Wrong Turn—Biologist Rupert Sheldrake On How Science Lost Its Way
Rupert Sheldrake is fed up with the scientific mainstream for being dominated by dogma, and for so often being resistant to his theories, which present a challenge to entrenched ideas about genetics, heredity, and our place in the natural world. But, being stereotypically British, he doesn’t express himself through verbal tirades or ad hominem attacks on his opponents. Instead, for four decades he has patiently written articles and published books on what he calls the “extended mind” of humans and other animals. He lectures extensively worldwide and oversees hundreds of experiments to test his theories. When he’s called a “crackpot” or a “new-age loony,” he explains his experimental methods and how he came to develop his beliefs, which he’s defended many times in debates with skeptics. (His public dialogues are among many items archived on his website, www.sheldrake.org.)
Sheldrake’s latest book, Science Set Free, is a meticulously organized argument and summation of his body of work. In it he identifies the scientific dogmas he believes are holding back the pursuit of knowledge, distorting our understanding of reality, ruining our health, and preventing us from taking full advantage of our intellects, bodies, and spirits.
A former research fellow of the Royal Society, Sheldrake studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he earned a PhD in biochemistry and was awarded the university’s botany prize. He was a Frank Knox Fellow studying philosophy at Harvard University and became a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology. From 1974 to 1985 he worked as a plant physiologist in Hyderabad, India, and he lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Father Bede Griffiths, where he wrote his first book, A New Science of Life. For many years he has been a fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences near San Francisco.
I first became aware of Sheldrake in 1994, when PBS broadcast the Dutch television series A Glorious Accident, in which scientists and philosophers — including Oliver Sacks, Freeman Dyson, and Stephen Jay Gould — sparred over cosmology, physics, evolution, psychology, and the nature of consciousness. Sheldrake played the role of black sheep, challenging basic assumptions and posing questions he argued hadn’t been adequately answered by mainstream science. He spoke about his theory of “morphic resonance,” which describes how fields of invisible but identifiable forces form a collective memory upon which all organisms draw and to which they contribute.
Sheldrake lives in London with his wife, Jill Purce, an expert in meditation techniques and pioneer in the sound-healing movement. He has two sons: Merlin, a botanist; and Cosmo, a musician. I first met Sheldrake at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, where he participated in a conversation on “Resonance, Ritual, and Return” with his wife and Marc Handley Andrus, the Episcopal bishop of California. Sheldrake appeared completely at home in the church and spoke about how science and religion complement each other. He is the unusual scientist who also embraces spirituality, and the unusual philosopher who can back up his worldview with experimental data.
I interviewed Sheldrake a few days later at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, where he was leading a workshop. As we spoke in a cottage overlooking the Pacific Ocean, we occasionally had to raise our voices over the crashing of waves against the cliffs. He was serious and reserved, but there were moments when a glint in his eye or a smile on his lips signaled a more mischievous side. After all, he is a man who insists that the pursuit of science should be fun.
Sheldrake: My father was an herbalist, naturalist, and pharmacist, and he had an old-fashioned, natural-history approach to the world, which I liked very much. Our house was full of encyclopedias and books. I kept pets and collected plant samples. We also went to church every Sunday, and my grandfather was the church organist and choirmaster. So as a child I didn’t experience a conflict between science and religion at all. When I went to boarding school at the age of thirteen, however, I got the message in the classroom that science was the way forward and religion the way back.
Leviton: You were raised in an observant Methodist home in a small English town. Growing up, how did you see the relationship between religion and science?
I had a housemaster who gave me James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Robert Graves’s The White Goddess to read. These books celebrated the mythology of traditional peoples but also taught that many of the themes of Christianity were rooted in pagan ideas. Frazer, especially, had an agenda to prove that Christianity was no better than the primitive religions that missionaries denounced as superstition. Along with Freud’s works, these books convinced me that religion was a delusion. I became a convert to the materialist-atheist worldview — but not an enthusiastic one, because there were still things it didn’t explain, and it didn’t always fit with my experience.
Leviton: Tell me about your first laboratory job, between boarding school and college.
