There have been plenty of bonkers theories on the nature of our reality proposed over the years, and while many of these have come from various cranks and weirdos, this is not always the case. The English author and scientist Rupert Sheldrake certainly does not have any sort of background that would point to him being a quack, crank or kook. Born in 1942 in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, from early in his career he showed a lot of promise. After earning his doctorate in biochemistry at the prestigious Cambridge University he went on to do post-doctoral work and was elected as a Fellow and director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology at Clare College. At the time he was a respected academic and scientist, on his way to being an honored professor with a lot of promise, but at some point he diverted from mainstream science and went down a new path that, depending on who you ask, would lead him into profound insight into the way the universe, biology, and the human mind work, or pseudoscience and quackery.
At some point in the late 1960s, Sheldrake gradually became dissatisfied with current theories of biology, coming to the conclusion that standard biochemistry just would not solve many of the strange phenomena and conundrums observed in nature, and after a stint doing crop physiology research for an agricultural institute in India he returned to England and began formulating a new, alternate framework and theory on biology that he saw as a game-changer. This would culminate in a concept he calls “morphic resonance,” on which he would write a book titled A New Science of Life in 1981. The concept revolves around the idea that memory is inherent in all of nature and that natural systems inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind that pervades them from generation to generation in a sort of timeless universal consciousness. In this sense, memories are stored not in specific changes in brain cells, but some sort of vast consciousness, or an indeterminate, undefined, resonating and extra-corporeal field that he calls a “morphic field,” which stretches across space and time and beams into our brains like data from the cloud. He has said that “memories may turn out to depend on morphic resonance rather than memory traces,” and Sheldrake has explained of it himself:
Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields. It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past. The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance. What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes. In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.
According to Sheldrake, this concept can be applied to many of the phenomena and idiosyncrasies we see in nature and indeed ourselves. For instance, how dogs seem to know their owners are coming home despite being separated, how separated siblings sometimes seem to experience symptoms of the other's illness despite living on a different continent, or how termite colonies, or pigeons, orchid plants, or insulin molecules, seem to inherit a sort of collective memory from all previous things of their kind. He also says that it can account for what he calls “animal telepathy,” when animals or even humans seem to know what others around them are doing or thinking through some sort of prescience, like how a flock of birds can move in such a uniform fashion despite being composed of hundreds or even thousands of disparate individuals, or with homing of pigeons or other instances of apparent animal precognition. He says this phenomenon "morphic resonance" also explains some types of "telepathy-type interconnections between organisms,” and has explained of it:
Animal telepathy is a consequence of the way that animal groups are organized by what I call morphic fields. Morphic resonance is primarily to do with an influence from the past, whereas telepathy occurs in the present and depends on the bonds between members of the group. For example, when a dog is strongly bonded to its owner, this bond persists even when the owner is far away and is, I think, the basis of telepathic communication. I see telepathy as a normal, not paranormal, means of communication between members of animal groups. For example many dogs know when their owners are coming home and start waiting for them by a door or window. My experiments on the subject are described in my book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Dogs still know even when people set off at times randomly chosen by the experimenter, and travel in unfamiliar vehicles.
Sheldrake claims that there is much evidence for his proposition, although he admits it is mostly circumstantial at this stage, and that he has written numerous articles on it that have been peer-reviewed. He also maintains that if his hypothesis can be tested and proven, then it will lead to a whole host of applications, saying:
There is a lot of circumstantial evidence for morphic resonance. The most striking experiment involved a long series of tests on rat learning that started in Harvard in the 1920s and continued over several decades. Rats learned to escape from a water-maze and subsequent generations learned faster and faster. At the time this looked like an example of Lamarckian inheritance, which was taboo. The interesting thing is that after the rats had learned to escape more than 10 times quicker at Harvard, when rats were tested in Edinburgh, Scotland and in Melbourne, Australia they started more or less where the Harvard rats left off. In Melbourne the rats continued to improve after repeated testing, and this effect was not confined to the descendants of trained rats, suggesting a morphic resonance rather than epigenetic effect. Morphic resonance involves the transfer of information across space and time. It might be possible to develop information-transfer systems, with a global memory, which would work without all the normal paraphernalia of satellites, wires, booster stations etc. I have already designed experiments in which a pin code could be transmitted from London to New York without any conventional means of communication.
These ideas were not met kindly by some critics in the scientific community when his book on it came out, with an editorial in Nature, written by the journal's senior editor, John Maddox, calling it “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years,” and to be “put firmly in its place among the literature of intellectual aberrations,” although it was generally popular with the general public, receiving much popular coverage through newspapers, radio, television and speaking engagements, ironically in part because of the negative coverage it received in the Nature review. Such scathing reviews have also not stopped Sheldrake from publishing a whole series of books on the matter that further expand and explore his bizarre ideas on morphic resonance, and he has managed to accrue quite a lot of skeptics along the way. Most critics of his work cite numerous problems, such as the generally vague concept of morphic resonance, the lack of testability, the inability to be falsified, inconsistencies between its tenets and data from other established scientific fields, and claims that Sheldrake's experimental methods are poorly designed and subject to experimenter bias. His ideas have been labeled as nothing more than pseudoscience at best, propped up by appeals to authority and impressive sounding scientific jargon, and he has also been accused of merely being out for self-promotion and making money off his sensationalized ideas. An entry in the RationalWiki sums up some of these concerns, and does not mince words when it says:
Rupert Sheldrake is a British former scientist (very former, as in not doing science any more) who, since the 1980s, has preferred to promote his own pet theory of everything called "morphic resonance". He also discovered that instead of doing real science, writing books about New Age woo was much more profitable. Most of Sheldrake's ideas are clearly pseudoscientific nonsense. Morphic resonance is extremely vague and ill-defined, and can only really be described as whatever Sheldrake says it is. Crucially, it is not falsifiable, and therefore not testable (although some have tried). Sheldrake's 2012 book, The Science Delusion, is an anti-scientific rant in which he applies postmodernist hyperscepticism to conventional science, accusing mainstream scientists of adhering to "scientific dogmata", such as the constancy of the speed of light. Ironically, Sheldrake fails to apply any sort of scepticism to his own ideas, which he promotes uncritically, despite there being no evidence for them.
