Category Archives: Ted Dace

The Evolution of Barbara Ehrenreich

A Skeptic’s Progress
by Ted Dace

After decades of concealing the mystical experience that wrenched open her mind at age 17, Barbara Ehrenreich was finally coming to grips with what happened that sunny morning in 1959. But now she faced a quandary. Long revered as a dedicated atheist, even accepting awards from organizations of “freethinkers,” a.k.a. skeptics, how could the noted author and theorist tell the world she’d once seen God – or if not God, at least the Other? By writing Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich courageously broke ranks, demonstrating that the scientific mind need not be burdened by ideological “skepticism.”

Atheism ran deep in her family. Her dad, who’d escaped the mines of Butte, Montana by way of an education in metallurgy, liked to regale the wife and kids Sunday mornings with classic atheist tracts. So when 12-year old Barbara Alexander began to question the point of existence, the one place she would never go for answers was religion. This complicated her task enormously. Paraphrasing Pascal, “How shall we redeem this obscene slaughter called history,” ask Will and Ariel Durant, “except by believing, with or against the evidence, that God will right all wrongs in the end?”

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Ted Dace

Articles on the Activities of Dogmatic Skeptics

Bertrand Russell and Mnemic Causation

by Ted Dace “It often turns out important to the progress of science,” writes Bertrand Russell, “to remember hypotheses which have previously seemed improbable.”1 If only he’d been true to his word. On the brink of a genuinely scientific account of the mind, he cobbled together a straw-man substitute and promptly set it alight. His...

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The Anti-Sheldrake Phenomenon

Attacking Morphic Resonance By Ted Dace, February 2010 By devising a testable hypothesis of natural memory, Rupert Sheldrake has established himself as the world’s central figure in the evolutionary theory of existence. Heir to the lineage of Darwin, Peirce, Bergson, Elsasser and Bohm, Sheldrake bears on his shoulders the weight of their worldview. Attacks on...

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JREF’s “Amazing Meeting” Not so Amazing

By Ted Dace The Amazing Conference, Las Vegas, January 13-16, 2005 The theme of the Amazing Conference, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), was succinctly expressed by keynote speaker and Skeptic magazine editor, Michael Shermer: “We’re selling science.” From the get-go, the 500-plus participants at the conference, held at the Stardust Hotel in...

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The Evolution of Barbara Ehrenreich

A Skeptic’s Progress by Ted Dace After decades of concealing the mystical experience that wrenched open her mind at age 17, Barbara Ehrenreich was finally coming to grips with what happened that sunny morning in 1959. But now she faced a quandary. Long revered as a dedicated atheist, even accepting awards from organizations of “freethinkers,”...

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National Geographic TV’s ‘Is It Real?’

By Ted Dace In the battle between scientism and pseudoscience real science gets squeezed out. You would never know, watching National Geographic’s “Is It Real?” television series, that anomalies abound wherever we look in this fundamentally chaotic and baffling world. For every flying saucer report that’s debunked, another remains completely inexplicable. For every ghost story...

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JREF’s “Amazing Meeting” Not so Amazing

By Ted Dace

The theme of the Amazing Conference, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), was succinctly expressed by keynote speaker and Skeptic magazine editor, Michael Shermer: “We’re selling science.” From the get-go, the 500-plus participants at the conference, held at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, were repeatedly reminded that it’s all about science. At the media workshop that kicked it off, magician Andrew Mayne defined the goal of skepticism as the use of the scientific process to understand the world. He added that this is the opposite of dogmatism. In his “points to remember,” he noted that skepticism is not cynicism and that skeptics must be open-minded. “If you have evidence,” he said, “bring it on.”

So it’s ironic that actual science was hardly touched on. Instead it was one speaker after another reinforcing the conceit, almost universal among conference participants, that they are the enlightened ones, that they are charged with the burden of defending sense against nonsense, that they alone can be counted on to stand their ground against the tide of irrationalism that threatens to engulf our civilization and undo all the gains that have been wrought in the name of Science. Even scientists themselves, it turns out, are no match for the diabolical paranormalists. Only skeptics, educated by James “Amazing” Randi and other magicians, are capable of spotting the tricks of the trade. “Scientists are easily fooled,” explained Randi, “because they think they know.” But only skeptics really know.

Communicating Skepticism to the Public, the manual handed out at the media workshop, contains a brief passage that illustrates the gulf between science and the skeptics. In part three, “The Media Skeptic: Encouraging a skeptical media attitude,” we learn how to become a media authority: “Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not.”

As we know, it works a little differently in science. You can’t just say you’re an expert in, say, paleoanthropology unless you’ve actually done the work, either at an accredited university or on your own. By contrast, a skeptic need only form a club with like-minded people. “As head of your local skeptic club, you’re entitled to call yourself an authority. If your other two members agree to it, you can be the spokesperson too.”

On the whole, the media manual is a well-intentioned and useful guide to dealing with a mass media that doesn’t always care about truth and accuracy. And if the skeptics are willing to bend the rules here and there, at least it’s in the service of a worthy cause. It’s not easy getting across to non-US citizens just how profoundly and dangerously uncorked the citizens of this great country can be. Fully one-half of our population now favors creationism, while under 30% believe in evolution. As Randi pointed out, our government issues patents for “perpetual motion machines,” and TV producers promote whatever junk they think will sell, such as talk shows with the dead and “documentaries” claiming that the moon shots were a hoax or that the corpses of space aliens are under lock and key in government laboratories. At my workplace recently, a colleague “informed” me that Bin Laden is holed up at Area 51 where he denounces America on a soundstage made to look like a cave! Surely there’s a connection between popular irrationalism and the fact that the White House can pursue deranged policies at home and abroad with impunity. I agree with the skeptics that those of us trying to slap our fellow citizens back to their senses can be forgiven for cutting a few corners now and then.

Unfortunately, with its sense of being assaulted by legions of loonies on the one hand and a cynical media on the other, the skeptic movement tends to be both defensive and hostile. After noting that Sylvia Browne – a huckster psychic who appears often on CNN’s Larry King Live – is known as “claws” among JREF staff because of her long fingernails, Randi expressed the hope that while scratching herself, she would tear an artery and die, a prospect which evoked hearty laughter from the audience. Later, as I looked over the books for sale by notable skeptics, I overheard a JREF staff member explain to a potential customer that The Ancestor’s Tale, the weighty new hardback by Richard Dawkins, was “excellent for bludgeoning a creationist.” Needless to say, the siege mentality and the spirit of scientific inquiry have never exactly been bedfellows.

The tone of the conference was geared more toward ridiculing the enemy than engaging in thoughtful scientific discussion. Bad jokes about crackpot chiropractors got big laughs. In this environment a discussion of possible evidence in favor of chiropractic would have been inconceivable. Alternative medicine is a favored target of skeptics, despite the fact that no scientific discipline is ever perfect or complete and that we can expect at least some trends from the periphery of medical practice to be taken up eventually within the scientific mainstream. Granted, certain aspects of alternative medicine are obviously fraudulent, such as ear candling and magnetic bracelets, but to denounce anything at all that’s outside accepted, traditional medicine is to promote a view of science more akin to religion – with its unreflective, ossified dogmas – than science as it actually exists.

When the topic did turn to science, the discussion most likely focused on optimum tactics in the battle against irrationalism. For instance, when a husky, white-haired gentleman raised the topic of evolution during a small-group discussion with Dr. Shermer, his point was simply that skeptics should refer to it as the “law of evolution” rather than the “theory of evolution.” This way, creationists would have to stop saying, “it’s only a theory, not a fact.” Shermer, who was having none of it, allowed a JREF staff member to respond that no scientist would take this suggestion seriously. Another skeptic vociferously disagreed and stated that we must begin referring to evolution as a law. After this the discussion meandered along pointlessly, with no one stating the obvious: that evolution can’t be referred to as a law because it’s not a law. In contrast to atoms that have no choice but to obey the law of gravity, species don’t have to evolve. Often the species knocked out by natural selection are precisely those that have evolved too far and become overspecialized. So it’s not as if you become extinct if you disobey the “law of evolution.” Beyond that, the very idea reeks of vitalism, as if biology has its own laws separate from physics. To top it off, the whole point of evolution is that you don’t need transcendent laws of nature (or a creative deity, for that matter) to explain the emergence of novel life forms.

But all this seemed beyond the understanding of the assembled skeptics. The man who originally made the suggestion had no idea he was advocating a shift to a vitalistic conception of life. As Shermer looked on impassively, I got the feeling he wished some of his acolytes were a little more scientifically astute. Yet he himself may be partly to blame. In his bestselling handbook on logical and not-so-logical thinking, Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer describes a great many “weird” ideas harbored by ordinary people. What he fails to mention is that the chief source for weird ideas in the modern world is none other than science itself, starting with Copernicus’ assertion that the earth is in motion around the sun, an observation that flies in the face of common sense. After all, as anyone can plainly see, the sun rises in the east and crosses the sky to set in the west. But Copernicus’ weird idea prevailed, and it’s been like that for 400 years now, with gravitational and electromagnetic fields, the divisibility and vacuity of the atom, the convertibility of energy and mass, warped space-time, wave-particle duality, quantum complementarity and uncertainty, nonlocality, a ten dimensional universe, and on and on. The history of science can be summarized as the story of weird ideas displacing “common sense.” As long as skeptics view the world in terms of science versus weirdness, they are guaranteed to remain parochial in their outlook.

Telepathy is a pretty strange idea. According to Dean Radin, author of The Conscious Universe, scientific evidence for its existence has been accruing for decades. So do we follow the evidence and, at the very least, provisionally grant the possibility that telepathy is real, or do we simply banish it as being too weird? While the former is the scientific approach, the latter appears to be the favored response of skeptics.

As any ESP or “7th sense” researcher knows, the only way to scientifically demonstrate telepathy is through statistics. When I asked Randi if it’s true that he refuses to accept statistical evidence in his famous million dollar contest, not only did he deny this charge, but after a skeptic protested that statistics can be bent any old way to prove whatever you want, Randi informed him that statistics is a branch of mathematics. While he would insist on checking the findings with his own statistician, this would only be to ensure that the math was done correctly.

Two days later, Richard Dawkins said he was worried that Randi would eventually have to pay up. Dr. Dawkins had just delivered a truly fine lecture – the high point of the conference, in fact – and Randi had joined the famed author onstage for a public chat. “About the million dollar prize, I would be worried if I were you because of the fact that we have perinormal possibilities.” Dawkins had just introduced this neologism during his talk. An alleged phenomenon is perinormal (from the Greek “peri,” in the vicinity of) if it seems impossible but which, in contrast to the “paranormal,” turns out to be a 100% natural, skeptic-approved phenomenon. Electromagnetic fields, for instance, were once perinormal but eventually came to be recognized as real. The question, then, is which phenomena currently dismissed by skeptics as paranormal are actually perinormal. “I mean, what if somebody-what if there really is a perinormal phenomenon which is then embraced within science and will become normal, but at present is classified conventionally as paranormal?”

Randi agreed he might have to pay up someday. But Dawkins had a trick up his sleeve. If a “psychic” phenomenon turns out to be real, then by definition it is physical and therefore not really psychic after all, and thus Randi still shouldn’t have to pay.

Dawkins’ sleight-of-hand notwithstanding, according to the rules of Randi’s competition, if a psychic ability is proven, he must pay up. Randi stated to me that a preliminary test would have to yield a probability of one in a thousand that the results were due to chance. After passing the preliminary, the investigator could commence with the formal test, which would have to yield a probability against chance of one in a million. As Dr. Radin notes, a meta-analysis of all ganzfeld telepathy experiments up to 1997 revealed a probability of a million billion to one. So if Randi is true to his word, it ought to be possible to perform an experiment that would garner the prize. Of course, it would take a huge number of sessions to demonstrate such a high level of improbability. In the end, the million dollars might do nothing more than pay for the experiment. But it would be worth it for no other reason than to put an end to allegations that the unclaimed prize is itself evidence against psychic phenomena.

If Dawkins’ reductionistic school of biology is correct – and organisms are DNA-programmed and operated machines – then psychic talents are not the only phenomena to be dismissed as paranormal. The property of being “alive” would itself be paranormal, a mere construct of the mind-brain. You’re not likely to encounter discussion on this or any other topic that challenges the beliefs of skeptics at an Amazing conference. Though Dawkins proclaimed that skepticism, in contrast to religion, welcomes dissent and debate, alas, there was little evidence of this during the conference. Indeed, the star-struck crowd showed a religious-like enthusiasm for having their preconceived beliefs reinforced by one celebrity speaker after another.

Oddly enough, of all the luminaries who showed up at this tacky Vegas hotel, the most truly amazing of them all was a nondescript JREF staff member who goes by the name of Kramer. 15 years ago, Kramer was among the most brilliant guitarists and songwriters in American rock. If you’ve ever seen Wayne’s World, in particular the scene where Wayne and Garth are prostrating before Aerosmith wailing, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” then you have an idea of how Kramer is perceived by fans the world over. So it was a bit stunning to see him humbly carrying out his duties in the background while the celebrities got all the attention. Why is an ex-rock star working as a JREF staffer? Because he felt there are more important things in life than rock ‘n roll and that JREF offers some hope of restoring sanity to a deranged world.

Despite its flaws, the skeptic movement is attracting dedicated idealists, like Kramer, who believe in the potential of science and rational thought to cast out our many demons. Given what they’re up against-from resurgent creationism to widespread new age nuttery-the people manning this movement deserve praise. But if they’re to be true to their ideals, they must open the floor to scientifically-minded people who are skeptical of the skeptics.

How about Randi vs. Radin at next year’s conference? Now, that would be amazing.

The Anti-Sheldrake Phenomenon

Attacking Morphic Resonance
By Ted Dace, February 2010

By devising a testable hypothesis of natural memory, Rupert Sheldrake has established himself as the world’s central figure in the evolutionary theory of existence. Heir to the lineage of Darwin, Peirce, Bergson, Elsasser and Bohm, Sheldrake bears on his shoulders the weight of their worldview. Attacks on his work amount to an offensive against any alternative to a universe under the control of eternal immutable laws.

In 1980 Bohm proposed that material events are abstracted into an “implicate” order that influences subsequent events in the everyday “explicate” realm. The following year, Sheldrake proposed that current organic events are influenced by a composite of previous, similar events. Are these different theories or just the same theory arrived at by different means? When the scientists got together to discuss their work, they weren’t sure.1
Yet their books received radically different receptions. Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order was treated with the respect owing to any scientific work, while Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life evoked not just hostility but hysteria and out-of-thin-air accusations of pseudoscience.

In part the differing responses reflected the more evolved thinking of physicists. Once you’ve resigned yourself to quantum entanglement, memory as a property of nature doesn’t seem particularly outlandish. Biology, however, has yet to experience its quantum shock. Stuck in a 19th century time warp, most biologists inhabit a tidy world of cause and effect on the basis of contact mechanics.

Pope John

But this alone can’t account for the curiously different treatment afforded Sheldrake, since his book garnered positive reviews from publications such as New Scientist and Biologist. 2 It was only after journalist John Maddox put in his two cents that the anti-Sheldrake phenomenon condensed like a raindrop around a particle of dust. Before long the storm of abuse had commenced.

It was Maddox who, as editor of Nature, infamously proclaimed Sheldrake’s book “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.” As he elaborated for the BBC in 1994, “Sheldrake’s is not a scientific theory. Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned, in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy.” 3

Leibniz thought universal gravitation was an attempt to smuggle the occult into science, but at least he never called Newton a heretic. Maddox, on the other hand, revealed an attitude more in line with a pope than a scientist. Having confused science with the rigid doctrine that every event has a physical cause contiguous to it in space and time, he couldn’t accept that Sheldrake’s proposal, which defies this primitive belief, is logically coherent and fully testable. Adding to his revulsion was the fact that Sheldrake was an insider, a scientist with impeccable credentials, including numerous publications in peer reviewed journals, Nature itself among them.4

Whether or not “formative causation” turns out to be true, that it’s a scientific theory is a simple fact. By denying this fact, Maddox sinned against science. Perhaps dimly aware of his disloyalty to the project of clarity and enlightenment, Maddox projected his heresy onto Sheldrake rather than face up to his own failings.


At the heart of reductionism is the confusion of assumption with fact. Though we can always say in retrospect that a given event must have been caused by a spatially contiguous prior event, when we look at the behavior of cells and organisms, we find that physics leaves room for many possible actions. That a particular event takes place doesn’t mean it was mechanically forced or that things couldn’t just as easily have played out differently.

Biologists assume they have physics on their side, but physics isn’t so sure. According to Gabor Forgacs and Stuart A Newman, the recognition that organisms cannot disobey physics “is of limited value” in explaining their behavior. In their textbook, Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo, Forgacs and Newman explain that while physics operates by reducing complex systems to simple components, in organisms complexity is a “fundamental and irreducible property.” Because complexity has to be taken “as is,” physical analysis is limited in explaining living systems. 5

Contrary to popular belief, biologists only assume the operations of an organism are explicable according to causal mechanics. As Forgacs and Newman put it, “While it is obvious that nothing in development, or in any other domain of biology for that matter, can occur without the participation of physical mechanisms, the high degree of structural and dynamical complexity of most living systems makes it exceedingly difficult, in general, to follow the workings of basic physical principles or appreciate their roles.” This becomes increasingly apparent with the emergence of complex structures such as immune, hormonal, circulatory, vascular and nervous systems.6

Far from being under strict mechanical control, an embryo makes use of mechanisms to achieve its goals. Left unchecked, a physical process that aids its development will ultimately destroy it. The initiation and termination of such processes within and among cells “ensures that each driving force is constrained… and that the whole complex of forces is subordinated to the survival and propagation of the organism.” 7

When the embryo is faced with numerous possible actions, how does it know which one is right? Forgacs and Newman follow the standard assumption that embryonic development is guided by information encoded in its genes. The basic idea can be expressed in a simple equation: physics plus genes equals organism.

But this only pushes the question back a step. How does the embryo know which genes to activate at any given point in its development? The answer must come from beyond the genes themselves. Molecular biologists suggest that a cell’s position in the embryo is enough to determine its fate. Simply by being in a particular spot in the blastula, a given blastomere is destined to turn out as a certain kind of differentiated cell. All it takes is non-uniform distribution of “morphogens,” and voila, all the instructions are automatically in place for determining which genes to turn on at which places and times in order to construct the completed organism. Morphic resonance offers a less miraculous solution: the embryo simply does whatever its forerunners did when they reached the same developmental stage.

The genius of the memory theory is that the capacity to reach into our past also accounts for recollection at the personal level and, by extension, our enduring sense of self. Contact mechanics, on the other hand, offers no possibility of explaining our indivisible self-existence, much less our intelligence and self-determination.

If an organism, including a human being, is nothing more than its material components, the mind is nothing more than the brain at work. Our recollections and thoughts and feelings are reduced to stored information and cerebral computations. Needless to say, this model is inherently problematic. We have information in the brain, and we have a conscious person, but we have no idea how to connect them. How are the brain’s calculations registered by the whole person?

The obvious parallel to neural information storage is the computer, but this only makes things worse. A computer needs someone to operate it. If the brain is a computer, where’s the user? If it’s the person as a whole, why not put the information there, at the level of the whole mind? Once we recognize the organism as a self-referential unit irreducible to material components, why bother trying to fit all the elements of mind into brain? If we deny holistic self-existence, the user of the neural computer must be a homunculus located somewhere in the circuitry. It goes without saying that no such entity has turned up, despite Descartes’ helpful tip to look at the pineal gland. With neither conscious self nor homunculus, we’re left with information accessing itself. But if we’re going to accept self-accessing information, why not self-existent consciousness?

The funny thing about the denial of the reality of ourselves is that our self-nature is nothing if not self-evident.

In the absence of proof either way, morphic resonance is the default assumption, as it’s the only approach that can tie together the experiential and biological levels of life. Establishment attacks against Sheldrake are expressions of insecurity stemming from an ideology that can’t provide a plausible account of what it means to be alive.

Once Maddox opened the gate, legions of ideologues felt free to launch their own misguided attacks. Somehow it seemed acceptable, even for nonscientists, to ridicule a distinguished scientist with the audacity to propose a testable theory of development from the egg. What unites these dogmatic reductionists is their delusion that they represent “scientific skepticism.”

Shermer’s Sophistry

“Science,” according to renowned physicist Richard Feynman, “is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.” 8 Yet Skeptic magazine, edited by Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, is all about fringe beliefs and rarely takes on expert opinion. Like arch skeptic Martin Gardner, Shermer serves as an enforcer for establishment beliefs, not a critic.

