's a gorgeous sunny morning and Sheldrake suggests we sit in the backyard, which looks to me like a mini-botanical garden. It turns out that I am visiting on a rather momentous occasion. His three-year appointment to an research post at Trinity College in Cambridge will be announced today. It marks a homecoming of sorts to the place where he studied as an undergraduate, earned a Ph.D. and was named a Fellow of Clare College for seven years, where he served as Director of Studies in Biochemistry and Cell Biology.

I ask if his appointment signals a growing tolerance of outspoken ideas in science. Not quite, he explains. It's a unique endowment created in the memory of Fredric Myers, a Fellow of Trinity College who was fascinated by psychic phenomena, although today it is generally awarded to researchers out to debunk the existence of such phenomena. "But it does mean I will be getting a salary for the first time in 25 years and money to do my research," he says with a sincere grin.. "But in the field of biology the holistic approach I advocate is more remote than ever. Funding drives most research toward biotech projects."

"Science is the last unreformed institution in the modern world today," he adds in a matter-of-fact rather than harsh tone. "It's like the church before the Reformation. All decisions are made by a small powerful group of people. They're authoritarian, entrenched, well-funded and see themselves as a priesthood."

Sheldrake's views are widely shared by many people -- indeed by so many that it's seen as a looming problem in Britain and Europe as the public increasingly looks upon science as a tool of corporations and big government, not an institution that benefits average citizens. Kids seem less inclined to pursue careers in the field and taxpayers are growing reluctant about financing research.

"If science were more responsive to democratic input, this would look different," he says. He points out that popular programs on television dealing with scientific themes focus primarily on four topics that interest people: 1) alternative medicine; 2) ecological issues; 3) animals; and 4) parapsychology. But very little scientific funding goes toward research in these areas. He wonders what would happen if people could participate in choosing the kind of research they fund with their tax money?

That's the idea behind Sheldrake's recent proposal to let the public vote on how to spend one percent of the overall science budget -- an idea greeted with even more horror than morphic resonance in some scientific circles. But other scientists are giving it serious consideration as a way to win back the public's trust.

More than a symbolic gesture, this would actually add up to quite a sum of money to initiate interesting new research that the scientific establishment won't sanction. Sheldrake notes that independent scientists, including Charles Darwin, have been responsible for many important breakthroughs because they probe for answers in ways quite different than their well-funded peers in universities, research institutes or corporations. But looking around Britain today the only other independent scientific researcher Sheldrake can think of is James Lovelock, who conceived the revolutionary Gaia Hypothesis, which posits that the earth is a living organism.

The power of public participation

Public participation is essential to Sheldrake's own research because otherwise he couldn't afford to do it. Right now he's enlisting people worldwide to study email telepathy ( the ability to know who's emailing before you get a message). His website ( www.sheldrake.org) offers all the details necessary to conduct your own telepathy experiments and to report the findings.

Eighty percent of the population reports experiences with telephone telepathy (email telepathy's older cousin), he explains. In the controlled experiments he's conducted, where subjects choose which of four close friends is phoning, they're right 42 percent of the time -- significantly higher than the 25 percent that would occur by random chance.

"I think we all have a capacity for telepathy," Sheldrake notes. "But it is really a function of close social bonds. It doesn't happen with total strangers. At least not in an experimental setting. And of course some people have a better sense of telepathy than others, just the same as with the sense of smell." He hopes the on-line experiments can identify individuals with particularly strong telepathic skills, who can then be studied further.

"What I am interested in are the mysteries of everyday life -- a lot of these simple things are not being investigated," Sheldrake says staring up at the sunny sky with that "lost-in-thought" look you typically associate with scientists. A few moments later he pulls his attention back in my direction, smiles apologetically and continues. "I prefer to explore things that people know in their lives or the lives of their friends. I am interested in science that is rooted in people's experience. Indeed, the word empirical means experience."

By now the two of us have been talking in his garden for several hours and Sheldrake picks up a garden hose to water several tall exotic-looking plants. I meanwhile silently marvel at the tenacity he's shown in keeping his research going all these years and the gentle spirit he possesses in the face of hostility toward his work. John Maddox has said he practices "magic instead of science" yet Sheldrake brings up Maddox with almost fondness -- perhaps because the scathing editorial in Nature turned The New Science of Life into a bestseller and launched Sheldrake's career as an independent scientist.

It's time for me to go, and a taxi is honking in front of the house to take me to Paddington Station, but I must squeeze in one more question. "How do you refresh yourself, renew your creativity and stay calm in the face of so much criticism?" Sensing my anxiety about missing the train, he efficiently ticks off three answers in the methodical manner you'd expect from a former science whiz kid. "One. Playing the piano, usually Bach. Two. Meditating. Three. Taking walks, usually out on the heath."

After a hearty handshake I jump into to the cab and, watching Hampstead Heath disappear through the back window, decide that I sold Rupert Sheldrake short earlier today. Comparing him to fellow Heath hikers Keats and Wordsworth, I viewed Sheldrake as a cool and rational man of science while they were warm and passionate poets. But I can see now that, even as a dedicated scientist, Sheldrake possesses a poetic imagination in how he thinks about the world and how he lives his life.

Jay Walljasper is the executive editor of Ode magazine.