Are Biological Laws More Like Evolving Habits Than Fixed Rules?

Rupert Sheldrake obviously thinks so.  (I have no idea myself, but would be interested in comments on his piece by those who do.)

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A New Science of Life

The idea of natural laws is embarrassingly anthropomorphic; it’s time for a rethink.
Rupert Sheldrake | Scientist, author, A New Science of Life, The Science Delusion
 

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The hypothesis of morphic resonance proposes that memory is inherent in nature. The laws of nature are more like habits. Each species has a collective memory on which all individuals draw and to which they contribute.

My interest in evolutionary habits arose when I was doing research at Cambridge on developmental biology, and was reinforced by reading Charles Darwin, for whom the habits of organisms were of central importance. As Francis Huxley has pointed out, Darwin’s most famous book could more appropriately have been entitled The Origin of Habits.

 

Morphic fields in biology

Over the course of fifteen years of research on plant development, I came to the conclusion that genes are not enough for understanding how plants grow. Morphogenesis, literally meaning the coming-into-being of form, depends on organising fields. The same arguments apply to the development of animals. Since the 1920s many developmental biologists have accepted that biological organisation depends on organising fields, variously called biological fields, or developmental fields, or positional fields, or morphogenetic fields.

Many organisms live as free, individual cells. Some form complex mineral skeletons, as in diatoms and radiolarians, spectacularly pictured in the nineteenth century by Ernst Haeckel. Just switching on the right genes at the right times cannot explain the complex skeletons of such structures without many other forces coming into play, including the organising activity of cell membranes and microtubules.

Morphogenetic fields work by imposing patterns on otherwise random or indeterminate patterns of activity. For example, they cause microtubules to crystallise in one part of the cell rather than another.

Morphogenetic fields are not fixed forever, but evolve. The fields of Afghan hounds and poodles have become very different from those of their common ancestors, wolves. How are these fields inherited? I suggest they are transmitted from past members of the species by morphic resonance, the influence of previous self-organising patterns of activity on subsequent similar patterns of activity. Morphic resonance also underlies the formation of crystals. Each kind of crystal embodies a crystal habit.

The fields organising the activity of the nervous system are also inherited through morphic resonance. Through morphic resonance, animals take up the habits of their species; these are their instincts. Each individual both draws upon and contributes to the collective memory. This means that new patterns of behaviour can spread more rapidly than would otherwise be possible. For example, if rats of a particular breed learn a new trick in Harvard, then rats of that breed should be able to learn the same trick faster all over the world, say in Edinburgh and Melbourne. There is already evidence from laboratory experiments (discussed in my book A New Science of Life) that this actually happens.

The resonance of a brain with its own past states also helps to explain the memories of individual animals and humans. There is no need for memories to be stored inside the brain.

Social groups are likewise organised by fields, as in schools of fish and flocks of birds. Human societies have cultural memories that are reinforced by morphic resonance. Language learning is facilitated by morphic resonance with previous speakers of the language.

 

The memory of nature

From the point of view of morphic resonance, there is no need to suppose that all the laws of nature sprang into being fully formed at the moment of the Big Bang, like a kind of cosmic Napoleonic code, or that they exist in a metaphysical realm beyond time and space.

If we want to stick to the idea of natural laws, we could say that as nature itself evolves, the laws of nature also evolve, just as human laws evolve over time. But then how would natural laws be remembered or enforced? The law metaphor is embarrassingly anthropomorphic. Many kinds of organisms have habits, but only humans have laws.

 

Evolutionary creativity

But evolution depends on more than habits; otherwise nature would be entirely repetitive. New things happen. Long ago, the first stars and galaxies appeared. On this planet the first living cells arose, then plants and animals appeared, eyes arose independently in several different kinds of animals, including vertebrates like us, and cephalopods, like the octopus. Some plants started flowering, and all kinds of flowers evolved from them. Animals invented many new ways of behaving, like spiders spinning webs, or bats flying by echolocation. Among humans, creativity has been expressed in every area, including music, agriculture, gastronomy, language, architecture, physics, computing, games, engineering and religion.

We are now at a new stage of human and Gaian evolution. We too are creatures of habit, and some of our habits must change if we are to survive. We need to do things in new ways. Our creativity, like all other creativity in nature, is subject to natural selection.

Mechanistic, reductionist science is a major cause of the ecological crisis. More of the same cannot possibly make things better. Only by recognising our connections with the rest of nature can we find a vision that can inspire us. We are part of a process of creative evolution in which old habits die hard, but in which new patterns of behaviour can spread much faster than ever before.

More from Rupert Sheldrake on IAI TV
Beyond the Machine Metaphor
The Science Delusion

23 thoughts on “Are Biological Laws More Like Evolving Habits Than Fixed Rules?

  1. You have not had many responses to this thread.

    I’ll just say that I tend to think of Rupert Sheldrake as an entertainer, though I don’t think that’s how he wants to be seen.

  2. Not familiar with Sheldrake other than having seen his name crop up at UD. If your quotes are typical, he must be a crackpot.

  3. Don’t know anything about him. Never heard of him before today. Got a link to this article on my Twitter feed and thought I’d get comments on it here.

  4. Yes, woo for sure.

    If there were anything to “morphic resonance” as an inherent property of nature (not just of life), then surely the people who should be investigating it should be physicists, as it would show that their mathematical theories need extending.

    Trying to have evolutionary biologists study it would be like breeding mice in order to study neutrons.

  5. I welcome some things here.
    YES . The memory of man and biology , I think, is the essential machine of biology.
    I insist we have no minds but only a great mnemory machine called the brain. Our thinking coming from our soul and this helped by the memory.
    Therefore why not my body functions are simply memory functions as opposed to machine functions.
    Perhaps like in ID thinker Dembski ideas of INFORMATION being the stuff of nature and not divisable material bits.

    I don’t agree that Harvard mice learning a trick would affect Toronto mice. NO.
    There must be a material connection.
    Yet I suspect this guy is guessing in the right direction about the importance of memory in biology.
    Possibly Laws are just habits which are just repetitive bits. Or memorized things.
    His point seems to be to get away from a machine biology and into a information biology.
    Anyways it shows again evolutionism needs help to explain things. One of their own is looking for answers.

  6. Yup, Sheldrake is the purveyor of truly impressive high-octane woo.
    His background is in plant development. Revealingly, his preferred experimental systems — “Dogs know when their owners are coming home”, “The sense of being stared at”, and “You think about someone just before they phone you” — are textbook examples of confirmation bias.
    When he was first touting morphic resonance, he made the claim that “a few simple experiments in drosophila” would show he was correct. A leading fruit-fly developmental biologist offered his services : “send me your protocol and I’ll do the experiments”

    Never. Heard. Back.

  7. Joe Felsenstein:
    Yes, woo for sure.

    If there were anything to “morphic resonance” as an inherent property of nature (not just of life), then surely the people who should be investigating it should be physicists, as it would show that their mathematical theories need extending.

    Trying to have evolutionary biologists study it would be like breeding mice in order to study neutrons.

    Joe, Sheldrake seems a follower Lamarck, with all that talk about “habits” being passed along from one generation to the next, doesn’t he?

  8. Just got back home last night. Went to bookshelf for something to read and came across Morphic Resonance (the 2009 edition). What the!* I couldn’t resist having a look inside. It starts off quite sanely!

    *A friend recently moved back to New York from here after splitting with her French husband and passed on some books that she didn’t want to pay freight on.

  9. walto: Joe, Sheldrake seems a follower Lamarck, with all that talk about “habits” being passed along from one generation to the next, doesn’t he?

    He seems impressed with a set of experiments performed by William McDougall on rats starting around 1920 and apparently for 15 years or so. The rats were put in a tank of water with two escape ramps – one illuminated and electrified, the other not – and the routine repeated until the rats learned to avoid the electrified escape route (needing more than 300 immersions in some cases). Breeding from trained rats, he went on to show that descendants possessed some “memory” of the training. Others seem not to have replicated his work.

    ETA avoid not choose

  10. keiths: I just got my copy of Dembski’s new book, and fittingly, Sheldrake has a blurb on the back cover.

    They made two different printings?

    I doubt it.

    To most people, “Sheldrake has a blurb on the back cover” would imply that there is an advertisement for some of Sheldrake’s work on the back cover. But there isn’t. There’s just a quote from Sheldrake promoting the Dembski book.

  11. So I guess bio-electric signals emitted by cells to map out morphogenic space before firing up the engines is also woo.

    Its always woo until it isn’t.

    Wooers like dreamers almost always get the last laugh but not necessarily within their lifetimes.

  12. Steve: Wooers like dreamers almost always get the last laugh but not necessarily within their lifetimes.

    Almost always?

    Then give 99 examples.

  13. Neil Rickert: They made two different printings?

    I doubt it.

    To most people, “Sheldrake has a blurb on the back cover” would imply that there is an advertisement for some of Sheldrake’s work on the back cover.But there isn’t.There’s just a quote from Sheldrake promoting the Dembski book.

    It appears to me at least that this usage is widely understood to mean Sheldrake is promoting Dembski’s book. That’s how I interpreted it, anyway. Teh google provides many parallel examples.

  14. socle: It appears to me at least that this usage is widely understood to mean Sheldrake is promoting Dembski’s book.

    Interesting. Perhaps that’s my Australian background showing itself.

  15. Interesting difference in usage.

    Unfortunately for Dembski and the ID movement in general, a ringing endorsement from Sheldrake is a red flag — no one informed about biology and philosophy will take it seriously.

  16. Kantian Naturalist: Unfortunately for Dembski and the ID movement in general, a ringing endorsement from Sheldrake is a red flag — no one informed about biology and philosophy will take it seriously.

    Maybe not a red flag. Maybe it’s an indicator of who Dembski or his publishers think will be reading his book.

  17. Neil Rickert: There’s just a quote from Sheldrake promoting the Dembski book.

    And there’s a ringing endorsement of Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance by Deepak Chopra on the front cover. Can we follow the money?

  18. Alan Fox: And there’s a ringing endorsement of Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance by Deepak Chopra on the front cover. Can we follow the money?

    Too bad for Dembski that one is prone to be judged by the company one keeps. Chopra, Sheldrake, and Dembski — yep, all science there!

    (No doubt it’s simply my a priori commitment to materialist ideology which leads me to confuse science for pseudo-science, and conversely.)

  19. Chopra, in particular, seems to like SO MANY books. He’s both voracious and easily pleased, I think.

    (Or maybe we should follow the money.)

  20. keiths:

    I just got my copy of Dembski’s new book, and fittingly, Sheldrake has a blurb on the back cover.

    Neil:

    They made two different printings?

    I doubt it.

    To most people, “Sheldrake has a blurb on the back cover” would imply that there is an advertisement for some of Sheldrake’s work on the back cover. But there isn’t. There’s just a quote from Sheldrake promoting the Dembski book.

    Neil,

    Instead of “to most people”, I think you really meant to say “to me”.

    As with “geometry”, “semantics”, and “computation”, it’s best not to assume that your idiosyncratic definitions are shared by others.

    Interesting. Perhaps that’s my Australian background showing itself.

    Or more likely, your Neilishness.

    ETA: I see you’ve done the same thing on the other thread.

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