Coronet, £20, 392pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, By Rupert Sheldrake

 

Science is wonderful and necessary - one of the great creations of humankind. Most importantly, it is helping us to see just how extraordinary life and the universe really are, far exceeding the unaided imagination even of the greatest poets. At its best, too, science lives up to its own mythology: a disinterested, self-effacing search after truth, carried out by people of humility in true generosity of spirit. As a fairly considerable bonus it has led us to create a wide range of "high" (science-based) technologies that have improved the lives of a great many people, and have the potential to help all humankind and our fellow creatures too.

But alas, in large measure, science and the idea of it have been seriously corrupted. That some of its high technologies are not in the general good is all too obvious – although it isn't always obvious which ones are and which ones aren't. Even more to the point, and in some ways more serious, is that science all too often becomes the enemy of what it should stand for. Although it must have rules and methods – in particular, the ideas of science must be testable – it should be open-minded. It should go where the data lead. That's what the myth says it does do – but the reality is very different.

In reality, science is locked into a series of dogmas that are largely untested and to some extent untestable, which for science ought to be the great no-no. Yet they must be adhered to, or risk the charge of flakiness and loss of grant. In The Science Delusion, Rupert Sheldrake drags ten of the most powerful dogmas out of the basement and into the light of day; and does science, humanity and the world a large, a considerable favour.

The most obvious and all-prevailing of the great dogmas is that the universe as a whole – including life -- is mechanical. Bits of stuff interact – and that's it. The smaller the bits, the more fundamental the explanation is deemed to be. According to Richard Dawkins, human beings are "lumbering robots", driven by their "selfish" DNA (where "selfish" is a shameless and seriously misleading piece of anthropomorphism). Consciousness, says Boston philosopher Dan Dennett, is an illusion – just the noise that neurons make, although it is hard to see how something that is not itself conscious could suffer from illusions. On the back of this mechanical dogma all metaphysics, which in effect means all religion, is kicked into touch.

Yet, asks Sheldrake innocently, where is the evidence that life and all the universe are simply mechanical? What can the evidence possibly be? Common sense and common observation cry out every turn that we and many other creatures at least, are conscious, and that we have free will.

Why reject our intuitions? On what grounds? Then again, some of the greatest philosophers, including Baruch Spinoza and AN Whitehead, have argued in various ways that consciousness is not confined to our brains. We do not engender it within our own heads, but partake of what is all around. Now there are reasons from many branches of science – physics, psychology, anthropology – to take this seriously. But all inquiry that seems to offend the dogma is marginalised.

On a slightly more mundane level, it has been assumed at least since people started taking Gregor Mendel seriously that all inheritance of a lasting kind is conveyed by material means – notably by genes now known to be made of DNA. But is it really so? For the past 30 years, Sheldrake has championed the notion of "morphic resonance". He builds at least by analogy on the concept of the physical field, as in magnetism and gravity, and argues that creatures resemble their ancestors largely because they are in tune with them, over space and time.

The idea sounds bizarre, and I cannot do it justice here, but again there are independent reasons to take it seriously. This particular notion is testable, and Sheldrake has invested his own money in testing it. But the journal Nature, when Sheldrake first introduced his idea in A New Science of Life, declared in a spirit that was all too reflective of modern attitudes that it was "a book fit for burning" (which did the book's sales no end of good).

Then again, we're assured that the constants of science, notably the speed of light, are indeed constant: the same everywhere and forever (at least when things had settled down after the Big Bang). Yet measurements of the speed of light – the raw data – show huge variation, within the same sets of experiments and from lab to lab and from time to time. There is even evidence of cyclic variation. Why isn't this followed up? Because everybody knows that the speed of light is constant. If there was variation, then a huge body of modern physics would need to be taken apart and put together again.

This wouldn't matter to most of us: light bulbs would still switch on and laser beams would still travel in straight lines. The disturbance would be purely theoretical. But the dogma is sacrosanct nonetheless. The anomalous measurements are written off as noise, and the rest are averaged. Constancy is maintained despite the data. It would be unfair to suggest that the dogmas of science are more important than the reality but it sometimes looks that way.

If Rupert Sheldrake was simply a commentator, sniping from a distance, his arguments might be swept aside. But he is a scientist himself, through and through: a botanist with a double first from Cambridge; a Fellowship at Clare College; a Royal Society Fellowship. For some years he was principal physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, where he helped to develop new varieties of pulses, key sources of protein. He could, if he had stayed on track, been professor of this and director of that, on every high-flown committee. But he went from ICRISAT to an ashram, and instead began to take a bird's-eye view. He is a loss to research and particularly to agriculture, but we should be grateful nonetheless for his change of course. Other philosophers, like Bruno Latour, challenge the overall stance of science. Many bold scientists prod away at the premises of their own discipline.

Very few are equipped to do as Sheldrake does, and examine the deep roots in detail. But as the world plunges into crisis and science – at least of particular kinds! – grows in influence and expense, such examination has become a matter of urgency.

Colin Tudge's most recent book is 'Good Food for Everyone Forever' (Pari)

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • 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.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat