Interview with Rupert Sheldrake
DJB: Rupert, what was it that originally inspired your interest in biochemistry and morphogenesis?
RUPERT: I did biology because I was
in animals and plants, and because my father was a biologist. He was a
natural historian of the old school, with a microscope room at home and
cabinets of slides, and so on. And he taught me a lot about plants, and
I learned about animals through keeping pets. I was just very
in biology. One reason I did biochemistry was because it was one of the
very few sciences you could do which was still covering all of biology.
Biochemistry covered plants, animals, and microorganisms. That appealed
to me. It was a kind of universal biological science. I saw, of course,
quite soon, that biochemistry was no way of understanding the forms of
animals and plants, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how to
the bridge between embryology, plant development, and what was going on
on the biochemical level. And this was the subject of research for some
ten years that I did at Cambridge.
RUPERT: The theory of formative
causation is concerned
with how things take up their forms, or patterns, or organization. So
covers the formation of galaxies, atoms, crystals, molecules, plants,
cells, societies. It covers all kinds of things that have forms,
structures, or selforganizing properties.
RMN: Could you give a specific example of, and describe the morphogenetic process in terms of, the development of a well-established species, like a potato, for example?
RUPERT: Well, the idea is that each
member of a species draws on the collective memory of the species, and
tunes in to past members of the species, and in turn contributes to the
further development of the species. So in the case of a potato, you'd
a whole background resonance from past species of potatoes, most of
grow wild in the Andes. And then in that particular case, because it's
a cultivated plant, there's been a development of a whole lot of
of potatoes, which are cultivated, and as it so happens potatoes are
vegetatively, so they're clones.
RMN: What about how the morphic field develops in a new system, like a newly synthesized chemical, or a drug? How would the field evolve around that?
RUPERT: Well, the first time the chemical is crystallized, there won't be a morphic field for the crystals, because they would not have existed before. As time goes on, it should get easier to crystallize, because of morphic resonance from previous crystals. So, however the first pattern is taken --this is a question of creativity, but assume, for example, it's random--whenever the first lot of crystals crystallize that way, out of the other possible ways they could have crystallized, then that pattern will be stabilized through morphic resonance, and the more often it happens, the more likely it will be to happen again, through this kind of invisible memory connecting up crystals throughout the world. There's already evidence that new crystals, new compounds, do get easier to crystallize as time goes on.
DJB: What are morphic fields made of, and how is it that they can exist everywhere all at once? Do they work on a principle similar to Bell's Theorem?
RUPERT: Well, you could ask the
are any fields made of? You know, what is the electromagnetic
made of, or what is the gravitational field made of? Nobody
even in the case of the known fields of physics. It was thought in the
nineteenth century that they were made of ether. But then Einstein
that the concept of the ether was superfluous; he said the
field isn't made out of ether, it's made out of itself. It just is. The
magnetic field around a magnet, for example, is not made of air, and
not made of matter. When you scatter iron fillings, you can reveal this
field, but it's not made of anything except the field. And then if you
say, well maybe all fields have some common substance, or common
then that's the quest for a unified field theory.
DJB: Wait. But those are localized aren't they? I mean, you sprinkle iron fillings about a magnet, and you can see the field around it. How is it that a morphic field can exist everywhere all at once?
RUPERT: It doesn't. The morphic fields
They're in and around the system they organize. So the morphic field of
you is in and around your body. The morphic field around a tomato plant
is in and around that plant. What I'm suggesting is that morphic fields
in different tomato plants resonate with each other across space and
I'm not suggesting that the field itself is delocalized over the whole
of space and time. It's suggesting that one field influences another
through space and time. Now, the medium of transmission is obscure. I
it morphic resonance, this process of resonating. What this is
in conventional physics is the so-called "laws of nature," which are
to be present in all places, and at all times.
RMN: You suggest that the hypothesis of formative causation does not refute orthodox theory but actually incorporates and complements it. How is this so?
