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Heretic for Our Times

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s experiments turn everything we know about the universe inside out

by Jay Walljasper

Published in Ode Magazine


Walking to the home of maverick scientist Rupert Sheldrake in Hampstead—London’s cozy but glamorous artistic village that’s been home to John Keats, George Orwell , D.H. Lawrence and, more recently, novelist John LeCarre and actress Emma Thompson—I am not at all surprised to find that his plain brick house looks out on Hampstead Heath. This famous (and still remarkably wild) expanse of grasslands and groves was the spot where Keats met William Wordsworth for long rambles, discussing the passions and ideas that would be immortalized in their Romantic poetry. Sheldrake, one of the world’s leading spokesmen for a more holistic and democratic vision of science, can easily be grouped with the Romantics, except that his insights about the world are based on empirical research rather than poetic feelings.

Sheldrake’s bold theories about how the universe works touched off a firestorm in 1981 with the publication of A New Science of Life. Actually it wasn’t the book that originally brought Sheldrake’s ideas to prominence but an incendiary editorial by the editor of the respected British journal Nature, Sir John Maddox, who fumed, “This infuriating tract…is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.” That drew quite a lot of attention to the young scientist who at that time was working as a plant physiologist in India.

What so infuriated Maddox was Sheldrake’s theory of “morphic resonance”—a complicated set of ideas proposing that nature relies upon its own set of memories, which are transmitted through time and space via “morphic fields” [see “Morphic resonance 101," below]. The theory holds that these fields, which operate much like electrical or magnetic fields, shape our entire world. A panda bear is a panda bear because it naturally tunes into morphic fields containing storehouses of information that define and govern panda bears. The same with pigeons, platinum atoms, and the oak trees in Hampstead Heath, not to mention human beings. This theory, if widely accepted, would turn our understanding of the universe inside out, which is why Sheldrake has so often felt the wrath of orthodox scientists.

For the past twenty years, he has continued his research even though no university or scientific institute would dare hire him. Much of his empirical explorations focus on unsolved phenomenon such as how pigeons and other animals find their way home from great distances, why people experience feelings in amputated limbs, and why some people and animals can sense that someone is staring at them. He believes morphic resonance may offer answers to these questions.

His experimentation has been underwritten by freethinking funders like the late Laurance Rockefeller and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, founded by Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Sheldrake has supported his family largely through lecture tours, which draw curious crowds around the world, and a series of books exploring various aspects of what is often called “New Science.” He’s written on ecological, spiritual, and philosophical themes, as well as a manifesto on how science could be democratized (Seven Experiments that Could Change the World) and a bestseller on animal behavior (Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home). His current research involves thousands of rigorously empirical tests probing the existence of telepathy. John Maddox nonetheless has continued to accuse him of “heresy,” saying he should be “condemned in exactly the same language that the pope used to condemn Galileo.”

When Sheldrake answers the door, I find a tall, surprisingly youthful man in a golf shirt and Birkenstock sandals with socks who hardly seems a menacing troublemaker out to destroy civilization as we know it. He cordially welcomes me into his home, which wonderfully fits my expectations of what a slightly bohemian biologist’s house should look like: shells, antlers, giant pinecones, fossils and exotic-looking houseplants on display in comfy rooms also filled with books, art, some peeling paint, musical instruments and oriental carpets. Upstairs is his office, which is overflowing with scientific journals and papers, and a spacious library room crammed with books on every conceivable subject. A corner of the library houses a small laboratory, which recently has been commandeered by his teenage sons as a computer center.

It’s a gorgeous sunny morning and Sheldrake suggests we sit in the backyard, which looks to me like a mini-botanical garden. It turns out that I am visiting on a rather momentous occasion. His three-year appointment to an endowed chair at Trinity College in Cambridge will be announced today. It marks a homecoming of sorts to the place he studied as an undergraduate, earned a Ph.D. and was a fellow of Clare College for seven years, where he served as Director of Studies in Biochemistry and Cell Biology. [see “The making of a maverick scientist," below] But that was all before he shook the scientific world with the idea of morphic resonance.

I ask if his appointment signals a growing tolerance of outspoken ideas in science. Not quite, he explains. It’s a unique endowment set up by a Cambridge don in the 1930s who was interested in parapsychology, although today it is generally awarded to researchers out to debunk the existence of such phenomena. “But it does mean I will be getting a salary for the first time in 25 years and money to do my research,” he says with a sincere grin. “But in the field of biology the holistic approach I advocate is more remote than ever. Funding drives most research toward biotech projects.”