Sheldrake: I got a science scholarship to Cambridge and left school young, at seventeen. I had nine months before college began and landed a job in London at Parke-Davis’s pharmacology research lab, which turned out to be a vivisection facility. It was quite traumatic. I was cutting up animals, tormenting guinea pigs, assisting in operations on cats. It was a death camp for animals. Every animal who entered the place ended up dead. I was appalled. But I was told I shouldn’t have emotions about it, that this was science and was for the good of humanity, and that these animals were only mechanisms anyway.
Leviton: Were you told they didn’t really feel anything?
Sheldrake: No one went quite that far, but the message was that to worry about their feelings was just anthropomorphic projection or sentimentality and had no place in rational science. I found this attitude alienating. It made me think something had gone horribly wrong with the whole scientific enterprise. When I got to Cambridge, I was no longer 100 percent sure about the path I was taking. It seemed to me that science had split away from the direct experience of the world, which was what had attracted me to the field in the first place.
Leviton: Did these scientists consider humans to be on a different level than animals? They wouldn’t have argued that people are just mechanisms, would they?
Sheldrake: In theory science does portray humans as just machines, computers, “lumbering robots” in Richard Dawkins’s phrase, with no free will. From this point of view our minds are merely the activities of our brains. On the other hand, most scientists subscribe to secular humanism, which says we should do everything we can to improve human welfare, stop suffering, and so on. So there’s a conflict there. If you consider humans machines, then you should treat them the same way science treats animals, which is what the Nazi doctors did in the death camps; the same experiments long carried out on animals were applied to humans there. There’s nothing in science that tells us humans are special and shouldn’t be treated this way. That idea comes from secular humanism, which is a kind of quasi-religious faith.
Leviton: Did you move toward botany because you didn’t feel you would be hurting plants?
Sheldrake: Yes, and I simply didn’t want to kill animals anymore. In fact, I wasn’t sure I wanted to study science anymore. In 1963 I took a year off at Cambridge to study the history and philosophy of science at Harvard. One of the books I read there was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which expressed the idea of paradigm changes. It had a big impact on me, because I realized that mechanistic biology wasn’t something I had to accept. It was simply a model of reality that could be wrong or limited and might someday be replaced by another concept. That was exciting, to know that science could change.
Leviton: You also spent time in India. What was that like?
Sheldrake: Well, first I went back to Cambridge in 1964 to get a PhD in plant development. In 1968 I got a Royal Society scholarship to study tropical botany in Malaysia, and I spent two months in India on my way there. India back then was full of Western travelers, hippies, seekers visiting ashrams. Nothing in my education had prepared me for the culture. I stayed in a remote village with a friend of mine who was an anthropologist, way off the grid in the northern part of the country. I was immersed in a village life that probably hadn’t changed for centuries.
My friend and I were out one day near a mountain stream. Beside a waterfall was a cave, and in the cave was an orange-robed man who called out to my friend. I asked, “Who’s that?” and my friend said he was the local holy man who lived in the cave and smoked his “chillum.” The holy man invited us over, and he offered me his clay pipe. My friend assured me it was fine, so I took a puff. It was incredibly strong cannabis. So the first time I smoked pot was with a holy man in the Himalayas. It wasn’t like having one’s first joint at a student party.
When I got back from Malaysia in 1969, I was interested in altered states of consciousness, so I tried LSD. It revealed to me regions of the mind that no one had taught me about in my neurophysiology classes. I felt there was a huge gulf between the scientific explanation — the nerve impulses, the ions across cell membranes, the mechanisms — and the actual experience of expanded consciousness. It made me wonder if I could achieve the same awareness without drugs. That’s when I started meditating.
From 1967 to 1974 I had a teaching position at Cambridge. It was a nice life, living in a seventeenth-century building with a wonderful garden. The pay was low, but I had almost no expenses. In the evening I would put on my academic gown, cross the courtyard, file into the dining hall, and sit at the high table with the other fellows of the college to eat food served by a butler in tails and drink delicious wine from the college cellars. After dinner we’d retire to a paneled room for vintage port and Madeira. It was my job, as junior fellow, to pass around the silver snuffbox.