RUPERT: The orthodox theory in biology
and in chemistry,
and indeed in science, is the mechanistic theory of nature that says
natural systems are like machines, and are made up of physical and
processes. What I'm saying is that you can, if you like, think of
of nature as being machine-like, but this doesn't explain them. Nature
isn't a machine. You and I are not machines. We may be like machines in
certain respects. Our hearts may be like pumps, and our brains, in some
sense, like computers.
RMN: You've incorporated that into your theory, and just taken it to another level...?
RUPERT: Yes. There are still enzymes
impulses in the kind of world I'm talking about; all the things that
in regular biochemistry and biophysics are still there. What isn't
there is the assumption that these aspects of the process are all there
is. To take an analogy, it's like trying to understand a building. If
want to understand a building, one level of looking at it is to say,
it's made of wood and other things, metal and frames, and so on. And
you can say we can measure, we can analyze the wood and other
DJB: What are the implications of the theory of formative causation? How do hypothetical morphic fields affect things like the sciences, the arts, technologies, and social structures?
RUPERT: Well, I've written an entire
book on this
subject--The Presence of the Past--so it's difficult to answer
extremely briefly. But, first of all, it gives a completely different
of formative processes in biology and in chemistry. It gives a new
of instincts and behavioral patterns, as being organized by morphic
It gives a new understanding of social structure, in terms of morphic
and cultural forms, and ideas. All of these I see as patterns organized
by these fields with an inherent memory.
RMN: On the one hand it is reassuring that a certain pattern or order is being maintained, and yet options must be available for change if that pattern ceases to function effectively. In what ways does nature supply the necessary conditions for this balance of repeatability and novelty?
RUPERT: Well, the universe is not in a
there's an ongoing creative principle in nature, which is driving
onwards. Cosmologically speaking, this is the expansion of the
If the universe had been in a steady state at the moment of the Big
Bang, it'd still be at billions of degrees centigrade. We wouldn't
be here. The reason we're here is because the Big Bang involved a
explosion, an outward movement of expansion of the whole universe, such
that it cooled down, and virtually created more space for new things to
happen. And in the ongoing evolutionary process, there's a constant
of what's there through the fact that the universe is not in
RMN: When a system hits an evolutionary dead end, an organism becomes extinct or an object obsolete. What happens to its field? Does it kind of just breakup and merge with other similar fields?
RUPERT: Well, I think in a sense the ghosts of dead species would still be haunting the world, that the fields of the dinosaurs would still be potentially present ... if you could tune into them. If a dinosaur egg could be reconstituted, you could get them back again. I think that in the course of evolution these past forms do indeed reappear. They're known in the biological literature as atavisms, the process by which the forms, or patterns, or behaviors of extinct species reappear in living ones. Like babies being born with tails.
DJB: Or parallel evolution?
RUPERT: Well, parallel evolution would involve a similar process, but what I'm talking about is the influence of extinct species traveling across time and these features reappearing. Parallel evolution would be where you have the features of some species traveling across space, and similar patterns evolving somewhere else like, for example, the evolution of forms among marsupials in Australia that parallel those of placental mammals elsewhere.
DJB: You said before that there could be a sort of collective memory, and you said that was analogous to Jung's notion of the collective unconscious. Do you think it's possible then that morphic fields are, or can be, actually conscious?
RUPERT: I don't think that morphic
fields are conscious.
I think that some aspects of morphic fields could become conscious in
beings. I think that the underlying patterns of mental activity that
ideas, thoughts, etc., depend on our morphic fields. I think they
conscious in us. But most of the collective unconscious, most of our
and most of the habits of nature, I think, are unconscious, and most of
nature, I think, works much more like our unconscious minds than like
conscious minds. And after all, 90%, maybe 99%, of our own activity is
unconscious. We don't need to assume that the kind of unconscious
that we ourselves have are any different from the rest of nature.