Shermer seems to think science is a popularity contest. “The person making the extraordinary claim,” he writes in Why People Believe Weird Things, “has the burden of proving to the experts and the community at large that his or her belief has more validity than the one almost everyone else accepts.” You must lobby to get your opinion heard and “marshal experts on your side so you can convince the majority.” Once you’ve done that, “the burden of proof switches to the outsider who wants to challenge you with his or her unusual claim.”9

In a chapter devoted to “how thinking goes wrong,” Shermer calls attention to the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning that whatever event preceded a given event must have caused it.10 This is indeed a “superstition,” as he says, but he doesn’t realize it characterizes the entire approach of mechanistic biology. First genes are transcribed. Then cells form into organs. Ergo gene transcription causes bodily formation. It doesn’t occur to orthodox biologists that both events could result from a deeper cause, namely the efforts of the organism to match the activities of its predecessors, whether at the genetic or multicellular level.

A true believer in the reduction of the organism to machine-like operations, Shermer’s prime directive seems to be the prevention of any skeptical inquiry into his own ingrained beliefs. During a 2007 interview with Shermer, I asked him what he thought about the apparent creativity of living things. “What does this mean, internal creativity? Positing some sort of metaphysical thing or something. At some point we’re gonna ask, well, what is this internal creativity? Quit using that word. Give us something that we can actually test in the lab. What are you talking about – – genomes? Protein chain things? What is it you’re talking about?”11

Shermer’s Orwellian approach would stifle inquiry to the point where we can’t even articulate our thoughts. As he put it, “instead of speculating about some inherent force at work, let’s just don’t call it anything.” Apparently it’s okay to speculate about forces or properties of nature when you’re a physicist, but in biology everything has to be broken down to something akin to the workings of a cuckoo clock.

You’d think the idea that genes and their signature proteins conspire to build a living body from a microscopic envelope of carbon-rich compounds ought to be subject to skeptical evaluation, but Shermer obediently follows the pack and assumes all mystery has been eliminated and that there’s no need to investigate any further into how organisms emerge from the eggs or, for that matter, how new species emerge from ancestral species.

When I proposed that evolution involves the innate intelligence of organisms, Shermer went right off the rails. “This is not a debate in science. No one has this debate. I’ve never heard this debate before, and I go to all these evolution conferences. Nobody debates this. This is an outside of science debate. This is a Rupert Deepak Chopra debate. It’s a different kind of creationism. But it has nothing to do with science.”

So the idea that organisms creatively adapt their behavior, which then triggers bodily changes, is just another kind of creationism. Darwin’s theory of evolution, in other words, is another kind of creationism. But there’s a certain logic to Shermer’s unreflective acceptance of expert opinion. After all, Darwin wasn’t a professional biologist but only an amateur student of nature.

So confused is our “skeptic” that he cites complexity theory as a basis for his reductionist bias. “At some point, you have to have a stepwise, bottom-up, natural, self-organized complexity out of simplicity.” Quite the contrary. According to the science of nonequilibrium thermodynamics, complex systems are fundamentally holistic and goal-directed. A tornado, for example, pops into being in order to eliminate the temperature gradient between warm air near the ground and cold air above. Complexity isn’t built up stepwise or otherwise from simplicity but emerges fully formed as if from the head of a thermodynamic Zeus. Whether living or only lifelike, self-organized systems are shaped by energy flows rather than their constituent molecules. DNA is no more responsible for building organisms than dust is responsible for building tornados.

“Some things,” he writes in Why People Believe Weird Things, “such as water dowsing, extrasensory perception and creationism, have been tested and failed the test often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are false.” 12 He’s wrong on all counts, though for different reasons. For starters, to include creationism here makes no sense at all, as this belief represents a rejection of science and, unlike scientific propositions, cannot be put to the test and definitively refuted. If you say a deity wouldn’t fashion a species only to let it go extinct, the creationist can simply respond that God works in mysterious ways. There’s no arguing against an attitude such as this.

Water dowsing, on the other hand, is indeed testable. However, the results have been ambiguous. Some practitioners find underground water sources at rates no better than chance, while others succeed astonishingly well. Einstein was so impressed by reports of successful dowsing that he offered electromagnetic fields as a possible explanation. By contrast, Shermer dismisses it without so much as a glance at the evidence. In so doing he aligns himself with the Inquisition, which condemned “water witching” for precisely the same reason as Shermer, because such a strange practice introduces uncertainty and defies the orderliness of the reigning belief system, whether based around laws of God or nature.

As to extrasensory perception, this phenomenon has been verified countless times in carefully controlled laboratory conditions. Such experiments are a matter of public record, and their significance has been confirmed by independent statisticians. Shermer could read all about it in Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe or Chris Carter’s Parapsychology and the Skeptics. Instead, he rejects it without investigation, as if all “psychic” entanglement is simply impossible. If physicists had taken that approach with quantum entanglement, we’d have lost an opportunity to learn something about nature.

In keeping with his blind faith in expert opinion, Shermer says scientists admit to their errors, while “pseudoscientists… ignore or rationalize failures.” This tendency is known as “heads I win, tails you lose.”13 If an experiment demonstrates the sought-after results, it was legitimate, but if it shows negative results, it must have been poorly designed or executed.

As Stephen Rothman demonstrates, this mindset is alive and well in establishment science. For many years a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, Rothman raises numerous examples of “heads I win, tails you lose” trickery among his colleagues, in particular regarding the vesicle theory of protein transport. According to this theory, proteins can’t spontaneously go where they’re needed in a cell but must be transported by a mechanism. If protein is found where the theory predicts, it verifies the theory. If protein is found in the wrong location, it’s written off as a “contaminant.” With the use of autoradiography, scientists determine the best exposure time according to whichever time produces the results they were looking for. If samples fail to show the desired results, it’s assumed that the process of taking samples was somehow flawed. And so on.14

The basic problem, says Rothman, is the failure of most experts to doubt their own beliefs. It doesn’t help that “skeptics” encourage them in their self-certainty. “The call to authority,” he warns, “is sometimes dressed in the garb of scientific skepticism.” 15

Fishing for a suitably balancing quote from a “media skeptic” in a 2003 story on Sheldrake’s research into telepathy, USA Today called on Shermer, who obliged with his allegation that Sheldrake “never met a goofy idea he didn’t like.”16 Following in the tradition of pseudoskepticism, Shermer would rather bully a marginalized thinker than do the hard work of scrutinizing the authority of expert opinion.

In a column for Scientific American, “Rupert’s Resonance,” Shermer implies that Sheldrake defines form in terms of “fields of information,” though in reality Sheldrake defines form the way anyone else would, in terms of the shape and internal structure of objects. Shermer then claims morphic resonance takes place within a “universal life force,” a reference to the archaic belief that a “vital force” animates living matter and thereby distinguishes it from nonliving matter.17 Sheldrake, of course, makes no mention of any life force, and in fact proposes morphic resonance as a general property of nature that accounts for repeating crystal formations as much as stereotypical living processes.

After mischaracterizing morphic resonance, Shermer abruptly shifts gears and analyzes Sheldrake’s unrelated assertion that people can detect when being stared at from behind. Shermer deceives his readers by implying that Sheldrake’s only evidence for this ability is a test that can be downloaded from his website and performed by anyone with an internet connection. Shermer points out that these tests can’t be trusted, as if he came up with that brilliant insight on his own. However, as Sheldrake himself wrote, in a paper that appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, “because the tests were unsupervised, there is no way of assessing their reliability.” 18

Shermer refers to this paper but leaves out that quote. More to the point, he fails to mention that Sheldrake also conducted supervised experiments showing the same positive results as the informal web-based trials.

Shermer’s sophistry continues with a just-so story meant to explain why so many people think they can sense when they’re being stared at. When you get that “funny feeling,” he says, you turn around, and your movement causes whoever happens to be there to look back. Of course, the whole point of testing this ability is to exclude precisely this sort of possibility.

Skepticism is in the eye of the beholder. Though Shermer is correct that doubt is the default position when it comes to unproven claims, he doesn’t realize that when he says people are routinely fooled by their sense of telepathy, this too is a claim that ought to engender skeptical inquiry. Has he tested this claim? Has he conducted trials showing that people easily gain a false sense of being stared at from behind? Then again, why bother putting your claim to the test when you already know you’re right?

Not exactly a scientific approach.

Shermer disingenuously implies that the first formal test of the sense of being stared at was conducted by John Colwell of Middlesex University of London, though in fact Colwell was merely attempting to replicate Sheldrake’s 1999 experiment, which involved a random sequence of trials in which the subject was sometimes stared at from behind and sometimes not. The idea was to see if the person could guess, at better than chance rates, when someone was actually there.

When Colwell, to his surprise, produced the same positive results as Sheldrake, he chalked it up to a hidden pattern in the sequence of trials that the participants had somehow stumbled onto, enabling them to produce results significantly above chance. Colwell never explained how Sheldrake’s randomization procedure was not really random, and he was apparently unaware that Sheldrake got the same results even when a coin toss determined whether someone would be staring at the subject during a given trial.19

Shermer goes on to claim, again falsely, that psychologist Richard Wiseman replicated Sheldrake’s experiment and got negative results. First of all, Wiseman put the subject on closed circuit television, so the person assigned to do the staring was actually watching a monitor. Second, even with this change-up, Wiseman still got the same results as Sheldrake and only managed to arrive at his desired negative results when he dismissed his student volunteers and took over the role of staring himself.20

Right about here, Shermer might have noted that when Wiseman replicated Sheldrake’s test of a dog that seemed to know, from a distance, if its owner was returning home, he reproduced Sheldrake’s results and then misrepresented his own findings, claiming to have refuted what he actually verified. Instead Shermer allows his readers to think Wiseman is a reliable source.21

Shermer attributes Sheldrake’s data to confirmation bias, meaning he got the results he was looking for. Yet this critique applies just as well to researchers seeking negative results, such as Wiseman and Colwell, who also managed to eliminate positive results by taking over the role of staring at subjects. Since Sheldrake points out that negative expectations of the person doing the staring could conceivably dampen the effect, Shermer claims the effect is therefore unfalsifiable. He leaves out the fact that most of the people doing the staring have been student volunteers with no predilection to believe or disbelieve. If their sessions produced negative results, the effect would indeed be falsified, but that’s not what has happened.

Finally, Shermer seems to think Sheldrake must be wrong because the responses from mainstream academics to his Journal of Consciousness Studies paper ranged from neutrality to rejection.

Skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion? Not this “skeptic.”

Sheldrake duly responded to Shermer’s hatchet job, but Scientific American, to its discredit, refused to print a letter that would have exposed the sloppy thinking and outright deception of one of its columnists.22

Much of Shermer’s work is laudable, especially in the area of mass delusions such as holocaust denial and modern witch crazes. But he can’t own up to the fact that he himself got caught up in the hysteria of the anti-Sheldrake phenomenon.

Carroll’s Confusion

Whereas Shermer at least demonstrates basic competence in the art of sophistry, Skeptic’s Dictionary author Robert Todd Carroll unleashes a spectacular series of blunders in his entry on morphic resonance.23 After repeating the bogus charge of vitalism, Carroll accuses Sheldrake of working outside the “paradigm of science.” Yet Sheldrake’s central proposal, that natural systems are influenced by similar previous systems, is easily testable, as neuroscientist Steven Rose demonstrated when he tried (and failed) to refute it.

Carroll stumbles again with his claim that morphic resonance leaves no room for genetic influence over the forms and functions of the organism. Sheldrake, however, is absolutely clear on the need for a complementary approach, with genes differentiating individuals within a given species and morphic resonance providing the general background form common to all members of a species.24 Compounding his confusion, Carroll asserts that Sheldrake has substituted laws of nature with morphic resonance. Yet it was philosopher CS Peirce who substituted laws of nature with habits of nature, and Sheldrake’s contribution is to explain universal habit according to resonance based on similarity of form.

Incredibly, Carroll associates morphic resonance with Plato’s concept of a timeless realm of static Forms, ignoring the fact that Sheldrake’s hypothesis is explicitly designed to bring formative causation into the stream of time, thereby opening up the possibility that natural forms can evolve rather than simply reflecting fixed, eternal types.25

Unable to argue his way around Sheldrake, Carroll attempts to smear him as an occultist peddling metaphysics and the paranormal. Given the well-established concept of action at a distance in physics, the occult charge is inexcusable. As to metaphysics, Sheldrake avoids it like the plague, both in the informal sense of supernatural explanation and in the proper philosophical sense of a theory of reality. Ironically it’s Carroll who embraces the metaphysics of reductionism as a dualistic explanation of reality according to passive matter and deterministic law. As to the paranormal, Sheldrake asserts that if telepathy, for instance, turns out to be real, then by definition it is normal.

Carroll says morphic resonance has the same scientific status as the engram, a term he claims was coined by L Ron Hubbard. In fact, the concept of the engram was introduced by eminent German zoologist Richard Semon, though it was his concept of mnemic homophony that really informed Sheldrake’s work. Of course, even when you get your facts right, guilt by association is never an honorable or scientific tactic.


In contrast to writers like Maddox, Shermer and Carroll, scientists generally have enough sense to refrain from condemning the work of other scientists, particularly if they haven’t taken the trouble to understand it. Alas this is not the case with biologist PZ Myers, who has launched uninformed ad hominem attacks against Sheldrake in his blog, “Pharyngula.” In his entry, “The Sheldrake Phenomenon,” Myers reveals his own religious-like attitude toward science.26

Myers begins by referencing a discussion between Sheldrake and Richard Dawkins in which Dawkins, apparently unaware of quantum entanglement, asserted that telepathy would “turn the laws of physics upside down.” Demonstrating its existence would therefore require extraordinary evidence. Sheldrake responded that it would be far more extraordinary if everyone who claims to have experienced telepathy is deluded. Myers twists this statement around by claiming that Sheldrake denies the possibility that people could be deluded about their experience. On this basis, Myers pronounces his verdict. “This man is nuts.”

Really? Sheldrake is nuts because he thinks a popular belief just might be true? Apparently Myers views reason as the province of an educated and trained elite. Since ordinary people can’t possibly think logically on the basis of evidence, in order to know anything, they must consult a member of the scientific priesthood, like Myers for instance.

As with Carroll, Myers hasn’t done his homework. His major point of dispute is that Sheldrake provides no mechanism for telepathy, and therefore his research is meaningless. Aside from the obvious fact that investigators are perfectly capable of detecting phenomena without necessarily knowing their cause, Myers seems to have no idea that Sheldrake is first and foremost a biologist and that his interest in telepathy grew entirely out of his theoretical work in biology.

Morphogenetic Fields

That said, Sheldrake’s explanation of psychic phenomena, which involves the concept of morphogenetic fields, is perhaps problematic. In the 1920s, as biologists came to grips with the problem of how activities are coordinated within and among cells, Paul Weiss and other theorists began discussing the idea of a field effect within developing organisms. Like a magnetic field, the morphogenetic or “form-giving” field would inform cells as to their proper place in the embryo. But Weiss doesn’t seem to have taken the term literally, and to this day it’s generally not considered an actual physical field. Arguing that they’re as real as gravitational and electromagnetic fields, Sheldrake contends that they coordinate activities of cells within bodies, insects within colonies and, yes, even enabling psychic links between individuals.

While there’s a great deal of evidence for morphic resonance, is a field concept really needed as well? True, the parts of an embryo seem to be coordinated much in the way that iron filings are brought into order by a magnetic field, but once we admit to the existence of the morphogenetic field, it becomes an intermediary between current and past organisms. Instead of resonating directly with past embryos, the current embryo is organized by a field, and it’s the field that resonates with past embryos. This complicates an otherwise elegant theory.

Though Sheldrake is right to look to physics for a model of how the embryo’s parts are coordinated at a distance, a better model might be the nonlocal effect of quantum entanglement. Just as photons are entangled insofar as they materialize a common form, the act of resonating with a common form may entangle cells of a given type. This would explain their coordinated efforts without the need for a field concept.

Sheldrake explains the “phantom limb” effect, whereby an amputee still senses a limb after its removal, by proposing that an arm, for instance, is governed by a morphogenetic field that remains in place even after the arm itself is removed. But if the individual is in resonance with his own past, back when he still had both arms, this alone would explain the phenomenon without appealing to a field effect. Same goes for “psychic pets.” Just as entanglement is easy to measure among particles that have recently interacted, once a pet and its owner have bonded, they too might remain nonlocally connected.

The morphogenetic field is inherently perplexing. Ever since its introduction, it has occupied a twilight zone between reality and heuristic concept. As soon as Forgacs and Newman define morphogenetic fields as nothing more than concentrations of chemical “morphogens,” they turn 180 degrees and claim that concentrations of morphogens are determined by morphogenetic fields.27 No one seems to know how to approach the field, the only agreement being that the parts of embryos are coordinated in a way that has yet to be explained from a materialistic standpoint.

Perhaps Sheldrake slipped up with his literal reading of morphogenetic fields, much as Darwin went astray with his concept of pangenesis. Even if this is true, however, it’s no excuse for the disgraceful treatment he has received from ideologues both inside and outside the sciences.

Fear of Science

To really criticize Sheldrake, you’ve got to open your mind enough to acquire a basic understanding of his work. Like Maddox before them, Shermer, Carroll and Myers think they can refute one of our foremost thinkers with a few insulting remarks. Dismissing out of hand any evidence that might bolster Sheldrake’s theory, their approach is to philosophize their way clear of him. A more thoroughly anti-science attitude can hardly be imagined. What the “scientific skeptics” reveal in their attempts to banish morphic resonance is their own underlying fear of science.

Instead of opening up to novel possibility, reductionists occupy a closed system of thought which they mistake for science itself. Rather than admit to their credulous commitment to the metaphysics of mechanistic reductionism and their fear and trembling in the face of real science, pseudo-skeptics cultivate the delusion that they are its foremost defenders. By narcissistically identifying themselves with science, they imagine that anything at odds with their own belief system is therefore contrary to science. Much like a cult, they reinforce each other’s confusion and sense of righteousness in the face of an implacable and unreasoning enemy, all the while imagining their efforts at maintaining collective self-satisfaction amount to some kind of noble undertaking.

Whereas true skepticism is the doubt that flushes out superstition and makes way for knowledge, cult skepticism is the absolute certainty in the falsehood of any suggestion in conflict with the ingrained prejudices of its adherents.

This world is indeed chock full of irrational thinking, and the methodology of science offers us an antidote. For this reason, the systematic confusion of science with reductionist dogma is the most dangerous cult of them all.


1. Sheldrake, Rupert, A New Science of Life (3rd Edition), London: Icon Books, 2009, pp 303-309
2. Ibid, front cover
4. Sheldrake, A.R., “The ageing, growth and death of cells,” Nature, 250, 381-385, August 2, 1974
5. Forgacs, Gabor and Newman, Stuart A, Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p 1
6. Ibid, pp 188-189
7. Ibid, p 50
8. quoted in Smolin, Lee, The Trouble with Physics, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p 307
9. Shermer, Michael, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and other confusions of our time, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1997, pp 50-51
10. Ibid, p 53
12. Shermer, 1997, p 16
13. Ibid, p 53
14. Rothman, Stephen, Lessons from the Living Cell: The Limits of Reductionism, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002, pp 185, 210, 213
15. Ibid, p 283
16. Peterson, Karen S, “Paranormal is normal, controversial scientist says,” USA Today, February 26, 2003
17. Shermer, Michael, “Rupert’s Resonance,” Scientific American,
November 2005,
18. Sheldrake, Rupert, “The Sense of Being Stared At, Part 1: Is it Real or Illusory?”
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, No. 6, 2005, p 16
19. Ibid, p 24
20. Ibid, p 26
21. Sheldrake, Rupert, “Richard Wiseman – Attempts to Debunk Evidence on Dogs
22. Sheldrake, Rupert, “Do Skeptics Play Fair?
23. Carroll, Robert Todd, The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions, Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003, pp 231-232
24. Sheldrake, Rupert, The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature, New York: Times Books, 1988, p 89
25. Ibid, pp 106-107
26. Myers, PZ, “The Sheldrake Phenomenon,” Pharyngula,
27. Forgacs and Newman, 2005, p 125

National Geographic TV’s ‘Is It Real?’

By Ted Dace

For every flying saucer report that’s debunked, another remains completely inexplicable. For every ghost story revealed as fraudulent, others aren’t so easily explained away. This is not to say there really are ghosts and flying saucers, simply that the universe doesn’t always cater to our desire for orderliness and transparency.

The object of “Is It Real?” (IIR) is to place its viewers under the purring, hypnotic sway of science – not science as a method for obtaining reliable knowledge, but scientism as a kind of religion that casts out the demons of uncertainty and mystery.

Each episode of the series raises the specter of the paranormal only to reveal it as the hallucination of abnormal people. Backed up by a battalion of skeptical commentators, including reporter Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer editor Benjamin Radford, and psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, IIR presents a black and white world of skeptics and believers – and the skeptics turn out to be right every time.

For the most part, the technique works quite well. It’s easy enough to shoot down alleged evidence that Bigfoot strolls the forests of the Pacific Northwest, that Chupacabras sucks the blood of farm animals in Puerto Rico or that a sea monster inhabits Loch Ness. As far as we know, the human body neither wields latent superpowers nor spontaneously combusts. Neither crop circles nor UFOs necessarily indicate extraterrestrial intervention in earthly affairs. The claims of psychic police fall as easily to scrutiny as the prophecies of Nostradamus. Just as the popularity of exorcism fails to verify demonic possession, bleeding palms tell us nothing about the existence of God.

