Research study: Sheldrake’s morphic field theory (section of chapter 5)

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.


In The Rebirth of Nature (1994), Rupert Sheldrake offers a biological and scientific hypothesis with powerful philosophical implications generally, with specific implications for the two different ways of seeing the world that broadly have been called Promethean and Orphic (Hadot 2008: 91 – 98) in this study, and with implications for the way that humans can respond to the ecological crisis. Sheldrake (1994: 129) summarises the three “possible models of the regularities of nature in the context of evolutionary cosmology”, the third of which here introduces his hypothesis:

First, there is the traditional model that all the laws of nature are eternal and in some sense prior to the physical universe in space and time. Second, there is the idea that new laws come into being as nature evolves and thereafter apply universally. And third, there is the idea that the regularities of nature are essentially habitual and that a kind of memory is inherent in nature. This habit model implies that past patterns of activity influence those in the present. According to the hypothesis of formative causation, this influence takes place by morphic resonance.

Sheldrake’s is a sophisticated animistic theory – it does not hang on to the out-dated and philosophically problematic notion of souls of, for examples, animals (human beings included), trees and crystals, but instead draws on the scientific notion of fields. Sheldrake places immense importance on field theory because with the development of the concept of fields came important challenges to reductionist, materialist science – the kind of science that is focused on in-depth in Chapter 3. As was seen in that chapter, proponents of strict mechanistic science hold firmly scientifically materialist views, reducing the universe to a glorified machine. However, Einstein’s gravitational field is one example of how field theory challenges mechanistic views: his

gravitational field is not in space and time; rather, it contains the entire physical world, including space and time. The gravitational field is space-time, and its geometrical properties are the cause of gravitational phenomena; it acts as a formative or formal cause, like the souls of medieval philosophy. Whereas Newton’s followers supposed that the attractive forces of gravitation arose inexplicably from material bodies and spread out in all directions through space, in modern physics the gravitational field is primary: it underlies both material bodies and the space between them. …This model of the cosmos is nothing like nineteenth-century materialism, which made ‘inanimate brute matter’ the primary reality and source of invisible forces. (Sheldrake 1994: 83)

In the above quote from Sheldrake, he identified materialism as particular to the nineteenth century. However, it is clear from early on in his book that he views “the mechanistic theory of nature” (1994: 3) as the version of science that has been instrumental in the approach human beings have generally taken towards nature right up until the present time: in “the official world – the world of work business, and politics – nature is conceived of as the inanimate source of natural resources, exploitable for economic development. (Ibid) He further states that through “the successes of technology, the mechanistic theory of nature is now triumphant on a global scale; it is built into the official orthodoxy of economic progress. It has become a kind of religion. And it has led us to our present crisis.” (1994: 5) These are strong characteristics of the Promethean paradigm, as explored in Chapter 3, where scientific materialism and reductionism were identified as instrumental historically in the shaping of human actions towards ecologically destructive ends. Sheldrake’s reference here to the historically dominant economic and political view of nature as an “inanimate source of natural resources”, as well as the reductio-mechanistic scientific employment of technology, is perfectly in alignment with Heidegger’s analysis of the historically dominant technological approach to nature as a standing reserve (1977: 4; 19-20) of resources for purely human use.

In outlining, contextualising, exploring, and evidencing his hypothesis, Sheldrake shows that an important immaterialism must be acknowledged in science and biology. This is clear in the case of fields, as touched upon above in the instance of Einstein’s all-encompassing gravitational field. From “a non-‘orthodox’ scientific point of view” (1994: 83) according to Sheldrake, fields “put back into physics spontaneously self-organising entities with most of the properties of souls” (Ibid). Quantum mechanics elevates such immaterialism to dizzying heights: “In quantum theory, entities such as protons and electrons are regarded as wave packets, or quanta of vibration. They exist as vibrations of quantum matter fields, one kind of field for each kind of particle.” (1994: 87). This is again nothing like the old-fashioned Promethean materialism that is evident as a justifying factor in problematic, ecologically-degrading human action (see chapter 3). Nevertheless, as Sheldrake points out, the “result of all these [scientific] changes is that fields, together with energy, have become the basis of physical reality. In the phrase of Karl Popper, through modern physics, “materialism has transcended itself.” (2004: 88)

