"Most biologists take it for granted that living organisms are nothing
but complex machines, governed only by the known laws of physics and chemistry.
I myself used to share this point of view. But over a period of several
years I came to see that such an assumption is difficult to justify. For
when so little is actually understood, there is an open possibility that
at least some of the phenomena of life depends on laws or factors as yet
unrecognized by the physical sciences." -Rupert Sheldrake, (Pg. 9)
With the first paragraph of the preface to A
New Science of Life it is clear that this is no ordinary book on biology.
Rupert Sheldrake begins his hypothesis by explaining some of the more difficult
notions behind biology, but it soon becomes apparent that there is a good
deal more going on in biology than even biologists themselves care to admit.
In this review, I will just give a brief overview of each chapter and
some of the ways Sheldrake's ideas interact with Pirsig's Metaphysics of
Quality which he wrote about in his book Lila. I really don't think I can
do justice to the ideas contained in the book in such a short review. For
the purpose of this review I am assuming the reader is familiar with Pirsig's
writings and I will not explore those here other than to compare them with
In the first chapter, Sheldrake examines some of the unsolved problems
in modern biology; the success biology has obtained in the context of the
underlying problems still confronting biologists in the fields of behavioral
science, evolution, the origins of life, psychology
"Biological morphogenesis can be defined as the 'coming-into-being'
of characteristic and specific form in living organisms. The first problem
is precisely that form comes into being. Biological development is epigenetic
(see image below); new structures appear which cannot be explained
in terms of the unfolding or growth of structures which are already present
in the egg at the beginning of development." (Pg. 19)
"The second problem is that many developing systems are able to regulate;
in other words if a part of a developing system is removed (or if an additional
part is added), the system continues to develop in such a way that a more
is less normal structure is produced... Regulation has been demonstrated
in many developing systems. However, as development proceeds this capacity
is often lost as the fate of different regions become determined." A
New Science of Life (Pg. 19)
Here is an example of regulation in action:
On the left is a normal embryo of a dragonfly. On the right is a small
but complete embryo formed from the posterior of an egg ligated around
the middle soon after laying. (After Weiss, 1939)
"The third problem is that of regeneration, whereby organisms are able
to replace or restore damaged structures." (Pg. 20) Here is an image of
the regeneration of a newt's eye lens:
Regeneration of a lens from the margin of the iris in a newt's eye.
(Cf. Needham, 1942)
"The fourth problem is posed by the simple fact of reproduction. The
only way in which these phenomena can be understood is in terms of causal
entities which are somehow more than the sum of the parts of the developing
systems, and which determine the goals of the processes of development."
Vitalists, Organicists, and Mechanistics
Sheldrake then examines 3 schools of thought in regards to these problems...the
Vitalists ascribe these properties to 'vital factors', Organicists to 'morphogenetic
fields' and Mechanists to 'genetic programs', or DNA. Sheldrake shoots
down the mechanistic theory of genetic programming by using a computer
"The concept of genetic programmes is based on an analogy with the programmes
that direct the activities of computers. It implies that the fertilized
egg contains a pre-formed programme which somehow specifies the organism's
morphogenetic goals and coordinates and controls its development towards
them. But the genetic programme must involve something more than the chemical
structure of DNA, because identical copies of DNA are passed on to all
cells; if all cells were programmed identically, they could not develop
differently. So what exactly is it? In response to this question, the idea
can only disintegrate into vague suggestions about physico-chemical interactions
somehow structured in time and space; the problem is merely restated."
Science of Life (Pg. 21)
He examines the Vitalist school of thought in this fashion...
"...in so far as mechanistic explanations depend on teleological concepts
such as genetic programmes or genetic instructions, goal-directedness can
be explained only because it has already been smuggled in. Indeed the properties
attributed to genetic programmes are remarkably similar to those with which
Vitalists endowed their hypothetical vital factors; ironically, the genetic
programme seem to be very like a vital factor in a mechanistic guise".
