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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.

Read Rupert Sheldrake's Reply "Morphogenetic Fields"


Rupert Sheldrake
and the
Evo-Devo Revolution

A Comparative Evaluation

Frank Visser

Sheldrake as New Age Hero

"As a solution to the mystery of how evolution works, genes and their mutations were only part of the story."
—PBS Documentary "Evolution" - What Darwin Never Knew

For over thirty years, Rupert Sheldrake has defended his theory of "morphogenetic fields" (or more generally "morphic resonance") to explain almost anything under the sun, from embryogenesis and regeneration in organisms, to the nature of memory, the function of culture, and the mechanism behind paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, even in animals. His ideas have not been received well by conventional circles of science. Recently, his book The Science Delusion (2012, published in the US as Science Set Free, 2013, by Deepak Chopra) was released, in which he summarized his views and claimed the very conditioning of reductionistic science prevents discoveries to be made about the nature of life, mind and reality.

Earlier this year a presentation "The Science Delusion" by Sheldrake about his latest book was "banned" from the TED website—or so it was claimed, here's Sheldrake's reply—only reinforcing the impression of the general public that conventional science is dogmatic and not open to new ideas, especially when its materialistic paradigm is challenged.

It's probably best to listen for yourself to Sheldrake's, always impeccable presentation:

His first book, A New Science of Life (1981), caused a major uproar when Sir John Maddox of Nature—the bastion of conventional science—reviewed it under the ominous heading of "A Book for Burning?". Of course, the very idea of burning books is offensive, but Maddox defended his use of language in 1994 as follows, in a BBC documentary of the same name:

I was so offended by it, that I said that while it's wrong that books should be burned, in practice, if book burning were allowed, this book would be a candidate (...) I think it's dangerous that people should be allowed by our liberal societies to put that kind of nonsense into currency. It's unnecessary to introduce magic into the explanation from [sic] physical and biological phenomenon when in fact there is every likelihood that the continuation of research as it is now practiced will indeed fill all the gaps that Sheldrake draws attention to. You see, Sheldrake's is not a scientific theory. Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned, in exactly the language that the popes used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy" (Wikipedia. John Maddox) (emphasis added)

Since then, emotions have run high on both sides, and Sheldrake, who turned into an academic pariah, has built a career as New Age hero—who finally puts reductionistic science in its place. Sheldrake is also related to the website Skeptical Investigations, which is built around the premise that it's the skeptics themselves that need to be treated skeptically. Deepak Chopra, too, is crusading against skepticism, in various recent articles in The Huffington Post.

Conventional science, however, states that skepticism is the default position in science, and that extraordinary claims such as morphic resonance, need extraordinary evidence—as the saying goes. Some feel that Sheldrake has a stereotyped view of what science actually does and tries to accomplish. "Everything is mechanical" is science's first dogma, according to Sheldrake. But isn't he himself suggesting a "mechanism" (i.e. morphic resonance) to explain the phenomena of morphogenesis, telepathy or human culture as well?

In all this turmoil, very little has been written about his original scientific arguments surrounding the supposed failure of materialistic science to explain how organisms get their form, or how organs in many organisms can regenerate to a considerable degree, let alone how species originated. I intend to go back to his first publication, A New Science of Life,—and leave the paranormal aspects of Sheldrake's work aside for now. I'd like to investigate if his arguments for a theory of morphogenetic fields are sound and are as necessary to propose in 2013 as Sheldrake considered them to be in 1981. Or has conventional science made progress in these fields so Sheldrake's hypothesis has become obsolete? Has science by now, in fact, "filled all the gaps that Sheldrake drew attention to"?

It is time to turn to the content of the matter at hand.

"Unsolved Problems of Biology"

In A New Science of Life (1981, republished in the US as Morphic Resonance, 2009) Sheldrake seems very much at home in the literature and history of embryology and morphogenesis. He describes three main approaches to the field of morphogenesis: (1) mechanism, (2) vitalism and (3) organicism (pp. 33-52). In his opinion, materialism encounters unsurmountable problems when trying to explain how organisms get their form through the workings of genes and proteins. Vitalism, which posited an extra-physical force or principle that governs the form of material organisms, is obviously a scientific non-starter. Organicism, which sees patterns and fields as governing the process of morphogenesis, he sees as an improvement, but it suffers from vagueness.