The notion of materialism transcending itself is very exciting from the Orphic point of view; the reasons for this will become clear shortly. First, it is important to explore Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields in more detail here in order to grasp the wide implications of the hypotheses. He postulates (1994: 110) that morphic fields are the means by which “self-organising systems at all levels of complexity – including molecules, crystals, cells, tissues, organisms, and societies of organisms” – organise themselves. These fields have an “inherent memory of previous [systems] of the same kind” (1994: 111): “substances such as penicillin crystallise the way they do not because they are governed by timeless mathematical laws but because they have crystallised that way before; they are following habits established through repetition.” (Ibid) Morphic resonance is the term that Sheldrake coins for process whereby past systems/organisms affect the morphic fields of later systems/organisms. He says (Ibid) of morphic resonance that is it “is the influence of like upon like through space and time. …It does not involve a transfer of energy, but of information.” Sheldrake illustrates this process at work with the following example (Ibid) of a tendency he claims is well known in science:

when a newly synthesized organic chemical is crystallized for the first time (say a new drug), there will be no morphic resonance from previous crystals of this type. A new morphic field has to come into existence; of the many energetically possible ways the substance could crystallize, one actually happens. The next time the substance is crystallized anywhere in the world, morphic resonance from the first crystals will make the same pattern of crystallization more probable, and so on. A cumulative memory will build up as the pattern becomes more and more habitual. As a consequence, the crystals should tend to form more readily all over the world.

Sheldrake offers numerous examples of how morphic resonance occurs in complex life-forms – one example is that of the increased likelihood of the abnormal development of fruit flies in laboratory conditions after such abnormal development has already occurred in past instances (Sheldrake 1994: 112); another is the learning of a new trick by rats in one country when thereafter rats in laboratories in different countries “show a tendency to learn it faster” (Ibid). The morphic field hypothesis postulates that in the previous three cases – crystals, fruit flies and rats – all members of the individual species are influenced by the morphic field for the entire species. Using an example of a giraffe, Sheldrake (1994: 110) explains:

The fields of a given species, such as the giraffe, have evolved; they are inherited by present giraffes by previous giraffes. They contain a kind of collective memory on which each member of the species draws and to which it in turn contributes. …The fields are the means by which the habits of the species are built up, maintained and inherited.

This may sound illustrative of the function of genes and DNA, but after a thorough exploration of such genetic processes, Sheldrake (1994: 102 – 108) shows that mechanistic explanations making reference to genetics and DNA fall short when trying to explain what the formative influence is that determines, for example, the development of arms and legs when genes (mere chemicals) “do not determine the form” (1994: 107) and when all the cells in the body contain the same DNA (Ibid):

Clearly some formative influence other than DNA must be shaping the developing arms and legs. All developmental biologists acknowledge this fact. But at this stage their mechanistic explanations peter out into vague statements about ‘complex spatio-temporal patterns of physic-chemical interaction not yet fully understood.’ Obviously this is not a solution but just another way of stating the problem.

Morphic field theory (in the above instances where it offers explanations usually left to genetics, it is called morphogenetic field theory) may provide much more satisfactory approaches to such problems. And this field theory works for all kinds of phenomena, as explored by Sheldrake: the mystery of instinct (1994: 113 -115), the mystery of memory (1994: 115 – 117), the mystery of social organisation (1994: 117 – 120). Sheldrake (1994: 121) goes as far as saying that even the “so-called laws of nature may be more like habits, maintained by morphic resonance.” Clearly this has the potential to be a radical idea, but as Sheldrake (Ibid) points out, now “that all nature is thought to be evolutionary, it is no longer possible to take for granted the conventional idea that all chemical and physical systems are governed by eternal laws of nature.” Even more radical is the idea of transcendent ‘eternal’ laws of nature that are so popular in mechanical and reductionist scientific schools: “If memory within nature sounds mysterious, we should bear in mind that mathematical laws transcending nature are more rather than less so; they are metaphysical rather than physical” (1994: 129).