Where the series stumbles is with the episode entitled “Psychic Animals”. After noting the numerous recorded instances of animals reacting to disaster before it strikes, such as elephants stampeding out of harm’s way just prior to the 2004 tsunami, the series narrator wonders if animals possess a “supernatural 6th sense or just a natural super-sensitivity to their surroundings.” The conclusion, already forgone, is that certain creatures are equipped with a sense of magnetism that enables them to detect oncoming events. So, when earthworms flee to the surface just prior to a tremor, it’s because they sense disruptions in Earth’s electromagnetic fields. Despite the fact that these fields are constantly fluctuating – and we have no idea how animals separate signal from noise – IIR considers this “the most promising theory.” Why? Because it’s natural.

The irony is that electricity and magnetism were themselves not understood until the nineteenth century, and were often associated with quackery. Only with the arrival of Faraday’s concept of fields and Maxwell’s field equations did scientists stop and take notice. Following Einstein, the field principle was applied generally in physics, covering everything from gravity to the force that holds atoms together. IIR overlooks the possibility that a similar shift in understanding could occur again, this time regarding organisms and telepathy. It may be that animals on land became aware of the approaching tsunami in 2004 as a result of a field-like connection to creatures in the sea and that this bond is a natural function of mentality, itself a poorly understood phenomenon. But such speculation is disallowed by the IIR directive that anything not currently sanctified by the scientific establishment is by definition supernatural.

It gets worse in the case of psychic pets, also addressed in this episode. Here the series engages in clear-cut bias, as determined by the British Office of Communications (Ofcom), which responded to a complaint lodged by one of the show’s participants, biologist Rupert Sheldrake. According to Sheldrake, IIR presented critical testimony about his research without giving him a chance to respond, violating the written agreement he received from a series producer guaranteeing fair treatment. Ofcom agreed.

Sheldrake conducted an experiment in which parrot owner Aimee Morgana was shown a sequence of pictures while her beloved parrot, N’kisi, who was holed up in another room, uttered words that often matched the contents of the pictures. Of course, N’kisi might occasionally have uttered the correct word by chance, but the actual number of matches was significantly above chance, according to standard statistical analysis.

IIR followed the efforts of a skeptic named Tony Youens to replicate the experiment with another bird, Spaulding, and its owner, Michele Karras. After thirty trials, Spaulding uttered the correct word only twice. Youens concluded that two “hits” could have resulted from chance and therefore that Spaulding was not psychic. Youens, who is not a scientist, then seemed to be accusing Sheldrake of manipulating the data in his trials with N’kisi by excluding data in which the parrot did not respond. The trouble is that IIR failed to allow Sheldrake to respond to this charge and explain that he was following established and accepted procedures. Moreover, had Sheldrake been given the opportunity, he could have pointed out that the exclusion of trials in which there was no response had virtually no effect on the results of his experiment. According to an independent analyst, the results “differed only trivially” when non-responses were excluded. Rather than trying to skew the data in favor of N’kisi’s psychic abilities, as the IIR program implied, Sheldrake was merely bringing his study in line with standard, scientific practice.

IIR producers countered, implausibly, that they did allow Sheldrake to answer Youens’ charge. Yet the alleged response, in which Sheldrake said he was “more interested in dogs than dogmas,”had nothing to do with Youens’ accusation and was filmed before Youens had even conducted his experiment. As Ofcom concluded, “The programme makers’ failure to give Dr. Sheldrake an opportunity to respond to what would amount to a damaging critique of his research resulted in unfairness to Dr. Sheldrake”.

The producers of IIR failed not only Sheldrake but themselves. Indeed, they would have benefited considerably from a genuine investigation into his work. Contrary to the IIR approach, which frames every issue in terms of paranormal vs. normal, the truth sometimes lies in the gray area delineated by the human psyche. Instead of treating Sheldrake as a trustworthy guide to this twilight zone, IIR regards him as another mystic to be debunked by its squad of professional skeptics.

Most of the beliefs discussed in the IIR series are self-contained, having no implications beyond the claims of believers. For instance, even if there is such a thing as the “pyrotron,” which is conjured to explain how human bodies could spontaneously combust, it would explain no other phenomena. Same goes for the “plasma vortex” invoked by some believers to account for crop circles. This lack of explanatory reach is a common feature of pseudo-science.

By contrast, Sheldrake’s hypothesis of formative causation, originally intended to explain development from the egg, engages a wide variety of other biological topics, such as habit and memory, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, the embryonic recapitulation of ancestral forms, parallel evolution, atavism, phantom limbs, social insect organization, the collective unconscious, and yes, even psychic pets.

Formative causation postulates that the fundamental property of the organism is the form, or morphology, intrinsic to its kind. Every creature resonates, on the basis of similarity of form, with previous members of its species. The role of genes is not to provide exact instructions for development from the egg but to “tune in” the embryo to its own kind. Like the charge-based electromagnetic resonance between a radio transmitter and a receiver, form-based resonance, or morphic resonance, provides the embryo with the morphological information it needs to develop properly. In this case, the receiver is the current organism while the transmitter is past organisms of the same type. In essence, Sheldrake is saying that memory, “the presence of the past,” is a general feature of nature with specific applications to biology.

Already the skeptics are rolling their eyes. Surely, they will say, this is unscientific and supernatural. Yet this hypothesis is no more of a stretch than the well-known and widely accepted theory of quantum entanglement, in which photons, after being separated out from a light beam, retain a “nonlocal” connection with each other. The difference is that instead of photons from a beam of light, the effect is revealed among organisms from a common line of descent.

Though biologists have long contemplated the possibility that cells are organized into tissues and organs via “morphogenetic fields,” Sheldrake is among the first to propose that these are literally fields of influence, just like the fields of physics. As with iron shavings that line up in the presence of a magnetic field, cells take up their appropriate positions in the presence of morphogenetic fields governing bodily organs. These fields, in turn, are structured on the basis of past, similar organisms via morphic resonance. Thus “morphic fields,” as Sheldrake calls them, translate nonlocal morphological information into spatial patterns of development.

Here we arrive at a scientific theory of mentality. Could it be that the mind is a field of influence containing inherent memory? If so, mentality is ubiquitous to life and pervades the body from head to toe. Every organ, not just the brain, has a mind that governs it on the basis of memory. In the case of the brain, not only memory but conscious will affects its activities. Moreover, mentality contains a collective, nonlocal element – – its species memory – – that unites physically separate individuals under a common program of development, perception and behavior.

This view of the mind, involving both the nonlocality of morphic resonance and the spatial extensiveness of morphic fields, has enormous implications for the other controversies taken up in the IIR series.

The Bigfoot myth, as the IIR narrator points out, is similar to many other wild man legends, such as Sasquatch of pre-Columbian America, Yowi of Australia, Yerin of China, Almasti of Russia and Yeti of Mount Everest, whose apparent footsteps in snow discovered in the early 50s inspired prankster Ray Wallace to leave oversized footprints in conspicuous locations in the Pacific Northwest. Though IIR attributes Bigfoot to a cultural phenomenon, the narrator offers no explanation as to how the same myth can keep popping up in such disparate cultures. For that we need the concept of morphic resonance, which enables far flung peoples to tap into a mental commons from which to draw cultural archetypes, in this case the archetype of the wild man.

Time and again, as with highway patrolman Richard Kael, credible sources contend that a large, semi-human creature has sauntered by right before their eyes. Since Benjamin Radford dismisses all eyewitness testimony as unreliable, IIR seems content to overlook this annoying fact. But how do we account for so many sightings by so many people? Why, if they’re just seeing things, must they insist on hallucinating the same thing? Perhaps Kael saw something similar enough to the wild man archetype that its image was conjured up from his unconscious, displacing the image of whatever was actually there. The problem with Radford’s dismissive position is that it forecloses the possibility of arriving at a real explanation, be it this one or another.

IIR traces sightings of sea monsters back to a 6th century Irish monk who once chastised a giant serpent and ordered it back into the depths. The underlying myth, however, goes back much farther, all the way to the beginning of recorded history. According to Sumerian legend, by destroying the ancient sea goddess Tiamat, the upstart god Marduk established the dominance of man over nature, order over chaos. Whatever the Irish monk thought he saw in the ocean, the only real monster was the one that surfaced in his mind. Rather than accept his account at face value, we may surmise that in the chaos of early medieval Europe, he resonated with his Near Eastern predecessors in their own struggle to impose order.

Today, the situation could hardly be different. As Radford puts it, “People want monsters.” But why? Perhaps modern sea monster sightings, from Scotland’s Loch Ness to Canada’s Lake Okanagan, reveal a desire to restore the pre-patriarchal “chaos” of old, to return to nature’s embrace instead of seeking to dominate it.

Chupacabras, said to drain its victims of blood, may gain its power over believers due to its resonance with the much older myth of the vampire. Likewise, the attribution of crop circles to otherworldly intelligence resonates with the age-old tradition of heavenly angels, now depicted as space aliens. Given the fact that angels have long been associated with light, it’s no accident that crop circles are often said to form while “balls of light” hover over the crops. Lacking a theory in which long-buried beliefs can influence current perceptions, we could only chalk this up to coincidence.

IIR highlights the curious difference between Mexican and US accounts of extraterrestrial visitations. With Mexicans the phenomenon is benign, even magical. El Norte ETs, on the other hand, like to get up close and personal, invading bedrooms and kidnapping people who are subjected to horrifying experiments by “intellectual” aliens in high-tech spacecraft. The narrator notes that the immobility of the victim prior to the alleged abduction is a clue that the phenomenon results from a condition known as sleep paralysis. Afflicted individuals report waking up but unable to move, often hearing pulses or seeing lights and sometimes figures. They also report a feeling of levitation, which accounts for claims of abductees that they levitated right out the window and into a waiting spaceship.

When asked why people would interpret this condition in terms of abduction by aliens to serve as test subjects, Elizabeth Loftus says that people like to feel special. At the other extreme, Professor David Jacobs claims that the remarkable similarities of descriptions by abductees means their accounts must be based on real events. A better explanation is that US culture, in contrast to Mexican, has grown paranoid, anxious and guilt-ridden with the onset of world dominance powered by scientific and military pre-eminence. American fear of the twin-headed monster of our own creation has generated waking dreams of inhuman techno-horrors. Meanwhile Mexicans, lacking a collective nightmare to tap into, happily videotape Venus during a solar eclipse and mistake it for a UFO.