Science of Life (Pg. 22)
And of the Organicist school of thought, he says: "The organicist approach
in its present state also suffers from the disadvantage of suggesting no
new lines of empirical research; it offers little more to experimental
biology than an ambiguous terminology...the prospects for improved versions
of mechanistic, vitalistic and organismic theories of morphogenesis are
discussed in the following chapter." A
New Science of Life (Pg. 49)
Of these 3 outlooks, it seems to me that the organicist theory, developed
in the late 19th century, is most in tune with Pirsig's Quality universe.
Rather than ascribing form to the individual structure, organicists ascribe
the individual structures to a collective 'field' from which the individual
structures draw instructions as to a goal-directed movement via growth,
regeneration or reproduction.
In other words, the final form of structure is already contained within
the morphic 'germ' that precedes the structure. Sheldrake goes on to explain
these 3 schools of thought in more detail in chapter 2.
"Mechanistic theory of morphogenesis ascribes a role of prime importance
to DNA...it doesn't play the role directly; one of its strands is first
'transcribed' to give a single-stranded molecule of 'messager' RNA from
which, in the process of protein synthesis, the sequence of bases is 'read
off' three at a time. Within the mechanistic framework of thought, the
central problem of development and morphogenesis is seen as the control
of protein synthesis." (Pg. 36)
"Vitalism asserts that the phenomena of life cannot be fully understood
in terms of physical laws derived only from the study of inanimate systems,
but that an additional causal factor is at work in living organisms...ideas
of this type, although widely held, were too vague to provide an effective
alternative to the mechanistic theory." Pg. 43)
"Organismic theories of morphogenesis have developed under a variety
of influences; some from philosophical systems...organicists proposed morphogenetic
(or embryonic or developmental) 'fields'. The 'field' terminology was soon
taken up by other developmental biologists, but it remained ill-defined,
although it served to suggest analogies between properties of living organisms
and inorganic electro-magnetic systems
C.H. Waddington suggested an extension of the idea of the morphogenetic
field to take into account the temporal aspect of development. He called
the new concept the chreode (from the Greek chre`, it is necessary,
and hodos, route or path) and illustrated it by means of a simple three-dimensional
epigenetic landscape ." A
New Science of Life (Pg. 50)
The concept of the the chreode is very similar to Pirsig's concept of
static latching within the four static levels of the Metaphysics of Quality.
In this model, the path chosen is Qualitative rather than quantitative,
Sheldrake seems to believe that of the 3 theories, the organicist theory
is a most promising starting point. Its difficult to say exactly what a
morphogenetic field is, for it is non-energetic and undetectable. This
makes the concept very difficult to get a grip on, much like the
forces of Dynamic Quality that Pirsig refers to.
Attempting to get a grasp on morphogenetic fields is an example of the
objectifying process we have all learned to use to categorize reality and
to function as we do. Clearly, this is where most skepticism to Sheldrake's
theory of formative causation arises. The morphogenetic fields are undetectable
and undefinable in mechanistic terms, yet the evidence of morphogenetic
fields is within our own form.
Morphogenetic Fields and Dynamic Quality
This makes morphogenetic fields impossible to objectify and quantify.
And so science, which insists on 'objective' viewpoints, is at a loss to
explain anything that is un-objectifiable and so denies existence to it.
When we look at the problem from the Quality is everything point of view
of the Metaphysics of Quality, the quantitative problems of mechanistic
classical thinking begin to disappear.
Dynamic Quality is itself undefinable and undetectable, for as soon
as Dynamic Quality is enclosed and named, it becomes 'something' else and
not Dynamic Quality. The evidence of Dynamic Quality is only contained
in its passing.
In chapter 3, Sheldrake examines the causes of Form, the problems of
Form, the relationship to Form and energy:
"In the most general terms, form and energy bear an inverse relationship
to each other; energy is the principle of change, but a form or structure
can only exist as long as it has a certain stability and resistance to
New Science of Life (Page 63)
This is very similar to Pirsig's static latching. Without a certain
stability to allow static latches to form, Dynamic Quality would be in
a state of total Freedom, what we perceive as chaos. In place of form and
energy that we can perceive, we must conceive instead of an unconceptual
Energy that exists as Dynamic Quality in the Metaphysics of Quality.
