New Age Biology
In the last two decades, people have begun to look to biology for answers to social and philosophical questions. This trust may be justified, but current popular biology books range from the enlightening and profound to the misleading and shallow. Rupert Sheldrake's The Presence of the Past falls near the latter end of this continuum.
The Presence of the Past
By Rupert Sheldrake
Times Books, $19.95
Sheldrake tries to explain everything from the origin of the universe to the history of life to human society and psychology. Sheldrake's ideas are tied closely to antireductionism and musings by some physicists on "the anthropic principle"--the idea that life and mind are somehow necessary to the universe. This sort of paradox leads Sheldrake to the radical position that changeless laws do not exist, and he has no use for what he disparagingly calls the "nominalist-materialist school,"--in other words, modern science.
Forget what you know. His universe is filled with a near infinity of "morphic fields" that come not only from all matter, but also emanate from ensembles of objects on every level of analysis. For example, Sheldrake writes, all molecules have their own fields, but when combined in a cell, the cell gives off its own special field, and thus any recognizable unit is more than the sum of its parts. Through the process of "morphic resonance," fields act on similar fields and become even more alike. This reasoning forms the basis of Sheldrake's central hypothesis, which he calls "formative causation."
If all this seems confusing and ethereal, it is for good reason. Still, these theories do have some empirical implications, which Sheldrake discusses towards the end of the book. The fields supposedly operate not only through space but also through time (hence the title). They provide an extragenetic mechanism for neo-Lamarckian inheritance, as ancestors long-dead "resonate" with their descendants. He explains tradition as the culture of the past resonating with that of the present, and memory as a 10-year-old self resonating with an adult self. In Sheldrake's eyes, we are surrounded at every moment by a parliament of spirits of the past that guide our growth, thoughts and actions.
He offers the hypothesis admist a cloud of scientific jargon claiming to explain much. Yet when the smoke clears, so does the plausibility of his argument. Sheldrake attempts to disprove physical theory by proposing the existence of "pure information" in addition to matter and energy. This information provides the foundation for morphic fields and allows them to persist undiminished through time and space. Though he offers a few tests of this theory. Sheldrake explains away outcomes that would seem to disprove his proposal. He himself is extremely credulous, gleeful that his ideas allow for telepathy, reincarnation, collective memory and the like. With his formative causation, it seems, anything goes, and the details expand and contract into every corner of the scientific edifice.
Beyond its internal inconsistencies and contradiction of all major scientific theories, Sheldrake's grasp of his own scientific inheritance is so tenuous as to cast suspicion on his hypothesis. The entire first third of The Presence of the Past, and much of the rest of the work, is an idiosyncratic intellectual history of science, from which Sheldrake picks or reinterprets as he wishes. There are times when he misrepresents the facts, and times when he gets them wrong. For example, his statement that memory is not at all localizable in the brain--evidence to Sheldrake that it's not in there at all--is out-of-date. He overemphasizes the role of acquired characteristics in Darwin's theory of natural selection--saying "it could just as easily be called 'Darwinian inheritance'"--and cites the ideological vendetta against Mendelism under Stalin as scientific authority.
While Sheldrake acknowledges that systems are flexible, he never once mentions that a set of genes, organisms or cultures can behave differently in different environments; the term "norm of reaction" (the typical biological term) does not appear in the text. And this from an expert on plant development, where classic examples of this sort occur. His decision to attribute most quotes in endnotes seems suspicious. A honest approach would have presented anomalies and evidence first (a few psychological experiments, introduced later seem to support him), rather than trying to seduce readers into believing that the theories of science and society are straw men, fit for burning.
The Presence of the Past is an interesting and frustrating work, but not the philosophical magic bullet Sheldrake believes it to be. Charitably viewed, it is an abstract musing on the implications of the anthropic principle and similar ideas on unresolved questions in other areas of science. Those seeking educational reading, however, should look elsewhere; here they will find only confusion. His reinterpretation of the universe in "holistic" or "creative" terms may give Sheldrake a certain popularity in "New Age" circles. But holism must coexist with reductionism, and when science begins to answer multilevel, integrative questions, it will be through the same materialism and hard work it uses now, rather than by a return to mysticism.