It was a comfortable world, and I was perfectly happy there, but when my time of appointment came to an end, I had to decide if I would go for a university lectureship — which would have meant another six years of teaching at Cambridge — or do something different. I heard about a new international institute starting up in Hyderabad, India, so I applied for the job of principal plant physiologist and got it. The institute was doing agricultural research on the crops grown by the poorest farmers, mostly chickpeas and pigeon peas. The aim was to bring something like the green revolution to these farmers. I thought that was a worthy goal, and I loved doing practical work in the fields and learning about Indian culture.
Leviton: Your theory of “morphic resonance” says that we are bound together, even though we appear separate. This feels different from most science, which tends to reduce and categorize things rather than connecting them.
Sheldrake: Yes and no. One of the most impressive accomplishments in science is Newton’s theory of gravitation, which describes how everything in the universe is invisibly connected to everything else: the ultimate holistic vision.
My morphic-resonance idea didn’t come to me in some drug-fueled vision; it arose because of my work with the development of plants. I was pondering how leaves and flowers take their different forms. At first I looked at plant hormones, to see if they played a role. I made some important discoveries, but hormones didn’t explain why an apple is different from a leaf or a flower any more than cement explains why buildings are different shapes.
This is a core question: How do things take their forms? Whether we’re talking about a plant, an animal, an atom, or a galaxy, they all seem to organize themselves spontaneously. Unlike machines, which are assembled by humans, they have no external “manufacturer” putting them together piece by piece; they just grow.
That’s where the concept of “morphogenetic fields” comes in. The word morphic is from the Greek word for “form,” and a morphic field is a field of pattern, order, and structure that not only organizes living matter but also what we call “inanimate” matter. I thought there must be these invisible fields, like gravitational or magnetic fields, that shaped and formed the different parts of the plants. Obviously the shapes were inherited, but I didn’t see how genes could be responsible.
All cells come from other cells, and all cells inherit fields of organization. Genes are part of this organization. They play an essential role, but they do not explain the organization itself. Genetically speaking, fruit flies, worms, fish, and mammals are very similar. They share the same Hox genes, which help determine how embryos develop into full-grown creatures with arms and legs or antennae and wings. These genes are like switches. But the switches are almost the same in fruit flies, mice, and humans. So these genes by themselves cannot determine form, or else fruit flies would not look too different from us.
I suggest that morphogenetic fields work by imposing patterns on otherwise random or indeterminate activity. Morphogenetic fields are not fixed forever, but evolve. The fields of Afghan hounds and poodles have become different from those of their common ancestors, wolves. How are these fields inherited? I propose that they are transmitted from past members of the species through a kind of nonlocal resonance, which I call “morphic resonance.” So there is no need to suppose that all the laws of nature sprang into being fully formed at the moment of the big bang, like a kind of Napoleonic Code, or that they exist in a metaphysical realm beyond time and space. I believe morphic fields underlie our mental activity and our perceptions. The morphic fields of social groups connect group members, even when they are many miles apart, and provide channels of communication through which organisms can stay in touch at a distance.
When I was first thinking about these concepts, I was reading Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust, a fantastic novel about memory. A friend of mine said Proust had gotten a lot of his ideas from Henri Bergson, so I read Bergson’s book Matter and Memory, and to my astonishment it contained the key to understanding the nature of memory in general. Bergson theorized that memory is not stored in the brain, as is commonly assumed, but instead depends upon a direct link across time between the past and the present. This was a new and exciting thought for me.
I discussed it with my colleagues at the high table at Cambridge, and many of the philosophers and historians were excited as well. But when I discussed it with my colleagues in the biochemistry department, I found far less interest. In fact, there was open hostility to the idea of a shared memory in nature.
I realized that mechanistic biology wasn’t something I had to accept. It was simply a model of reality that could be wrong or limited and might someday be replaced by another concept.
Leviton: Can you explain further why you’ve ruled out genetic coding?
Sheldrake: If the information were carried only in the genes, then all the cells of the body would be programmed identically, because they contain the same genes. The cells of your arms and legs are genetically identical to those of your bones, cartilage, and tissues. If the genes are the same, then the development of some cells into arms and others into legs must depend on nongenetic influences. In my work I describe a “nested hierarchy” of morphogenetic units that coordinate the fields of limbs, muscles, and so forth.
