BOOK REVIEW / Phantoms and termites: 'Seven Experiments That Could Change the World' - Rupert Sheldrake: Fourth Estate, 15.99

RUPERT SHELDRAKE is one of the would-be re-enchanters of the world. In a series of books since he launched his notorious theory of Formative Causation in A New Science of Life (1981) he has attacked Western science and urged us on to a new era in which hidden forces would liberate us.

What are these forces? Sheldrake believes that the phantom limbs experienced by amputees can actually be felt by other people a statistically significant number of times (don't rely on it, it is still a phantom); and that a person being stared at from behind becomes conscious of the fact, as if the eye could project a comic-strip beam onto the object of its gaze.

If such phenomena could be proven, says Sheldrake, it would change the world. How? 'There would be a new valuation of folklore and popular belief, such as beliefs in uncanny powers of animals and of being stared at.' But this is a perfectly circular argument: is he sure that all folklore and popular belief are good, and all science bad? There is plenty of folklore in the world's troublespots, some of it contributing to the trouble. Russia is now awash with ancient nonsense, and very dangerous it is proving too.

It is all too easy to jeer at the absurdities in Sheldrake: better to concentrate on those good points he does make, and to ask why his programme is so shrill, so thin. Of the seven experiments, the most interesting concern the homing of pigeons, the organisation of termite nests, and the variability of the fundamental constants.

Unlike the touchability of phantom limbs and the palpability of a stare, the homing ability of pigeons is universally accepted. Most scientists believe that pigeons orientate by means of the earth's magnetic field: there is no doubt that their sense of direction is affected by magnetic fields, but this may not be the whole story. Sheldrake's theory is that the pigeon has a quantum rubber band directly connecting it to home: if it overshoots the band pulls it back (technically, this refers to the respectable quantum property of non- localisation whereby two particles remain 'connected' even when they have flown apart).

Termites seem to behave as if they were cells in a body, a super-organism that comprises all the termites in the nest. For instance, if termites from one nest are placed in a series of polystyrene containers they will begin to build a nest in their characteristic pattern, but only the outer two cells will try to build the outer wall. The inner cells do not behave as separate nests - they are still under central control (this is like running one TV picture over a matrix of contiguous screens). Control seems to emanate from the queen, because if she is killed all purposive acivity ceases. Electrical activity has been detected in termite populations and shielding them against electrical influences does disrupt their organisation. But no one pretends to fully understand this.

What Sheldrake is groping for in every case here is a force at work that is presently unknown to science. It is not clear whether he wishes such forces to be identified and quantified, like electromagnetism or nuclear power, or whether their charm resides in their elusiveness. I suspect the latter.

But why is Sheldrake's programme so thin? The world is full of potentially transforming powers, which are indeed to some extent enfeebled by scientific orthodoxy, but Sheldrake shows little interest in them. They do not include the useless ability to make someone three rows away in a lecture hall twitch with self-consciousness. I am thinking about the practical and fine arts, the charitable urge, all amateur forms of social organisation. Although there is no shortage of colour, design flair, artistic brio and even goodheartedness in the world, science is implicated in their undermining. Hard-nosed scientific positivism encourages philistinism and contemptuous relativism in the arts of living.

But Sheldrake's heart is in the right place. Although the only life-enhancing activities he deals with in this book concern pets - cats, dogs and pigeons - these, unlike stares and phantom limbs, are part of our real world of culture. And his insistence on the reality of sympathetic relationships between animals and people is far more important than some of the footling experiments he advocates.

Sheldrake wants us all to try these experiments and he gives instructions. It must be said that his own work has been so desultory it is not going to inspire by example: 'This was a disastrous mistake,' 'Alas, this was not to happen,' 'Unfortunately, most (of the pigeons) were lost, shot or killed by sparrowhawks.' When Sheldrake puts the boot in, it turns out to be attached to one of those phantom limbs.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before