DJB: In your book The Presence of the Past you offer the suggestion that memories are not actually stored in the brain, but rather they may be stored in an information field that can be accessed by the brain. If this should prove to be true, do you believe then that human consciousness, our personal memories and sense of self, may survive biological death in some form?
RUPERT: Well, certainly the idea that
aren't stored in the brain opens the way for a new debate or new
on the question of survival of death. Most people assume
are stored in the brain, simply because this is the mechanistic
that's very rarely challenged. There's hardly any evidence for
storage in the brain, as I show in my book, and what evidence there
is could be interpreted better in terms of the brain as a tuning
tuning into its own past. So that we can gain access to our own
by tuning into our own past states. The brain is more like a TV
than like a tape recorder or a video recorder.
DJB: Do you think there is a morphic field for dreams, mystical experiences, and other states of consciousness?
RUPERT: I think that any organized
activity--which includes dreams and some mystical experiences, and
states of consciousness--any pattern of activity has a structure, and
so far as these mental activities or states have structures, then these
structures could indeed move from person to person by morphic
And indeed, in many mystical traditions, it's thought that people
initiation are brought into that particular tradition and resonate, or
in some sense enter into communion with, or connection with, other
who followed in the tradition before.
RMN: What have your ideas been on the hierarchical systems of morphic fields, of the fundamental fields of nature or life, and the basic morphic fields that have influenced that, or the morphic fields of morphic fields? I've been wondering about that.
RUPERT: I think all such fields are
or hierarchically. They're hierarchical in the sense of nested
Cells are within tissues, and tissues are within organs, and organs are
within your body. There's a sense in which the whole, the body and the
mind, the whole of you, is greater than the organs in your body, and
in turn are greater than tissues, those in turn greater than cells,
in turn greater than molecules. The greater is a spatial context, the
DJB: Do you think it's possible that morphic fields from the future may be influencing us, as well as those from the past? If not, why?
RUPERT: Well, I think that is related
to the question
of creativity; how do new patterns come into being? There may possibly
be some influence from the future. But the habitual fields, which I'm
talking about, are not influenced by the future, at least as far as
theory is concerned. It would be possible to have a theory that said
future and the past exerted equal influences, but that theory would be
different from the one I'm suggesting, which is that the past is
the present through morphic resonance. If future and past influenced it
equally, the theory would be virtually untestable, because we don't
what will happen in the future, so we wouldn't know what influences
be testing for.
RMN: Could the presence of the future be described as the potential state of the system, the virtual state, as it moves along the pathways or access routes towards it?
RUPERT: Yes, I think so. I think there
ways of thinking about it. One is there's a kind of aura around the
stretching out into the future, which is the realm of hopes, fears,
dreams, imaginings about what can happen. But then there's a further
and a more fundamental one, as to whether the whole evolutionary
is being pulled from the future, rather than being pushed from the
And the idea that it's all being pulled from the future is a very
view, and so is the idea it's being pushed from the past.
RMN: Yeah, that leads on to the next question I have about how to use the concept of attractors, as expressed in the current research of dynamical systems, in the theory of formative causation.
RUPERT: Well, the idea of attractors,
developed in modern mathematical dynamics, is a way of modeling the way
systems develop, by modeling the end states toward which they tend.
is an attempt to understand systems by understanding where they're
to in the future, rather than just where they've been pushed from in
past. So, the attractor, as the name implies, pulls the system towards
itself. A very simple, easy-to-understand, example is throwing marbles,
or round balls into a pudding basin. The balls will roll round and
and they'll finally come to rest at the bottom of the basin. The bottom
of the basin is the attractor, in what mathematicians call the basin of
RMN: So, it is like the future in some sense.