The hypothesis of morphic resonance is exciting in the context of the ecological crisis for various reasons. In Chapter 3, as already discussed in this sub-section, mechanistic, reductionist science was explored as instrumental in the development of the ecological crisis, but as Sheldrake states (1994: 5),

science itself has begun to transcend the mechanistic worldview. The idea that everything is determined in advance and in principle predictable has given way to the ideas of indeterminism, spontaneity and chaos. The invisible organizing powers of animate nature are once again emerging in the form of fields[;] …the laws of nature may not be eternally fixed; they may be evolving along with nature.

The notion of evolving laws of nature suggests a process that is alive and vital, as opposed to the static and mechanistic material nature of the universe that underlies and accompanies “orthodox” (1994: 3) science. Indeed, here ontology can be thought about from an ‘unorthodox’ scientific perspective where everything that exists is endowed with a fascinating and profound type of ‘aliveness’: “The cosmos is like a great developing organism, and evolutionary creativity is inherent in nature itself” (1994: 96). A purely mechanistic, materialist view cannot concur: nature is “denied the traditional attributes of life, the capacity for spontaneous movement and self-organization. She lost her autonomy. …Nature [is seen as] inanimate and passive, acted upon by external forces in accordance with the mathematical laws of motion” (1994: 79). It goes without saying that such a view of nature as inanimate and ‘dead’ makes it very easy to exploit nature, to merely participate in the extraction of resources from an ‘unimportant’ ‘standing reserve’ of materials. However, if nature were to be seen participating in a complex process of evolution, where each moment, each ‘event’, and each amalgamation of matter were to be seen as highly consequential for the future development of all future moments and ‘events’ and amalgamations of matter, then the possibility is that a person would consider more carefully how they act and behave towards nature. Combined with an awareness of the ecological crisis, awareness of morphic field theory can be said to affect attitudes for the better: “there is a shift from humanism to animism, from an intensely man-centred view to a view of a living world. We are not somehow superior to Gaia; we live within her and depend on her life.” (Sheldrake 1994: 206)

Sheldrake is aware that his idea of morphic resonance “already exists in Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious as an inherited collective memory. The hypothesis of morphic resonance enables the collective unconscious to be seen not just as a human phenomenon but as an aspect of a far more general process by which habits are inherited throughout nature.” (1994: 117) Therefore philosophically there is an analogue for what has been explored in this sub-section; however, by suggesting and thoroughly supporting the idea that such a process occurs for all things – the laws of physics, plants, rocks, animals, crystals, parts of atoms – and not just human beings, Sheldrake opens up a world of intellectual possibilities that are mostly closed in the strict discursive Promethean areas that have dominated humankind historically . Human beings can be said to share in the process of morphic resonance, and because their actions tend to impact on so many other natural entities – soil, water, minerals, animals, plants and trees, air, etc. – as has been seen in Chapters 1 and 2 – with a scientifically sophisticated animistic view they can more carefully consider how their individual and collective actions affect their own species and other entities. When it comes to their own species, a sense of responsibility is further promoted in humans, because if they contribute to a collective ‘memory’, then there is the option of making their contributions positive or negative; in the time of ecological precariousness, positive action ecologically is positive action for the human species, seeing as the latter relies on the well-being of the former in order not only to survive but to flourish.

In conclusion to this sub-section, morphic resonance is indicative of a process pointing “toward a new kind of science, a new understanding of religion, and a new relationship between humanity and the rest of the living world. It is in harmony with the idea of the earth as a living organism [as in James Lovelock’s Gaia theory] and with the greening of our economic and political attitudes.” (1994: 5) This is thoroughly good and important news to spread in the context of the ecological crisis.

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