By Roozbeh Gazdar
Biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of Morphic Resonance, by suggesting that all of creation is immutably linked, touches the realm of the spiritual.
Nature, right from celestial objects to mountains, rivers, rocks, plants and animals, is an enthralling and beautiful phenomenon. Its subliminal mysteries – the coordinated flight of birds across the vastness of an open sky, the synchrony of a shoal of fish swimming as one, the intricacies of social interactions in human society – continue to elude us. Advancements in biotechnology notwithstanding, we are no closer to unlocking the deepest secrets of life. While mechanistic biology, a legacy of Cartesian thinking that saw living organisms as machines devoid of a soul, has led to the cracking of the genetic code and other stupendous achievements, we remain blank about the latent relationship we share with other fellow creatures and the thread that links us with the universe as a whole.
It is these problems that the work of biologist Dr Rupert Sheldrake might now provide an answer to. Rejecting the mechanistic theory of a world governed by immutable laws, his theory of morphic resonance explains regularities of nature as the result of habits evolving over time. According to this radical theory, all self-organizing systems, including atoms and molecules, cells, crystals, living organisms, societies, celestial bodies and galaxies develop by interacting with a collective memory field derived from previous forms of their own kind.
The theory of morphic resonance was first put forth by Sheldrake in his book, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation; it caused a furore in scientific circles and the science journal, Nature, condemned the book as ‘the best candidate for burning there has been for many years’. In it Sheldrake proposed the existence throughout nature, of morphogenetic fields. Members of a species, he suggested, are united by the ability to access and transmit information to and from these fields through a process called morphic resonance. Organisms, according to Sheldrake, evolve by inheriting the habits of previous members of their species through this process.
In his paper, Morphic Fields and Morphic Resonance – An Introduction, Sheldrake has explained, ‘The morphic fields of mental activity are not confined to the insides of our heads. They extend far beyond our brain through intention and attention. We are already familiar with the idea of fields extending beyond the material objects in which they are rooted… Likewise the fields of our minds extend far beyond our brains.’
Challenging the idea of the brain as a repository of information, Sheldrake proposes that it is more of a tuning system, like a TV antenna, to pick up memory inherent in the morphic fields. The implications of Sheldrake’s theory are tremendous. For instance, let’s say, a group of poodles in New York were to learn an original trick, all poodles everywhere would then find it very easy to pick up this trick. This is because the responses learnt by the original dogs are now part of the species’ collective information pool, the morphic field, accessed by all poodles.
Evidence in Nature
Evidence of this in nature, in the form of spontaneous spread of new habits, has been documented before. One of them concerns bluetits in England. In 1921 in Southampton, bluetits were observed to have learnt to pull out the caps and help themselves to the cream from milk bottles distributed on the doorsteps of houses; the phenomenon spread locally as more birds learnt the trick through imitation. Suddenly this behaviour started showing up 50 to 100 miles away from Southampton. Bluetits not being known to travel wide distances, the conclusion formed was that birds in all these populations were independently discovering the milk bottle trick!
As time passed, the habit spread so rapidly that by the 1930s, this phenomenon began being observed in Scandinavia and Holland. Still more surprising facts emerged following German occupation of Holland when milk delivery there was stopped around 1939. Even though bluetits live only two to three years – which means that none of the birds who had learnt how to open the caps would be alive in 1948 – as soon as milk delivery resumed in that year, the habit once again sprang up rapidly.
In spite of a sound scientific argument to back his views, Sheldrake has been criticized by the scientific community as a ‘fringe’ scientist. But if true, the theory of morphic resonance, not only completely reinvents our study of biology, but pushes through the traditional boundaries of science to provide a ‘scientific’ framework for paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, and angels, validating long held spiritual notions about the nature of reality and the existence of the soul. Not surprising, since Sheldrake himself has a long and abiding interest in spirituality, especially Indian philosophy, and the first draft of A New Science of Life was actually written while living in Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, the ashram of Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk who attempted to integrate Hindu spiritual thought with Christianity.