There’s a lot about us that genetics can’t explain. In studies, identical twins separated at birth show remarkable similarities. Perhaps both develop a strong interest in stock-car racing and art. There are no “stock-car- and art-loving” genes.
The researchers who launched the Human Genome Project expected to find that we have a hundred thousand genes, but the final tally is more like twenty-three thousand. A fruit fly has seventeen thousand genes. A sea urchin has twenty-six thousand. Rice has thirty-eight thousand genes! Humans are more mechanically complicated than rice, so why don’t we have more genes?
Scientists have identified about fifty human genes associated with height, but research shows that together those fifty genes account for only about 5 percent of a person’s height. Most of the heritability is missing, and that’s a big problem for genetic theories of how the body works. My theories offer a better solution to the “missing heritability” problem. Geneticists say, “Give us another ten years, and we’ll have it all figured out. We just need more computing power and gene sequencing. That’s all.” I have a wager with developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert: if by May 1, 2029, he can’t predict all the details of an organism based on the genome of a fertilized egg, he loses.
Leviton: If, as you say, memory does not reside in the brain, then where is it? And can it survive the death of the individual to whom it belongs?
Sheldrake: “Where?” is the wrong question. Memory is a relationship in time, not in space. The idea that a memory has to be somewhere when it’s not being remembered is a theoretical inference, not an observation of reality. When I met you this morning, I recognized you from yesterday. There’s no photographic representation of you in my brain. I just recognize you. What I suggest is that memory depends on a direct relationship across time between past experiences and present ones. The brain is more like a television receiver. The television doesn’t store all the images and programs you watch on it; it tunes in to them invisibly.
It may sound radical, but this idea was put forward not only by Bergson but also by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. They all challenged the notion that a memory has to be somewhere in the brain. The whole of the past is potentially present everywhere, and we access it on the basis of similarity. I think we’re tuning in not only to our own past experiences but to the memories of millions of people who are now dead — a collective memory. It’s similar to psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious or Hinduism’s akashic records, which store all knowledge on another plane of existence.
Yes, there’s the potential for the memory to survive the death of the brain. Whether there’s survival of an individual’s memory, my theory doesn’t predict one way or the other. It leaves the question open, whereas the conventional theory is that, once the brain decays at death, all memories are wiped out.
A flock of birds can turn at the same time because they share a morphic field. They’re not all just looking at the next bird and deciding what to do; research has shown that their reactions are too quick for that.
Leviton: You’ve cited experiments in which researchers taught rats at Harvard how to run a maze, and rats in Britain seemed to draw on that knowledge. You’ve also found evidence that people who wait to work on Tuesday’s crossword on Wednesday can solve it more easily, theoretically because thousands of others already have. Are you saying that we’re all tied together by a shared consciousness?
Sheldrake: It doesn’t have to be conscious; it could be unconscious or the result of habit. But, yes, we all have access to a collective memory, and we all contribute to it. Morphic resonance works on the basis of similarity: we are roughly similar to many people, but we are most similar to ourselves in the past. That’s why, consciously, we have our own memories. But if a group of people learn something new, there is good evidence that others who are similar are able to learn it quicker.
In one of the longest series of experiments in the history of psychology, conducted first at Harvard and then at Edinburgh and Melbourne Universities, rats were trained to run a new maze, and the behavior of their descendants was examined to see if maze-running ability was conveyed through the genes. On average, subsequent generations got better and better. But it turned out that the control rats, whose parents had never been trained, showed the same improvement as rats descended from the trained parents. So the ability was not passed on through the genes.
A flock of birds can turn at the same time because they share a morphic field. They’re not all just looking at the next bird and deciding what to do; research has shown that their reactions are too quick for that. It’s the same with schools of fish, packs of wolves, and groups of people.
And my theory says that morphic fields can evolve. Once upon a time there were no bicycles. Then they were invented, and people learned to ride them. With millions of people now riding bikes, a morphic field for bike riding has arisen, and it is cumulatively easier for new riders to pick up the skill.
Leviton: And we have more resonance with members of our family and people we’re close to?
