Or The Preservation of Favoured Hypotheses
Have you ever wondered how Rupert Sheldrake came up with the idea of morphic resonance? No, I haven’t really either, but I happened across this interview with Joe Rogan, in which he explained it.
Joe: Is this your concept, the concept of Morphic Resonance?
Yes, I came up with this in 1973, a long time ago. I was doing research at Cambridge University on plant development, how plants grow, and I became convinced for a variety of reasons that the attempt to explain the whole thing just in terms of genes and molecules and proteins wouldn’t work. I was at the very leading edge of this. The main plant hormone is called auxin, and I figured out how it’s made and then I figured out how it’s transported round the plant. This was a massive advance, and this is kind of textbook stuff now in university textbooks, the mechanism of polar auxin transport. So, having figured all that out, I then realised this wasn’t enough to explain plants, because all plants have the same hormone, and it’s moved in the same way in every plant, and it’s moved the same way in petals and leaves and stems and roots, and it’s moved the same way in palms and cabbages and roses, and yet they’re all different. So I got interested in something in biology called morphogenetic fields, the idea of invisible fields that shape living organisms, so there’s like an invisible mold. As a flower grows, it’s a kind of an invisible mold that shapes the way the petals develop and the flower develops, or as a leaf grows there’s kind of an invisible field for that leaf called the morphogenetic field, like an invisible plan. This idea was not invented by me, it had been around in biology since the 1920s, but the key thing was to understand how these fields could be inherited, and I was sure it wouldn’t go through the genes, the genes just code for proteins, so there had to be some other kind of inheritance. How could it work? And I was wrestling with this idea in Cambridge, and then the idea of morphic resonance came to me. If you have a resonance across time between similar things, you can explain this inheritance of form and of instincts in animals in a non-genetic way, which would give a completely new way of understanding biology and inheritance.
So there you have it. That’s how it happened!
It’s great when scientists recount the inspiration for their new hypothesis, a moment when something didn’t quite fit, a puzzle, a challenge. This was Sheldrake’s: auxins are transported in the same way in every plant, and different parts of plants, “and yet they’re all different”. Amazing.
What are “all different”, though? Plants? Can anybody tell me what the big mystery is? Am I missing something here? Did he discover how auxins are made, but not yet know about evolution? Of course plants are different, they evolved from common ancestors by mutation of the genes! Of course they share common features, they evolved from common ancestors by mutation of the genes! Genetic theory explains that.
And how could he be “sure” that morphology isn’t inherited through the genes, when nobody really knew for sure much about morphogenesis? And did he do any experiments? He says that genes “just code for proteins”, and it is understandable that this leaves questions about the overall formation of an organism, the structuring of the various organs. On the other hand, it was known that proteins are structural, work together in tissues and even respond to chemicals by changing their shape and behaviour. And, as we’ll see, had he only known it, a solution to the problem already existed, published by a fellow Englishman and Cambridge scholar called Turing, when Sheldrake was just ten years old.
He goes on to say that he thought all this through for years, wanting to be sure he’d got his ideas right, because he knew it would be controversial. Then he wrote his first book about it, The New Science of Life, and then his second, The Presence of the Past. I’d say that’s pretty unscientific, all that thinking and writing without doing any experiments. OK, in theoretical science you might do lots of thinking, but then you’d usually write a paper, suggest how to test your ideas and get some peer reviews.
The Presence of the Past, he says, puts his theory “in its fullest form”. “Since then,” he says, he’s “been trying to develop these ideas, test them, do experiments and so forth.” So, he writes a book focused more narrowly on biology, then another expanding his “theory” (it’s at best a hypothesis at this stage) into general metaphysics, and only then does some experiments. This explains a lot. He seems to have spent the intevening decades trying to find horses to push the cart.
At this point in the interview, he says, “Anyway, it was my idea in the first place, and, since then, it’s been widely discussed in many areas.” You may have noticed, he began with, “Yes, I came up with this in 1973,” but then had a moment of apparent humility (or is it merely an appeal to precedent?): “This idea was not invented by me, it had been around in biology since the 1920s.” A generous reading of this would suppose he meant he invented the idea of the inheritance of morphogenetic fields. However, the development appears to be nothing at all, since he came up with “a resonance across time between similar things”, little more than a rephrasing of the question.
The scientific community, he says, challenged his idea, not by asking what the evidence was, but by telling him that it was unnecessary. He says this with an air of conspiratorial amusement, as though listeners will realise how silly this is. However, at such an early stage, having done little or no experimentation, it would be reasonable to expect that he would have no evidence to show, and I imagine this wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. Hence, the challenge is a normal application of the scientific method, of Occam’s Razor: we don’t propose mechanisms where they’re not required to explain the observed facts.