In morphic resonance, Sheldrake the biologist talks of an interconnectedness between living beings that is more indicative of spirituality than science. As the invisible, non-material, organising principle that lies at the root of all things, Sheldrake’s morphic field may easily refer to the soul itself. Says Sheldrake in an interview posted on his website, ‘… the essential feature of morphic resonance is this kind of memory in nature… Now, it’s not clear to what extent memory and habit are inherent in the nature of God… But there have been, throughout the whole history of theological thought in the West, ideas which would say that within God is the world soul, the anima mundi… in modern terms, it would be the field of the universe – the universal field.’ Dr Robert Gilman is an astrophysicist and a noted visionary and advocate of global sustainability. He writes about morphic resonance, ‘It suggests that our identity is dual, like an electron that is both a particle and a wave. We have aspects that are unique and totally individual, yet at the same time much of our thought and behaviour is shaped by, and participates in, and helps create transpersonal morphogenetic fields… We are thus both individuals and expressions of and creators of a group mind – like the Jungian collective consciousness, but more extensive, and in some aspects more changeable. Because our brains contain levels (mammalian, reptilian, etc.) that connect us to other species, that group mind includes all life. We may even find, as we explore the possibilities of consciousness associated with what we now think of as non-living matter, that we are linked in consciousness to all creation. We would thus be linked to the stars not only through the chemicals in our bodies, but through our minds as well.’ The group mind referred to by Gilman, linking all living and non-living matter could be seen as being Brahman, the universal soul of Vedanta.
Morphic resonance, also provides a context to appreciate religious rituals. In his paper Society, Spirit & Ritual: Morphic Resonance and the Collective Unconscious – Part II, he writes about the injunctions to perform rituals correctly with movements, gestures, words and music, where participants perform rituals exactly as they have been performed before, to enable participation with departed ancestors. He says, ‘… rituals have a kind of deliberate and conscious evocation of memory, right back to the first act. If morphic resonance occurs as I think it does, this conservatism of ritual would create exactly the right conditions for morphic resonance to occur between those performing the ritual now and all those who performed it previously. The ritualized commemorations and participatory re-linking with the ancestors of all cultures might involve just that; it might, in fact, be literally true that these rituals enable the current participants to reconnect with their ancestors (in some sense) through morphic resonance.’
According to Sheldrake, mantras, sacred sounds, as also prohibitions on blasphemy or the inappropriate use of mantras, supposed to weaken their power, can be similarly explained.
Sheldrake also uses morphic resonance as a tool to understand phenomena such as telepathy and ESP.
In Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals, Sheldrake cites how animals exhibit telepathic powers. In The Sense Of Being Stared At, Sheldrake discusses this sense in the context of the human mind, arguing that premonitions constitute a seventh sense serving the purpose of biological communication in the face of danger.
Angels are yet another phenomena to come under Sheldrake’s scrutiny. Inspired by the similarity between St. Thomas Aquinas’ descriptions of angels as without mass or body and Einstein’s points of Light according to the Theory of Relativity, his book, The Physics of Angels, co-written with theologian Matthew Fox, puts forth the possibility of angels as intelligences greater than our own that are operating in the universe.
Books by Dr. Sheldrake including The Evolutionary Mind,
The Presence of the Past, A New Science of Life, The Rebirth
of Nature and Chaos, Creativity and Cosmic Consciousness,
published by Editions India, will shortly be available in India.
‘My spiritual interests and scientific work are complementary’
Rupert sheldrake was interviewed by roozbeh gazdar via email.
How does morphic resonance change the way science understands living organisms?
The idea of morphic fields and morphic resonance gives a new approach to the understanding of organisation. Living organisms are organised by morphic fields, which have an inherent memory. Hence all living organisms draw upon a kind of collective memory of their species, and in turn contribute to it. In relation to the human mind, the hypothesis suggests that morphic fields organise mental activity and interact with the brain by influencing probabilistic events, which would otherwise be random. They impose patterns on what would otherwise be disorder.
