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Ancestral Being, Part Three


Rupert Sheldrake

3,409 words

Part 3 of 4 (Part 1 here [2]; Part 2 here [3]; Part 4 here [4])

6. The Presence of the Past: A View from the Margins of Science

Some of the above remarks might suggest that we should interpret the Germanic hamingjafylgja teaching as a mythic, symbolic, or even superstitious way of understanding the phenomenon of inheritance – something our ancestors relied upon because they did not have the modern science of genetics. Indeed, we must deal with the fact that our ancestors believed in the “inheritance of acquired characteristics.” Flowers cites an example from the Svarfdæla Saga of a baby who is born with a scar in just the same spot where his father had been wounded.[1] [5] Surely this is the sort of thing that has been thoroughly refuted by modern science.

I wish to challenge such assumptions, however. We must remain open to the possibility that our ancestors were describing phenomena that had a literal existence. Our ancestors had an elaborate understanding of the psyche, much more complex and interesting than ours. It was also a sophisticated understanding that, as I’ve shown, calls into question our modern idea of the atomic individual. Their beliefs deserve serious consideration, though the topic of the “Germanic soul” requires a much more extensive treatment than I can give in this essay. In the present section, I will set forth some reasons to think that our ancestors were describing real phenomena, drawing on the work of biologist Rupert Sheldrake.

Sheldrake is very much a renegade in scientific circles. His credentials, however, are impeccable: he has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge and is the author of more than eighty scientific essays and ten books. However, Sheldrake is often dismissed as a proponent of pseudo-science. It would be an understatement to say that his theories are controversial. In 1981, the journal Nature published a review of Sheldrake’s book A New Science of Life with the subtle title “A Book for Burning?” Since then, Sheldrake has been almost completely ostracized by the scientific community and cannot find a university position. When academics receive such abuse, it almost always means that they are on to something. And Sheldrake certainly does present a thought-provoking case for his views.

I should emphasize that I am not a biologist and so less than fully qualified to undertake a discussion of Sheldrake’s theories. As a non-specialist, my observation is that his arguments establishing that there are serious problems with orthodox biological theory are often somewhat more convincing than the alternative theories he proposes. Nevertheless, he offers us some persuasive reasons to entertain those theories. I should also emphasize that “nothing is riding” on the account that follows. In other words, the theory of clannic being developed in this essay does not stand or fall based on the evidence I will cull from Sheldrake. As I emphasized at the outset, the three approaches presented in this essay – the philosophical, the traditional, and the scientific – complement each other; no one of them is offered as authoritative or as validating the others.

To begin: My major source for Sheldrake’s views is his 1988 book The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature.[2] [6] The theory advanced in that book concerns the causal influence of the past on the present, in the form of what Sheldrake calls “morphogenetic fields.” “Morphogenetic” derives from Greek morphē (form) and genesis, so that “morphogenetic” means what is responsible for generating or creating form. Essentially, Sheldrake proposes that the physical structure of organisms – their form – is shaped by non-physical fields that exist across time, shaping generation after generation. These fields, however, are not eternal Platonic ideas: they can be altered over time, as a result of circumstances that change the behavior of organisms.

In part, Sheldrake proposes this theory because (as he argues at length) genes alone cannot account for why organisms organize their bodies in the way they do. Contrary to what most people (including most biologists) think, “morphogenesis” is still a mystery.[3] [7] We are all familiar with the language of “genetic programming,” which is a shorthand way of saying “organisms take the forms they do because somehow genes code for those forms.” We use such shorthand because we assume that someone somewhere has the full answer to exactly how this takes place. But Sheldrake exposes this as a myth: biologists are not exactly sure how organic forms are “programmed” by genes. Sheldrake points out that this sort of language is really no different from talk of a “conatus” or an “entelechy,” which was rightly rejected long ago by biologists as explaining nothing.[4] [8] The language of “programming” is, of course, drawn from computers and is really thus a metaphor. But it is such a familiar, oft-repeated metaphor that we have come to take it literally, and to accept it uncritically.

Biology can link certain traits of organisms to genes, but Sheldrake argues that the gene theory cannot explain why organisms exhibit their characteristic forms or structures. One reason is that the different parts of our body contain the exact same genes. Sheldrake writes:

If the [postulated] genetic program were carried in the genes, then all the cells of the body would be programmed identically, because in general they contain exactly the same genes. The cells of your arms and legs, for example, are genetically identical. Moreover, these limbs contain exactly the same kinds of protein molecules, as well as chemically identical bone, cartilage, and so forth. Yet they have different shapes. Clearly, the genes alone cannot explain these differences. They must depend on something else: on formative influences which act differently in different organs and tissues as they develop. These influences cannot be inside the genes; they extend over entire tissues and organs. At this stage the concept of the genetic program fades out, and is replaced by vague statements about “complex spatio-temporal patterns of physico-chemical activity not yet fully understood,” or “mechanisms as yet obscure.”[5] [9]

Sheldrake offers many surprising illustrations drawn from natural history to support his basic skepticism about the claim that genes can explain organic forms and structures. He also deploys a number of brilliant rhetorical devices, the most effective of which is probably the following argument from analogy:

Morphogenesis is generally supposed to happen automatically in a manner as yet obscure through the self-assembling processes of [material constituents such as certain molecules]. It is as if the delivery of the right building materials and machinery to plots of ground resulted in the spontaneous growth of houses of just the right form.[6] [10]

As further evidence for the poverty of the “genetic programming” hypothesis, one might also mention the surprising results of studies on human twins – which are, of course, directly relevant to our major issue, that of human heredity. Studies of identical twins separated at birth and raised apart without any contact until adulthood show remarkable similarities, even in areas such as political views, religiosity, and sexual orientation. All of these may plausibly be explained via genetic propensities. But what are we to do with cases like the following?

Among the identical twins included in the famous Minnesota Twin Family Study[7] [11] were Jim Lewis and Jim Springer, who were raised apart from the age of four weeks, and reunited at age 39 without ever having met before. It was found that both worked as security guards, smoked Salem cigarettes, drove Chevys, and had been married twice – the first time both men married women named Linda, then subsequently both married women named Betty. Both also had sons they named James Allen. They vacationed at the same Florida beach, had dogs named Toy, and had woodworking workshops in their garages.

Any one – or two, or three – of these items could be chalked up to coincidence. But not the whole picture. And it is probable that something is at work here other than genetics. In fact, it is absurd to think that there are genes for driving Chevys, smoking Salems, marrying women named Linda and Betty, and naming one’s son James Allen. Of course, it must be acknowledged that the popular idea of “genes for” is simplistic, and scientists frequently point this out. In other words, finding genetic propensities is not a matter of looking for, say, a single gene “for alcoholism,” or “for being gay,” and so on.[8] [12] But when we grant this, it still seems wildly implausible that even a constellation of genetic factors predisposed the two Jims to some of these common traits. It is reasonable to suppose that there may have been some other connection between the two, that it was maintained after their separation, and that it continued to affect them. Whatever that connection was, it was certainly not of the mundane variety, since, as noted, the twins had no personal contact until well after these common traits had been established.

Instead of “genetic programming,” Sheldrake proposes that the organization and development of organisms is governed by morphogenetic fields, which are not physical objects in any familiar sense, but rather “regions of influence.”[9] [13] Naïve materialists will respond to such a claim with skepticism. However, it is important to note that physicists graduated beyond materialism a long time ago, and that they theorize regularly about phenomena that are not “material” or “physical” in any conventional sense. The public, and many non-physicists in the scientific community, remain mired in an outdated materialism, long ago discredited.[10] [14] The phenomenon of gravitation provides a simple example that may help overcome some skepticism about the non-material nature of Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields. Gravitational fields, the existence of which is universally accepted, are “regions of influence” (to use Sheldrake’s term) that are associated with physical objects. However, they are not themselves “physical objects,” though their influence does extend through space.

Similarly, morphogenetic fields exist in space, just insofar as living things grow and organize themselves “within” these fields. Morphogenetic fields are extended in time, however, in a way that individual living things are not: they exist across generations of living things. They contain, as Sheldrake puts it, “a built-in memory.”[11] [15] These fields “remember” the actions or behavior of the organisms governed by them, and then pass some of this memory along to later organisms of the same type. Sheldrake uses the term “morphic resonance” to describe the process by which the past becomes present in those later generations.[12] [16]

The hypothesis of morphic resonance is not intended to replace the gene theory as an explanation of morphogenesis, but to supplement it and to provide an explanation of phenomena for which genes alone cannot account. Sheldrake writes that the hypothesis of morphogenetic fields:

provides a different interpretation for the role of genes. It suggests that they do what they are known to do: namely to code information for the sequence of chemical building blocks in RNA and protein molecules. But it does not project onto the genes the ability to organize the whole organism. Rather, it looks for these hereditary organizing principles in fields that are inherited non-materially.[13] [17]

