Rupert Sheldrake

What I say about Rupert Sheldrake in “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck” (1997)

These scientific dissidents were all saying that, though genes, mutations, competition and Natural Selection go some of the way towards explaining life and evolution, they do not give the complete picture. There has to be some other factor, as yet unobserved by scientists, which brings all the observed phenomena together to form the whole. It doesn’t require a great leap of the imagination to realise that the additional factor is probably scientifically-undetectable communication. A brave British biochemist, Rupert Sheldrake, jeopardised his brilliant career prospects by invoking an unobserved communication system as the basis of a revolutionary reappraisal of biology and evolution. Having been disgusted with orthodox scientific reduction of life to physico-chemical processes, and inclined towards Vitalism, he devised an explanation for the latter which did not require independent mind and which he hoped would satisfy scientific scepticism. It didn’t and he was shunned by the British scientific Establishment. Amongst other reasons for that were his private religious views, which he kept out of his writings, and his espousal of the heresy of Lamarckism.

If you want to get the complete, and accurate, picture of Sheldrake’s views, I suggest you read his excellent 1988 book, “The Presence of the Past”, whose title is very apposite. I am only going to give my simplified interpretation of his views. According to his hypothesis of formative causation, habitual characteristics are not caused by genes but by morphic fields, which utilise genes, or chromosomes, as transmitters and receivers. Within any chemical or biological systems, like influences like by virtue of morphic fields being produced by one system and causing morphic resonance in similar systems. Morphic fields grow in strength as more systems come into morphic resonance and transmit the same morphic field. Morphic fields operate through great distances and through time, causing past habits to be transmitted to present-day organisms with similar genetic constitutions. In other words, it is not the genes themselves that determine characteristics but the habits of previous, and contemporary, possessors of those genes.

Though he doesn’t spell it out, Sheldrake’s hypothesis denies one the most fundamental tenets of all previous evolutionary debate – the exclusivity of the Theory of Descent. All inheritable characteristics had been assumed to come from direct ancestors by what is known as vertical transmission, but Sheldrake’s hypothesis also relies on what is known as horizontal transmission. Characteristics are no longer inherited only from one’s parents but received, in decreasing degrees as genetic similarities decrease, from one’s relatives, one’s race, one’s species, one’s genus, and ultimately from all living organisms. In that respect it could be regarded as not truly Lamarckian inheritance, but rather the transmission of acquired characteristics. Nonetheless, if true, it justifies all the reasons, throughout the centuries, for believing in Lamarckian inheritance.

Sheldrake makes brilliant use of an analogy with a television set. The programme that a television set shows has nothing whatever to do with the components of the set; the components only permit the set to show any programme at all. Similarly, the morphological and behavioural characteristics of an organism are not determined by its genes; the genes only permit the transmitted characteristics to be received. Personally, I would have preferred him to have concentrated on chromosomes, rather than genes, as transmitters/receivers, in line with Goldschmidt, but that does not invalidate the essential thrust of his argument. Like Alister Hardy and Lyall Watson before him, Sheldrake regards telepathy as an empirical reality, and cites it as an example of a morphic field. He also goes much further than I would wish in claiming that memories are not stored in the brain as material traces, but morphic fields which can only normally be received by the particular transmitter that transmitted them (though, during telepathy, hypnosis and other states of altered consciousness, other ‘memories’ can also be received). By extension, your memories are potentially immortal because they could go on existing as morphic fields even after your transmitter has decomposed. Though speculative, unproven, wide-ranging and controversial, Sheldrake’s well-argued views did not deserve the blinkered, intransigent, hostile dismissal that they received from the scientific Establishment.

One of the orthodox views that Sheldrake questioned is the assumption that the three-dimensional shape of an enzyme is the only shape that it could adopt, given its internal structure. As coded for by genes, protein molecules are very long floppy strands, like pieces of string. Most natural proteins, and all enzymes, fold themselves up into globules, whose shapes are not only characteristic of the particular proteins but are also the major factors in determining the functions of those proteins. If any protein adopted a different shape, it couldn’t have the function it does have. The orthodox view had always been that the shape of an enzyme is the most thermodynamically-stable shape that it could adopt. What Sheldrake, and many others, questioned was not only whether that is true, but also whether any floppy protein molecule stood any prospect whatsoever of finding its most thermodynamically-stable shape through chance alone. If the shape of a protein is not automatically determined by its genetically-coded linear sequence, then the whole paradigm of genetic determinism is shattered. Sheldrake himself claims that the shapes of all proteins are determined by morphic fields, produced by similar proteins whose shapes had been determined by morphic fields from similar proteins, ad infinitum all the way back to the shape that the first example of that protein happened to adopt.

Unknown to Sheldrake then, and still unappreciated by most people now, the issue of the shapes of proteins was about to become central to a major crisis in British farming caused by a reprehensible policy of forcing vegetarians to eat offal; lurking in the brains of many British cows and sheep, as well as a few British people, were some mis-shapen proteins called prions. In terms of their linear sequences, as determined by genes, prions are no different from essential proteins that normally operate in the brains of cows, sheep and humans; prions just happen to adopt a different shape which makes them functionally useless. Their fatal spread in the brains of cows with BSE, sheep with scrapie, and humans with CJD, is not due to any ability of ingested prions to self-reproduce, but due to their ability to affect the shapes that those essential proteins adopt when they are produced. When called upon to produce the essential proteins, the protein-making apparatus of the brain cells of the animals themselves produces prions instead. Deprived of the properly-shaped, essential proteins, the brains deteriorate and the organisms die. I can only conclude that the shapes of proteins are not determined by their linear sequences, or by long-range morphic fields, but by a short-range template effect. My only quibble with Sheldrake is not over the issue of like-influencing-like, which I take to be a fundamental law of nature, but over the distance of that influence. It may be the case that morphic fields can increase their range of influence as they become stronger, but the evidence from the BSE crisis is that they start locally.