A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation
Sheldrake (Rupert)
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Back Cover Blurb

  1. Rupert Sheldrake maintains that species and organisms can learn, develop and adapt through a process which he calls morphic resonance.
    • After rats have learned a new trick in one place, other rats elsewhere seem to be able to learn it more easily.
    • Many animals and plants show remarkable abilities to regenerate after damage. When the nests of termites are broken open, they quickly rebuild the damaged structures.
    • When new chemical compounds are made for the first time they are difficult to crystallize, but the more often they are made the more readily their crystals form – all over the world.
    Why? How?
  2. Rupert Sheldrake's answers provoked a furore when the first edition of A New Science of Life was published. He infuriated the old guard and was welcomed by the new. He debated his hypothesis all over the world and addressed Congress in Washington. Experiments are being carried out to test for the effects of morphic resonance; some have involved millions of people through the medium of television. These developments are recorded in full in this new edition of A New Science of Life.
  3. 'As far reaching as Darwin's theory of evolution'
    … Brain/Mind Bulletin
  4. "This infuriating tract ... is the best candidate1 for burning there has been for many years"
    … Nature
  5. 'Sheldrake works out some of the implications of his theory for biological form, evolution, memory and behaviour. They are fascinating and far-reaching, and would turn upside down a lot of orthodox science'
    … John Davy, The Observer

Introduction (Full Text)
  1. At present, the orthodox approach to biology is given by the mechanistic theory of life: living organisms are regarded as physico-chemical machines, and all the phenomena of life are considered to be explicable in principle in terms of physics and chemistry. This mechanistic paradigm is by no means new; it has in fact been predominant for over a century. The main reason why most biologists continue to adhere to it is that it works: it provides a framework of thought within which questions about the physico-chemical mechanisms of life-processes can be asked and answered.
  2. The fact that this approach has resulted in spectacular successes such as the 'cracking of the genetic code' is a strong argument in its favour. Nevertheless, critics have put forward what seem to be good reasons for doubting that all the phenomena of life, including human behaviour, can ever be explained entirely mechanistically. But even if the mechanistic approach were admitted to be severely limited not only in practice but in principle, it could not simply be abandoned; at present it is the only approach available to experimental biology, and will undoubtedly continue to be followed until there is some positive alternative.
  3. Any new theory capable of extending or going beyond the mechanistic theory will have to do more than assert that life involves qualities or factors at present unrecognized by the physical sciences: it will have to say what sorts of things these qualities or factors are, how they work, and what relationship they have to known physico-chemical processes.
  4. The simplest way in which the mechanistic theory could be modified would be to suppose that the phenomena of life depend on a new type of causal factor, unknown to the physical sciences, which interacts with physico-chemical processes within living organisms. Several versions of this vitalist theory have been proposed during the present century, but none has succeeded in making predictions that can be tested, or in suggesting new kinds of experiments. If, to quote Sir Karl Popper, 'the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability', vitalism has so far failed to qualify.
  5. The organismic or holistic philosophy provides a context for what could be a yet more radical revision of the mechanistic theory. This philosophy denies that everything in the universe can be explamed from the bottom up, as it were, in terms of the properties of atoms, or indeed of any hypothetical ultimate particles of matter. Rather, it recognizes the existence of hierarchically organized systems which, at each level of complexity, possess properties which cannot be fully understood in terms of the properties exhibited by their parts in isolation from each other; at each level the whole is more than the sum of its parts. These wholes can be thought of as organisms, using this term in a deliberately wide sense to include not only animals and plants, organs, tissues and cells, but also crystals, molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles. In effect this philosophy proposes a change from the paradigm of the machine to the paradigm of the organism in the biological and in the physical sciences. In A.N. Whitehead's well-known phrase: 'Biology is the study of the larger organisms, whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.'
  6. Various versions of this organismic philosophy have been advocated by many writers, including biologists, for over 50 years. But if organicism is to have more than a superficial influence on the natural sciences, it must be able to give rise to testable predictions. It has not yet done so.
  7. The reasons for this failure are illustrated most clearly in the areas of biology where the organismic philosophy has been most influential, namely embryology2 and developmental 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 embryos3 and other developing systems. The trouble is that this concept is used ambiguously. 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. This approach seems unlikely to lead very far. The concept of morphogenetic fields can be of practical scientific value only if it leads to testable predictions which differ from those of the conventional mechanistic theory. And such predictions cannot be made unless morphogenetic fields are considered to have measurable effects.
  8. The hypothesis put forward in this book is based on the idea that morphogenetic fields do indeed have measurable physical effects. It proposes that specific morphogenetic 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. These fields order the systems with which they are associated by affecting events which, from an energetic point of view, appear to be indeterminate or probabilistic; they impose patterned restrictions on the energetically possible outcomes of physical processes.
  9. If morphogenetic fields are responsible for the organization and form of material systems, they must themselves have characteristic structures. So where do these field-structures 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.
  10. According to this hypothesis, systems are organized in the way they are because similar systems were organized that way in the past. For example, the molecules of a complex organic chemical crystallize in a characteristic pattern because the same substance crystallized that way before; a plant takes up the form characteristic of its species because past members of the species took up that form; and an animal acts instinctively in a particular manner because similar animals behaved like that previously. 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. This question can be answered in several different ways, but all of them seem to be equally compatible with the suggested means of repetition.
  11. A number of testable predictions can be deduced from this hypothesis which differ strikingly from those of the conventional mechanistic theory. A single example will suffice: if an animal, say a rat, learns to carry out a new pattern of behaviour, there will be a tendency for any subsequent similar rat (of the same breed, reared under similar conditions, etc.) to leam more quickly to carry out the same pattern of behaviour. The larger the number of rats that leam to perform the task, the easier should it be for any subsequent sunilar rat to leam it. Thus, for instance, if thousands of rats were trained to perform a new task in a laboratory in London, similar rats should leam to carry out the same task more quickly in laboratories everywhere else. If the speed of leaming of rats in another laboratory, say in New York, were to be measured before and after the rats in London were trained, the rats tested on the second occasion should leam more quickly than those tested on the first. The effect should take place in the absence of any known type of physical connection or communication between the two laboratories.
  12. Such a prediction may seem so improbable as to be absurd. Yet, remarkably enough, there is already evidence from laboratory studies of rats that the predicted effect actually occurs.
  13. This hypothesis, called the hypothesis of formative causation4, leads to an interpretation of many physical and biological phenomena which is radically different from that of existing theories, and enables a number of well-known problems to be seen in a new light. In the present book, it is sketched out in a preliminary form, some of its implications are discussed, and various ways in which it could be tested are suggested.


Paladin Life Science, New Edition, London, 1987

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