As announced a few posts ago, I am reviewing one of the main books of Rupert Sheldrake. The one chosen is trying to link observations in the social and cultural realms with his concept of morphic resonance. Although there are some interesting ideas in it, I must say that I am a bit disappointed, as it does not provide a whole lot more to what has already been discussed so far. Yet, it was still a worthwhile reading. The full notice is:
Sheldrake, Rupert. (1989). The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. New York: Vintage Books.
Morphic fields and sociology
This book represents further application of his biological ideas developed in A New Science of Life (1981) to the realms of psychology, society, and culture (p. vii). Yet, nearly half of the book is dealing with issues linked to the outdated 19th century mechanistic views of science that are still prevalent today. Among those views, one can find the hope of finding all the eternal and immutable laws of nature. For him, a central problem is that reality fundamentally changes, and thus our understanding of it must also evolve. It is to address this problem that he developed the notion of morphogenetic fields, which “evolve within the realm of nature, and they are influenced by what has happened before. Habits build up within them. From this point of view, mathematical models of these fields are only models; they do not represent transcendent mathematical realities that determine the fields” (p. 107).
Social sciences are about studying collective and long-lasting, but not eternal, idiosyncrasies which have “laws” of their own, but as these idiosyncrasies change over time, so the “laws” to explain them will change. If one translates in the language of the social science the above quote, it would look like this: social structuration in social classes evolves within societies, and is influenced by previous social forms. It is only with time that new social forms become accepted and integrated in a society, and the models and theories to explain them are specific to those societies, and do not determine social structuration. No one in social science would be shocked by such “translation”. It is certainly an issue and challenge for the natural sciences, but when it comes to the human and social sciences this is not a major issue.
Sheldrake appears aware of this, as he wrote later in the book, that sociology has abandoned in the 1960s such pretensions of finding eternal laws of society (pp. 254-255), especially through the disrepute of the functionalism and structuralism. From that point of view, it is clear that his book was not addressed to people in the social sciences. This is a bit disturbing, as they would be the only ones to be really able to embrace his concept in the context of what this books intend to do. It is unfortunate that Sheldrake missed such an opportunity to establish a dialogue with the social science community, but I guess his main “demons” were somewhere else...
This lack of dialogue appears to remain to this day. I did a relatively extensive search for social science journal articles that would use Sheldrake’s ideas, and to my surprise I found none. I think a number of reasons can be invoked to explain this situation: conservatism of those journals vis-à-vis his unconventional views (yet some of them in cultural studies are all but conservative); Sheldrake’s inability to reach out to the social science communities, as morphic resonance is expressed in ways that are not easy to integrate within existing models and theories from social sciences (something he recognizes himself – p. 309), etc. But I think the most important reason for this lack of interest is that Sheldrake’s ideas provide nothing new to the social sciences. This can be seen as a mixed blessing. On one hand, this confirms that most findings in sociology remain essentially valid, even with a morphic fields “update”. On the other hand, as it does not provide anything really new, then why should one bother using this concept?
Morphic fields and resonance in sociology
The notion of morphic field is actually quite similar to the way sociological concepts and theories are devised. Morphic fields are constructs that are comparable to the notions of social force and dynamics, which are common concepts in sociology to describe abstract realities that have a real impact, such as social classes, social institutions. But his approach is starting from the natural sciences and tries to go towards the social sciences. As Sheldrake wrote, “the hypothesis of formative causation, which the rest of this book explores, starts from the assumption that morphogenetic fields are physically real, in the sense that gravitational, electro-magnetic, and quantum matter fields are real” (pp. 107-108). It would be interesting to do the reverse exercise, using social science concepts to describe biology.
What morphic fields do, as a concept, is to provide an explanatory structure to understand why biological shapes and behaviours remain the same over time, and that they tend to spread without always have a direct cause-and-effect to account for it. Within a morphic field, there is a process that makes it stronger and more established through time, which he calls morphic resonance. “Morphic resonance takes place on the basis of similarity. The more similar an organism is to previous organisms, the greater their influence on its morphic resonance. And the more such organisms there have been, the more powerful their cumulative influence” (p. 108). In other words, according to Sheldrake, the more nature is the same, the more it will remain the same. This idea, once transposed, is very similar to the underpinnings of concepts such as primary and secondary socialization, and of institutionalization in sociology, which are built on the notion of repetition.
