Friday, September 27, 2013


Alas, British biologist Rupert Sheldrake is being reviled again for his annoying habit of challenging scientific orthodoxy. This is despite the fact that he's anything but shabby in the scientific credentials department. A Cambridge Ph.D., he has also been Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard, Rosenheim Research Fellow of the Royal Society, and Steinback Scholar-in- Residence at the Woods Hole Oceanography Institute. He was named among the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013 by the Duttweller Institute, Switzerland's leading think tank. He is the author of more than 80 peer-reviewed scientific papers and 10 books.

Yet his presentation at White Hall in London earlier this year, which addressed what he sees as the limitations and hubris of contemporary scientific thought, earned him almost universal opprobrium from scientific heavy hitters. (Esteemed physicist Sean Carroll was one.) And when the well-regarded non-profit organization TEDx, which offered him the platform, started getting blowback, it decided to wipe his talk off You Tube, causing an explosion of responses on the blogosphere and elsewhere, both pro and con.  

What is Sheldrake's sin? Admittedly, it's a pretty big one: He doesn't buy into the material nature of reality, the foundational tenet of modern science. No quibbling around the edges for him.

On his side is the fact that the history of science is full of mavericks, some of whom have actually come up with good ideas.  Copernicus was a maverick, overcoming (eventually) our geocentric bias. And then there's Francis Bacon, among others, whose new approaches to observing the natural world overturned Aristotle--giving us, in essence, modern science. And we mustn't forget Einstein, who superseded Newton--and Edwin Hubble, who, against formidable opposition, showed that the universe is not just the Milky Way and that "nebulae" are in fact different galaxies. 

Mavericks eschew the practice of "normal" science, as philosopher Thomas Kuhn called day-to-day science that doesn't question currently accepted theories. They are the folks who push the envelope, making everybody else uncomfortable because of their contrary ideas. It's what scientific progress is all about.

In light of this you would not be remiss in thinking that the scientific establishment, though disturbed about Sheldrake's apostasy, would at least refrain from scorning and vilifying him.  

It's not like materialists are standing on solid ground. Quantum mechanics, our best bet yet to describe underlying reality, must take into account the minds of observers that "collapse the wave function,” creating reality as we know it on the macro scale. How mind--and, more specifically, measurement--interact with matter still remains completely mysterious. It's reminiscent of the so-called "hard problem" in neuroscience, as nobody has a clue how the physical activities of the brain lead to the non-physical, non-material experiences and feelings and perceptions we all have as conscious beings. 

Despite these red flags, most scientists today hold fast to reality's materialist base and dismiss (or worse) those, like Sheldrake, who disagree with them. Materialism is the unquestioned assumption of all "normal" science in the twenty-first century. Protests about presentations of normal science in public forums just don't happen.  

It should be no surprise that well-known evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, a "normal" science proponent in the extreme, has singled out Sheldrake as a "woomeister" in his popular blog, Why Evolution is True ( And Coyne's view, while not universal, prevails.

Sheldrake is pretty accustomed to negative reactions to his work. When his first book, New Science of Life, was published in 1981, it was described by the editor of Nature, John Maddox, as "a book for burning." Maddox went on to say that Sheldrake "should be condemned in exactly the language that the pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy." 

It’s tough when you’ve been so accused in a premier scientific journal, and Sheldrake’s career has proceeded under a shadow.

Maybe that's the way it should be. Maybe future discoveries will prove Sheldrake dead wrong in every respect.  If so, Coyne's materialistic successors will no doubt write blog posts (if blogs have managed to survive), congratulating themselves on their own perspicacious views. Maybe even the late John Maddox, who also wrote a 1983 editorial entitled “No Need to Panic about AIDS,” will be completely vindicated--about Sheldrake, if not for his prognostications on the scourge of our times.

And maybe not. After all, look what happened in the case of Galileo and Pope Urban VIII: The heretic, quite famously, was proven right. 

Given the ever-evolving nature of human understanding, I think it's not always easy to tell heresy from scientific breakthrough.


  1. Nothing captures my fighting spirit more than a good kerkuffle between learned men. I can't add much to the spat between Sheldrake and Coyne, but the persecution of Galileo has a very modern ring to it. Most learned men of the seventeenth century who could converse on terms equal to Galileo were theologians, and many of them agreed with his heliocentric concept of the Solar System. After all, Galileo was reaffirming, in a more eloquent manner and from a broader pulpit,the theories that Copernicus had espoused in the previous century. What made Galileo more dangerous was his position as an Italian and the obvious fact that he was tweaking the pope's nose right under said appendage. Pope Urban VIII desperately needed the support of the most radical catholic states during the Thirty Years War, and punishing Galileo was a good way to thump his chest and remind the world of just what a good ideologue he was. It's not ideas that get you in trouble; it's politics.

    1. How about politics and ideas? After all, some ideas are so inherently powerful—and dangerous—they can actually create change in the world. Indeed, that’s what happened when the instigators of the Scientific Revolution—Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Francis Bacon—questioned the Aristotelian world-view (which had been melded into the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church by Thomas Aquinas) and ultimately overturned the Church’s authority in such matters.

      On the other hand, the role of vanity in human history must not be overlooked either. If Galileo had not been so foolish as to make fun of Pope Urban VIII in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Urban might have supported him despite his theological concerns. Without this particular tweaking of the Pope’s nose, Galileo might not have faced trial by the Inquisition—and the editor of Nature could not have condemned Rupert Sheldrake as a heretic of Galilean proportions!

  2. And of course, that leads us to the quintessential lines from the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar:

    Did you mean to die that like, was that a mistake, or
    Did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

    Maybe revolutionary ideas can only become revolutionary if their proponents are daring enough to maintain them in the face of danger.

  3. Spinoza's idea of an Infinite Substance beyond the "substances" we can perceive can be interpreted (and was by Bayle) as an endorsement of the possible impossible, i.e., ghosts and the like. Sheldrake was clearly aiming to tweak noses, and clearly succeeded.