Though IIR correctly attributes tales of sea monsters and space aliens to the “unfathomable depths of the human psyche,” the series producers don’t seem to realize that established biology can’t account for a shared unconscious from which irrational notions bubble up. Are we to believe that the myths of the wild man and the vampire are encoded in our DNA? Has US DNA mutated in recent decades while Mexican DNA remained the same? Clearly, a different biological approach is needed to explain our ability to tap into collective emotions and enduring, cross-cultural beliefs.

Joe Nickell, a warhorse for both the skeptic movement and IIR, claims that participants in exorcisms are simply role-playing. It’s all just an act. According to Loftus, audience members see how people behave during an exorcism and then do roughly the same when it’s their turn. Aside from the fact that this approach fails to explain equally striking behavior during private exorcisms, it also gives way too much credit for the acting abilities of ordinary people. Far from being awkward and artificial, the emotions seem to bubble up naturally from within. If morphic fields govern the behavior of everything from cells in organs to bees in hives, as Sheldrake contends, then the actions of people gathered for an exorcism also fall under the influence of a behavioral morphic field, which gains its structure from previous, similar gatherings.

The Exorcist, the movie that triggered the modern exorcism movement, was inspired by the case of a 14 year old boy known as “Robbie” who was believed to be possessed after his aunt died. Robbie had been close to his aunt and often used an Ouija board with her to communicate with their dead relatives. When she died, he tried to contact her too. As Sheldrake demonstrates with Aimee Morgana and her parrot, N’kisi, an intense emotional bond can generate a morphic field that unites two individuals. When one dies, the other feels a loss of wholeness. Robbie’s violent and bizarre behavior after his aunt died can be likened to the frustration of an amputee who still senses his lost limb due to the continued presence of its associated morphic field.

IIR tells the story of a group of young people in the UK who decided one night to meditate together on a particular crop circle design in order to induce its creation in a nearby field. Yet it was a different type of field, generated by their collective visualization, that prompted a nearby local, Matthew Williams, to go out that very night and produce that very crop circle (though in a slightly different location than the one intended). So too, when groups of UFOlogists stay up all night and report telepathic contact with aliens, it may be that they’re experiencing the consciousness-expanding effect of generating a morphic field among each other. You are your own alien.

In the episode on superhuman powers, a karate expert tries but fails to knock over a skeptic with the power of chi. Does this mean, as IIR suggests, that there’s no such thing as chi? Perhaps. But this fails to explain why so many people are indeed knocked down without touch in the same circumstance. Are they all acting too? A more satisfying explanation is that chi requires a field to travel from one person to another and that if one of the individuals resists the emergence of the field, the chi can’t move.

Though the IIR narrator invokes “the power of the mind” to explain the ability of Sufis, for example, to endure injury without pain, in fact there’s no room for any notion of mental potency in standard biological theory. Where the “mind” is nothing more than an artifact of the brain’s mechanical functions, even consciousness and free will are complete mysteries, to say nothing of Sufi magic or the placebo effect. And what do we make of Christians whose palms and feet spontaneously bleed? Are they resonating with the deeply ingrained cultural memory of Christ on the cross? Is it another example of mind over matter? Either way, the standard mechanistic view utterly fails us.

The meaning of the “Psychic Animals” dispute is more than just a slip up in a single episode. It’s a failure to understand science. In the world according to IIR, mystery is to be banished. Yet real science is fascinated by mystery and contemplates it, plays with it, pokes and prods it, and ultimately derives greater understanding of the world as a result of it.

The famous footage of Bigfoot ambling through a Pacific Northwest forest was chosen as the signature image of IIR presumably because it’s so easily revealed as fraudulent. The picture of the big guy in the ape outfit captures the whole attitude of scientism: it’s all just a load of bunk. But IIR tosses out the baby with the bathwater. Forget about psychic powers and cross-cultural myths. Without a radically new approach to biology, we can’t even explain that most intimate and mundane phenomenon of all, our own human mind.

Bertrand Russell and Mnemic Causation

by Ted Dace

“It often turns out important to the progress of science,” writes Bertrand Russell, “to remember hypotheses which have previously seemed improbable.”1

If only he’d been true to his word.

On the brink of a genuinely scientific account of the mind, he cobbled together a straw-man substitute and promptly set it alight. His rejection of “mnemic causation,” the influence of the deep past over the present, was intended to clear the way to a materialist concept of mind.

A series of lectures published in 1921, Russell’s Analysis of Mind is geared around the proposal that the mind has no existence apart from sense data. “All psychic phenomena are built up out of sensations and images alone,” he writes.2 “Beliefs, desires, volitions, and so on” turn out to be “sensations and images variously interrelated.”3 Images may seem more mental than tangible, but according to Russell they “have a causal connection with physical objects, through the fact that they are copies of past sensations.”4 Images reduce to sensations, which in turn reduce to the meeting of nerve endings with the external world. From mind to matter in a few easy steps.

Recognizing that modern physics renders the concept of matter as mysterious as mind, Russell asserts that both terms ultimately reduce to a deeper “neutral” substance. Given his caution as a philosopher, it’s no surprise he never completely forecloses on the possibility of mnemic causation.5 Despite the window dressing, however, Analysis of Mind amounts to an attack on the idea that mentality is intrinsically real.

Russell denies that an animal’s search for food can be ascribed to its “mental state, which we cannot observe,” arguing that its apparent hunger is only an “observable trait in the bodily behavior … not some possibly mythical and certainly unknowable ingredient of the animal’s mind.”6 To say animals want to eat is akin to saying “rivers ‘desire’ the sea.” As in the case of water flowing downhill, “if we knew more about animals, we might equally cease to attribute desire to them, since we might find physical and chemical reactions sufficient to account for their behavior.”7 People fare no better in his analysis. “We may regard a human being as an instrument, which makes various responses to various stimuli.”8 Will, he says, is a mirage generated by the “kinesthetic sensations” that accompany muscular movements.9

With self-existence reduced to mechanics, psychology differs from physics only insofar as physics deals with “a given object from different places,” while psychology concerns “different objects from a given place.”10 That place is of course the brain, the location of our subjectivity, though he also locates this phenomenon in “the photographic plate.”11 Russell might have done well to take another look at psychology, as anyone who reduces emotion to a “confused perception” clearly has some inner work to do.12

The chief threat to Russell’s reduction of mind to matter came from his arch rival, Henri Bergson. In his 1911 book, Matter and Memory, Bergson asks why, if images are faded copies of prior sensations, we never confuse the recollection of a loud noise with the sensation of a soft one.13 Unable to answer Bergson’s question, Russell can only observe that we have a “belief-feeling” that a remembered image relates to the past.14 On what basis do we arrive at this belief-feeling? Russell cannot say. How do we acquire our sense of pastness?

The job of the brain, according to Bergson, is to calculate possible actions in response to sensory data.15 Inputs are converted in the most efficient possible way to outputs. That’s all there is to it. Within those cerebral folds, you will find no representations of the world, no emotions, no thoughts, no desires, no psyche. For Bergson, locating the qualities of mind in the brain amounts to a kind of neural mysticism. Is the brain so special as to simultaneously participate in the physical world and yet step outside it to represent it?16

Rather than construct images of the world, says Bergson, our brains merely facilitate our perception of it. Because the brain does its job, we apprehend (roughly) what is around us. Just as we see the world itself rather than a neural reconstruction of it, Bergson argues that in memory we perceive the past, if only in outline. But how can we perceive something that’s no longer there?

“The past has not ceased to exist; it has only ceased to be useful.”17 Bergsonian time is unbroken duration that conveys into the present all that preceded it. “Our most distant past adheres to our present and constitutes with it a single and identical uninterrupted change.”18

The continuous time of the quantum, as expressed in Schrödinger’s wave function, is disrupted via interactions with the local environment. From this we surmise that large-scale existence lies beyond the continuity of the enduring present. As a macroscopic object, the brain is indeed limited to the current moment. By contrast, the mind reflects time as it is, in which past (memory) adheres to presence (consciousness). Because the mind is absolute presence filtered through eons of physical and biological evolution, we possess the power of memory, to take an event no longer materialized and re-present it.

Unable to pinpoint where Bergson’s proposal went wrong, Russell conjured mnemic causation, not quite what Bergson actually said but close enough that in refuting it, he would seem to have shaken off his nemesis without even mentioning him by name. Alluding to the work of German zoologist Richard Semon, Russell explains his idea. “Whenever the effect resulting from a stimulus to an organism differs according to the past history of the organism, without our being able actually to detect any relevant difference in its present structure, we will speak of ‘mnemic causation.'”19

A child who has been burned, says Russell, reacts differently to fire than a child with no such experience. If the memory of being burned leaves no trace in the brain, but the child nonetheless reacts to fire in accord with prior experience, this indicates the direct influence of the remote past over the present with no material intermediary.20

By proposing that mnemic causation is indicated by the absence of any neural change reflecting a prior event, Russell rigged the results in advance. As we now know, and as Russell surely anticipated, the brain harbors “memory traces” correlated with past events. By materialist assumption, these neural configurations record the past. It may not work exactly like magnetic tape, but the result is the same.

A logician by training, Russell should have realized that mnemic influence in no way implies the absence of “any relevant difference” in brain structure. This is the inverse of the fact that the brain’s necessity for the act of recall falls short of sufficiency. Russell makes this point himself, observing that our dependence on brains for memory doesn’t prove that recollection is a strictly neural process or that memories are stored in brain tissue.22 So too the action of the distant past on the present, even if necessary to account for memory, still leaves a role for the brain.

Russell’s plan seems to have been to dispose of Bergson’s past-within-a-present so as to arrive at Semon’s concept of the engram as the only possible explanation of memory. A kind of neural engraving, the engram is the change in the brain’s resting state following an event such as being burned. It’s the engram that makes the child more alert and therefore less likely to be burned again.22 Semon’s explicit denial that engrams could be regarded as “immaterial or metaphysical” must have been music to Russell’s positivist ears.23

By attributing “mnemic phenomena” exclusively to the engram, Russell could fully incorporate memory into neurophysiology. Like knowledge, images and habits, memories exist only when aroused from the brain by the appropriate stimulus.24 As opposed to a mind obeying the laws of mnemic causation, we have a brain governed by “causation of the ordinary physical sort.”25

Semon, as it happens, wrote the book on mnemic phenomena (taking his cue from Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the muses). As he writes in The Mneme, “Already existing engrams are never remolded but remain as they were first imprinted.”26 The engram’s defining trait, stability over time, not only accounts for memory but helps explain the general stability of the organism in the face of the dominant tendencies of transformation and evolution.27

Yet it’s precisely their stability that makes engrams wholly unlike anything neuroscientists have actually uncovered. Every time someone remembers an event, the relevant memory trace loses its structure and must be “reconsolidated” from scratch. As John McCrone explains in New Scientist, “Resurrecting a memory trace appears to render it completely fluid, as pliable and unstable as the moment it was first formed, and in need of fixing once again into the brain’s circuitry.”28 If something interferes with reconsolidation, such as high voltage current or a protein-blocking drug, the memory can never be accessed again. This finding, which has been consistently replicated, baffles researchers since it means a memory, once recalled, is lost to the brain and must be re-established on the basis of nothing more than the actual recall, however cloudy, of the past event itself. Just when we become conscious of it, the memory is irreducible to information encoded in the brain. How can this be?