Sheldrake: Yes, because we have more similarity with them, either through shared experience or hereditary relatedness. Many mothers report that they can tell when their babies need them, even when mother and child are physically separated. Nursing mothers have a “milk-letdown reflex” that occurs when they hear their baby cry: a release of oxytocin causes the breasts to prepare to feed the baby. I’ve done detailed studies on breast-feeding mothers in London and found that they experience milk letdown even when they’re miles away from their crying baby. This is not just a matter of synchronized rhythms. It’s easy to see why natural selection might have favored this ability: mothers who can sense a child’s needs are going to help their offspring survive.
Leviton: You’ve written about the ten dogmas you say are holding back scientific inquiry. Which dogmas are doing the most damage?
Sheldrake: They all hold science back in their own ways. The idea that animals and plants are machines is really Dogma Number One. My 1994 book, The Rebirth of Nature, was an attempt to show that it’s better to talk about the natural world in terms of organisms than machinery.
The dogma that the laws of nature are fixed is the one I ran into when I came up with the theory of morphic resonance, because the theory implies that the so-called laws are more like habits that can change.
We’ve already talked about the dogmatic idea that all inheritance is genetic. Genes have turned out to be overrated as predictors of disease and other traits. The hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the Human Genome Project have delivered much less than we were promised, but almost nobody wants to hear that message. The scientific community reacted to the theory of morphic resonance not by saying that it was wrong, or illogical, or in conflict with the facts — it said it was unnecessary, that it would be just another ten or twenty years before everything would be explained in terms of genes and molecules and neurotransmitters.
The dogmatic belief that the mind is limited to the brain is severely impeding discoveries in psychology and consciousness studies. The vast majority of funding in neuroscience is dedicated to doing more brain scans. I think that’s a waste of effort, because the brain doesn’t do most of the things science says it does. We’ve never found physical evidence of a memory inside our brains, and scientists have spent decades looking. Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield claimed to stimulate memories by putting electrodes in the brain, but even if we could evoke memories through brain stimulation, it still wouldn’t prove that the memories are stored there. Are the programs we see on TV stored in the remote control?
Probably the dogma that affects people the most in their everyday lives is the one that says mechanistic medicine — surgery and drugs — is the only kind that works. The National Institutes of Health spends more than $30 billion a year on research, and almost all that money goes into mechanistic medicine. Other forms of therapy, some of which work well, are ignored or dismissed as having a placebo effect. But a lot of medical results are due to a placebo effect! That alone tells us that expectation and belief play a huge role in healing.
Leviton: The bedrock of all scientific dogmas seems to be the idea that if you can’t measure it, it can be ignored.
Sheldrake: I don’t say that exactly, because, after all, morphic resonance can be measured. Psychic phenomena like telepathy can be measured. For example, I’ve researched telephone telepathy: the sense of knowing who’s going to call. Many scientists say these phenomena are coincidences or can’t possibly exist, but these same scientists often accept that there are multiple universes, for which there’s not one shred of evidence.
Leviton: There’s no experiment that can test string theory’s proposition of millions of universes?
Sheldrake: No. About 80 percent of theoretical physicists are engaged in string-theory research, and some of them find this untestability quite disturbing. Lee Smolin, author of The Trouble with Physics, thinks the field has gotten lost in webs of theoretical speculation.
Everything I’m proposing can be measured. My theory makes predictions and tests them. Cosmologists postulate quadrillions of universes they’ve never observed.
Leviton: In Science Set Free you say that without all the dogmas, science would be “freer, more interesting, and more fun.” Is it important for science to be fun?
Sheldrake: My friend Rick Ingrasci has a slogan: “If you want to change the world, throw a better party.” We want kids to be interested in science, but we present it as a lot of facts they have to learn to pass exams. If science were more fun, it would be more attractive to students and to taxpayers who pay for grants. And it could be more interesting for scientists themselves. At the moment it’s dreary — mostly writing grant proposals instead of doing research. As funding is cut, fewer and fewer projects are approved, and scientists spend more and more time on the grant process, which is quite political. Journal articles are all subject to anonymous peer review, so critics can be as nasty as they like and crush any new line of thought. If you want a grant or a postdoctoral position, you have to do what you’re told and suck up to the influential people. It’s not a popular system.
