When the first edition of this book came out in 1981 with the title "A New Science of Life," I well remember getting one of the first copies and being electrified by the ideas and the data to support them. There was also the guilty pleasure of reading a book that the editor of the esteemed journal Nature had declared, "This infuriating tract... is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years."
In the intervening years Rupert Sheldrake has worked tirelessly to either prove or disprove his hypotheses, published many peer-reviewed papers as well as several more books on this and related topics. I have also had the pleasure of meeting him several times and discussing his ideas with him in great detail. There are three things that have always come across: his intelligence, his integrity and his humility.
It is sad that when that Nature editor - Sir John Maddox - passed away last year, a number of commentators took the opportunity to renew their attacks on Sheldrake's work. Many of those attackers have clearly not examined the research - some even admitted it! - neither were they aware of the fact that Rupert had provided Sir John with detailed scientific responses to his critique of a later book, "Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals," but never received a response. So most students of biology and behavior have probably never even heard about this work, and many online sites simply dismiss the notion of "morphic resonance" as pseudoscience.
This is the third edition of the book that started all the controversy.
So what is this book about, and why does elicit such emotional - and unscientific - responses? The book proposes that current biochemical and genetic models cannot explain the ways in which atoms, molecules, crystals, cells, organs and even ecosystems organize themselves. The Hypothesis of Formative Causation proposes that the forms of self-organizing systems are arranged and fashioned by "Morphic fields." These fields provide the templates for the ways in which organisms develop and are also responsible for the behavior and social and cultural development of organisms and social groups. These are not static fields, they are able to learn and establish new patterns and habits across time and space, which is termed "Morphic resonance."
For example, it can be very hard to coax a newly created chemical compound into forming a crystal. But once it has been done in one laboratory, others find it ever easier to make crystals of the new compound. The idea being that the morphic field has learned how to do it. Or another example: rats were taught to run a maze. Once they had learned the task, rats on the other side of the world learned to run the same maze far more quickly. And could it be that the ever-younger age at which people master the game of chess is not only because of the use of computers for training, but also that the morphic field associated with chess is becoming stronger?
You will see why this is a controversial theory, even though it answers a lot of questions, and the research data appears firmly to support it. Having examined the research in great detail as well as analyzing virtually all of the supporting material that Rupert cites in this book, I think that his fundamental ideas are correct, and that they will in time be understood to be as important as the ideas of Darwin and the great men and women who created the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics.
This new edition is well written and even for someone familiar with the ideas, a thrilling read. And if you are new to the concepts, this is the best book to start with.
If you have read an earlier edition of the book, do you need to look at this one as well? My answer is a definite "Yes." Not only is there a new 23 page introduction, the entire text has been updated and there are two appendices - "New Tests for Morphic Resonance" and "Morphic Fields and the Implicate Order - A Dialogue with (the late) David Bohm," which add another 65 pages of fascinating material.
Very highly recommended.
Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life