RUPERT: It's like the future pulling, but it's not the future. It's a hard concept to grasp, because what we think of as the future pulling is not necessary what will happen in the future. You can cut the acorn down before it ever reaches the oak tree. So, it's not as if its future as oak tree is pulling it. It's some kind of potentiality to reach an end state, which is inherent in its nature. The attractor in traditional language is the entelechy, in Aristotle's language, and in the language of the medieval scholastics. Entelechy is the aspect of the soul, which is the end which draws everything towards it. So all people would have their own entelechy, which would be like their own destiny or purpose. Each organism, like an acorn, would have the entelechy of an oak tree, which means this end state--entelechy means the end which is within it--it has its own end, purpose, or goal. And that's what draws it. But that end, purpose, or goal is somehow not necessarily in the future. It is in a sense in the future. In another sense it's not the actual future of that system, although it becomes so.
RMN: Perhaps the most compelling implication of your hypothesis is that nature is not governed by eternally fixed laws but more by habits that are able to evolve as conditions change. In what ways do you think the human experience of reality could be affected as a result of this awareness?
RUPERT: Well, I think first of all the
habits developing along with nature gives us a much more evolutionary
of nature herself. I think that nature-the entire cosmos, the
world we live in--is in some sense alive, and that it's more like a
organism, with developing habits, than like a fixed machine governed by
fixed laws, which is the old image of the cosmos, the old world view.
RMN: And the way different discoveries are found simultaneously.
RUPERT: Yes. I mean, that's another aspect. It will also mean things that some people do-will resonate with others, as in independent discoveries, parallel cultural development, etc.
RMN: When you were talking about the individuals' destinies being ruled by some kind of morphic field of their own. Individuality--does that resonate through their ancestral heritage and their environment?
RUPERT: Well, it was in a quite limited
I was using the term. When you're an embryo there's a sense in which
destiny of the embryo is to be an adult human being. There's a sense in
which the growth and development of an embryo and a child are headed
the adult state. That's a relation to time, of heading towards an adult
or mature state that we share in common with animals and plants. This
a basic biological feature of our life.
RMN: Could you expand on that?
RUPERT: The thing is that most of us
all original. We mostly take on opinions from the available variety on
the market, and when you come to the question of individual destiny,
know, there's several traditional theories. One is that when we die,
it, everything just goes blank, and so the only purpose of life is to
it while it's happening. There's nothing beyond. This is the classic
or Epicurean view of life.
DJB: What types of research experiments do you think need to be done that would either prove or disprove the existence of morphic fields?
RUPERT: Well, I outline quite a number of them in my books. There's a series of experiments that can be done in chemistry with crystals, in biochemistry with protein folding, in developmental biology with fruit fly development, in animal behavior with rats, in human behavior through studying rates of learning tasks that other people have learned before. So there's a whole range of tests, the details of which I suggest in my books, which could be done to test the theory in a variety of areas: chemistry, biology, behavioral science, psychology. Some of these tests are going on right now in some universities in Britain. There's a competition for tests being sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, tests to be done by students. The closing date's in 1990. So these are just some of the tests that I'd like to see done to test the theory.
DJB: Could you tell us about any current projects on which you're working?
RUPERT: Well, I'm doing two main things at present. One is that I'm helping to coordinate research on morphic resonance, organizing tests in the realms of chemistry and biology. And secondly I'm writing a book called The Rebirth of Nature. It's a book about the ways in which we're coming to see nature as alive, rather than inanimate, and how this has enormous implications: personally for people in their relationships with the world around them; collectively, through our collective relationship to nature; spiritually, the way this leads to a reframing or re-understanding of spiritual traditions, and politically through the Green Movement, which is now an influential political force, especially in Europe. Moving from the exploitive mechanistic attitude to a symbiotic attitude, we realize that we're not in charge of nature, we're not separate from nature and somehow running it. Rather we're part of ecosystems, and part of the world, and our continued existence depends on living harmoniously with the planet of which we're a part. It's an obvious thing, this Gaian perspective, but it hasn't been taken seriously in politics. But now it is being taken seriously, and so I would say the idea of nature as alive has become a very important force in our society through its political manifestations as well as its scientific ones.
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