Regardless of how hard scientists try to impress memory into gray matter, it pops back up, bobbing on the ethereal sea of mind. Though facilitating recollection, the brain does so without storing and retrieving information about the past. And why should it? After all, the whole point of remembering something is that you don’t have to look it up. To construe the brain as an organic reference library is to banish memory and replace it with mere information storage. The fact that recollection may indeed revitalize past perception is only a problem for the materialist outlook.

Semon proposed another concept, known as mnemic homophony, that accounts for memory far better than the engram. Russell praises Semon for this ingenious idea, not for its application to habits and recollections but its explanation of how the richness of experience is rendered into abstractions, a process that befuddled philosophers as diverse as Berkeley and Hume.29

Semon compares the emergence of abstraction to the process of composite photography, in which the same frame of film is repeatedly exposed to different scenes.30 So long as they’re close enough in form, mental images in succession generate a fuzzy general image. Each time you see an oak tree, for instance, it calls to mind all the other times you’ve seen one, and this new image is superimposed on the rest, producing a composite picture you think of as “oak tree.”

Neither Russell nor Semon saw the contradiction between mnemic homophony and the engram. As material structures, engrams cannot simply blend into each other to form vague composites. While mental images may exhibit vagueness or fuzziness, matter always conforms to the principle of identity: x = x. An object is exactly itself, no more and no less. A vague object would lose this exact relation, being only somewhat itself and somewhat not. Of course, composite photographs always look a little fuzzy, but the picture itself, as a material object, cannot help but be precisely itself, its “fuzziness” solely in our interpretation of the picture.

The coexistence of successive perceptions in a single generalized perception cannot give the brain the ability to construct generalized bits of gray matter. Mnemic homophony was Russell’s worst fear realized, for it revealed where mind fails to fit into matter.

Semon and Russell’s resistance to the irretrievably immaterial nature of mnemic homophony placed them at odds with modern physics. Why base a theory of reality on matter when matter turns out to be some kind of space-stuff called fields? Descartes’s reduction of causation to contact mechanics went out with Newton, a fact confirmed in the nineteenth century with the onset of electromagnetic field theory.

Mnemic homophony gives us memory without the need for neural engravings. Semon always thinks of Capri when he smells a particular cooking oil because he once happened to catch a whiff of it from a nearby restaurant as he gazed at Capri across the Bay of Naples.31 No information storage is required, only the principle that any given mental state is influenced by similar previous states. Rather than encoding information about past events, the memory trace only matches whatever pattern of synaptic transmission took place during the original event, serving as a marker or sign that facilitates recall, re-establishing in consciousness a sense of the prior event much as radio antennae monitor the long-range influence of electromagnetism.

Recent neural research confirms that memory involves similarity between past and present patterns of brain activity. During the act of learning, neurons establish connections with each other. When we remember the moment the learning took place, something like the original pattern of connections is reinstated. However, as University of California researcher Jeff Johnson reports in Neuron, reinstatement of prior neural patterns takes place even when recall is limited to the learned information itself, without any details about the moment it was acquired.32

Like Russell, Johnson wants to know how the brain accounts for our sense of pastness. Since reinstatement applies not only to memory but knowledge, which is devoid of any sense of the past, neural similarity alone can’t provide an answer. If recall is more than just synaptic rearrangement but the actual revitalization of past experience, the problem dissolves. We sense a depth to time precisely in the act of plumbing it.

Recall is often a struggle. Instead of arriving all at once, the memory creeps in. First we get the general sense of it, and gradually the details emerge like the tissues of an embryonic organ. Though not at all what we’d expect from a data storage system, this is exactly what we’d expect from a tuning system. The signal is first captured and then strengthened.

Whereas episodic memory involves conscious recall, habit-memory is the unconscious cumulative effect of past behaviors on current behavior. Semon illustrates the role of mnemic homophony in habit with a game of fetch. Each time his owner cocks his arm, the dog understands he’s going to throw the stick. Even if he doesn’t actually toss it but only pretends, the dog chases the chimera because his owner’s gesture has awakened its memory of when he actually did toss the stick. Of course, this works only so many times. Before long the dog refuses to run until it has perfect homophony between the new stimulus and the old stimulus, i.e. when it actually sees the stick emerge from the hand. Habitual behaviors are activated by mnemic homophony, whether rough or perfect, between current and past circumstances.33

When musician Kristin Hersh and her band recorded for the first time in a “fancy” studio, she found herself unable to reproduce her usual vocal intensity because, as she explained to the engineer, when she performed live or in her usual practice space, she was relaxed enough to let go and allow the song to sing itself. In contrast to the song’s voice, her own voice was self-conscious and forced. The recording engineer’s first adjustment was to remove her voice from her headphones so she wouldn’t be screaming in her ears, but the intensity of the song’s voice remained elusive. What finally worked was simply to let her play guitar while singing, completing the homophony of her current performance with the abstracted essence of prior performances. Only then did Throwing Muses roar to life.34

We all know we usually have to repeat a newly learned procedure before it becomes “automatic.” But if the instruction is inscribed on neural tissue, why isn’t once enough? Stored information is a digital phenomenon; the data’s either encoded or it’s not. Semon’s memory is analogue, each performance of a procedure increasing the odds of it coming to mind with the relevant stimulus.

Like Darwin before him, Semon found the idea of evolution implausible without the ability of organisms to inherit and build upon the behavioral and bodily modifications implemented by forerunners.35 Otherwise, ongoing adaptations to changing conditions play no role in evolution. This is why, in The Mneme, he reports on salamanders coaxed into either holding their young in utero longer than usual or releasing them early, in both cases their progeny carrying on the newly-altered behavior.36 He also reports on trees transplanted from temperate to tropical regions and vice versa, either way their new adaptations cropping up in offspring.37 Echoing Darwin’s observations on farm animals, he observes that praying mantis populations grow more tame with each generation in captivity despite the absence of selection for this trait.38

Austrian theorist August Weismann tried to refute a plethora of such claims by cutting off the tails of hundreds of mice and noting the continued growth of tails in their offspring.39 Yet experiments demonstrating inheritance of acquired traits succeeded precisely because researchers induced organisms to make the changes themselves, just as the environment, rather than mechanically imposing new behaviors, prods creatures into actively adapting.

This debate has long since been superseded by the sheer weight of evidence. We now know that when fertilizers tinker with the growth cycle of a crop, the new pattern of growth continues appearing for generations.40 Defensive spines built up by Daphnia water flea in the vicinity of predators continue emerging in offspring never exposed to this threat.41 A Dutch study has found reduced lifespan among people whose grandparents, in their youth, gorged themselves during rare seasons of overabundance.42

The question is no longer whether adaptations are inherited but how. Since none of these examples involve genetic changes, biologists refer to the phenomenon as “epigenetic inheritance,” whereby newly acquired traits are passed on via modifications of chromosomes or even cytoplasm. Semon’s belief that migrating engrams transmit traits by altering germ cells may not be so far-fetched after all. But mnemic homophony gives us another option. If past and present can be connected on the basis of similarity within an individual lifespan, why not across generations as well?

You would never suspect, reading Russell, that Semon insists on the inheritance of adaptations or that he denies the reduction of memory to a machine-like process. With his “law of ecphory,” Semon contends that in contrast to machinery, which requires a complete input to produce a complete output, a memory can be fully realized even when the trigger, such as the smell of cooking oil, contains only a hint of the original event.43 He notes that embryos, again in stark contrast to machines, can weather “large and arbitrary subtractions” of their tissues and resume normal development as if nothing happened.44

Russell was too committed to establishing Semon’s materialist credentials to notice where he and Bergson overlapped. Many years later the task of synthesizing Semon and Bergson fell to a young biologist in training at Cambridge University, a theoretical nonconformist who took a year off from his laboratory work to study philosophy at Harvard. Unlike Russell, whose reading of Bergson was colored by professional rivalry, Rupert Sheldrake was captivated by Bergson’s radical take on time and its implication for memory. By coupling Bergson’s enduring present with Semon’s mnemic homophony, Sheldrake obtained the basis for a scientific theory of mentality, the very prize Russell sought in his Analysis of Mind.

Designed to explain organic development from egg to maturity, Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance is based on his Bergsonian reading of Semon. Where “mnemic” emphasizes the emergence of organic form as a memory-based process, Sheldrake’s use of “morphic” turns it the other way around, highlighting the proposition that nature’s inherent memory operates on the basis of form. The more similar a current organic form to a previous form, the more it resonates with that form.

Sheldrake extended the mnemic principle beyond the brain to the whole organism, including all levels of structure comprising it, such that every organ, every tissue, every cell and organelle reproduces the actions it undertook in previous similar situations. The body-memory that maintains the adult on the basis of its personal past is no different, fundamentally, from the species-memory that guides embryogenesis.

In applying morphic resonance to the embryo, Sheldrake reconfigured memory into a property of species as much as individuals. Thus human embryos develop along the same lines as previous human embryos whereas chimpanzee eggs divide and grow along the lines of previous chimpanzee eggs. Like reciting text from memory, at each passage the embryo simply replicates the actions of its ancestors when they reached that stage. Just as a recollection is associated with a neural memory trace, development from the egg is routed correctly via genetic markers. In neither case, whether neural or genetic, does the marker contain the memory itself.