“Science is the last unreformed institution in the modern world today,” he continues in a matter-of-fact rather than harsh tone. “It’s like the church before the Reformation. All decisions are made by a small powerful group of people. They’re authoritarian, entrenched, well-funded and see themselves as a priesthood.”

Sheldrake’s view is widely shared by many people—indeed by so many that it’s seen as a looming problem in Britain and Europe as people increasingly look upon science as a tool of corporations and big government, not an institution that benefits average citizens. Kids seem less inclined to pursue careers in the field and taxpayers are growing reluctant about financing research.

“If science were more responsive to democratic input, this would look different,” he says. He points out that popular science programs on television focus primarily on four topics that interest people: 1) alternative medicine; 2) ecological issues; 3) animals; and 4) parapsychology. But very little scientific funding goes toward research in these areas. What would happen if people could participate in choosing the kind of research that their tax money pays for?

That’s the idea behind Sheldrake’s recent proposal to let the public vote on how to spend one percent of the overall science budget—an idea greeted with even more horror than morphic resonance in some scientific circles. But other scientists are giving it serious consideration as a way to win back the public’s trust.

More than a symbolic gesture, this would actually add up to quite a sum of money to jump start interesting new research that the scientific establishment won’t sanction. Sheldrake notes that independent scientists, including Charles Darwin, have been responsible for many important breakthroughs because they probe for answers in ways quite different than their well-funded peers in universities, research institutes or corporations. But looking around Britain today the only other independent scientific researcher Sheldrake can think of is James Lovelock, who invented the revolutionary Gaia Theory, which posits that the earth is a living organism.

Public participation is essential to Sheldrake’s own research because otherwise he couldn’t afford to do it. Right now he’s enlisting people worldwide to study email telepathy (the ability to know who’s emailing before you get a message). His website (www.sheldrake.org) offers all the details necessary to conduct your own telepathy experiments and to report the findings.

Eighty percent of the population reports experiences with telephone telepathy (email telepathy’s older cousin), he explains. In the controlled experiments he’s conducted, where subjects choose which of four close friends is phoning, they’re right 42 percent of the time—significantly higher than the 25 percent that would occur by random chance.

“I think we all have a capacity for telepathy,” Sheldrake notes. “But it is really a function of close social bonds. It doesn’t happen with total strangers. At least not in an experimental setting. And of course some people have a better sense of telepathy than others, just the same as with the sense of smell.” He hopes the on-line experiments can identify individuals with particularly strong telepathic skills, who can then be studied further.

“What I am interested in are the mysteries of everyday life—a lot of these simple things are not being investigated,” Sheldrake says staring up at the sunny sky with that “lost-in-thought” look you typically associate with scientists. A few moments later, he pulls his attention back in my direction, smiles apologetically and continues. “I prefer to explore things that people know in their lives or the lives of their friends. I am interested in science that is rooted in people’s experience. Indeed, the word empirical means experience.”

By now the two of us have been talking in his garden for several hours and Sheldrake picks up a garden hose to water several tall, exotic-looking plants, while I marvel at the tenacity he’s shown in keeping his research going all these years and the gentle spirit he possesses in the face of hostility toward his work. John Maddox has said he practices “magic instead of science” yet Sheldrake brings up Maddox’s almost with fondness—perhaps because that scathing editorial turned The New Science of Life into a bestseller and launched Sheldrake’s career as an independent scientist.

It’s time for me to go, and a taxi is honking in front of the house to take me to Paddington Station, but I must squeeze in one more question. “How do you refresh yourself, renew your creativity and stay calm in the face of so much criticism?” Sensing my anxiety about missing the train, he efficiently ticks off three answers in the methodical manner you’d expect from a former science whiz kid. “One. Playing the piano, usually Bach. Two. Meditating. Three. Taking walks, usually out on the heath.”

After a long and hearty handshake I dash out to the cab and, watching Hampstead Heath disappear through the back window, decide that I sold Rupert Sheldrake short earlier today. Comparing him to fellow Heath hikers Keats and Wordsworth, I viewed Sheldrake as a cool and rational man of science while they were warm and passionate poets. But I can see now that, even as a dedicated scientist, Sheldrake possesses a poetic imagination in how he thinks about the world and how he lives his life.