Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


BOOK REVIEW / In your own test-tube: Seven experiments that could change the world: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science by Rupert Sheldrake: 4th Estate, pounds 15.99

EXPERIMENTS to 'change the world'; a book that will take us 'beyond the current frontiers of research and reveal much more of the world than science has yet dared to reveal', cries the blurb. At last the portals are thrown open, the secrets of the sealed lab unveiled. What's more, I can do-it-myself. Hardly.

Much of what Sheldrake claims as 'revolutionary' is old ground: conventional science is institutional, conservative, limited by reductionist thinking; the cult of objectivity, reinforced by depersonalised scientific papers ('a test-tube was taken . . .'), is spurious; 'results' are tailored. It is interesting that he sees biology as lagging so far behind, at a time when the old determinism of physics is being transformed by recognition of spontaneity, chaos and complexity. Sheldrake's own enthusiasm for holistic and organistic models of the cosmos is engaging, and one chapter strikes directly at the concept of immutable laws by taking up Whitehead's point, made in the 1930s, that if the universe is evolving its laws must logically 'evolve' too, and suggesting that the numerical values of universal constants, such as gravity or the velocity of light, may themselves fluctuate.

This foray, however, is uncharacteristic. Sheldrake's real grudge is that contemporary research rules out as 'taboo' all subjects which defy the mechanistic approach. But the trouble is that his wilder shores of science are rather narrow: beyond the relatively unstudied subjects of animal powers, he concentrates on areas commonly dubbed paranormal - extra-sensory perception, psychokinesis, the evil eye, out-of-body experiences, astral flight. His democratic approach to research may reflect this interest: the request for reports to be sent to the Society for Noetic Science ('pertaining to the mind') reminds one of the participatory model set up by the Society for Psychical Research in the 1880s.

The book's three sections - 'Extraordinary Powers of Ordinary Animals', 'The Extended Mind' and 'Scientific Illusions' - focus on 'knowing at a distance': uncanny links between pets and owners; the homing instinct of pigeons; the fascinating way termites build elaborate nests to a 'blueprint'; the sensation of being stared at from behind. In the last case, he questions whether sight can actually reach out and 'touch' the person observed; conversely, could observers 'feel' the phantom limbs of amputees? Within the lab itself, can the power of mind - the 'psi-effect' - literally influence experiments? If one of two identical enzymes is labelled 'inhibited', might it in fact then show slower growth?

The most gripping parts are either anecdotes, like the stories of pet owners, or straight-faced reports of 'conventional' researchers, like the ones who anaesthetise pigeons, strap them to magnets, whirl them in rotating drums, fit them with frosted-glass contact lenses. In Italy, to test if homing depends on scent, they sprayed the air with olive oil (south) and pine-smelling turpentine (north), to make them fly the wrong way. It didn't work.

In contrast, Sheldrake's own 'experiments' seem feeble. They also stretch the concept of DIY. True, some could be done at home (transporting pets or staring at your partner) but others require such basic necessities as a termites' nest, a world network of labs, and a pigeon fancier prepared to move his loft around the country.

Even if successful, surely they would just make the phenomena 'respectable', rather than explaining them? Sheldrake has a go, borrowing the 'field' concept and relating it to a phenomenon 'revealed' (a nice merging of religious/objective-scientific) by quantum theory, of 'non-locality or non-separability, whereby systems that were once part of a larger whole retain a mysterious connectedness even when many miles apart'. From this he develops a notion of 'morphic fields', long-evolved spatial patterns which might apply across the board, from neutrons to galaxies, from the termite's blueprint to the lost leg.

It's bracing to turn from the commercial and military bias of current research to neglected cultural fields. Yet somehow it is hard to read this book as non-fiction; the subjects are absorbing, but the urgency to force them into 'science' seems phoney, as if a New Age wizard had borrowed a white lab-coat. It's like a maddeningly one-sided conversation, or watching Don Quixote tilting at his windmills. Despite its best-selling zest, this book will not change the world, nor our perception of it.