Obviously, Sheldrake opts for a refined version of this last, organismic (or one could also say holistic) category. He writes that the concept of a "morphogenetic field" is accepted in biology:

The most important organismic concept put forward so far is that of morphogenetic fields. These fields are supposed to help account for, or describe, the coming-into-being of the characteristic forms of embryos and other developing systems. The term itself seems to imply the existence of a new type of physical field which plays a role in the development of form. But some organismic theoreticians deny that they are suggesting the existence of any new type of field, entity or factor at present unrecognized by physics; rather, they use this organismic terminology to provide a new way of talking about complex physico-chemical systems. (p. 12-13)

Sheldrake proposes to understand these "morphogenetic fields" as having measurable, physical effects:

The hypothesis put forward in this book is based on the idea that morphogenetic fields indeed do have measurable physical effects. It proposes that specific morphgenetic fields are responsible for the characteristic form and organization of systems at all levels of complexity, not only in the realm of biology, but also in the realms of chemistry and physics. (p. 13)

And where do these fields actually come from?

The answer suggested is that they are derived from the morphogenetic fields associated with previous similar systems: the morphogenetic fields of all past systems become present to any subsequent similar system; the structures of past systems affect subsequent similar systems by a cumulative influence which acts across both space and time. According to this hypothesis, systems are organized in the way they are because similar systems were organized that way in the past. (p. 13)

So it is good to realize that this hypothesis does not account for novelty or creativity in development or evolution, which is the major challenge which generations of evolutionary biologists have tried to meet:

The hypothesis is concerned with the repetition of forms and patterns of organization; the question of the origin of these forms and patterns lies outside its scope. (p. 14)

So plants and animals look the way they do because their ancestors looked the way they did. But how did new plant and animal species arise, then? For sure, that's the major characteristic of evolution?

The origin of new forms could be ascribed either to the creative activity of an agency pervading and trancending nature; or to a creative impetus immanent in nature; or to blind and purposeless chance. But a choice between these metaphysical possibilities could never be made of the basis of any empirically testable scientific hypothesis. Therefore from the point of view of natural science, the question of evolutionary creativity can only be left open. (p. 150)

One wonders why Sheldrake thinks genetic inheritence itself cannot account for the similarity between subsequent generations of a certain species. Why resort to mysterious fields that propagate through "resonance" when genes, passed on to subsequent generations, could do the trick? In his opening chapter, he calls morphogenesis the #1 "unsolved problem in biology".

The concept of genetic programmes is based on the analogy with the programmes that direct the activities of computers. It implies that the fertilized egg contains a pre-formed programme which somehow specifies the organism's morphogenetic goals and co-ordinates and controls its development towards them. But the genetic programme must involve something more than the chemical structure of DNA, because identical copies of DNA are passed on to all cells; if all cells were programmed identically, they could not develop differently. So what exactly is it? In response to this question, the idea can only disintegrate into vague suggestions about physico-chemical interactions somehow structured in time and space; the problem is merely re-stated. (p. 21)

Checking Sheldrake's website to see if his views on morphogenesis have matured over the years, I found an introductory text on "Morphic Resonance and Morphogenetic Fields" written in 2005:

Thanks to molecular biology, we know what genes do. They enable organisms to make particular proteins. Other genes are involved in the control of protein synthesis. Identifiable genes are switched on and particular proteins made at the beginning of new developmental processes. Some of these developmental switch genes, like the Hox genes in fruit flies, worms, fish and mammals, are very similar. In evolutionary terms, they are highly conserved. But switching on genes such as these cannot in itself determine form, otherwise fruit flies would not look different from us...
Most developmental biologists accept the need for a holistic or integrative conception of living organization. Otherwise biology will go on floundering, even drowning, in oceans of data, as yet more genomes are sequenced, genes are cloned and proteins are characterized.

Summarizing, the major stumbling block for Sheldrake to be able to accept the "mechanistic" scientific explanation of morphogenesis is that it supposedly cannot explain diversity, neither between different species, nor between different cell types of a single organism. That, however, is exactly the point of development and evolution. And as said, his hypothesis does not intend to explain the origin of novelty in development or evolution.

Enter Evo-Devo...

Sean B. Carroll, Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Looking through the scientific literature on embryogenesis and evolution, one quickly stumbles on the term "evo-devo". This approach to the problems at hand is linked to geneticist Sean B. Carroll—not to be confused with the physicist Sean M. Carroll—who is the author of a popular introduction to this field called Endless Forms, Most Beautiful (2005). The title is, of course, taken from the famous quote from Charles Darwin, with which he closed his On the Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

A magnificient PBS documentary called "Evolution - What Darwin Never Knew" has been created on the basis of Carroll's work, in 2009, the year Darwin's life and work were commemmorated worldwide (I cannot view and embedd this documentary, from the PBS website, because I live outside of the USA, so I found this version on the web):

Evolution - What Darwin Never Knew

Most of this work was done in the '80 and '90 of the last century, so post-dates the publication of A New Science of Life, but Sheldrake is most probably aware of this new field of science. In his website article, he referred to Hox genes, which have been discovered in all living organisms, "fruit flies, worms, fish and mammals". Hox gene (from Homeobox) is a term taken from the Evo-Devo literature. "Evo-Devo" is a catchy combination of "evolution" and "development", which covers the field of evolutionary developmental biology.

Contrary to all expectations, all these organisms turned out to contain more or less the same set of "toolkit" or "Hox genes", responsible for the building of wings, finns, antennae, legs and arms, but also the segmentation of organisms into segments, such as head, thorax and abdomen (in the case of insects). What is more, this approach to morphogenesis not only claims to have found the mechanism that governs the differentiation and integration of a one-celled embryo into a billion-cell organism, but also claims to be able to throw light on the question of the origin of species during evolution using these same principles.

Can these claims be substantiated? Leave that to Sean B. Carroll. In the PBS documentary he says:

It's not the genes you have but how you use them that creates diversity in the animal kingdom.

When I contacted him about Sheldrake's objections to a purely genetic explanation of development and evolution—"Hox genes can't account for cell diversity, because every cell in your body shares the same Hox genes"—he instantly wrote back (email communication, December 1st, 2013):

Dear Mr. Visser,

Thanks for writing.

I am not familiar with what Sheldrake has had to say about the evolution of form, as he has had zero influence on work or the literature. If that is his view of Hox genes, he has failed to grasp the essential idea of Evo-Devo—about the generation of diversity through changes in non-coding regulatory sequences.
I am not aware of any working folks who take him seriously.

Best wishes,
Sean Carroll

The key sentence here is "non-coding regulatory sequences". Carroll and other researchers have discovered that, even though most organisms share the same toolkit genes, these are activated during development or evolution by regulatory "genetic switches", that are coded in the "dark matter of the genome". Only a tiny bit of your DNA is used for creating proteins, the vast majority was once called "junk DNA", but now slowly some of it turns out to have a crucial function in the formation of organisms as we know them.

The glimpses here into the logic and great potential diversity of genetic switches prepares us to start thinking about their contribution to the evolution of animal diversity. The great paradox raised by the discovery of similar sets of tool kit genes in disparate animals is how the same genes can be used to build such different forms. The discovery of arrays of switches that enable individual toolkit genes to be used again and again in one animal, and to be used in slightly or dramatically different ways in serially repeated structures, is key to solving this paradox.
It is a small leap from understanding how switches control development to anticipating how they have shaped evolution. Switches enable the same toolkit genes to be used differently in different animals. (p. 130-131)

The first part of Endless Forms Most Beautiful covers the mysteries of embryogenesis; the second part applies these insights to the field of evolution. Step by step, Carroll describes how a fruit fly is built up from its embryonic state, how vertebrates like us get their limbs, hands, and fingers, how butterflies get eye spots on their wings—all in thrilling detail. In From DNA to Diversity (2001) he offeres a more academic and challenging, but equally rewarding treatment of the same field. The Making of the Fittest (2007) is another fascinating read.

This Evo-Devo approach represents a remarkable and refreshing contrast with Sheldrake's skeptical approach to what conventional science supposedly can (or actually cannot) accomplish.

As the narrator of the PBS documentary says:

Huge though the breakthrough had been, the genetic revolution had opened up a whole new set of puzzles. As a solution to the mystery of how evolution works, genes and their mutations were only part of the story. There had to be something else, more subtle and more mysterious going on.

But that "something else, more subtle and more mysterious" is not a matter of vaporous and unspecified fields governing the world of form, but of further fascinating discoveries by the very science which Sheldrake considers to suffer from delusions.

One recalls the "something other than chance is pushing the universe" mantra used by Ken Wilber, who belongs to the Sheldrake-Chopra camp when it comes to explaining the mysteries of evolutionary novelty. He too, doubts that science can explain evolutionary novelties, and resorts to mystical concepts to compensate for these supposed deficiencies. He too, like Rupert Sheldrake, would do well to pay closer attention to what science can actually do and has accomplished.

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