Sheldrake outlines his theory of formative causation:
"The hypothesis of formative causation proposes that morphogenetic fields
play a causal role in the development and maintenance of the forms of systems
at all levels of complexity. In this context, the word 'form' is taken
to include not only the shape of the outer surface or boundary of the system,
but also its internal structure. This suggested causation of form by morphogenetic
fields is called formative causation in order to distinguish it from the
energetic type of causation with which physics already deals with so thoroughly.
For although morphogenetic fields can only bring about their effects in
conjunction with energetic processes, they are not in themselves energetic."
Science of Life (Pg. 71)
This is the core of Sheldrake's theory of formative causation. A careful
reading will remind the reader much of Pirsig's Dynamic Quality being undefinable
and therefore also non-energetic in nature. According to organismic theory,
systems or "organisms" are hierarchically organized at all levels of complexity.
Here are some simple hierarchical systems.
These are different ways of depicting morphic units. The adjective
morphic (from the Greek root morphe`=form) emphasizes the aspect of structure,
and the word unit the unity or wholeness of the system.
Morphogenetic fields are explored in chapter 4. Sheldrake uses the term
'morphogenetic germ' to explain the genesis of being:
" Morphogenesis does not take place in a vacuum. It can only begin from
an already organized system which serves as a 'morphogenetic germ'. During
morphogenesis a new higher-level morphic unit comes into being around this
germ, under the influence of a specific morphogenetic field. So how does
this field become associated with the morphogenetic germ to start with?
" The answer may be that just as the association of material systems
with gravitational fields depends upon their mass, and with electromagnetic
fields on their electrical charge, so the association of systems with morphogenetic
fields depends on their form. Hence a morphogenetic germ becomes surrounded
by a particular morphogenetic field because of its characteristic form."
Science of Life (Pg. 76)
This is not an easy conceptual picture to imagine. First of all, to
even ask how anything began is meaningless and unexplainable. I feel this
is one mistake that Pirsig made in Lila and so left himself open for attack
from certain perceptual angles. It seems that Pirsig uses evolution both
in its neo-Darwinian classical sense and in a 'Buddha' sense, but perhaps
fails to distinguish between the two when describing his four levels of
static quality and how they originated by 'evolving' from each lower layer.
Evolution by Past Influences
Sheldrake deals with the evolution problem effectively by stating:
"However, this theory can never be more than speculative. The evidence
for evolution, primarily provided by the Fossil Record, will always be
open to a wide variety of interpretations... thus the problem of evolution
cannot be solved conclusively." A
New Science of Life (Pg. 24)
In chapter 5, Sheldrake examines the influence of past forms and the
constancy and repetition of forms. He writes:
" (i) The first system with a given form influences the second such
system, then both the first and the second influence the third, and so
on cumulatively. In this process the direct influence of a given system
is progressively diluted as time goes by; although its absolute effect
does not diminish, its relative effect declines as the total number of
similar past systems increase."
Here is an example of what Sheldrake means:
" (ii) The forms of even the simplest chemical morphic units are variable:
sub-atomic particles are in ceaseless vibratory motion, and atoms, and
molecules are subject to deformation by mechanical collision and by electrical
and magnetic fields. Biological morphic units are still more variable;
even if cells and organisms have the same genetic constitution and develop
under the same conditions they are unlikely to be identical in every respect.
" (iii) The automatic averaging of past forms will result in a spatial
probability distribution within the morphogenetic field, or in other words,
a probability structure...The probability structure of a morphogenetic
field determines the probable state of a given system under its influence
in accordance with the actual states of all similar systems; the most probable
form the system will take up is that which has occurred most frequently
New Science of Life (Pg. 99-100)
This diagram illustrates situations in which the influence of previous
systems is exhausted by morphic resonance with only one subsequent system
(A) and two subsequent systems (B).
The influence of past systems on present systems is not attenuated by
temporal or spatial separation. Nevertheless, the ability of past systems
to affect present ones could be weakened or exhausted by action.
Chapter 6 deals with formative causation and morphogenesis. Sequential
morphogenesis for instance... " After sub-atomic particles have aggregated
into atoms, the atoms may combine together into molecules, and the molecules
into crystals. The crystals then retain their form indefinitely as long
as the temperature remains below their melting point. By contrast, in living
organisms morphogenetic processes continue indefinitely in the endless
repeated cycles of growth and reproduction."
