of organisms were of central importance. As Francis Huxley has pointed out, Darwin’s most famous book could more appropriately have been entitled The Origin of Habits.
Morphic Fields and Morphic Resonance
by Rupert Sheldrake
In the hypothesis of formative causation, discussed in detail in my books A New Science of Life and The Presence of the Past, I propose that memory is inherent in nature. Most of the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.
My interest in evolutionary habits arose when I was engaged in research in developmental biology, and was reinforced by reading Charles Darwin, for whom the habits
Over the course of 15
years of research on plant development, I came to the
conclusion that for understanding the development of
plants, their morphogenesis, genes and gene products are
not enough. Morphogenesis also depends on organizing
fields. The same arguments apply to the development of
animals. Since the 1920s many developmental biologists
have proposed that biological organization depends on
fields, variously called biological fields, or
developmental fields, or positional fields, or
All cells come from other cells, and all cells inherit fields of organization. Genes are part of this organization. They play an essential role. But they do not explain the organization itself. Why not?
Thanks to molecular biology, we know what genes do. They enable organisms to make particular proteins. Other genes are involved in the control of protein synthesis. Identifiable genes are switched on and particular proteins made at the beginning of new developmental processes. Some of these developmental switch genes, like the Hox genes in fruit flies, worms, fish and mammals, are very similar. In evolutionary terms, they are highly conserved. But switching on genes such as these cannot in itself determine form, otherwise fruit flies would not look different from us.
Many organisms live as free cells, including many yeasts, bacteria and amoebas. Some form complex mineral skeletons, as in diatoms and radiolarians, spectacularly pictured in the nineteenth century by Ernst Haeckel. Just making the right proteins at the right times cannot explain the complex skeletons of such structures without many other forces coming into play, including the organizing activity of cell membranes and microtubules.
Ernst Haeckel Tafel 06
developmental biologists accept the need for a holistic or integrative
conception of living organization. Otherwise biology will go on floundering,
even drowning, in oceans of data, as yet more genomes are sequenced, genes
are cloned and proteins are characterized.
I suggest that morphogenetic fields work by imposing patterns on otherwise random or indeterminate patterns of activity. For example they cause microtubules to crystallize in one part of the cell rather than another, even though the subunits from which they are made are present throughout the cell.
Morphogenetic fields are not fixed forever, but evolve. The fields of Afghan hounds and poodles have become different from those of their common ancestors, wolves. How are these fields inherited? I propose that that they are transmitted from past members of the species through a kind of non-local resonance, called morphic resonance.
The fields organizing the activity of the nervous system are likewise inherited through morphic resonance, conveying a collective, instinctive memory. Each individual both draws upon and contributes to the collective memory of the species. This means that new patterns of behaviour can spread more rapidly than would otherwise be possible. Foe example, if rats of a particular breed learn a new trick in Harvard, then rats of that breed should be able to learn the same trick faster all over the world, say in Edinburgh and Melbourne. There is already evidence from laboratory experiments (discussed in A New Science of Life) that this actually happens.
The resonance of a brain with its own past states also helps to explain the memories of individual animals and humans. There is no need for all memories to be “stored” inside the brain.
Social groups are likewise organized by fields, as in schools of fish and flocks of birds. Human societies have memories that are transmitted through the culture of the group, and are most explicitly communicated through the ritual re-enactment of a founding story or myth, as in the Jewish Passover celebration, the Christian Holy Communion and the American thanksgiving dinner, through which the past become present through a kind of resonance with those who have performed the same rituals before.
The Memory of Nature
From the point of view of the hypothesis of morphic resonance, there is no need to suppose that all the laws of nature sprang into being fully formed at the moment of the Big Bang, like a kind of cosmic Napoleonic code, or that they exist in a metaphysical realm beyond time and space.
Before the general acceptance of the Big Bang theory in the 1960s, eternal laws seemed to make sense. The universe itself was thought to be eternal and evolution was confined to the biological realm. But we now live in a radically evolutionary universe.
If we want to stick to the idea of natural laws, we could say that as nature itself evolves, the laws of nature also evolve, just as human laws evolve over time. But then how would natural laws be remembered or enforced? The law metaphor is embarrassingly anthropomorphic. Habits are less human-centered. Many kinds of organisms have habits, but only humans have laws. The habits of nature depend on non-local similarity reinforcement. Through morphic resonance, the patterns of activity in self-organizing systems are influenced by similar patterns in the past, giving each species and each kind of self-organizing system a collective memory.
I believe that the natural selection of habits will play an essential part in any integrated theory of evolution, including not just biological evolution, but also physical, chemical, cosmic, social, mental and cultural evolution.
Habits are subject to natural selection; and the more often they are repeated, the more probable they become, other things being equal. Animals inherit the successful habits of their species as instincts. We inherit bodily, emotional, mental and cultural habits, including the habits of our languages.
Fields of the Mind
Morphic fields underlie our mental activity and our perceptions, and lead to a new theory of vision, as discussed in The Sense of Being Stared At. The existence of these fields is experimentally testable through the sense of being stared at itself. You can take part in a staring experiment yourself through this website.
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 75 scientific papers and ten books. A former Research Fellow of the Royal Society, he studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he was a Scholar of Clare College, took a double first class honors degree and was awarded the University Botany Prize. He then studied philosophy at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow, before returning to Cambridge, where he took a PhD in biochemistry. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University, where he
Books by Rupert Sheldrake:
Books by Rupert Sheldrake:
A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (1981)
The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (1988)
The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God (1992)
Seven Experiments that Could Change the World: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science (1994)
- Winner of the Book of the Year Award from the British Institute for Social Inventions
Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (1999)
- Winner of the Book of the Year Award from the British Scientific and Medical Network
The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (2003)
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