Just this morning I had an e-mail from a colleague who’d written a paper on developmental biology and had it rejected by a journal on extraordinarily dogmatic grounds. This colleague, who argued for a more holistic approach, was called “mystical” by one of the referees, who also wrote, “To quote Sheldrake is bizarre.” And this is an eminent biologist saying this, a gatekeeper for a leading professional journal. It is frustrating that this kind of blinkered approach still determines what gets published, which grants get funded, and what students are taught.
Leviton: When you’ve had in-person debates with skeptics, you’ve found your opponents aren’t familiar with your work and aren’t really interested in seeing your test results or evidence.
Sheldrake: They’re blind not just to my work but to any work that opposes the orthodox view. There are thousands of papers about telepathy. When I published my first book, A New Science of Life, in 1981, I thought it might take ten years for attitudes to change in biology. Now, more than thirty years later, I think they’re finally beginning to shift. Mainstream science is less confident than before. But there are still deep-seated habits of thought to overcome. My own theory describes how powerful habits are, so it’s some consolation that this opposition in the scientific community is proof of the power of habit.
What I think will finally move science away from materialism isn’t necessarily evidence and reason — because those have been tried for a long time — but a kind of crisis. The present system will fall apart. Biology’s failure to explain how heritability works should have serious implications. The Human Genome Project has failed to deliver. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured down the drain. A report by the Harvard Business School says there’s never been a larger money-losing scheme devised by humans. There are a few niche products that came out of it, but the tremendous optimism about biotechnology is gone.
Leviton: Because you’ve not had billions of dollars in research grants thrown at you, you’ve enlisted average people around the world to conduct experiments, especially through your book Seven Experiments That Could Change the World: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science.
Sheldrake: Yes, I wrote that book partly because I couldn’t get grants to do my research, but also because I was raised in the British tradition of string-and-sealing-wax science. At Cambridge I shared a lab with a biochemist named Robin Hill, who discovered the “Hill reaction” in photosynthesis. Hill was eccentric. He made his own apparatus and did his measurements with a hand spectroscope. Here was this eminent scientist who’d made one of the great advances in twentieth-century biochemistry, and he spent less on equipment and supplies in a year than the average graduate student in our department. I was impressed by his ability to work inexpensively. Also, when I worked in India, I learned from my colleagues there the potential of low-cost research.
In the nineteenth century, when science was at its freest, many leading scientists, including Charles Darwin, didn’t have government grants or academic posts. They were not dependent on committees; they just did what they wanted to.
For my book I tried to devise paradigm-shattering experiments in physics, chemistry, and biology that could be done on ten dollars or less. The aim was to say to readers, “You can play a part in scientific research; it won’t cost a lot of money and could make a big difference.” It was hugely successful.
Leviton: What were some of the experiments?
Sheldrake: One was on dogs. Many dog owners claim their animals know when a member of the household is about to come home, and the dogs show their anticipation by waiting at a door or window. We investigated a dog named Jaytee in more than a hundred videotaped experiments. His owner, Pam, traveled at least seven kilometers away and then returned home at randomly selected times. Jaytee was at the window 4 percent of the time during her absence but 55 percent of the time when she was returning. (The dog’s behavior was scored by a third party who didn’t know the nature of the experiment.) Jaytee’s anticipatory behavior usually began shortly before Pam headed back — in other words, closer to the time when Pam decided to come home rather than when she was already in the car. We did control experiments in which Pam did not return at all, and Jaytee did not begin to spend more time at the window, wondering where she was, the way some people expected he might. We concluded that dog and owner might have had a telepathic connection. We also tested a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Kane and found similar results: in nine out of ten trials the dog spent the most time at the window when his owner was on the way back.
To test telephone telepathy, I recruited subjects who said they frequently knew who was calling before answering the phone. I asked them for the names and telephone numbers of four people they knew well. The subjects were filmed alone in a room with an ordinary telephone — no caller ID, and no cellphones or computers present. My researchers selected one of the four possible callers at random. We called the selected person and told him or her to phone the subject within the next few minutes. Before answering the ring, the subjects had to say to the camera who they thought was calling. Statistically, guesses should have been right only 25 percent of the time, but the average success rate was 45 percent. These results have been replicated at universities in Holland, Germany, and elsewhere. In some tests we included two familiar callers and two people the subjects had never met, whom we identified to them by name only. The success rate for unfamiliar callers was nearly the same as chance, whereas with familiar callers it was 52 percent. This supports the idea that telepathy occurs more between people who are bonded than it does between strangers.
