The recipient of this snub reported it to my friend as evidence of just how sensitive, perceptive and spiritual the druid was. My friend reported it to me as an example of how being deluded about your insight has unexpected payoffs: who hasn’t longed for a way of brushing off someone in a way that would inspire admiration rather than irritation?
I would put Rupert Sheldrake in the same category as my local druid. He is utterly convinced he has insight, is not afraid to express it, and has won no end of admiration as a result.
Many scientists and science-lovers have been moaning over the past week about the publicity given to Sheldrake’s new book, The Science Delusion. It has been positively reviewed in the Guardian, and a gushing, uncritical profile in the Observer this weekend also drew exasperated sighs. But not from me: I have long since learned to accept defeat at Sheldrake’s hands.
The truth is, Sheldrake has cannily tapped into a very human foible. That’s why most people think that he is almost certainly onto something when he tells us about a mysterious force that pervades all of nature, something that connects us all. L Ron Hubbard managed something similar.
A few years ago, I tried to read Sheldrake’s seminal book, A New Science of Life. We were due to debate each other at the ICA in London, and I thought I should do him the courtesy of reading his work.
ANSoL is about questions that don’t yet have answers from science. Sheldrake helpfully provides a near-universal answer: “morphic resonance”. Morphic resonance is an influence that allows cells to develop in the myriad necessary ways, gives people a psychic connection to others, enables dogs to know when their owners are coming home, and so on.
This is the passage that caused me to stop reading:
“Morphic resonance is non-energetic, and morphogenetic fields themselves are neither a type of mass nor energy. Therefore there seems to be no a priori reason why it should obey the laws that have been found to apply to the movement of bodies, particles and waves. In particular, it need not be attenuated by either spatial or temporal separation between similar systems, it could be just as effective over 10,000 kilometres as over a centimetre, and over a century as an hour.
The assumption that morphic resonance is not attenuated by time and space will be adopted as a provisional working hypothesis, on the ground of simplicity.”
It's such a ludicrous assumption, based on something explicitly designed to be untestable by science, that there’s really no point going any further.
When the debate came, although I hadn’t finished reading Rupert’s book, I had read many refutations of his science and experimental reports, and was confident that I could persuade the audience that Rupert really wasn’t a voice worth paying much attention. Which makes it all the more galling that, really, I came off quite badly.
We talked about his experiments, and I tried to point out the flaws in his design and thinking. I was obviously successful because two-thirds of the way through the chair, Vivienne Parry, took an audience poll. “Who’s feeling sorry for Rupert?” she asked. Almost everyone in the audience – my wife included – put up their hands.
I had to laugh. Maybe I'm deluding myself, but it seemed clear the audience weren’t interested in what’s logical or rational, or about how a scientist should go about these experiments and exercise caution about drawing extraordinary conclusions. They were there because they were interested in being told what they wanted to hear.
Thanks to evolution, we have a hard-wired sense that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. That’s why people want to feel connected to everything else in nature, past, present and future. Morphic resonance taps into this. Science fights against it, to try to establish what is really the case. But if people don't want to expend that effort, they won't.
Afterwards, when Sheldrake and I sat side by side for a book signing, his queue went out of the bookshop and round the corner. Mine wasn't really a queue, just a gathering of half a dozen people.
Of course it’s frustrating to be less popular than Rupert Sheldrake, but I have learned to relax: you can't beat the astrologers, you can't beat Deepak Chopra, and you can't beat Sheldrake. Plus, it won’t last long. Rupert Sheldrake is the Cliff Richard of pseudoscience (non-Brits, forgive me). He is getting old and irrelevant, and so are most of his admirers. Just as no one covers Cliff’s songs, no one else will pick up Sheldrake’s scientific mantle. Mistletoe and Wine is already a thing of the past, and Morphic Resonance will soon go the same way.