On Rupert Sheldrake, Scientific ‘Heretic’

Rupert Sheldrake: the ‘heretic’ at odds with scientific dogma

Rupert Sheldrake has researched telepathy in dogs, crystals and Chinese medicine in his quest to explore phenomena that science finds hard to explain.

  The Observerrupert sheldrake in Hampstead

Rupert Sheldrake in north London. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

It is not often, in liberal north London, that you come face to face with a heretic, but Rupert Sheldrake has worn

that mantle, pretty cheerfully, for 30 years now. Sitting in his book-lined study, overlooking Hampstead Heath, he

appears a highly unlikely candidate for apostasy; he seems more like the Cambridge biochemistry don he once

was, one of the brightest Darwinians of his generation, winner of the university botany prize, researcher

at the Royal Society, Harvard scholar and fellow of Clare College.

All that, though, was before he was cast out into the wilderness. Sheldrake’s untouchable status was conferred

one morning in 1981 when, a couple of months after the publication of his first book, A New Science of Life,

he woke up to read an editorial in the journalNature, which announced to all right-thinking men and women that his

was a “book for burning” and that Sheldrake was to be “condemned in exactly the language that the pope used to

condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy”.

For a pariah, Sheldrake is particularly affable. But still, looking back at that moment, he still betrays a certain sense

of shock. “It was,” he says, “exactly like a papal excommunication. From that moment on, I became a very dangerous

person to know for scientists.” That opinion has hardened over the years, as Sheldrake has continued to operate at the

margins of his discipline, looking for phenomena that “conventional, materialist science” cannot explain and arguing for a more open-minded

approach to scientific inquiry.

His new book, The Science Delusion, is a summation of this thinking, an attempt to address what he sees as the

limitations and hubris of contemporary scientific thought. In particular, he takes aim at the “scientific dogmatism” that sets itself up as

gospel. The chapters take some of the stonier commandments of contemporary science and make them into questions: “Are the laws of nature

fixed?”; “Is matter unconscious?”; “Is nature purposeless?” “Are minds confined to brains?”

Sheldrake is a brilliant polemicist if nothing else and he skilfully marshals all the current thinking that

undermines these tenets – from apparent telepathy in animals, to crystals having to “learn” how to grow, to

some of the more fantastical notions of theoretical physics. On the morning I meet him, his book is sitting near

the top of the science bestseller list on Amazon. It has also, unlike most of his previous work – Seven

Experiments That Could Change the World, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home – been

generally reviewed respectfully. Perhaps it is something in the air.

One of the habits in nature that Sheldrake is interested in is polarity, and if he has a natural nemesis then it

is Richard Dawkins, arch materialist and former professor of public understanding of science at Oxford. The title

of his book seems to take direct aim at Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Was that, I wonder, his express intention

in writing it?

“Slightly,” he suggests. But the title was really his publisher’s idea. “It is dealing with a much bigger issue. But

Richard Dawkins is a symptom of the dogmatism of science. He crystallises that approach in the public mind,

so to that extent, yes, it is a pointed title.”

Sheldrake is the same age as Dawkins – 70 this year – and though their careers began in an almost identical

biochemical place, they could hardly have ended up further apart. If Sheldrake’s ideas could be boiled down to a

sentence, you might borrow one from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Richard, than are

dreamt of in your philosophy…”

“What we have in common,” Sheldrake says, “is that we are both certain that evolution is the central feature of

nature. But I would say his theory of evolution stops at biology. When it comes to cosmology, for example, he

has little to say. I would take the evolutionary principle there, too. I think that the ‘laws of nature’ are also prone

to evolve; I think they are more like habits than laws. Much of what we are beginning to understand is that they

clearly have evolved differently in different parts of the universe.”

Sheldrake talks a good deal of the fact that, as all good Brian Cox viewers know, 83% of the universe is now

thought to be “dark matter” and subject to “dark energy” forces that “nothing in our science can begin to


Despite this, he suggests, scientists are prone to “the recurrent fantasy of omniscience”. The science delusion,

in these terms, consists in the faith that we already understand the nature of reality, in principle, and that all that

is left to do is to fill in the details. “In this book, I am just trying to blow the whistle on that attitude which I think

is bad for science,” he says. In America, the book is called Science Set Free, which he thinks is probably a

better title. “They were aware that if they called it The Science Delusion it would be seen as a rightwing tract

that was anti-evolution and anti-climate change. And I want no part of that.”

