Response to cbayer (Original post)
Tue Dec 4, 2012, 08:24 AM
Fortinbras Armstrong (2,277 posts)
32. Here's my take on Sheldrake
This is from something I wrote in the mid-1990s.
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist who brought out his first book, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation, in 1981. Sheldrake developed his ideas further in The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (1988) and The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God (1991).
His basic argument is that natural systems, or morphic units, at all levels of complexity -- atoms, molecules, crystals, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, and societies of organisms -- are animated, organized, and coordinated by morphogenic fields, which contain an inherent memory. Natural systems inherit this collective memory from all previous things of their kind by a process called morphic resonance, with the result that patterns of development and behaviour become increasingly habitual through repetition. Sheldrake suggests that there is a continuous spectrum of morphogenic fields, including behavioural fields, mental fields, and social and cultural fields.
Morphogenesis -- literally, the "coming into being" (genesis) of "form" (morphe) -- is something of a mystery. How do complex living organisms arise from much simpler structures such as seeds or eggs? How does an acorn manage to grow into an oak tree, or a fertilized human egg into an adult human being? A striking characteristic of living organisms is the capacity to regenerate, ranging from the healing of wounds to the replacement of lost limbs or tails. Organisms are clearly more than just complex machines: no machine has ever been known to grow spontaneously from a machine egg or to regenerate after damage. Unlike machines, organisms are more than the sum of their parts; there is something within them that is purposive, directing their development toward certain goals.
Although modern mechanistic biology grew up in opposition to vitalism -- the doctrine that living organisms are organized by nonmaterial vital factors -- it has introduced purposive organizing principles of its own, in the form of genetic programs. Genetic programs are sometimes likened to computer programs, but whereas computer programs are designed by intelligent beings, genetic programs are supposed to have been thrown together by chance. Sheldrake has suggested that the misleading concept of genetic programs be abandoned in favor of terms such as "internal representation" or "internal description". Exactly what these representations and descriptions are supposed to be has still to be explained.
To Sheldrake, the role of genes is vastly overrated biologists. The genetic code in the DNA molecules determines the sequence of amino acids in proteins; it does not specify the way the proteins are arranged in cells, cells in tissues, tissues in organs, and organs in organisms. As Sheldrake remarks:
Given the right genes and hence the right proteins, and the right systems by which protein synthesis is controlled, the organism is somehow supposed to assemble itself automatically. This is rather like delivering the right materials to a building site at the right times and expecting a house to grow spontaneously.
The fact that all the cells of an organism have the same genetic code yet somehow behave differently and form tissues and organs of different structures suggests to Sheldrake that some formative influence other than DNA must be shaping the developing organs and limbs. (The general consensus among biologists is that this is determined by "homeobox genes", which are a special sort of gene that controls such things -- and there is considerable experimental evidence for this consensus.)
According to Sheldrake, the development and maintenance of the bodies of organisms are guided by morphogenetic fields. However, the nature of these fields has remained obscure, and they apparently cannot be described in conventional physical and chemical terms. According to Sheldrake, they are a new kind of field so far unknown to physics. They are localized within and around the systems they organize, and contain a kind of collective memory on which each member of the species draws and to which it in turn contributes. The fields themselves therefore evolve.
Each morphic unit has its own characteristic morphogenetic field, nested in that of a higher-level morphic unit which helps to coordinate the arrangement of its parts. For example, the fields of cells contain those of molecules, which contain those of atoms, etc. The inherent memory of these fields explains, for example, why newly synthesized chemical compounds crystallize more readily all over the world the more often they are made.
Before considering other types of morphogenic fields, it is worth examining exactly it is supposed to be. Sheldrake describes them as "fields of information", saying that they are neither a type of matter nor of energy and are detectable only by their effects on material systems. However, if morphogenic fields were completely nonmaterial, that would imply that they were pure nothingness, and it is hard to see how fields of nothingness could possibly have any effect on the material world. In a discussion with physicist David Bohm, Sheldrake does in fact concede that morphogenic fields may have a subtle energy, but not in any physical sense of the term, since morphogenic fields can propagate across space and time and do not fade out noticeably over distance. In this sense morphogenic fields would be a subtler form of energy-substance, too ethereal to be detectable by scientific instruments. Sheldrake also suggests that morphogenic fields may be very closely connected with quantum matter fields. According to Sheldrake and Bohm, the universal quantum field forms the substratum of the physical world and is pulsating with energy and vitality; it amounts to the resurrection of the concept of an ether, a medium of subtle matter pervading all of space.