Sheldrake supports his theory using a number of striking examples. Some are intended to support the claim that the physical structure of organisms cannot be accounted for solely by genes. The reader is referred to Sheldrake’s Presence of the Past for these examples, of which there are many. Another group of examples suggests that information is transmitted across generations in ways that have no obvious material explanation. In one such example, the second generation of the same group of rats was shown to make it through a maze more rapidly and easily than the first – even though there was no opportunity for the first generation to educate their young about the maze. Another experiment showed that people are able to guess, a statistically significant percentage of the time, which words are actual words in a dead or obscure language, of which they have no prior knowledge, and which are invented.[14] [18] A further example concerned blue tits in the United Kingdom that learned to pry the tops off of milk bottles left on doorsteps and to drink from them. Once the phenomenon was discovered in one group of tits, scientists were able to establish that it rapidly spread throughout Europe, almost as if the tits were phoning each other up and passing on the instructions. In this example, it was not only subsequent generations that acquired the behavior, but also contemporaneous members of the same species living in different locations.

All these examples, and others, suggest that once organisms of a certain type acquire new behaviors or abilities and thoroughly automatize them, a change can occur in the “form” of the organism (Sheldrake’s morphogenetic field) that is then passed down to later generations in a manner that seems to exclude any material form of transmission. For instance, the experiment concerning language described above suggests that once a group of human beings becomes thoroughly immersed in a certain language, “traces” of this imprint themselves on the human morphogenetic field, and become the unconscious possession of subsequent generations of human beings, even in very different ethnies.

Thus, Sheldrake proposes not only that there are morphogenetic fields for individual species, but that the structure of these fields results from changes to previous similar organisms.[15] [19] It is thus obvious that there is no conflict between his theory and the basic idea of evolution, since morphogenetic fields change and evolve. Needless to say, however, Sheldrake’s theory strongly conflicts with orthodox neo-Darwinism, since it supports the inheritance of acquired characteristics (so-called “Lamarckism”). However, it is interesting to note that Darwin himself actually believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and saw no conflict with his theory of natural selection. In fact, as Sheldrake discusses, there is substantial evidence for Lamarckism, and its rejection by today’s scientists is more a matter of dogma than anything else.

Matters are a little more complicated, however, than “one field per species.” In a manner that must call to mind Plato’s “hierarchy of forms,” Sheldrake believes in nested hierarchies of fields, and fields within fields. That this should be the case is intuitively obvious, simply from the way we classify species. Thus, it makes sense to believe in a human field and a cat field, but also in a mammal field which organizes both humans and cats in certain characteristic, common ways. Each individual organism, therefore, would participate (yet again, an echo of Plato!) in multiple fields.[16] [20]

The example of the experiment involving language, and certain other elements of the foregoing, may have reminded the reader of C. G. Jung’s theory of the “collective unconscious.” Sheldrake does indeed draw this parallel himself.[17] [21] He also cites Jung’s student Marie Louise von Franz, who suggested that there was more than one collective unconscious. Famously, Freud had dealt with only the personal unconscious, whereas Jung postulated an unconscious common to all of humanity, which expressed itself in the form of “archetypes.” Von Franz’s suggestion was that within this collective, the universal unconscious, were nested levels: a group unconscious of specific nations, tribes, clans, and families.[18] [22]

In drawing on von Franz’s ideas, Sheldrake is suggesting that there may be incorporeal morphogenetic fields not only for species and subspecies, but even for human families. It is here that we see how Sheldrake’s ideas are directly relevant to understanding the traditional, Germanic lore about “the soul.” Sheldrake’s theory gives us a way of conceptualizing, scientifically, the traditional teaching on the hamingjafylgja complex. Again, I must emphasize that I am not suggesting that somehow science validates tradition. Nevertheless, it is interesting that a scientist has arrived independently at conclusions that seem to support the traditional teaching.

