Rupert Sheldrake has pushed the boundaries of scientific thinking for decades. His controversial theories on morphic fields and morphic resonance challenge traditional perspectives on biology, evolution, and consciousness. While provoking scepticism and debate, Sheldrake’s work also opens new doors of inquiry into the role of patterns, fields, and frequency in shaping living systems.
Sheldrake trained as a biochemist and cell biologist, obtaining his PhD from Cambridge University. Dissatisfied with the limitations of a mechanistic worldview, he began developing alternative hypotheses about formative causation and morphogenetic fields. His 1981 book A New Science of Life outlined his theory of morphic resonance, attracting both intrigue and criticism across scientific circles.
Four decades later, Sheldrake continues speculating and experimenting. His research probes how self-organizing systems acquire form, order, and collective memories through morphic fields. If valid, his theories hold profound implications for understanding habits, inheritance, evolution, and the emergence of multicellular complexity.
Shaping Biological Forms: The Concept of Morphic Fields
Sheldrake proposes that morphic fields are organizing patterns that influence the development and behaviour of systems ranging from molecules and organisms to societies and even planets. These fields are shaped by cumulative memory from previous iterations of a system and guide the system’s subsequent formation.
In living things, morphic fields help guide morphogenesis — an embryo’s developing structure and pattern. Through a process of resonance, each member of a species draws from a collective morphic field containing shared form and instincts. Individuals then contribute back through their lifetime experiences, informing future development.
Sheldrake posits that the greater the degree of morphological complexity, the more influential the morphic field. So while molecules follow relatively simple structural tendencies, larger systems like cells, tissues, and organisms demonstrate more complex, deeply ingrained patterns.
If morphic fields carry an intrinsic memory or resonance of particular forms, then studying their frequencies and vibrations could reveal new insights about the blueprints underlying biological systems. Much like the resonant frequencies that give rise to specific molecular bonds, certain frequencies may foster particular morphological outcomes.
Morphic Resonance: Learning and Evolution
At the heart of Sheldrake’s theory is the concept of morphic resonance — the ability for patterns and forms to be communicated across space and time through their intrinsic frequency and energy. It is morphic resonance that allows morphic fields to retain a cumulative memory and inflict influence.
Sheldrake hypothesizes that any system more readily acquires skills and information that have been previously learned by similar systems. In effect, their shared morphic fields resonate sympathetically, allowing for collective inheritance. He compares it to radio waves tuning into the proper frequency.
To test this empirically, Sheldrake conducted trials that examined how quickly people learned unfamiliar skills over various periods. As hypothesized, performance generally improved as more individuals practised the same skills earlier in time. For example, later groups of participants mastered a new motor task in progressively fewer attempts as they benefited from the strengthening morphic field.
Applied on an evolutionary scale, morphic resonance could theoretically facilitate adaptations and evolutionary leaps as species tap into resonant forms and behaviours. Some have drawn parallels to Carl Jung’s ideas of a collective unconscious tied to archetypal patterns.
Reactions within the Scientific Community
Given his unorthodox ideas, it is unsurprising that Sheldrake and his work have stirred considerable controversy across mainstream science over the decades. Common criticisms point to ambiguous definitions for key concepts like morphic fields, a lack of empirical rigour in experiments, and the inability to falsify his hypotheses.
Nevertheless, Sheldrake has piqued the interest of some biologists and physicists, inspiring new directions in complexity theory, field theory, and biomimicry including us at SoundsOfThings. Yale biologists Brian Goodwin and Ricard Solé have integrated Sheldrake’s concepts into their models of morphogenesis and self-organization. Physicist David Peat sees alignments with ideas about synchronicity and implicate orders in quantum theory.
Others strike a middle stance, appreciating Sheldrake’s challenge of tired dogmas while maintaining scepticism of his specific theories. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson falls into this camp, expressing openness to rethinking rigid assumptions while faulting Sheldrake’s details.
