Coronet, £20, 392pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, By Rupert Sheldrake
Friday 06 January 2012
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.
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