The evolution of Rupert Sheldrake, would, you guess, be a worthwhile scientific study in itself, but one for which

you might struggle to attract funding. Like all heretics worth their salt, he started out in good faith, a true

believer, but he has been beset by increasing doubt ever since.

“I went through the standard scientific atheist phase when I was about 14,” he says, with a grin. “I bought into

that package deal of science equals atheism. I was the only boy at my high Anglican boarding school who

refused to get confirmed. When I was a teenager, I was a bit like Dawkins is today, you know: ‘If Adam and Eve

were created by God, why do they have navels?’ That kind of thing.”

Over a period, he found the materialist view of the universe – that matter was all that life consisted of, tha

t human beings were in Dawkins’s term “lumbering robots” – did not accord with his own experience of it.

Sheldrake was a gifted musician and “electrical changes in the cortex didn’t seem able to fully explain Bach”.

Likewise: “To describe the overwhelming life of a tropical forest just in terms of inert biochemistry and DNA didn’t

seem to give a very full picture of the world.”

The other thing that troubled him about scientific orthodoxy might be condensed into a single word: pigeons. As

a boy in Newark-on-Trent, Sheldrake had kept animals – a dog, a jackdaw and some homing pigeons. He would

place these pigeons in a cardboard box and cycle all morning with them and then release them to marvel how

they would always beat him home. Newark happened to be a hub of pigeon racing. “Every weekend in the

season, people would bring piles and piles of wicker baskets containing their birds; my father would take me

there and the porters would let me help release the pigeons. Hundreds would fly up and circle round, then you

would see them form into little groups and head off around Britain, back home. Pigeon fanciers were mostly

plain working men, but they were fascinated by this mystery, which they did not understand.”

They were not alone. When Sheldrake won his scholarship to Cambridge several years later, he asked various

scientists how they thought this happened. The scientists talked about the sun’s position and an internal clock

and scent traces, but what “they weren’t prepared to say was that it was a total mystery”. That refusal, and

others like it, troubled Sheldrake. “There is a lot of science that you can’t directly experience,” he says, “but to

concentrate on quantum physics when we couldn’t begin to explain homing pigeons seemed to me,” he

suggests, “a great distortion.”

For a decade or so, Sheldrake kept some of these thoughts to himself, but as his career developed his doubts

about the idea that “conventional, materialist” science would one day explain everything seemed increasingly

wrong-headed. He took a job working at the University of Malaya on ferns and rubber trees and to get there

travelled for some months through India and Sri Lanka. It was 1968 and India was a very interesting place to be.

“I met people, highly intelligent people, who had a completely different world view from anything to which I had

been exposed.”

Returning to Cambridge, Sheldrake became interested in a notion of biology and heredity that shared close

affinities with Carl Jung’s ideas of a collective unconscious, a shared species memory. He was profoundly

influenced by a book called Matter and Memory by the philosopher Henri Bergson. “When I discovered

Bergson’s idea that memory is not stored in the brain but that it is a relation in time, not in space, I realised that

there might potentially be a memory principle in nature that would solve the problem I was wrestling with.”

In 1974, Sheldrake returned to south-east Asia and took a job at an agricultural institute near Hyderabad

developing new varieties and cropping systems in chickpeas. “By day, I was working on these practical things,”

he recalls, “but in the evening I was reading a lot about crystallography and the philosophy of form.” He had

become friendly with an eccentric woman called Helen Spurway, widow of JBS Haldane, the great British

biologist. She lived in a remote full of animals, with a tame jackal and wasps’ nests in the living room; Haldane’s

library was being eaten by termites; Sheldrake felt right at home.