Morphic resonance is revealed wherever successive generations of a given species improve at a given task without guidance from their parents. The best-documented spontaneous case of this phenomenon concerns birds in Western Europe that learned to open milk bottles. The technique was first observed in 1921 in Southampton, England among blue tits and spread primarily through simple imitation. However, since blue tits rarely travel more than a few miles, it’s unlikely imitation could account for the appearance of this habit in Sweden, Denmark and Holland. “The Dutch records are particularly interesting,” writes Sheldrake. “Milk bottles practically disappeared during the war, and became reasonably common again only in 1947 or 1948. Few if any tits that had learned the habit before the war could have survived to this date, but nevertheless attacks on bottles began again rapidly.”45

Of course, postwar birds may have learned the process again from scratch. For this reason William McDougall’s experiment on learning in rats provides a more compelling example. One of many scientists around the turn of the twentieth century to have demonstrated the inheritance of acquired traits, McDougall placed rats in a water maze and found that each generation solved the maze more quickly than its predecessor. Like Semon, he assumed the animals’ genes were somehow incorporating and transmitting the acquired ability. But when the experiment was replicated, first in England and then Australia with rats unrelated to McDougall’s, the tendency for improvement continued as before, an outcome inexplicable except in light of species-memory via morphic resonance.46

Long-range memory has also been revealed in tests on human subjects, for instance non-Japanese speakers who were better able to memorize authentic Japanese nursery rhymes than rearranged nonsensical versions.47 According to Sheldrake this result follows from the fact that untold millions of people have already learned the rhymes, and anyone trying to memorize the correct versions is influenced by their cumulative experience. When subjects of another experiment were shown Persian words for ten seconds, some real and some only Persian-like fakes, and then asked to recall the words, they fared significantly better at reproducing the real words.48

Flabbergasted by Sheldrake’s audacious proposal, neuroscientist Steven Rose designed an experiment that would surely dispose of it once and for all. The experiment involved day-old chicks divided into two groups, test chicks allowed to peck at yellow diodes and control chicks that pecked at chrome beads. After pecking the diodes, the test chicks were injected with lithium chloride, a toxic substance that made them mildly nauseous, while control chicks were injected with a harmless saline solution. The same procedure was followed for 37 days with a new batch of chicks each day. The data indicated that successive batches of test chicks became gradually more hesitant to peck relative to control chicks.

While this finding indicated the influence of previous experience, the most compelling result concerned control chicks given the choice of pecking at either the yellow diodes or the chrome beads. Over the course of the experiment, successive batches of these chicks became increasingly reluctant to peck at the diodes, suggesting that they were influenced by the cumulative experience of chicks that had pecked at the diodes and then been injected with lithium chloride. After stalling for months, Rose reneged on his agreement to write up the results with Sheldrake for publication.49

Needless to say, a handful of anecdotes and unrepeated experiments falls short of proof. While interesting, Sheldrake’s theory remains largely untested. But at least it has the potential to explain development from the egg. The same cannot be said of the quaint notion that DNA is a blueprint or recipe for building an organism.

Around the time he was mutilating mice in a misguided effort to refute the inheritance of adaptations, August Weismann proposed that organisms develop from the egg on the basis of information transmitted from parents via “determinants” (now known as genes).50 Though subsequent research seemed to confirm this idea, the gains in molecular biology that fleshed out Weismann’s theory would ultimately abolish it.

A theory is scientific insofar as it reduces a complex phenomenon, such as the organization of a living body, to something simple like information stored in DNA. At the core of Weismann’s proposal was the assumption that genes are relatively simple static structures that generate the developmental machinery which, in turn, produces the immensely complicated systems that comprise the organism.51 Different species are differently formed because each kind has a unique set of genes and therefore a unique developmental pathway.

Neither Weismann nor any of his intellectual descendants anticipated that developmental or “homeobox” genes would turn out to be virtually identical in species ranging from insects to people. As we learn from the field of “evo-devo,” what changes in the course of evolution is not so much the genes themselves but the regulatory DNA that switches them on and off to ensure that development is species-appropriate.

Usually adjacent to the homeobox genes they regulate, epigenetic tags or “switches” operate at blinding speed. According to molecular biologist Sean Carroll, typical developmental processes involve “tens of thousands of switches being thrown in sequence and in parallel.”52 The operation of switches is so complex that they can be analyzed only with combinatorial logic. “Because the combination of inputs determines the output of a switch, and the potential combinations of inputs increase exponentially with each additional input, the potential outputs of switches are virtually endless.”53 Every switch position and associated pattern of protein production is but a snapshot, a single frame in “one hell of a movie with nonstop action.”54

Imagine a forest overflowing with lightning bugs except that this forest is actually produced by the incomprehensibly complex and ever changing patterns of lightning bug flashes. Altering this pattern alters the shape of the forest. This, according to molecular biology, is how our bodies develop.

Whether we’re looking at cycling networks of proteins in a cell or webs of feedback loops governing everything from immune response to patterns of neurotransmission, the number of possible outcomes stemming from any given input is virtually infinite, blocking the way to successful physical analysis. Genes were supposed to be the exception, something we could bring within our orbit of comprehension. Now we find that the computation of genetic activity escalates infinitely, leaving us with the absurdity of reducing one complexity to another.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a given set of complex genetic operations does lead, in a purely mechanical fashion, to a given bodily form. The problem here is that we’ve only pushed the question back a step: what gives rise to the complex pattern of gene activity in the first place? We’re back to morphic resonance, except that now, instead of newly developing organs resonating with previous organs under similar conditions, current genetic expression resonates with prior genetic expression. Whether or not the whole reduces to the gene, the organism is still explained by resonance and not genetics. It’s a reduction alright but to the past rather than the small.

In light of mnemic reduction, there’s no longer a compelling reason to characterize the organism in terms of its genes. Instead, both gene expression and organ development are informed by similar past activities. Rather than construct higher-level structure, the genetic level does just what it appears to do, pumping out the proteins required by cells to carry out their tasks. That certain proteins are necessary for the emergence of certain phenotypic traits in no way implies gene-protein sufficiency in the shaping of the organism.

Despite having captivated generations of biologists, Weismann’s proposal has no potential as an explanatory theory. Sheldrake, on the other hand, reduces the body’s stupendous complexity to an elementary property of nature, a kind of inertia of organic form. With the demise of the DNA-based theory, morphic resonance is the only game in town.

Since we don’t feel like machines, it’s odd that Russell had such faith in the reduction of organisms to mechanized assemblages of atoms. The most compelling data in opposition to this belief are generated daily by that ongoing half-baked experiment we call life. Unlike materialism, the mnemic theory makes room for the mind as a thing in itself, the seat of self-existence. We appear to be thinking, feeling, freely acting people – and not genetically programmed organic robots – because we are in fact people leading meaningful lives.

Russell clung to materialism like a child to his mother. By contrast Bergson and Sheldrake realized it’s precisely against matter that memory is defined. With memory freed from the smothering embrace of matter, mind is at last made sensible.

So long as it’s restricted to the brain, the mind can be dismissed as mere shadow play. Only when extended throughout the body does it find its home. Mentality is associated with every organ, guiding development and maintaining form via resonance with similar previous forms. The brain differs from other organs only insofar as it’s attached to sense organs and therefore involves awareness. Where brain-mind is at least partly conscious, gut-mind operates entirely in the dark.

“Mind and body” is more phrase than reality. We have two words for the same thing because we see body-mind from two perspectives, one in terms of space and the other in terms of time. As the body is the spatialized surface of the mind, the mind is the temporal depths of the body. Accordingly, death is where the body loses its mind, where matter and memory cease to be united.

What the ancients called soul or spirit has been translated in modern consciousness as the immaterial element of life. But we don’t have to define organic memory in the negative, any more than body-mind must be defined as the unconscious. The immaterial element is simply the influence of the remote past on the present. Previous actions undertaken in situations most resembling the current situation are the ones most likely to materialize.

The abstract image of “oak tree” in human thought is only a faded reflection of the deeper biological process whereby former explications of growing oaks overlap into a developmental map accessible to every sprouting acorn. Whereas the individual mind is the seat of imagination, species-mind is the seat of living formation.

Wedded to the dual reduction of the world to tangible matter and timeless law, Russell missed the message of the mind, which is neither one nor the other. In the end he got it wrong because he just had to be right.


  1. Russell, Bertrand, The Analysis of Mind, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1921, p 92
  2. Ibid, p 279
  3. Ibid, p 300
  4. Ibid, p 110
  5. Ibid, p 89
  6. Ibid, p 63
  7. Ibid, p 64
  8. Ibid, p 255
  9. Ibid, p 285
  10. Ibid, p 105
  11. Ibid, p 130
  12. Ibid, pp 283-284
  13. Bergson, Henri, Matter and Memory, London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1911, pp 318-319
  14. Russell, p 159
  15. Bergson, p 20
  16. Ibid, p 11
  17. Ibid, p 193
  18. Bergson, Henri, The Creative Mind, New York: Philosophical Library, 1946, pp 180-181
  19. Russell, p 86
  20. Ibid, p 77
  21. Ibid, p 91
  22. Ibid, pp 79-83
  23. Semon, Richard, The Mneme, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1921, p 275
  24. Russell, p 88
  25. Ibid, p 90
  26. Semon, p 240
  27. Ibid, p 14
  28. McCrone, John, ‘Not-so total recall,’ New Scientist, May 3, 2003, p 27
  29. Russell, pp 218-219
  30. Semon, p 164
  31. Ibid, p 92
  32. Johnson, Jeffrey D, et al, ‘Recollection, Familiarity, and Cortical Reinstatement: A Multivoxel Pattern Analysis,’ Neuron, 63, 2009, pp 697-708
  33. Semon, p 156
  34. Hersh, Kristin, Rat Girl, New York: Penguin, 2010, pp 288-291, 308-310
  35. Semon, p 290
  36. Ibid, pp 58-60
  37. Ibid, p 64
  38. Ibid, p 133
  39. Gould, Stephen Jay, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002, p 201
  40. Durrant, Alan , ‘The association of induced changes in flax,’ Heredity, 32, 1974, pp 133-143
  41. Young, Emma, ‘Rewriting Darwin: the new non-genetic inheritance,’ New Scientist, July 9, 2008, pp 28-33
  42. Cloud, John, “Why DNA Isn’t Your Destiny,” Time, January 18, 2010, p 50
  43. Semon, p 124
  44. Ibid, p 177
  45. Sheldrake, Rupert, The Presence of the Past, New York: Times Books, 1988, p 178
  46. Ibid, p 175
  47. Ibid, p 189-190
  48. Ibid, p 192
  49. Sheldrake, Rupert, ‘An Experimental Test of the Hypothesis of Formative Causation,’ Rivista di Biologia – Biology Forum, 86, 1992, pp 431-44. Available from: (Accessed Jan 2 2014)
  50. Gould, p 207
  51. Bertalanffy, Ludwig, Modern Theories of Development: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology, London: Oxford, 1933, pp 32-33
  52. Carroll, Sean B, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005, p 114
  53. Ibid, p 124
  54. Ibid, p 128