The reason Sheldrake uses the term "formative causation" to refer to his hypothesis of the causation of form by morphogenic fields is precisely to distinguish it from "energetic causation", the kind of causation brought about by known physical fields such as gravity and electromagnetism. Formative causation is said to impose a spatial order on changes brought about by energetic causation. The dualism Sheldrake introduces with his distinction between energetic and non-energetic causation is all the more remarkable given that Sheldrake criticizes other forms of dualism, such as the idea of a nonmaterial mind acting on a material body (Cartesian dualism), and the idea that the material world is governed by nonmaterial "laws" of nature.
Instinctive behaviour, learning, and memory also defy explanation in mechanistic terms. As Sheldrake remarks, "An enormous gulf of ignorance lies between all these phenomena and the established facts of molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics and neurophysiology." How could purposive instinctive behavior such as the building of webs by spiders or the migrations of swallows ever be explained in terms of DNA and protein synthesis?
According to Sheldrake, habitual and instinctive behavior is organized by behavioral fields, while mental activity, conscious and unconscious, takes place within and through mental fields. Instincts are the behavioral habits of the species and depend on the inheritance of behavioral fields, and with
them a collective memory, from previous members of the species by morphic resonance. The building up of an animal's own habits also depends on morphic resonance. It is possible for habits acquired by some animals to facilitate the acquisition of the same habits by other similar animals, even in the absence of any known means of connection or communication. This explains how after rats have learned a new trick in one place, other rats elsewhere seem to be able to learn it more easily.
Sheldrake suggests that memories are associated with morphogenic fields and that remembering depends on morphic resonance with these fields. He says that individual memory is due to the fact that organisms resonate most strongly with their own past, but that organisms are also influenced by morphic resonance from others of their kind through a sort of pooled memory, similar to the concept of the collective unconscious put forward by Jung.
According to Sheldrake, morphic resonance involves the transfer of information but not of energy. But it is difficult to see how the one can take place without the other, though the type of energy involved may well be supraphysical. Sheldrake, however, rejects the idea of morphic resonance being transmitted through a "morphogenetic ether", saying that "a more satisfactory approach may be to think of the past as pressed up, as it were, against the present, and as potentially present everywhere
Social organization is also explained by Sheldrake. Societies of termites, ants, wasps, and bees can contain thousands or even millions of individual insects. They can build large elaborate nests, exhibit a complex division of labor, and reproduce themselves. Such societies have often been compared to organisms at a higher level of organization, or superorganisms. Studies have shown that termites, for example, can speedily repair damage to their mounds, rebuilding tunnels and arches, working from both sides of the breach that has been made, and meeting up perfectly in the middle, even though the insects are blind.
Sheldrake suggests that such colonies are organized by social fields, embracing all the individuals within them. This would explain the behavior of shoals of fish, flocks of birds, and herds or packs of animals, whose coordination has so far also defied explanation. Social morphic fields can be thought of as coordinating all patterns of social behavior, including human societies. This would throw light on such things as crowd behavior, panics, fashions, crazes, and cults. Social fields are closely allied with cultural fields, which govern the inheritance and transmission of cultural traditions.
According to Sheldrake, then, human beings consist of a physical body, whose shape and structure are organized by a hierarchy of morphogenetic fields, one for every atom, molecule, cell, and organ up to the body as a whole. Our habitual activities are organized by behavioral fields, one for each pattern of behavior, and our mental activity by mental fields, one for each thought or idea. Sheldrake also suggests that our conscious self may be regarded either as the subjective aspect of the morphogenic fields that organize the brain, or as a higher level of our being which interacts with the lower fields and serves as the creative ground through which new fields arise.
However, Sheldrake's fields are subject to question: What are the physical properties of these fields? I dunno. How do these fields pass information? I dunno. Are these fields detectable by any sort of instruments? Apparently not. How are these fields generated? I dunno.
Because of things like this, Sheldrake is regarded as a quack by the overwhelming majority of scientists. If there was one scintilla of hard evidence for the existence of these fields, then Sheldrake's theory might be accepted. The problem is, there is none. You can't just point to mysterious "fields" in order to answer a question.
Always highlight: 10 newest replies | Replies posted after I mark a forum
Replies to this discussion thread
|Speck Tater||Dec 2012||#26|
|burnsei sensei||Dec 2012||#4|
|Thats my opinion||Dec 2012||#10|
|Phillip McCleod||Dec 2012||#12|
Here's my take on Sheldrake
|Fortinbras Armstrong||Dec 2012||#32|
|Name removed||Jan 2014||#37|
Please login to view edit histories.