“At around the same time,” he recalls, “I had some exposure to psychedelics, and that opened me up to the

idea that consciousness was much richer than anything my physiology lecturers had ever described. Then I

came across transcendental meditation, which seemed to give some access to that without drugs.” Alongside

that, to his surprise, Sheldrake began to realise that there was “a lot more in my makeup that was ‘Christian’

than I cared to admit. I started praying and going to church.”

Did he pray with a sense of its efficacy?

“Well,” he says, “I still say the Lord’s Prayer every day. It covers a lot of ground in our relation to the world. ‘Thy

will be done’, that sense that we are part of a larger process that is unfolding that we do not comprehend.” By

the time Sheldrake went to live at the ashram of the exiled Christian holy man, Father Bede Griffiths, he had

been confirmed in the Church of South India and was the organist of St George’s, Hyderabad. It was at about

that time, “living in a palm-fringed hut under a banyan tree”, that Sheldrake decided to set out his decade’s

worth of thinking about memory being a function of time, not matter, shared by all living things, that he called


Was he aware that the book would be incendiary?

“Well,” he says, “I wrote it to try to find a broader framework for biology. A more holistic one, proposing the

argument that the laws of nature were also evolving in time.”

For the first three months after it was published, the speculative book got a generally favourable reception. But

then the “book for burning” editorial was written in Nature, by its editor, Sir John Maddox, and Sheldrake’s new

life began, as a discredited scientist and bestselling author.

Far from refuting his ideas in the face of this broadside, Sheldrake went on the offensive. His research since

then has concentrated almost entirely on the kinds of phenomena that science dismisses out of hand “but

which people are generally fascinated by and made to feel stupid about”. He has a long-running experiment that

collects data about how dogs “know” when their owners are coming home; another is concerned with the

apparently strong deviations from chance in human ability to predict when they are being stared at from a

distance. He retains an interest in subjects as diverse as the mysteries of crystal formation, the efficacy of

Chinese medicine, the forces that trigger migrations of birds and animals over vast distances, and the nature of


None of these pursuits has enhanced his standing in the professional scientific community. Sheldrake is

unrepentant. He cites Darwin as an example. “If you look at his books, almost all the data there come from

amateur naturalists, practical breeders, gardeners. TH Huxley, meanwhile, ‘his bulldog’, was very much against

amateurs, largely because many of them were vicars and he was very anti-religious. He wanted to marginalise

anyone who saw science and faith as compatible and mutually reaffirming.”

Though he remains at best a contentious figure, and to some an irredeemable charlatan, Sheldrake sees some

evidence that this old opposition is breaking down, that doubt and wonder might be returning to science.

“I think one of the reasons why my book has – so far – been well received is that times are changing,” he

suggests. “A lot of our old certainties, not least neoliberal capitalism, have been turned on their head. The

atheist revival movement of Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett is for many people just too narrow and dogmatic.

I think it is a uniquely open moment…”

His hope is that there will be a “coming out” moment in science. “It’s like gays in the 1950s,” he suggests. “I

think if people in the realm of science and medicine came out and talked about the limitations of purely

mechanistic and reductive approaches it would be much more fun…”

The imminence of Sheldrake’s three score years and ten has made questions of mortality and consciousness

seem a little more pressing to him. He almost came face to face with his morphic energies in 2008; speaking at

a consciousness conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he was attacked with a knife by a Japanese paranoid

schizophrenic. He suffered a huge wound in his thigh, which just missed his femoral artery. “Apparently,” he

says, “he was aiming at my heart and stumbled at the last moment. It certainly made death a bit more present.”

Given his speculative nature, I wonder what he imagined, as his life flashed before him, would happen next?

“I’ve always thought death would be like dreaming,” he says, “but without the possibility of waking up. And in

those dreams, as in our dreams in life, everyone will get what they want to some degree. For the atheists

convinced everything will go blank, maybe it will.” He trusts in a more colourful future for himself. After Sheldrake

shows me out, I walk to work across the heath, imagining how his dream eternity might work out: hammering

out The Goldberg Variations on his Hyderabad organ, while the jungle grows around him, wondering all the time


from:    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/feb/05/rupert-sheldrake-interview-science-delusion