It was a fitting setting for a thinker whose interests span evolution and angels. On a January evening in the Unitarian Church in Notting Hill. Maggie Stanway, chair of the Jung Club (which was hosting the event), lit a candle and introduced the renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake.
Sheldrake, who is tall and has a posh accent, talked with an almost liquid fluency about the idea that has made him famous. Morphic resonance is the hypothesis that natural systems inherit a memory from their antecedents in ways that cannot be explained by genetics. Rather than obeying fixed laws of nature, the nature and behaviour of plants and animals are ‘habits’ formed by an evolving past and, as such, are not purely determined by the material.
It’s an idea that may account for instincts such as spiders knowing how to weave their webs and phenomena considered paranormal such as pets sensing when their owner is coming home. Challenging the scientific orthodoxies as it does, it has caused a lot of controversy.
As was appropriate for the audience, Sheldrake concentrated on the implications of the hypothesis for human life. For just as the collective unconscious is central to Jungian thinking, ‘morphic fields‘ apply to culture, creativity and learning. It follows then that skills and abilities, such as aptitude for languages, sport, or music inhabit certain people for reasons that seem mysterious.
He furnished us with a rather sweet anecdote from his family. When his son and friends were taking their GCSEs, they decided to apply the principles of morphic resonance to the exam. Instead of starting at question 1, they began at question 4 so that they would be about ten minutes behind the rest of the candidates. The idea was that, if morphic resonance was occuring, they would get a boost from the collective thinking that had just taken place. The group of friends got A*s although, Sheldrake conceded, they might well have done so without employing this ruse.
How morphic resonance happens is not understood. Sheldrake mooted various possibile explanations such as the existence of an implicative order that precedes the reality we know and the insights of string theory. About once a week, he said, a physicist sends him an hypothesis that consists of dense equations that he can’t understand: ‘I take the view that this is happening, but we don’t know how.’
The key implication is that the universe is inter-connected or – to put it another way – full of relationship. He cited the example of birds, with their nest-building, tireless feeding of their young and preparedness to defend their offspring to the death: ‘It’s the basis of the most fundamental kind of love,’ he said, adding: ‘I’m not sure how far we can take this – is gravity love?’
It was striking how comfortable he was moving onto spiritual and existential territory. A practising Christian who believes in the Holy Spirit and the existence of angels, Sheldrake, characterised the paths trodden by spiritual pioneers such as Jesus or Buddha as morphic fields which make it easier for those who come after to follow. Morphic fields, he went, on are ‘like what Aristotle and Aquinas called souls’, with the difference that they resemble memories rather than eternal templates.
I wanted to know what morphic resonance had to say about evil: if we learn so much from the past and others why is there so much trouble in the world? Sheldrake replied that morphic resonance had ‘no filter’, with the result that bad habits are passed on as well as the good. Then – moving from a dualistic worldview to a privative conception of good – he pointed out that even terrorists believe they are acting for the good. He added, somewhat tantalisingly, that what would be needed to overcome repeating patterns of evil would be ‘a more universalist morphic field’.
All this made me wish that Sheldrake, still in his prime, better equipped for intellectual syncretism than most of us could ever hope to be, and with a gift for popularising, would now produce some writing that is like his talking that ranges more freely over disciplines and is aimed at a wider audience. I understand that his vocation is, in a sense, to sing the Lord’s song in the strange land of scientific materialism, but it seems a shame to leave such valuable insights about the nature of consciousness, death and love to the New Agers.