Sheldrake examines polarity of morphogenetic fields and their size as
well. " Most biological morphic units are polarized in at least one direction...The
dimensions of particular atoms and molecular morphic units are more or
less constant...although morphogenetic fields may be adjustable in absolute
size, the range within which the size of the system can vary is limited
by severe physical restraints. This simple fact means that biological systems
cannot be magnified or diminished indefinitely without becoming unstable."
He also sums up his theory of formative causation here... " (i) In addition
to the types of energetic causation known to physics, and in addition to
the causation due to the structures of know physical fields, a further
type of causation is responsible for the forms of all material morphic
units. (ii) Formative causation depends on morphogenetic fields, structures
with morphogenetic effects on material systems. (iii) Most inorganic morphogenesis
is rapid, but biological morphogenesis is relatively slow and passes through
a succession of intermediate stages." (Pg. 116)
Inheritance of Form
Sheldrake goes on to list another 5 postulates before moving on to chapter
7, where he discusses the inheritance of form. Here he examines genetics
and heredity and talks of altered morphogenetic germs and altered pathways
of morphogenesis; family resemblance's and the inheritance of acquired
characteristics. He writes:
" The influence of previous organisms on subsequent similar organisms
by morphic resonance would give rise to effects which could not conceivably
occur if heredity depended only on the transfer of genes and other material
structures from parent to their progeny. This possibility enables the question
of the 'inheritance of acquired characteristics' to be seen in a new light."
Science of Life (Pg. 133)
In chapter 8, Sheldrake discusses evolution in a neo-Darwinian type
of way. He writes: " Very little is actually known, or ever can be known,
about the details of evolution in the past. Nor is evolution readily observable
in the present." (Pg. 137)
Sheldrake goes on to examine the Darwinian notion of evolution from
a morphogenetic point of view, using terms such as divergence of chreodes,
suppression of chreodes and the influence of other species. In summing
up the chapter, Sheldrake examines the origin of new forms saying...
" However, neither the repetition, modification, addition, subtraction
nor permutation of existing morphogenetic fields can explain the origin
of these fields themselves. Nevertheless, during the course of evolution,
entirely new morphic units together with their morphogenetic fields must
have come into being; those of the organelles, of the basic types of cells,
tissues and organs; and of the fundamentally different kinds of lower and
higher plants and animals."
Formative Causation and Movement
In chapter 9, Sheldrake begins examining the role of formative causation
in the control of movement. He examines plant movement (normally accomplished
by growing), amoeboid movement, and nervous systems in animals. Sheldrake
discusses morphogenetic fields and motor fields...
" Although the fields controlling the changes of form of the specialized
motor structures of animals are in fact morphogenetic fields, they bring
about movement rather than net changes of form." (Pg. 162)
Sheldrake ties the senses to these motor fields by writing: " By morphic
resonance, an animal comes under the influence of specific motor fields
as a result of its characteristic structure and internal patterns of oscillatory
activity. These patterns are modified by changes arising within the body
of the animal, and by the influences from the environment." (Pg. 165)
Instincts and Learning
Chapter 10 examines an extension of movement known as instinct and learning.
Sheldrake describes how influences of past actions effect the present.
He writes: " The detailed structure of an animal...will generally resemble
'itself' more closely than any other animal. Thus the most specific morphic
resonance acting upon it will be that from its own past. The next most
specific resonance will be that of genetically similar animals which live
in the same environment." (Pg. 170)
Sheldrake goes on to discuss chreode formation and the relationship
between instinct and sign stimuli and how they result in what we call learning.
" Learning can be said to occur when there is any relatively permanent
adaptive change in behavior as a result of past experience." (Pg. 176)
Sheldrake believes all forms of life learn in the same underlying way
and goes on to explain some similarities between seemingly different species.
Evolution of Behavior
Chapter 11 deals with the inheritance and evolution of behavior. Of
human behavior, he writes:
"In human behavior the ranges of ways in which behavioral goals are
reached are far wider than in any other species, but the same principles
seem to apply: under the influence of the higher-level motor fields, patterns
of action are 'funneled' towards stereotyped consummatory acts which are
generally innate." (page 194)
Here Sheldrake is examining the social relationships which arise in
all life forms, a striking resemblance to the social layer of the MOQ,
in my opinion.