There’s some leeway here – I’m not suggesting that nobody ever comes up with a wild hypothesis that might fill in some gaps – but there’s a limit to how wild a hypothesis one should forward in relation to how small a gap. I suppose the bottom line was that his colleagues didn’t agree that research into genetic causes of morphogenesis would prove fruitless, and Sheldrake didn’t persuade them that it was necessary to invoke “invisible fields”.
Next, Rogan asks Sheldrake what research he did to support this new hypothesis, and perhaps Sheldrake thinks what he says in response is an answer, but it isn’t. He says that his colleagues claimed that genetic theory and molecular biology would, in time, explain everything, and he, Sheldrake, thought about that and decided it was wrong. He says (my emphasis):
So one line of research I had to do was to see whether the conventional approach in biology was likely to work or not, so I had to think really deep about standard science. They just said ‘give us time, we’ll figure it all out; we don’t need new ideas’.
I don’t for a minute believe they said that. I’m pretty confident that “we’ll figure it all out; we don’t need new ideas” is Sheldrake’s biased expression of something much more considered.
But notice how he describes a “line of research”: “think really deep”! Think about whether he reckons other people’s approaches (involving actual research) are likely to work in the future.
Given some clear objection to current theory, it might be reasonable to buck the trend and guess that it’s going nowhere. But in this interview he just identified the impasse as plants, and bits of plants, are different and yet they all use auxins.
This exchange of less than ten minutes gave me a window into Sheldrake’s problem. By the time he was writing his second book he seems to have begun extrapolating the idea to cosmic significance, or at least to profound psychological significance. He says: “I then realised this would apply to learning and memory and many aspects of human behaviour”. His quest to discover invisible fields, along with certain Eastern mystical influences during a period in India and involvement with the hippie movement, reawakened his Anglican Christianity, and morphic fields seem to have taken on religious meaning to him. This may be a good example of how toxic religious ideas can be.
Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance conjecture may have begun with the idea that biological development needed something external, a field, rather than lots of little chemical reactions, but it seems to have taken on, far too quickly, the universal proportions we see him propound today, and his confidence in his own thinking seems to have led to his publishing books about it far too quickly. By the time a significant academic challenge had been mustered, I believe, he had pinned his colours to the mast, and he has continued hoisting his lonely flag in an empty sea ever since.
…Well, almost empty. Certainly it must be pretty devoid of academic support. It is, of course, a sea full of lay philosophers in their light vessels. There are plenty of them ready to repeat how Wikipedia and TED censored him (part of Scientism’s evil war against Trooff, Spirit and Free Energy – you might think that’s a joke, but Sheldrake actually claims to know someone who built a free-energy generator and was told not to pursue it by certain people).
I’ve spent a bit of time watching Sheldrake’s lectures and interviews on YouTube, and I’ve read endless comments praising his “insights” and raging that mainstream science is corrupt and it’s time everyone woke up. I remember one commentator telling me that Sheldrake was the much-needed Einstein of biology.
Einstein and Sheldrake
I was listening to the radio a while back to a programme about Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. One of the presenters commented on the common character trait among physics geniuses of extreme stubbornness. They get an idea in their heads and just bash away at it relentlessly. Einstein had this trait and applied it to his work. I realised that Sheldrake demonstrates this trait, too, since he has continued propounding his big idea for the last 45 years. This doesn’t make Sheldrake a genius, though, just extremely stubborn. But I wonder if part of his problem is that he believed he was a genius, having been a promising scientist in his early career.
Another striking fact came to light in this radio programme, that when Einstein had his big idea there really weren’t a great deal of glaring anomalies demanding explanation. The orbit of Mercury was ever so slightly odd, that kind of thing. It’s also true that Einstein’s contemporaries, and the world in general, dismissed some of his work as wrong and unnecessary. Sometimes that stubborn streak is defensible and worthwhile. Maybe Sheldrake thought he was a misunderstood genius and struggled on to prove his ideas.
He has certainly taken on that persona for himself over the years, particularly with his latest “work” attacking the whole scientific endeavour, The Science Delusion. This erects ten straw-man principles on which he says science is based and demolishes them. I haven’t read it, but have watched him present the ideas in a lecture, which demonstrates either an embarrassing ignorance of science or – as I suspect – a superb skill in lying through his teeth. Science has not accepted his hypothesis: science must be arrogant and foolish.
I can hardly believe that this line of thinking has led me to a comparison of the two men – even to mention Einstein and Sheldrake in the same sentence! – but since I have, I will embrace the delicious irony and consider several important differences between the two.
There is, for instance, the length of time between publication and academic acceptance. If morphic resonance is true, it has been waiting for over four decades (and the end of the tunnel is getting darker). In contrast, Einstein first published a paper on what would later be known as his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905, which immediately solved a few problems in physics, and it very quickly became widely accepted, because it solved many more. His paper extending the first theory to General Relativity (GR) was published in 1915, and that gained its first empirical verification with the solar eclipse of 1919. GR was famously controversial, and yet it took less than five years to establish as almost certainly true. After nearly ten times as long, almost no academic believes in morphic resonance.