The debate highlights the importance of balancing valid scientific scepticism with an impartial examination of unorthodox ideas. Dismissing or accepting Sheldrake’s theories outright without rigorous inquiry does not serve the spirit of true scientific exploration.
Controversies and Debates
Perhaps the most consistent criticism Sheldrake faces is the lack of conclusive evidence for phenomena like morphic fields and resonance. Detractors consider his main ideas unfalsifiable in the Popperian sense, more akin to pseudoscience. Defending scientists also point out failed attempts to reproduce some findings like the phantom leaf effect in laboratory settings.
Sheldrake counters that properly examining his hypotheses requires decoupling from the materialist perspective and considering radically different assumptions. He compares the current situation to the conflict that arose when Einstein’s relativity theory challenged Newtonian assumptions about time and space.
Critics also express concerns about tautological thinking in Sheldrake’s writings and experiments. His explanations often seem to argue in circles, alleging mysterious fields and resonances as causes and effects simultaneously. Sheldrake attributes this objection to the complex, reciprocal nature of morphic fields rather than flawed logic.
While Sheldrake believes conserved genes cannot fully explain evolutionary leaps, orthodox scientists insist sufficient randomness in genetics allows for the emergence of new forms without invoking mystical fields. Each side remains adamant in their stances on whether Sheldrake’s ideas require a revolution or merely represent pseudoscience.
The Intersection of Science and Speculation
Skirting the line between viable science and speculation has always been tricky business. Einstein’s theories were supported by rigorous physics, but also contained unprovable philosophical speculations on concepts like a “cosmic religious feeling.” Quantum theory veers into similarly abstract territories.
Sheldrake knows he is fighting an uphill battle against the mainstream. But all new theories were once fringe ideas before slowly gaining traction. While large gaps likely remain in Sheldrake’s specific reasoning and evidence, his creative mindset serves the collective project of knowledge in the long run by challenging assumptions. Like Einstein, he believes imagination is more important than knowledge in spurring scientific progress.
Perhaps Sheldrake’s wildest ideas will turn out to be dead ends. But maybe they contain fragments that spark real breakthroughs, just as dreams and myths sometimes capture shards of deeper truths through symbolism. Panning for those philosophical and metaphorical gems in speculative waters can uncover hints toward new research directions.
Looking Ahead: Implications and Future Research
If definitive proof eventually substantiated Sheldrake’s concept of cumulative memory and resonance across morphic fields, the implications could be far-reaching. Evolutionary theory, genetics, developmental biology, behavioural science, and ecology would all need rethinking.
Researchers might further investigate the physical and mathematical basis of morphic fields using principles of field theory, resonance, frequency, and energy. Experimental tests could continue exploring how broader patterns of collective learning arise in nature and impact subsequent generations. Studies could also examine how artificial intelligence might interface with any inherent collective memory or archetypal fields.
The most interesting possibilities centre on synthesizing Sheldrake’s outside-the-box ideas with modern science rather than wholesale replacement of prevailing theories. Most pioneers who radically departed from conventions contained fragments of essential truths amid their questionable conjectures. Reality likely encompasses an interplay of many perspectives.
While Rupert Sheldrake occupies a fringe position in mainstream science, his push into experimental heresy serves an important philosophical role. Questioning rigid assumptions about nature’s limits can uncover glimmers of insight that lead to innovation. For Sheldrake, the mysteries of form, pattern, and frequency in living systems demand radical empirical and theoretical flexibility.
Whether Sheldrake’s specific theories prove valid or not, the act of exploring their strange logic and implications cultivates the open-minded problem-solving mentality that powers human discovery. Pushing the envelope at the edge of knowledge often reveals connections no one previously noticed. Ideas once considered heretical sometimes presage revolutionary breakthroughs. By probing without fear at the border between science and speculation, Sheldrake moves us incrementally closer to unveiling nature’s deepest phenomenological secrets.