The present system will fall apart. Biology’s failure to explain how heritability works should have serious implications. The Human Genome Project has failed to deliver. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured down the drain.
Leviton: You like to hear about how people experience the world, which is sometimes dismissed as “anecdotal evidence.”
Sheldrake: Yes, I respect it precisely because it’s their experience. If it were their theory, I’d have less respect. Science is supposed to be empirical — which means “based on experience” — so the last thing I want to do is reject experience. Every science has to start from natural history, which involves describing what we perceive with our senses. In many branches of science the natural history was done centuries ago, but in the realm of psychic research it’s still in progress. It’s as if we started on a new phase of science in the late twentieth century.
If you read Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, you’ll find the whole book is based on the anecdotal experiences of rose growers, chicken breeders, and pigeon fanciers. Darwin compiled this information by talking to men and women about what they’d observed. He also spoke to explorers and travelers, who gave reports from different parts of the world. That, not laboratory science, was the rich soil in which his work grew. There were very few lab experiments even in On the Origin of Species. Yet no one would say Darwin didn’t do real science; he’s one of the iconic figures of modern biology.
That’s why I collected all these stories and built up these databases. One or two anecdotes about animal telepathy don’t mean much, but if you have hundreds of people saying largely the same thing independently of each other, it tells you something. If nothing else, it gives you a natural history of people’s beliefs. I still have to do experiments to see if what people describe is really what’s happening or whether there’s some simpler explanation. But I always start from people’s experience. That’s how empirical science works. Doctors don’t start from theories of diseases; they start from people getting sick.
On my website I have a number of experiments people can run in only a few minutes to test their own abilities in telephone telepathy or audio anticipation — in which you try to guess what sound you will hear next — or joint attention, which means trying to tell whether someone else is looking at the same picture you are.
There are also staring studies. The feeling of being watched is a fascinating phenomenon. In surveys, between 70 and 97 percent of adults and children report the experience of knowing they are being stared at, or of making someone turn around by looking at them. Martial artists, security guards, private detectives, military snipers, celebrity photographers, and hunters all report this phenomenon and learn not to look too intently or for too long at their targets, because it tends to alert them. And it appears some people can cultivate this sensitivity as well. It’s easy to see how this might be part of natural selection for animals, since being able to sense a predator stalking you would be a competitive advantage.
The largest experiment on the sense of being stared at began in 1995 at the Science Center NEMO in Amsterdam. More than eighteen thousand pairs of people have taken part, and the results are statistically very significant. Many people are even able to tell if someone is watching them from a distant location through a closed-circuit camera.
Leviton: Telepathy experiments are usually described as “paranormal research,” which is a put-down in the scientific community.
Sheldrake: Skeptics lump telepathy and precognition in with vampires and UFOs, but that’s ridiculous once you look at the facts. More than 80 percent of people have had the experience of thinking about someone who then calls. That’s not paranormal at all; it’s normal, in the sense that it happens every day. Skeptics say, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof,” but if I show them the experimental results, they want more. They won’t believe it until it’s been published in Nature and approved by experts. Until then, they keep moving the goal posts.
I say the skeptics are making the extraordinary claim that 80 percent of the population are mistaken about their own experience. I ask skeptics where their extraordinary evidence is for that belief. They have none at all, except for talk about the fallibility of human judgment.
Leviton: Materialists believe that the universe has no purpose, direction, or reason for existing. How do you see it?
Sheldrake: In nature most things have goals and purposes. Plants grow toward the light and send seeds out. Birds build nests. The purpose of living organisms in general is survival and reproduction. The idea that there’s no purpose in nature is a result of the machine metaphor. Machines have no purposes of their own, only the purposes imposed upon them by humans.
Leviton: And the purposes of humans, to a materialist, are just the result of chemical and electrical activity in the brain?