In chapter 12, the final chapter, Sheldrake offers four possible conclusions,
and describes each one in some detail. He writes of Modified Materialism:
" Materialism starts from the assumption that only matter is real; hence
everything that exists is either matter or entirely dependent upon matter
for its existence. However, the concept of matter has no fixed meaning...the
philosophy of materialism has had to be modified accordingly." (Pg. 200)
...and the Conscious Self:
" Contrary to the philosophy of materialism, the conscious self can
be admitted to have reality which is not merely a derivative from matter.
One can accept, rather than deny, that one's own conscious self has the
capacity to make free choices. Then, by analogy, other people can also
be assumed to be conscious beings with a similar capacity." (Pg. 202)
...Of the Creative Universe:
" Although a creative agency capable of giving rise to new forms and
new patterns of behavior in the course of evolution would necessarily transcend
individual organisms, it need not transcend all nature. It could, for instance,
be immanent within life as a whole." (Pg. 205)
...And of Transcendent Reality:
" The universe as a whole could only have a cause and a purpose if it
were itself created by a conscious agent which transcended it. Unlike the
universe itself, this transcendent consciousness would not be developing
towards a goal; it would be its own goal. It would not be striving towards
a final form; it would be complete in itself.' (Pg. 206)
This fourth metaphysics tends to resemble Pirsig's own philosophy a
great deal and is the choice of Sheldrake as well.
I understand many scientists are skeptical of Sheldrake's theory of
formative causation, even though some experimental evidence tends to back
up Sheldrake. It seems that to really get into the book, the reader must
be prepared to set aside some previously formed assumptions about science,
life and reality in general, otherwise one will miss some important points
along the way.
I would recommend the discussion in the appendix between David Bohm
and Rupert Sheldrake. All through the book, Sheldrake offers experiments
on attempting to confirm his hypothesis, and they discuss some of these
experiments and what the results mean.
I highly recommend reading 'A New Science of Life' to further understand
the intricate way we are all connected with our environment and with each
other. And Rupert Sheldrake is able to present these ideas in an interesting
and Dynamic way which makes for absorbing reading. And any and all suggestions
or comments are welcome. If you have questions, please feel free to email
me at the address on the bottom of the page.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q- What is morphic resonance?
A- On page 95, Sheldrake writes: " The idea of a process whereby the
forms of previous systems influence the morphogenesis of subsequent similar
systems is difficult to express in terms of existing concepts. The only
way to proceed is by means of analogy.
" The physical analogy which seems most appropriate is that of 'resonance'.
Energetic resonance occurs when a system is acted on by an alternating
force which coincides with its natural frequency of vibration. Examples
include the 'sympathetic' vibration of stretched strings in response to
appropriate sound waves; the tuning of radio sets to the frequency of radio
waves given out by transmitters; the absorption of light waves of particular
frequencies by atoms and molecules, resulting in their characteristic absorption
spectra; and the response of electrons and atomic nuclei in the presence
of magnetic fields to electromagnetic radiation in Electronic Spin Resonance
and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Common to all these types of resonance
is the principle of selectivity: out of a mixture of vibrations, however
complicated, the systems respond only to those particular frequencies."
" A 'resonant' effect of form upon form across space and time would
resemble energetic resonance in its selectivity, but it could not be accounted
for in terms of any known types of resonance, nor would it involve a transmission
of energy. In order to distinguish it from energetic resonance, this process
will be called 'morphic resonance'.
" Morphic resonance is analogous to energetic resonance in a further
respect: it takes place between vibrating systems. Atoms, molecules, crystals,
organelles, cells, tissues, organs and organisms are all made up of parts
in ceaseless oscillation, and all have their own characteristic patterns
of vibration and internal rhythm; the morphic units are dynamic, not static."
Here Sheldrake uses the very same words that Pirsig uses to divide Quality
into 2 parts, static and Dynamic. It is indeed very tempting to believe
they are both talking about the same thing.