The fields of perception and intention are not simply confined to the inside of the brain but stretch out beyond it. When we look at an object, light comes into the eyes, changes happen in the brain, and the perceptual field, a kind of morphic field, stretches out to touch the object we’re looking at. The image of the object we see is projected out to the place where we actually perceive it. This contact of the mind with what is seen means that we can influence things by looking at them. This I think is what underlies the sense of being stared at, the ability people and animals have of telling when they’re being looked at from behind.
Minds also reach out to contact other minds through morphic fields, and this provides a basis for telepathy. Through morphic resonance, minds can tune into their own past states. I suggest that memory does not depend on physical traces in the brain but rather on morphic resonance from an organism’s own past states. Resonance from any other organisms in the past gives a kind of collected memory, but this is less specific than the memory from the organism itself.
You wrote A New Science of Life during your stay at the ashram of Fr. Bede Griffiths. How is your scientific work influenced by your spiritual beliefs?
I was brought up as a Christian, but as a result of my scientific education at school and at Cambridge, took up a standard atheistic view. I came to think of morphic fields in response to my research on the growth and development of plants while I was still in my atheist phase. It was travelling in India in 1968 and living in Malaysia that same year that exposed me to a completely different view of the world, and I took up meditation and yoga. In 1974 I went to work in India, as Principal Plant Physiologist at ICRISAT in Hyderabad. At that time, my principal spiritual interests were in Indian meditation practices and Hindu philosophy.
When I found that the idea of memory in nature is an old view held by many Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, this was very helpful in developing my hypothesis as a kind of general reinforcement of this way of thinking. But the hypothesis came first and the spiritual interest came second.
When I was in India I felt myself drawn back to a Christian path and wrote my first book, A New Science of Life in Fr. Bede Griffiths’ ashram because firstly it was a wonderful place to live and to be, and secondly it was a meeting point of the Christian and Indian traditions. Although my spiritual interests and my scientific work are complementary, my scientific ideas are not a projection of spiritual beliefs onto nature. I would say the influence has gone both ways.
Would you see your work as being a ‘scientific’ validation of Indian beliefs such as reincarnation, existence of a universal soul, and so on?
I don’t think my work in itself provides a ‘scientific’ validation of reincarnation. It leads to a theory of collective memory, and leaves open the possibility that sometimes individual memories from one person could be transferred to another in a more specific way. But it raises a new question for the hypothesis for the doctrine of reincarnation. According to my view, memories can be transferred by morphic resonance, but it does not prove that the person who has these memories is the same person as the previous personality whose memories they have access to. Memory transfer does indeed seem to occur, as in the cases studied by Professor Ian Stevenson of children who remember previous lives. But this does not necessarily prove that these cases are ones of reincarnation. They simply show that there has been a transfer of memory.
My work would not automatically imply a universal soul. The idea of mophic fields would imply that the entire universe has a field, which could perhaps be taken to correspond to the universal soul. But it would not necessarily imply that the field of the universe was conscious. Most aspects of morphic fields are unconscious, since they organise habits. Most of our own habits take place unconsciously and much of our mind is unconscious.
Could you comment on the need for greater convergence between science and spirituality in the future?
In the West there has been an unfortunate split between science and spirituality since the 17th century. In the Middle Ages the two fields of enquiry and experience were seen as complementary and developed fairly harmoniously. The split was caused by science adopting a mechanistic and materialistic view of nature which excluded consciousness and purpose. I think as science moves towards a more holistic way of understanding nature, new areas of dialogue between science and spirituality become possible. This is something I have explored with the Christian priest Matthew Fox, and some of our explorations have been published in our book, Natural Grace: Dialogues on Science and Spirituality. As science changes, so does the possibility of dialogue with religious and spiritual traditions. I think this will be one of the most interesting areas of enquiry in the coming decades.
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