Like the morphogenetic field, the hamingja-fylgja has an affinity for similar organisms (in this case, members of the same clan). And, again, Sheldrake admits the possibility that there may be “family fields.” Further, just as tradition teaches that we may have multiple hamingjur-fylgjur, so Sheldrake says we have multiple, nested fields. Further, just as the hamingja-fylgja is “fed” by actions and changes over time, bequeathing the past to later generations, Sheldrake’s fields function in the exact same way. Sheldrake’s theory also validates the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which we have seen was a traditional belief. In a larger sense, Sheldrake’s theory emphasizes the primacy of the past, and its formative effect on the present – just as we find in the Germanic tradition. As we have noted, for our ancestors the past is, paradoxically, ever-present, continuing to influence and shape what comes to be. Sheldrake suggests that we should “think of the past as pressed up, as it were, against the present, and as potentially present everywhere. The morphic influences of past organisms may simply be present to subsequent similar organisms.”[19] [23]

Sheldrake’s theories, of course, raise at least as many questions as they purport to answer. Nevertheless, they offer an extremely thought-provoking challenge to mainstream biology and its outdated mechanistic-materialist approach. One major problem morphic resonance does not seem to be able to answer is how fields come into being. We have seen that Sheldrake argues that fields are changed by the behavior of organisms of similar type. But how do those fields arise in the first place? Where do they come from? Sheldrake does suggest an answer to this: “Perhaps [fields] do not come from anywhere, but somehow arise spontaneously. Perhaps they are organized by some ‘higher’ kind of field.”[20] [24] In my essay “The Stones Cry Out: Cave Art and the Origin of the Human Spirit [25],” I have suggested a similar hypothesis: that new organisms and new behaviors are the result of a special kind of “spontaneity.” However, I provide a metaphysical theory of how such spontaneity is intelligible as an expression of the process by which the universe moves toward its ultimate telos or goal. See that essay for more information.



[1] [26] See Stephen E. Flowers, Sigurðr: Rebirth and the Rites of Transformation (Smithfield, Tx.: Rûna-Raven, 2011), p. 66.

[2] [27] This volume was reissued with revisions in 2011. In this essay, however, I have relied on the text of the original edition.

[3] [28] Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 1988), p. 72.

[4] [29] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 87.

[5] [30] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 86.

[6] [31] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 91.

[7] [32] See Nancy L. Segal, Born Together – Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twins Study (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[8] [33] See Sheldrake, ibid., p. 90.

[9] [34] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 78.

[10] [35] Sheldrake writes, “Although [the theory of morphogenetic fields] seems mysterious, the conventional theories seem no less so when we stand back and look at the remarkable assumptions they embody. The hypothesis of formative causation is not a bizarre metaphysical speculation that contrasts with a hard, empirical, down-to-earth theory of mechanism. The mechanistic theory depends on assumptions that are, if anything, more metaphysical than the idea of formative causation” (p. 112). Indeed, one of the virtues of Sheldrake’s book is that he exposes the problematic and outdated metaphysical assumptions behind much of modern science. Mechanistic views have been dominant since at least the time of Descartes, yet the metaphor of “mechanism” cannot make sense out of much of the science done since then. Yet, the metaphor persists with the public and much of the scientific community – who often do not even recognize it as a metaphor. Similarly, Sheldrake also demonstrates how a “Platonic” understanding of eternal and immutable “natural laws” is also an inadequate metaphor, and one which is at odds with the idea of an evolving cosmos.

[11] [36] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 317.

[12] [37] See Sheldrake, ibid., p. xix.

[13] [38] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 90.

[14] [39] For example, test subjects who had no knowledge of Hebrew were shown a list of actual Hebrew words, into which had been mixed made-up words that still looked plausibly like Hebrew. Subjects were able to discern which were the real words at a rate that suggested something more than chance was at work.

[15] [40] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 108.

[16] [41] Though there are parallels between Platonic forms and morphogenetic fields, it is important to reiterate that they are quite different, since morphogenetic fields can change over time. In The Presence of the Past, Sheldrake is actually quite concerned to combat Platonism in science, especially as it shows itself in the concept of eternal and immutable “laws of nature.”

[17] [42] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 222, and elsewhere.

[18] [43] Sheldrake, p. 252. See von Franz’s essay “The Transformed Berserk: Unification of Psychic Opposites,” in Human Survival and Consciousness Evolution, ed. Stanislav Grof (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988). This essay is also interesting because it tells the story of the fifteenth-century Swiss hermit Nicholas of Flüe who, despite being a Christian ascetic, had a vision that seems to have been of the god Odin.

[19] [44] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 112.

[20] [45] Sheldrake, ibid., p. 114. See also Chapter 18.