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Critical Thinker's Dictionary

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morphic resonance

Morphic resonance is a term coined by Rupert Sheldrake in his 1981 book A New Science of Life. He uses the expression to refer to what he thinks is "the basis of memory in nature....the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species." 

Sheldrake has been trained in 20th century scientific models--he has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge University (1967)--but he prefers Goethe and 19th century vitalism. Sheldrake prefers teleological to mechanistic models of reality. His main interests are in the paranormal. One of his books is entitled Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. One of his studies is on whether people can tell when someone is staring at them. (He says they can; others have been unable to duplicate his results.*) Another tests the telepathic powers of a parrot. He prefers a romantic vision of the past to the bleak picture of a world run by technocrats who want to control nature and destroy much of the environment in the process. In short, he prefers metaphysics to science, though he seems to think he can do the former but call it the latter. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that he sees no borderline between science and metaphysics.

'Morphic resonance' (MR) is put forth as if it were an empirical term, but it is no more empirical than L. Ron Hubbard's 'engram',  the alleged source of all mental and physical illness. The term is more on par with the Stoic's notion of the logos. Bergson's notion of the élan vital, or Plato's notion of the eidos than it is with any scientific notion of the laws of nature. What the rest of the scientific world terms lawfulness--the tendency of things to follow patterns we call laws of nature--Sheldrake calls morphic resonance. He describes it as a kind of memory in things determined not by their inherent natures, but by repetition. He also describes MR as something which is transmitted via "morphogenetic fields." This gives him a conceptual framework wherein information is transmitted mysteriously and miraculously through any amount of space and time without loss of energy, and presumably without loss or change of content through something like mutation in DNA replication. Thus, room is made for psychical as well as physical transmission of information. Thus,

it is not at all necessary for us to assume that the physical characteristics of organisms are contained inside the genes, which may in fact be analogous to transistors tuned in to the proper frequencies for translating invisible information into visible form. Thus, morphogenetic fields are located invisibly in and around organisms, and may account for such hitherto unexplainable phenomena as the regeneration of severed limbs by worms and salamanders, phantom limbs, the holographic properties of memory, telepathy, and the increasing ease with which new skills are learned as greater quantities of a population acquire them.*

While this metaphysical proposition does seem to make room for telepathy, it does so at the expense of ignoring Occam's razor. Telepathy and such things as phantom limbs, for example, can be explained without adding the metaphysical baggage of morphic resonance. So can memory, which does not require a holographic paradigm, by the way. The notion that new skills are learned with increasing ease as greater quantities of a population acquire them, known as the hundredth monkey phenomenon, is bogus.

In short, although Sheldrake commands some respect as a scientist because of his education and degree, he has clearly abandoned conventional science in favor of magical thinking. This is his right, of course. However, his continued pose as a scientist on the frontier of discovery is unwarranted. He is one of a growing horde of "alternative" scientists whose resentment at the aspiritual nature of modern scientific paradigms, as well as the obviously harmful and seemingly indifferent applications of modern science, have led them to seek their own paradigms in ancient and long-abandoned concepts. These paradigms are not new, though the terminology is. These alternative paradigms allow for angels, telepathy, psychic dogs and parrots, alternative realities, and hope for a future world where we all live in harmony and love, surrounded by blissful neighbors who never heard of biological warfare, nuclear bombs, or genetically engineered corn on the cob.

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further reading

reader comments

Sheldrake, Rupert. 1996. Seven Experiments That Could Change the World: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science. Riverhead Books.

websites

Rupert responds to Robert Todd Carroll and I respond to Rupert (read the N'kisi entry first for a full understanding of the responses)

Marks, David F. and John Colwell (2000). "The Psychic Staring Effect An Artifact of Pseudo Randomization." Skeptical Inquirer. September/October. 

Sheldrake's response to Marks and Colwell

Robert Baker's response to Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake: The delightful crackpot by David Bowman

The amazing ideas of Rupert Sheldrake by John Blanton

Rupert's Resonance by Michael Shermer

review

An idea with resonance (More than anything, Sheldrake's continuing popularity is rooted in our need to believe) - Sue Blackmore reviews some tests of morphic resonance and offers her opinion on why we believe "scatty" ideas.

Last updated 20-Dec-2013

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