This leads on neatly to another glaring difference: Relativity has vast amounts of confirmatory evidence, whereas the phenomena that Sheldrake considers evidence – psychic abilities (for some reason), on the one hand, and, on the other, behaviours being easier to establish after initial success – doggedly hover around the undetectable, no better than chance (unless experiments are conducted by him, apparently).
Difference number three: Einstein’s work was rigorous in its formulation. While one might expect a mathematician and physicist to be a little more meticulous than a biologist, in reality any scientist should be able to formulate hypotheses with a high degree of precision and make equally definite predictions. Even the social sciences make every effort to define and measure things. Every concept in Einstein’s thought was precisely defined and related; the whole is often described as one of the most beautiful mathematical ideas ever conceived.
Sheldrake’s philosophy is vague waffle. I’ve endured Sheldrake lecturing and I’ve waded through a few of his papers, and not once does he say anything specific or functionally descriptive about his conjecture. He describes it in terms that are endlessly malleable, like his central idea: similarity. Structures and behaviours in the universe are supposed to facilitate others that come later and are “similar”, but similarity is not easily quantified, and attempting to do so is a recipe for confirmation bias, because you can focus arbitrarily on comparisons of characteristics that support your data. You simply can’t have a hypothesis involving the concept of things being a bit like other things.
A fourth difference is that both Special and General Relativity simplified current physics (however complicated it seems to understand them). Einstein didn’t add a single thing to the physics. No new force or particle or mysterious entity was proposed; indeed, things were taken away. In Special Relativity, space and time were reconceived as spacetime, and mass and energy were revealed as interchangeable too. In General Relativity, he reimagined the force of gravity as an acceleration, essentially removing it from the cosmological zoo. This is an enormous thing: gravity, gone, now just explained in terms of motion.
Sheldrake, by contrast, invoked something new, “invisible fields” (or he read it somewhere and riffed on the idea). New things are legitimately proposed in science, and are indeed subsequently found, but they are usually forced onto the theoretician’s notebooks by observation of anomalies, bringing us back to difference 2: evidence.
It is sad that such a promising career went astray along mystical fantasy lines. His contributions to botany were genuinely valuable. Sheldrake seems to be a prime example of scientists who suddenly abandon reason, infected by the anti-empiricist, “spiritual” dogmas that have stamped their irrational authority on human thought since the Stone Age.
One of the things I find most incoherent about morphic resonance is that there has never seemed any relation between the central concept and many of the psychic phenomena he considers evidence, and for which he (very poorly) designs his experiments: the sense of being stared at; dogs that know when their owners are coming home; people who get phone calls from someone they’ve just been thinking about. If any of those were shown to be real, he’d be no nearer proving that invisible morphic fields cause the cellular development of plants or people. (He did do some more relevant research on learning, which also yielded negative results according to almost anyone but him.)
The Natural Selection of Theories
It’s worth noting that sometimes hypotheses do take a long time to demonstrate. It took 60 years to validate Alan Turing’s theory of chemical morphogenesis. It comes as presumably the most important part of a tidal wave of evidence for internal, mechanistic causes that has been crashing on Sheldrake’s shore all his academic life. Here is another true genius, pioneer of modern computing and saviour of Britain in the Second World War, who, even after his conviction for homosexuality, published The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis in 1952. Shortly after, he committed suicide. The introduction to the paper includes this:
The purpose of this paper is to discuss a possible mechanism by which the genes of a zygote may determine the anatomical structure of the resulting organism. The theory does not make any new hypotheses; it merely suggests that certain well-known physical laws are sufficient to account for many of the facts.
So, 21 years before Sheldrake dreamed up his nonsense about invisible fields shaping organisms, Turing had published a paper describing how chemical processes could do the same, by known laws. What a terrible shame Sheldrake couldn’t have availed himself of that. What a pity he couldn’t retract his conjecture as youthful over-confidence and apply himself to something worthwhile.
Sheldrake now appears to entertain the fantasy of overturning science, or bullying it into agreeing with him. Like a bunch of metaphysical Canutes, Sheldrake and his cohort of “deep thinkers” still, despite all evidence to the contrary, dream their psychedelic-inspired dreams and denounce reductionism and materialism as vile conspiracies.
He seems to proceed now as though established principles of empiricism were unhelpful constraints on the potential confirmation of his ideas. He invites all and sundry to do entirely unregulated ‘citizen science’ on psychic phenomena via his website, or just to send in their spooky anecdotes. Simultaneously, he tries to persuade us (lying about the significance of the results) that his youthful fantasies are empirically supported.