For his part, Sheldrake has staunchly defended his ideas and hypotheses in the face of this scathing criticism, and in recent years has railed against what he has increasingly seen as a materialistic and dogmatic attitude in science in general. He has continually intensely derided skeptics, and has especially taken aim at Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW), a group that edits Wikipedia articles to improve skeptical content, calling them a "commando squad of skeptics” and accusing them of twisting his Wikipedia page and even defamation. He even has an anti-skeptic site called "Skeptical Investigations," which claims to debunk these skeptics, and he has constantly debated against scientists who he thinks are blinded by dogma. Indeed, he wrote a whole book in 2012 called Science Set Free, which is devoted to ranting against what he says is restrictive materialism and reductionism in mainstream science, and which accuses the scientific community of being a cabal of materialist skeptics who have deliberately ignored evidence for psychic phenomena and other fringe topics. He has griped about how his theory is rejected by the scientific mainstream, while multiverses, string theory, and other highly speculative ideas are taken seriously, saying:
Within physics, since the quantum revolution and the Big Bang cosmology, there has been a pluralism of ideas with many unexpected possibilities entertained seriously by mainstream physicists. However in the 20th century, biology moved in an opposite direction, towards to a more dogmatically materialist position. When I first put forward the hypothesis of morphic resonance in the 1980s, most biologists were convinced that all the problems of biology would soon be solved in molecular terms, and this enthusiasm gave a great impetus to human genome project. But this confidence is now waning as developmental biology continues to defy any simple explanation in terms of molecules. The assumption that genes code for the characteristics of organisms is thrown into question by the "missing heritability problem." And it turns out that the inheritance of acquired characteristics, now called epigenetic inheritance, is common in both animals and plants. The implications of this revolutionary acceptance of epigenetic effects are still being worked out, but I think that biology will become more open as a result.
Of course there have been those who have come to Sheldrake’s defense, and derided the amount of abuse he’s taken from the scientific community. Indeed, the review of his first book in Nature was widely criticized for being perhaps too harsh and unyielding, even by other scientists. For instance, physicist Brian Josephson criticized the review for "a failure to admit even the possibility that genuine physical facts may exist which lie outside the scope of current scientific descriptions,” and an editorial in The Guardian compared the "petulance of wrath of the scientific establishment" aimed against Sheldrake with the persecution Galileo faced for his own theories back in the day. New Scientist has also called for more open-mindedness as well, writing that, although Sheldrake’s ideas may be controversial, they should perhaps not be written off out of hand, saying:
There are sound reasons for doubting Sheldrake's data. One is that some parapsychology experimenters have an uncanny knack of finding the effect they are looking for. There is no suggestion of fraud, but something is going on, and science demands that it must be understood before conclusions can be drawn about the results.
Another scientist who came to Sheldrake’s defense is John Horgan, director the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology and the author of several books including The End of Science and The End of War and Mind-Body Problems. Although he long ignored work such as that of Sheldrake, he was also surprised by the harsh criticism he was receiving, and called for a more measured approach. He has said:
For decades, I've been only dimly aware of Rupert Sheldrake as a renegade British biologist who argues that telepathy and other paranormal phenomena (sometimes lumped under the term psi) should be taken more seriously by the scientific establishment. Since I'm one of those fuddy-duddy establishment doubters of psi, I never bothered to examine Sheldrake's work closely. But I was intrigued, and amused, by the vehemence of his critics, notably John Maddox, the long-time editor of Nature, who once called Sheldrake's views "heresy" that deserved to be "condemned." I remain a psi doubter; my doubt was reinforced by psychologist Susan Blackmore, a psi believer-turned-skeptic whom I interviewed for my 2003 book Rational Mysticism. But now and then I still doubt my doubt. In a post here two years ago, I point out that many brilliant scientists—from William James and Alan Turing to Freeman Dyson—have been open-minded about psi. Sheldrake—I think even his most adamant critics will agree--is a fascinating scientific figure.
Sheldrake has gone on to appear on television and frequently engage in debates on morphic resonance and telepathy, to which he believes it is strongly linked, and he has continued to write about and to support his ideas even in the face of harsh persecution by mainstream scientists. Why is it that he has faces so much backlash, and could there perhaps be anything to what he is saying? Are critics perhaps being a little too hard on him, or are they right and this is a theory that should be ignored? It seems worth noting that many of the great discoveries that we take for granted today were built off people who faced similar criticism and even persecution, so it that what is going on here? Whether you think Sheldrake is onto something or nothing but a crackpot, the fact is that he is an undeniably very intelligent and knowledgeable man who has a damn strange story to tell and just may or may not be onto something.