Sheldrake: There’s a split within materialism. There are some materialists who take the view that nature is purposeless, and the only thing that matters is winning and survival. A famous atheist in the eighteenth century was the Marquis de Sade, who said that if there’s no God, then there’s only one rule of nature: The strong live. If you’re that kind of materialist, morality is for the weak. But most materialists are secular humanists, who, although they reject the Judeo-Christian idea of God, have adopted a system of morality that resembles religious ethics: teachings such as we should be nice to other people, we should provide equal opportunity, and we should look out for the downtrodden and oppressed. But the secular humanists can’t justify this scientifically; they have to justify it in the name of common decency or something like that.
More than 80 percent of people have had the experience of thinking about someone who then calls. That’s not paranormal at all; it’s normal, in the sense that it happens every day.
Leviton: But don’t they also say that those beliefs are just generated by chemical and electrical activity?
Sheldrake: They should say that, but they don’t. They think their ethical beliefs are freely adopted. They make an exception for themselves. The whole system is self-contradictory.
Leviton: The comedian and outspoken atheist Ricky Gervais writes, “Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows, and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence.”
Sheldrake: Gervais can believe that only because he knows so little about science. It’s an idealized vision promoted by science popularizers and atheists like Richard Dawkins, who want to cast science in the best possible light. I’m not saying scientists are worse than other people, but they’re not necessarily better. The idea that scientists have risen above the world of conflict and selfishness to this amazingly objective status is naive and serves the purpose of science as a social movement.
Leviton: Science is conducted by people, so it has the same problems as every other human endeavor.
Sheldrake: Yes, including personal rivalries, fraud, the use of rhetoric, ambitious people getting more funding than less ambitious people, and social prestige. I like the idea of science as an objective activity by which people seek truth, but I won’t pretend that’s the way it always is.
Leviton: You spend quite a bit of time in Science Set Free examining the pharmaceutical and medical industries, including practices like the marketing of drugs for purposes they weren’t designed for. How can we move away from surgery and drugs and toward other healthcare approaches?
Sheldrake: It’s hard to know. There’s an inherent corruption in the system. All modern democracies have become a means for mediating powerful lobbying interests. It’s a crisis that goes beyond pharmaceuticals and requires major political reform.
But one answer would be to have a healthcare system that is fact-led and evidence-based, but that also allows all forms of treatment to compete on a level playing field, instead of granting all the funds and prestige and subsidies to mechanistic medicine and forcing other types of medicine to survive outside the system, based on what patients can afford to pay. We could have a much more effective healthcare system if we integrated all the various approaches.
Leviton: Brain-scan research is showing that systems like hearing and sight are far more complicated than previously thought, and brain activity in general is more mysterious. In trying to nail down exactly how the senses work, researchers are getting farther away the harder they look.
Sheldrake: Yes, what appeared straightforward turns out to be quite complicated. In hearing, there’s a “cocktail party” effect: you can hear one conversation and tune out the others. For people wearing hearing aids, one of the biggest problems is that everything is amplified. You lose that selectivity.
How do we decide what to hear? Brain scanning and psychology have come up with few satisfying answers. In the end, attempts to understand the mind in terms of the brain aren’t going to be satisfying. Our brains are very important but are not the source of all thought. Thoughts come through them.
Leviton: Holistic physician Deepak Chopra says, “Believing is seeing.”
Sheldrake: We interpret everything; our minds are selecting and interpreting all the time, not just making photographic copies of reality. Materialism is not based on facts so much as on faith.
Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett believes that artificial intelligence is coming, and that it will soon be possible to build a robot with all the necessary human attributes, including consciousness. But that’s a faith-based position, like believing that the end of the world is nigh or that aliens exist. Of course, science has made huge advances, and things once thought impossible are now possible. But if you’ve been walking along a road in Scotland and it’s about to lead you over a cliff, the argument that the road’s gotten you this far isn’t a good reason for carrying on.
I’m out to show how much materialism depends on dogmatic assumptions and how little it depends on genuine science. I believe that if some of my arguments are allowed to work their way through the scientific system, it will become freer and more fun. The machine theory is brilliant for making machines. Most of the triumphs of modern science are engineering triumphs: computers, jet planes, surgery. But it’s not very successful at analyzing how we live our lives, how we see ourselves, or how our ecosystems work. I think we need a new kind of science for that.
Subscribe to The Sun
© 2023 FM Media Enterprises, Ltd.