30 June 2011


Rupert Sheldrake. The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature, 2nd edition. Icon Books, 2011.

My review of the first edition of this book in Magonia 32 (March 1989) was less than enthusiastic to say the least. In the second edition Sheldrake does seem to have made an effort to incorporate more recent scientific findings and ideas and to back-peddle on some of the political and metaphysical speculation, but I doubt that this will make his central thesis any more attractive to the scientific community.
To be fair, one of his ideas - that the more people attempt tasks, those who have not been taught to perform them will find them easier to accomplish - is a testable and therefore a scientific hypothesis. However, even if that speculation were found to be true it is hard to see how it would prove the existence of morphic fields.

The problem with Sheldrake's central idea - morphic fields which somehow organise and shape everything - is that they attribute all sorts of different puzzles and in some cases possible anomalies to a single all embracing cause - mysterious fields which cannot be detected by any laboratory apparatus, have no theoretical connection to any of the four known fields, and which have no mathematical expression. These morphic fields can therefore have just those properties that Sheldrake needs to explain all and sundry.

His account of the phantom limb phenomenon (pp. 34-44) makes no mention of the research of V. S. Ramachanrdan and his colleagues, which provides a neurological explanation. He still evokes the work of Ian Stevenson without realising that once you invoke paranormal claims, then ideas such as telepathy might equally explain some of his alleged findings.

I still get the impression that like many such, Sheldrake is rather too fastidious to accept the idea that anything as special as mind is contingent on anything so mundane and physical as brain matter (or rather the patterns of activity within the brain), and much prefers things that much more ethereal, and dare one say, cleaner, like ‘fields’.

I am not sure how morphic fields would explain how Sheldrake and Richard Dawkins, both middle class English naturalists of roughly the same age, both educated in Christian boarding schools and attending Oxbridge have such differing outlooks on life. Genes, life experience, and perhaps most of all, neurological make up, seem to me to be much better explanations. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

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