Sheldrake adds that “by contrast, the hypothesis of formative causation postulates a two-way flow of influence: from fields to organism and from organism to fields” (p. 110). What he means here is that not only the overall structure of the field influences individual organisms in terms of the shape and behaviour, but individual organisms also influence the field. Here too, there is nothing new for sociology. The overall construct of sociological theories is based on that very notion of a two-way process, where the structural and functionalist theories emphasize the top-down part of social processes, while the agency-based and critical theories are all about understanding how individuals can voluntarily induce social change.
For organisms to keep their shape and behaviour over generations, Sheldrake postulates that some sort of memory is required so that organism “knows” what to do. Hence, morphic fields are also memory containers. But he goes further in saying that the information contained in the field seems to spread without always having direct cause-and-effect. “Morphic fields play a role comparable to information and programs in conventional biological thought, and they can indeed be regarded as fields of information. Thinking of information as contained in morphic fields helps to demystify this concept, which otherwise seems to be referring to something that is essentially abstract, mental, or mathematical, or at any rate non-physical in nature” (p. 113). Once again, through key concepts like class and professional socialization, or Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, one knows that social behaviour is filled with information (such as rules of conducts, norms and values). Sheldrake acknowledges this similarity (p. 262). The main difference is the non-causal spread of information which is not really discussed in sociology. More on this below.
One more point, Sheldrake denounces strong determinism through his concept of morphic fields. If organisms tend to have similar shapes and behaviour, they do not have the exact same. There is room for variation (like African pigmies and tall Scandinavians are still part of the same specie). He wrote that “an essential feature of morphic fields is that they are intrinsically probabilistic; in other words they are not sharply defined but are ‘structures of probability” (p. 119). What he means is that within the range of possible outcomes that a field can tolerate, it is impossible to predict how a specific organism or individual would behave. This notion is well understood in sociology. For instance, someone who is born in a working class background has a greater probability to have later on habits, language, demeanour, employment, and housing congruent with what exists in general in the working class. But there are always a number of individual who will arrive to a different outcome, some to become very rich and powerful. Yet, it is impossible to predict which individual will change social class in such a way.
Sheldrake acknowledges that his theories are difficult to test in a human setting as there are too many variables at play (pp, 183, 186-187, and 188). As well, he recognizes that social and cultural realities, if they can be understood as morphic fields, they have to be studied in their own terms. As he underlines, “social and cultural fields are of a nature similar to the morphic fields that organize biological and chemical systems, although they are not, or course, reducible to these biological and chemical fields. Like the morphic fields of systems at all levels of complexity, social and cultural fields are stabilized by morphic resonance from similar systems in the past [...]” (pp. 254-255). Lastly, he recognizes that his concept of morphic fields does not explain well how new morphic fields emerge, while in social science the issue of how social change occur is the fundamental question (pp. 114 and 246).
A bridge not so far
In spite of these limitations, I think Sheldrake provides some interesting points that would be well received in social sciences, or at least better received than in natural sciences. For instance, Sheldrake provides a convincing analysis to show that the notion of instinctive behaviour through genetic explanation is over-rated (p. 158), and this is congruent with the devastating critique opposed to socio-biology.
As well, Sheldrake is very critical of those who try to reduce human behaviour to brain chemistry; a critique whole-heartily shared by most sociologists. “According to the hypothesis of formative causation, the morphic fields that organize our behaviour are not confined to the brain, or even the body, but extend beyond it into the environment, linking the body to the surroundings in which it acts” (p. 198).
Another linkage can be made with the study of social institutions, a key notion in sociology and anthropology. The famous anthropologist Mary Douglas described in her master piece on social institutions, How Institutions Thinks (1987), how institutions does the thinking for individuals in providing mental thought patterns as to how we should look at the world; what she called the classification schemes. Sheldrake proposes a similar construct to understand how information is stored in morphic fields. “From the point of view of the hypothesis of formative causation, such schemata, hierarchies, or organizational factors can be regarded as morphic fields, organized in hierarchies and connected together in multiple ways through higher fields” (p. 200). Institutions behave in a manner that is congruent with the morphic field explanatory structure.
