Saturday, April 7, 2007

Interview with Rupert Sheldrake (Repost from AMNAP 1.0)

The Australian Broadcasting Service has released a new interview with Rupert Sheldrake, with audio and a text transcript. Here is a brief extract:

Robyn Williams: How did you come to make this transition long ago from being a botanist at Clare College, Cambridge to what you do now?

Rupert Sheldrake: While I was Clare College, Cambridge working in developmental biology, I came to the conclusion that the regular reductionist genes and protein approach was too limited. We needed a field approach to biology. So it got me into the idea of morphogenetic fields.

Robyn Williams: Yes but how? What really made you feel that the reductionist way was insufficient?

Rupert Sheldrake: Simply through coming up against a brick wall, through realising that in specifically I was working on the plant hormone auxin, and how it's made and how it's transported. I discovered the transport system that's now in every textbook. So this was sort of straightforward mainstream research but then I realised that in order to explain plant form, this explained too much. All plants have auxin, all of them have the similar transport system, and yet eucalyptus trees, and oak trees, and ash trees all have different shaped leaves and different kinds of flowers. So auxin couldn't possibly explain these different forms. It was obviously involved in the process, but it was involved in the process in the same way that food's involved in the growth of animals. Or all animals have the same kinds of hormones, all mammals. It doesn't explain why we're different from chimps or cows. And auxin doesn't explain why plants have their specific form. For that, you need another explanation and I got from the developmental biology literature the idea of morphogenetic fields. . .

Robyn Williams: We'll come to that in just a minute. Were you disappointed by the scepticism with which a lot of this has been greeted by the orthodox university people?

Rupert Sheldrake: Well I in a way expected a kind of scepticism. I developed these ideas when I was working in the biochemistry department at Cambridge and, you know, when I discussed these ideas with my colleagues, I noticed that the idea of collective memory and morphic resonance, and so on, was greeted with less than wild enthusiasm. So I was prepared for that. I don't mind that, it's fair enough, it's part of science. What I don't like is dogmatic prejudice. I mean, healthy scepticism is part of science, a completely closed dogmatic prejudice isn't. There's plenty of that around and I think it's bad for science.

But the other thing that surprised me was how many scientists are actually open-minded. I meet them all the time. I have a lot of friends and colleagues within institutional science who are tremendously helpful to me and very friendly. The only thing is that they are afraid. There's a kind of culture of fear within science, people are afraid to step out of line. And I don't have anything to fear, 'cause I've got nothing to lose, but I think that science would be greatly helped by a parallel with the gay liberation movement. I'm always saying to my colleagues, "why don't you come out?", because science would be so much more fun if those who do have a wider way of thinking were prepared to say so.

Robyn Williams: What sort of things would they come out with? What might they say if one of your friends did something like that?

Rupert Sheldrake: Well I mean take a taboo topic like telepathy. Most ordinary people think they've had telepathic experiences. Most people within science labs have also had them, 'cause they are ordinary people when they're not at work, and indeed when they are at work. But the culture of science labs is one that says, "this is a taboo topic, you're not meant to believe in it." So they don't feel free to talk about it when they're at work. They might talk about it after work, or after a glass a beer with friends or family, but not at work, and they may even pretend it doesn't exist at work. So that's the kind of thing, you know, a kind of secret life that's separated from a public appearance. And I think the parallels with the gay liberation movement are quite strong. . .

Rupert Sheldrake: [Referring to a telephone telepathy experiment which was produced for television. . .] Well, they were people from the TV studio. They had sceptics in the audience including Professor Chris French, and they did it with sceptical critiques in mind. I discuss these things with sceptics all the time. I mean, I find people like Chris French quite helpful; he's a noted British sceptic, a professor in London University. Others are not, some of them are just purely dogmatists. You know, they say, "this is impossible, I'm not interested in the evidence cause I know it's wrong." That doesn't seem to me very scientific. . .

Some of my opponents take the view we more or less know the truth already, it's just a matter of filling in the details. I think that's wrong, I think there's a huge amount we don't understand; most of all the human mind itself, and that's one of the areas I'm working in.

Robyn Williams: No mention of spiritual values, always dealing with scientific terms only? How come?

Rupert Sheldrake: Well I don't think that the existence or non-existence of telepathy or premonition, or can animals foretell earthquakes and tsunamis, and other questions I look at, I don't think these are particularly connected with spiritual values. I mean, you find as much scepticism about these things among religious believers as among secular people, secular humanists. I don't know any religion which is sort of tied to a belief in these kinds of things. They seem to be pretty neutral from the point of view of religious belief. So I think that spiritual values are important, I think spiritual experience is important, but that, I think, is in a different category from telepathy, which I think is a basic form of communication between members of animal groups, common in many animal species, including human.

In the complete interview, Rupert elaborates on his development of the theory of morphic resonance, as well as more details on some of his experiments.

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