In 1981, Nature's senior editor Sir John Maddox published an editorial entitled "A book for burning?" in which he took aim at a book by biologist Rupert Sheldrake. In A New Science of Life, Sheldrake had put forward a hypothesis which stepped completely outside orthodox science: "morphic resonance".
After chemists crystallized a new chemical for the first time, it became easier and easier to crystallize in laboratories all over the world. After rats at Harvard first escaped from a new kind of water maze, successive generations learned quicker and quicker. Then rats in Melbourne, Australia learned yet faster. Rats with no trained ancestors shared in this improvement.
Rupert Sheldrake sees these processes as examples of morphic resonance. Past forms and activities of organisms, he argues, influence organisms in the present through direct connections across time and space. Individual plants and animals both draw upon and contribute to the collective memory of their species.
Sheldrake reinterprets the regularities of nature as being more like habits than immutable laws.
A third edition of A New Science of Life has just been released in the UK (see Amazon UK) - and to stir the pot during Darwin's 200th birthday week, The Guardian has run an online forum discussing Sheldrake's heretical ideas. The forum has featured contributions from the likes of Susan Blackmore, Caroline Watt and Nature's Adam Rutherford, who accused Sheldrake of "crimes against reason".
The man himself has now posted "A Response To My Critics" on the Guardian forum. As usual, Rupert is calm and collected and makes some good points:
Isaac Newton ran into the science/magic problem with gravity. The idea that the moon influenced the tides through empty space sounded like magic, and Newton was embarrassed by his failure to explain what he called the "occult" or hidden force of gravitation. His critics, mainly French, accused him of magical thinking.
...I do not claim that the evidence is conclusive, only that the question is open. Those who assert that there is no evidence, like Susan Blackmore and Adam Rutherford, are willfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.
The same is true of controversies about telepathy. Sceptics like Rutherford, who accused me of "crimes against reason", rely on the claims of other skeptics, like Michael Shermer, who rely on yet other skeptics such as David Marks, who ignore any evidence that goes against their beliefs.
Adam Rutherford, who works for Nature, dismisses scientific ideas presented in books, rather than in scientific journals. He would therefore rule out Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate this year, as well as most of the work of Richard Dawkins. My own research is published in peer-reviewed journals (including Nature) as well as in books.
...Science is our best method for exploring what we do not understand. But for some people science has become a religion. They need authority and certainty, and want to believe that the fundamental answers are already known.
Scientific fundamentalism serves deep emotional needs, but it is counter-productive for the progress of science itself. It inhibits scientific exploration, gives science a bad name and puts young people off. Science advances through questioning dogmas, by considering new possibilities, and through open-minded enquiry.
(In passing, I couldn't help but notice that Susan Blackmore is now saying that she "spent the best part of 30 years trying to find evidence of paranormal phenomena and failed. My initial belief was wrong, I concluded, and so I changed my mind and became sceptical." Ahem.)
Previously on TDG: