Friday, 5 April 2013

Sheldrakes morphic field from Sheldrakes perspective

Rupert Sheldrake keeps coming up. And despite his controversial 'anti christ of science' image in popular culture after watching a few of his talks to see his points I've now understood where he is coming from a lot more cogently, and can't help thinking the initial reaction to his theory was too reactionary for the reasons given below. Until my suspension expires at JREF I am hoping someone reading this may post it on forum for some informed skepticism on the subject, until I am made aware of the length of the suspension or the reason for it. 

To give some background, Sheldrake was a world authority on auxin in plants and plant hormones in the 1970s and 80s with numerous publications in nature and other journals. Then he shocked the scientific community by publishing a new theory of life based on field theory. He called the field a morphogenetic field, a self organizing field that can be used at all levels of complexity to explain mechanical biology. He claims that since matter is less fundamental than fields and energy (my cursory year studying physics at uni is in agreement with this proclamation) , and materialism is based on the philosophy that the most fundamental thing is matter, materialism is no longer a philosophy with scientific support.

To try to explain the morphology and evolution of complex life Sheldrake is essentially expanding field theory used every day in physics into biology and life sciences. He defines morphogenesis as the coming into being of form, the way that animals plants and even crystals come into being via some formative process. He posits that molecular biology, DNA genes and chemicals alone can not explain morphogenesis, and the morphogenetic field provides a kind of blueprint for the chemicals and biological material to follow.

The reason why his theory has proven popular with some biologists seems to be the fact that fields in general are inherently holistic, that meaning you can not take a slice out of the Earths gravitational field, or if you chop the north pole off a magnet you dont end up with an isolated north pole you end up with end up with two magnets. Which is totally different to how machines work; machines are made of parts put together that work together without an overall organizing field that makes it a whole, if you cut a machine up into small pieces all you get is a broken computer. If you cut a magnet up you just get lots of little magnets. Although you can not see the field with any methodology you can study the effect it has on physical things.  

Here is the Earths magnetic field which is modeled for easy visualization by magnetic field lines, it is NOT made up of these field lines we simply use this to mathematically map the fields properties. 

Sheldrake's observation after studying biology for years was that life is much more like field phenomena than machines, if you cut an embryo containing egg in half you don't get a broken embryo you still have a fully functional embryo that develops in one half, so you end up with a complete yet smaller embryo. This is a dragonfly egg that has been halved in size.

 This half sized embryo now has a complete morphogenetic field even though it is half the size; no machine would do that. The same goes for plants, you can cut a plant up into lots of little bits and each cutting could become a new plant, you can make thousands of cuttings from a willow tree. You can cut up a flatworm into three bits at the head and tail and it generates a new head and tail from the middle part, if you cut it length ways it regenerates a new half. Each of these new frangments has the field of the complete worm associated with it which leads to this regenerative process. Here is the regeneration process of a planarian:

  Humans have far less regenerative powers than say newts or other animals, but far from negligible else we would not heal after injury. If you chop the arm off a newt it will regenerate until it completely grows back, and this can be understood in term of the field associated with the limb even though the limb is no longer materially there. 

This could be an explanation to what has become known as phantom limb phenomenon, what people feel is the fields habit of regeneration where there is no longer any limb. Newts can even regenerate the entire lens of an eye ( In a laboratory the lens was surgically removed, producing a form of damage that would lever usually happen in nature, and what happens is the edge of the iris forms a new lens and regenerates a perfectly functional eye, whereas in the embryonic formation of the eye the lens does not form the edge of the iris but from a flap of skin on the outside. So it has formed a completely new lens in a completely new way using a different tissue than it would normally arise from, showing that there appears to be a blueprint for the complete eye that allows the regenerative process to occur. 

The part of the theory that some find controversial is the 'attractor' nature of the morphogenetic fields, that there is a end state that attracts matter until the organ has fully embryonicly developed or an attractor that uses the physiological ability of the organism to regenerate to try to grow back a limb from the field blueprint.

A main property of a morphogenetic field is that they are hierarchically organized. Such as with atoms in molecules and molecules in crystals, the same goes for cells, cells in tissues, tissues in organs, organs in organisms, organisms in societies; everywhere you look in nature there are levels of organization, the parts of one are wholes at another level. Appreciating the totality and wholeness of nature is what a holistic perspective is, whereas a reductionist perspective tries to reduce everything to the smallest possible thing. 

Attempting to counter reductionism with a holistic perspective Sheldrake assigns a nested hierarchy to the morphogenetic field so the field of an organelle cell is inside the field of the cell, the field of the cell is inside the field of the tissue, the field of the tissue is inside the field of the organ; and these fields work on the lower level fields of the system, giving them morphology and pattern. Sheldrake also states that the morphogenetic field is only one kind of organizing field, the nervous system is highly indeterminate in its behavior and is moderated by another set of fields, behavioral fields. Mental activity is moderated by mental fields. Social groups like flocks of birds or termites are moderated by social fields. All these fields Sheldrake refers to as morphic fields, and morphic fields are the general category of which morphogenetic fields are only one species, the kind of field for the development of form of life as we know it on Earth.

Sheldrake claims that the mathematics of the field is standard field theory, and just like in physics, there are different nested fields of these. Just like electromagnetism dominates at the molecular, it is nested inside gravity, and the small nuclear force is nested inside electromagnetism. He includes in this some intrinsic field probability properties, as everything we associate with life in science is pretty much indeterminate over a long time frame. Just like the weather is a chaotic system so does not obey definite laws life is more probabilistic than deterministic, if you look at all the different leaves on a specific tree they all gave the same mechanical building blocks they all have the same genes and the same morphogenetic fields yet every leaf is different. They all have the same general form, the same probability structure, but they are individually different, and the morphic fields impose patterns on probabilistic processes, they impose patterns of form onto developing organisms and patterns on the activity of the nervous system, so they underpin behavior and social organization as well.

A materialist may ask what gives the morphogenetic fields their form, is it the genes? Sheldrake says no, we know what genes do, they encode for proteins and are involved in protein synthesis, they don't explain the form of an organism they give us the parts to make it, a bit like the components in a TV set.

Sheldrake rejects comparisons between morphic fields and platonism, the philosophy that platonic equations exist outside time and space, because fields evolve. Dinosaurs came into being they are now extinct, animals and birds fields evolved from dinosaurs, they weren't all there at the time of the Big Bang or the origin of life on Earth. He explains this as the fields having a kind of memory of previous forms that arises from morphic resonance; the influence of similar patterns of activity on subsequent similar patterns of activity across space and time. So what matters is similarity, like other fields like the gravitational field or quantum field, it doesn't matter about the distance in space and time. Einstein (I think) called this spooky action at a distance, as every atom in the universe is acted on simultaneously by such fields. Any form that has happened before in the self organized biological system will make it easier to happen again.

This creates what could be referred to as a kind of collective memory in each kind of field, each species of plant has a kind of collective memory, as will each species of animal, a memory of form as the organism develops and an epigenetic memory of behavior, the collective heritable memory for animals and their instincts and patterns of behavior. This implies many laws of nature are more habits than anthropomorphic laws, the longer the habit is re-enforced the harder it is to break. I would not be happy extending Sheldrakes theories into laws of physics as readily as he does, however, he seems to have subject specific bias in this regard. According to him everything has this kind of memory, including crystals for example. If you make a new crystal that has never existed before there will not be a morphogenetic field for it you have to wait for one to come into being, but if you keep doing the same thing and make crystals all over the world it becomes easier to crystallize, things will form more readily.

This is known to happen when it comes to crystals, they are easier to crystallize the more often they are made. This happens in part because chemists share appropriate techniques, but the common conventional explanation for this phenomenon is that fragments of crystals are carried around the world from lab to lab where they serve as 'seeds' for subsequent crystallizations. The folklore of chemistry is littered with anecdotes on this subject. The carriers for these seeds are usually migrant scientists, especially chemists with beards, which can 'harbor nuclei for almost any crystallization process'. An easy way to test the morphic resonance theory for this would be to separate a crystallization laboratory from contamination and ensure the technique and staff stayed the same.

A few experiments that relate to this have been done with mutant fruit-flies where their balancing organs have been transformed into an extra pair of wings.

 The wings are a bit like the wings of an ancestor of flies; dragonflies, which adds credence to Sheldrakes hypothesis; through changes in genes it's as if the fluitfly flicked the channel or operating system back to an old one. And for reasons no body really understands you can produce the same effect by changing the environment of fruit-flies. If you expose three hour old fruitfly eggs to fumes of ether the flies that develop some of them develop with four wings instead of two, this experiment was first done by Waddington some 50 years ago ( ). He found if you keep doing this over the generations more and more flies develop abnormally. At the time he put this down to a genetic effect, but it has since been reproduced at the open university by Dr Mae-Wan Ho and colleagues and over a series of generations, with an inbred strain so you can have no genetic effect, the number of mutant flies increased roughly linearly with each generation up to 35% of the population until the ether treatment was stopped and still for generations, at a declining rate, they were forming four winged flies. On repeating the experiment with fresh flies each iteration produced a steeper trend, the flies mutated into the mutated form easier than before, even though the flies had no genetic link to the previous ones.

  The implication of this is that rats should learn a trick faster after a previous rat has worked it out, this idea has received some references in popular culture if I remeber correctly from the forum under the label 'hundredth monkey effect', based on the folklore about how monkeys on disparate islands in Japan all learned exactly the same behavioral technique of washing potatoes man had just recently introduced them to in the sea to make them taste nicer. According to Sheldrake's model, the more a new trait is practiced by the members of a given species, the more likely other individuals will pick it up through resonance, so the same should apply to human beings.

Countless people have learned to type on the QWERTY keyboard. If morphic resonance is real, we should expect people to learn this layout more readily than random layouts. This is indeed the case. Even the alphabetical layout, which should be easier to learn, is often harder to learn, though in a few experiments it was equally easy to learn as the QWERTY layout.  (Norman and Fisher, 1982. Human Factors 24:509-519.) (Hirsch, 1970. Journal of Applied Psychology 54:484-490.)

Arden Mahlberg, a psychologist, carried out a test of the ability to learn Morse Code. He had one group of subjects learn actual Morse Code, while another had to learn a newly-invented code that closely resembled it. He found that subjects were able to learn the actual code far more rapidly than the alternative, and he interpreted this as evidence that the subjects were resonating with the millions of people who had already learned Morse code. Each time he replicated the experiment, he found that the difference in earning time between Morse code and the new one progressively decreased. This might mean that the initial results were false. But the fact that the decrease was progressive suggests that the morphic resonance of the new code was becoming progressively stronger as more and more students learned it. (Mahlberg, 1987. Journal of Analytical Psychology 32:23-34.)

This should mean that football, programming and skateboarding are all getting easier to master with time. This seems to be the case, but it equally could be improved education, improved training videos, new technology, anything; so to test this you need to have standardized experiments where the same test is done over and over again. Sheldrake soon realized that a good test of this would be IQ tests which have been conducted in much the same way for many many years. Morphic resonance predicts that people are get better with time at the tests, not because people are getting more intelligent but because more and more people had already done them. 

James Flyn looked into this and found that just this was happening, which is now named the Flynn effect

In every population that has been looked at since the same effect is apparent. The cause of this correlation is still disputed in the literature. Soon Sheldrake discovered that in Holland the exams come in three or four versions, questions 1-8 are on one paper and questions 9-16 on another, etc, to avoid cheating. In effect the entire dutch exam system is set up as a morphic resonance experiment. Dick Beerman from the university of Amsterdam has recently looked into the data from eight psychology exams and found that in seven out of eight the questions done afterwards had higher scores done before, his assistant is now looking into the archive data to avoid sample bias for a more statistically significant correlation. 

Not content with what he had found Sheldrake felt the need to back up his very controversial theory with ways he could test morphic resonance himself, to try to win over the skeptics. The first experiment he conducted was with puzzle pictures broadcast on TV, where it's hard to make out what the picture is of. He tested people under controlled conditions in Germany and other parts of Europe and found out how many of them could recognize the hidden image. Then one was selected at random and 8 million people in the UK saw the image and answer on tomorrows world when someone had to solve it. The question was would people in Germany be able to get the image far faster in Germany than they did before, so the experiments were repeated, and they did. Then it was repeated on ITV in Britain and it worked a second time, these results were published in New Scientist. The Tomorrow’s World experiment was successful in Europe but not in North America. The rhyme experiment was again successful but many complained that the old rhyme was easier to learn than the new one, the same problem occurred with the language experiment. The reason why the old rhyme is nearly always easier to learn is a matter of contention.

I would keep typing had I not just stumbled upon a well written dissertation, that gives a far more comprehensive summary of Sheldrakes science and experiments at where the author examines all of Sheldrakes publications in light of scientific evidence and contrasts this with the skeptical cultures reaction and the scientists reaction for each. Here is the paper, with references to each study:

 Rupert Sheldrake and the wider scientific community

I will quote the conclusion:

The guiding philosophy of modern western science is an idea of being predominantly open minded, impartial and objective. These virtues are said to maintain ‘fairness’ in the scientific community, yet many of Dr. Sheldrake’s critics (most of who are well-respected in their fields) seem go against the norms of science. John Maddox seemed to become emotionally committed to denouncing Dr Sheldrake’s theories by using extreme language to attack his work. Such emotion against fellow scientists itself goes against the core values of science, and at the same time perhaps explains why so many scientists seem to lose objectivity in relation to Dr Sheldrake, and why they are compelled to break the norms of science.

When Peter Atkins admitted he hadn’t read the research on telepathy, he justified his criticism of it by saying “I’ve read [Sheldrake’s] experiments in the past on other off the wall ideas that [he’s] had.” During a debate at the Cambridge Science Festival in 2009, Lewis Wolpert said he wouldn’t trust Dr Sheldrake’s research ‘for a second’. Judging a scientist’s research based on  their past work goes against the norm of universalism which is the view that research should be judged on its own merits.

The way in which Richard Wiseman presented the results of his dog experiment would seem to go against the norm of disinterestedness, as although his results matched those of Dr Sheldrake’s, Wiseman’s paper did not state this and instead the results were given in a way which support his view that the dog was not telepathic.

Institutions such as CSI (formally called CSICOP) claim to be good examples of organised scepticism, however many of their actions would seem to be more like those of the counter-norm organised dogmatism. Scientist David Marks unexpectedly repeated Dr Sheldrake’s results in a staring experiment, and then searched for and found a ‘flaw’ in his experiment which he went on to suggest was the reason for Sheldrake’s positive results as well. Although Marks spent a great deal of time critically scrutinising why he repeated Dr Sheldrake’s research, he did not do the same with his resulting theory on how he achieved positive results. Organised Scepticism is clearly applied to Dr Sheldrake’s work but not to the theories and research which disputed his results.

Perhaps, one day, the theory of morphic resonance will be vindicated and telepathic phenomena accepted. In which case Rupert Sheldrake will surely be remembered alongside Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, and his detractors looked upon with the same indifference as the Cardinals who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. But even if Dr Sheldrake’s theories are disproved and his experimental results shown to be unsound, it still seems unlikely that those within the scientific community who have condemned Dr Sheldrake and his work will be looked on kindly by future generations of scientists. For surely the harsh rhetoric, the refusal to look at results before criticising them, and the misrepresentation of events and data is far more damaging to science than some incorrect theories and a few flawed experiments.

I'm of the opinion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This would definitely need extraordinary independent proof, conducted over many many years. It seems a few phenomenon can be best explained by his theory on the face of it, but the small scale nature of the some of the experiments and his methodology deserves the full attention of skeptics and scientists, as Sheldrake says himself the informed skepticism of scientifically minded skeptics is of paramount importance. It does not deserve dismissal by people before they have even read what he has to say and what evidence he gives, which is what happened in a thread I started at JREF before I got the chance to even post any worthwhile material. By far the best replies in the thread I started were made by PixyMisa on page seven it just amazed me that the thread could go on for so long until some informed and well reasoned skepticism emerged. Linking to Sheldrakes later research is always more controversial, I never got to post the other less controversial material there, or give the background about why I was even contemplating for a minute taking this guy seriously.

His later research on phone call telepathy, dog telepathy, and the sense of being started at type phenomenon, all I suspect may various problems with the methodology and conclusions. However they have all tended to support the morphic field theory he was attempting to test, even if they run counter to traditional scientific orthodoxy and common sense. At this point no real conclusions can be drawn about the veracity of his most recent research until it is done again with far larger sample sizes and better controls.

I can't help but think the conversation about Sheldrake on JREF went much along the rather embarrassing interview Richard Dawkins had with him for his series 'The Enemies of Reason' (generally, a fine series, revealing many new age religious crackpots fleecing money off people). For a series that was intending to use Sheldrake as the main example of pseudoscience and bad science, they ended up not including even a mention of him in the documentary when he actually presented scientific evidence.

I will quote what happened in that encounter:

Richard Dawkins comes to call

An atheist and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is a Fellow of CSI (The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, formerly CSICOP) and a strong supporter of James Randi. His earlier books were on evolutionary biology, the best known being The Selfish Gene. In 2007, he visited Rupert to interview him for his TV series Enemies of Reason:

Richard Dawkins is a man with a mission – the eradication of religion and superstition, and their total replacement with science and reason. Channel 4 TV has repeatedly provided him with a pulpit. His two-part polemic in August 2007, called Enemies of Reason, was a sequel to his 2006 diatribe against religion, The Root of All Evil?

Soon before Enemies of Reason was filmed, the production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals. I was reluctant to take part, but the company’s representative assured me that “this documentary, at Channel 4’s insistence, will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil was.” She added, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry”. So I agreed and we fixed a date. I was still not sure what to expect. Was Richard Dawkins going to be dogmatic, with a mental firewall that blocked out any evidence that went against his beliefs? Or would he be open-minded, and fun to talk to?

The Director asked us to stand facing each other; we were filmed with a hand-held camera. Richard began by saying that he thought we probably agreed about many things, “But what worries me about you is that you are prepared to believe almost anything. Science should be based on the minimum number of beliefs.”

I agreed that we had a lot in common, “But what worries me about you is that you come across as dogmatic, giving people a bad impression of science.”

He then said that in a romantic spirit he himself would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn’t any evidence for it. He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand. He compared the lack of acceptance of telepathy by scientists such as himself with the way in which the echo-location system had been discovered in bats, followed by its rapid acceptance within the scientific community in the 1940s. In fact, as I later discovered, Lazzaro Spallanzani had shown in 1793 that bats rely on hearing to find their way around, but sceptical opponents dismissed his experiments as flawed, and helped set back research for well over a century. However, Richard recognized that telepathy posed a more radical challenge than echo-location. He said that if it really occurred, it would “turn the laws of physics upside down,” and added, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”

He produced no evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He assumed that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.

We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this was why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level.

The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.

I said to Russell, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. If telepathy occurs, it’s not irrational to believe in it. I thought that’s what we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”

Richard said, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise.”

In that case, I replied, there had been a serious misunderstanding, because I had been led to believe that this was to be a balanced scientific discussion about evidence. Russell Barnes asked to see the emails I had received from his assistant. He read them with obvious dismay, and said the assurances she had given me were wrong. The team packed up and left.

Richard Dawkins has long proclaimed his conviction that “The paranormal is bunk. Those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans”. Enemies of Reason was intended to popularize this belief. But does his crusade really promote “the public understanding of science,” of which he is the professor at Oxford? Should science be a vehicle of prejudice, a kind of fundamentalist belief-system? Or should it be a method of enquiry into the unknown?

Michael Shermer is another fine example of the type of pseudosceptic that (seemingly) populates JREF that we need shot of to form a truly transformative society based on reason:

Dr Sheldrake went on to publish the findings of his experiments in a book appropriately entitled The Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. In a USA Today article, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skepticmagazine, condemned the researchsaying “[Sheldrake] has never met a goofy idea he didn’t like”. Shermer went on to say that the seemingly anomalous phenomena described in the book “are perfectly explicable by normal means”.[38]

However, when Dr Sheldrake asked Shermer to give an example of the ‘normal means’ he described, Shermer could not, stating that he had ‘not gotten to’ reading the book or related papers.[39]

In March 2003, Dr Sheldrake challenged Shermer to a debate, which he accepted, and several times and venues were suggested, but all were rejected by Shermer. As of 2009, the debate has still not taken place.



1 comment:

  1. As I am sure you are aware, neither the Qwerty keyboard nor Morse code are random. They were designed with human users in mind so it should not be a big surprise that they are easier to learn than some other systems.

    What you have written above in no way changes my view that Sheldrake's ideas are based not in science but wishful thinking. Thirty years of trying has yet to provide substantial evidence that his sfields actually exist.