BOOK REVIEW / Phantoms and termites: 'Seven Experiments That Could Change the World' - Rupert Sheldrake: Fourth Estate, 15.99
Saturday 02 April 1994
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.
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