A Heretic for Our Times

By Jay Walljasper, Ode

'Science is the last unreformed institution'

Sheldrake's bold theories about how the universe works sparked controversy in 1981 with the publication of A New Science of Life. Actually it wasn't the book itself that brought Sheldrake's ideas to prominence but an incendiary editorial by the editor of the respected British journal Nature, Sir John Maddox, who fumed, "This infuriating tract…is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years." That was quite a lot of attention for a young scientist, especially one who at that time was working as a plant physiologist in India.

What so infuriated Maddox was Sheldrake's theory of "morphic resonance" -- a complicated framework of ideas proposing that nature relies upon its own set of memories, which are transmitted through time and space via "morphic fields". The theory holds that these fields, which operate much like electrical or magnetic fields, shape our entire world. A panda bear is a panda bear because it naturally tunes into morphic fields containing storehouses of information that define and govern panda bears. The same with pigeons, platinum atoms, and the oak trees on Hampstead Heath, not to mention human beings. This theory, if widely accepted, would turn our understanding of the universe inside out -- which is why Sheldrake has so often felt the wrath of orthodox scientists.