Sheldrake provides also an interesting way of re-energizing Durkheim’s concept of conscience collective, which has lost favour in sociology. Conscience collective is used to describe something that could be also called group mind, to explain social behaviour. Conscience collective could be seen as a morphic field containing the conscious collective memories of a society (pp. 248-255), and that is built and maintained through ongoing generations of people getting the same story about their society (be it true or not, like in the case of nationalism, or Canada is the “most best” country in the world...).
Morphic fields and resonance and parasociology
Where Sheldrake becomes more contentious is where, I think, he is becoming more interesting for the purpose of parasociology. One of the key aspects of morphic fields is that the content of the information found in the field is not necessarily communicated through a normal cause-and-effect process. For instance, he considers that all individuals inherit their species’ collective memory (p. 159), but such memory is not necessarily stored physically and that the past can influence the present directly (p. 160). As he wrote, “if the hypothesis of formative causation is correct, then it should be possible for habit memories of one organism to influence another by morphic resonance, facilitating the acquisition of the same habits. Such an effect would not, of course, be expected on the basis of mechanistic theories of memory storage” (p. 168)
To support his view that collective knowledge is shared through non-direct means, he provides the example of some research done of unconnected groups of rats learning faster over several generations how to get through a maze (p. 175-176). As well, he presents the research on blue tits birds opening milk bottle foil caps, first noticed in 1921 and spreading across the UK and some parts of Europe. These birds are known to travel only within a short distance from their nests (pp. 177-178). Although he agrees that normal animal learning had occurred in this case, an additional explanation is required for birds learning the trick at the same time while living far from each other. This is an important nuance. Sheldrake does not say that “normal” explanations are not good, only that they need to be complemented by something like morphic resonance for what it cannot account for. This perspective reminds me of Brunstein’s (1979) notion that there is a need for an “Einsteinian” revolution in other fields like biology and psychology, and I would add in sociology too.
When it comes to people, Sheldrake wrote that “[...] the principal way in which we are influenced by morphic resonance from other people may be through a kind of pooled memory“(p. 221), and he links his views to Jung’s notion of collective unconscious. Unfortunately, he does explain much how this is occurring, and the verification tests he proposes to validate his ideas in the human realm are less than convincing. But this is certainly congruent with the parasociological notion that social order is, in part, possible through psi linkages.
Overall, what he proposes is that there are unknown and unseen dimensions at play, and morphic fields helps us to sense their presence. These invisible dimensions have been hypothesized in physics (p. 297) through various theories, including the notion of non-locality (p. 304). By logical extension, there should be additional sociological dimensions that are invisible, but still having an effect on societies. This is certainly the goal of parasociology to investigate such invisible dimensions. The concept of morphic resonance can be useful, but it needs to be tested empirically in a true sociological context.
Paranormal phenomena are good candidates for such empirical testing, as the “normal” explanations are not working. UFO sightings, hauntings and alien abductions share many characteristics of morphic fields. The content of such experience is carried on in a non-causal way, and tends to stabilize over time but never become perfectly identical; the more people believe in it, the more it occurs; some individuals (like Barney and Betty Hill) can have an influence on the field, as the field can influence many, etc. With respect to spontaneous but relatively short-live paranormal events like UFO wave and RSPKs (poltergeists), Sheldrake’s concept is maybe less helpful, as it has to describe new, intense but short-lived fields. Maybe these are special forms of morphic field, or example of abrupt disruption in morphic fields. In ecology, for instance, when an ecosystem is seriously damaged, it is possible to observe very strange animal behaviours (like polar bear eating their cubs). On the human side, the days after Katrina in New Orleans also showed what could happen when social order is shattered by environmental destruction. If these examples are good illustration of deep disruptions of morphic fields, then the analogy for UFO wave and RSPKs may hold.
Eric Ouellet © 2009