by John Horgan
SOURCE: Scientific American
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.”
Sheldrake probably provokes such strong reactions in part because he is a product of the scientific establishment—more specifically, of Cambridge University. He earned his doctorate in biochemistry there in 1967 and became a fellow and director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology. He gradually became dissatisfied with current theories of biology. He presented an alternative framework—involving his theory of morphic resonance (explained below)–in his 1981 book A New Science of Life, which Maddox, in a now-famous Nature editorial, called “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.”
Sheldrake, undaunted, went on to write more popular books, including Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999), The Sense of Being Stared At (2003), Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (1994) and, most recently, Science Set Free (2013). The latter calls on modern science to shed its restrictive materialism and reductionism, advancing some of the same arguments that philosopher Thomas Nagel does in his recent book Mind and Cosmos (which I reviewed here).
The reason I’m telling you about Sheldrake is that less than two months ago, we were both speakers at a festival in Hay-on-Wye, England, and were put up in the same boarding house. (I participated in several sessions at the festival, including one about Big Data that I reported on here.) I spent lots of time talking to Sheldrake during the festival and after it, when we spent an afternoon tramping around a heath near his home. (I also met Sheldrake in 1997 at a scientific reception in London, but we only spoke briefly.)
Sheldrake is terrific company. He is smart, articulate and funny. He does a hilarious imitation of the late psychedelic scholar Terence McKenna, his friend and co-author, whom I met in 1999 and profiled here. There is an appealing reasonableness and gentleness in Sheldrake’s manner, even when he is complaining about the unfairness of his many critics.
He possesses, moreover, a deep knowledge of science, including its history and philosophy (which he studied at Harvard in the 1960s). This knowledge—along with his ability to cite detailed experimental evidence for his claims–make Sheldrake a formidable defender of his outlook. (For more on Sheldrake’s career and views, see his website, http://www.sheldrake.org.)
At one point Sheldrake, alluding to my 1996 book The End of Science, said that his science begins where mine ends. When I asked him to elaborate he said, “We both agree that science is at present limited by assumptions that restrict enquiry, and we agree that there are major unsolved problems about consciousness, cosmology and other areas of science… I am proposing testable hypotheses that could take us forward and open up new frontiers of scientific enquiry.”