Biography of Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D. - Part II
I was born and brought up in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, in the English Midlands. My family were devout Methodists. I went to an Anglican boarding school. I was for a while torn between these two very different traditions - one Protestant and the other Anglo-Catholic with incense and all the trappings of Catholicism.
But the thing that really preoccupied me was my interest in living things. From a very early age I was interested in plants and animals. My father was an amateur naturalist and microscopist and he encouraged this interest. My mother put up with it. I kept lots of animals at home and she said, as mothers always say, "Itís all very well, but whoís going to feed them?" And of course, in the end, she usually did.
I knew from quite an early age that I wanted to do biology, and I specialized in science at school. Then I went to Cambridge where I studied biology and biochemistry. However, as I proceeded in my studies, a great gulf opened between my original inspiration, namely an interest in life, actual living organisms and the kind of biology I was taught: orthodox, mechanistic biology which essentially denies the life of organisms but instead treats them as machines. I had to learn that you canít respond emotionally to animals and plants. You canít connect with them in any way except by detached objective reason. There seemed to be very little connection between the direct experience of animals and plants and the way I was learning about them, manipulating them, dissecting them into smaller and smaller bits, getting down to the molecular level and seeing them as evolving by blind chance and blind forces of natural selection.
I could learn this stuff; in fact, I was quite good at it. But the gulf grew bigger and bigger. When I was at Cambridge in the Biochemistry Department, I saw a wall chart showing the different chemical reactions in the body. Someone had written in big letters across the top of it KNOW THYSELF. This brought home to me a huge chasm between these enzymatic reactions and my own experience. The first thing we did in the Biochemistry Department was to kill the organisms we were studying and then grind them up to extract the DNA, the enzymes, and so on.
I felt more and more that there was something wrong, but I couldnít put my finger on it. No one else seemed to think there was anything wrong.Then a friend who was studying literature lent me a book on German philosophy containing an essay on the writings of Goethe, the poet and botanist. I discovered that Goethe at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century had had a vision of a different kind of science, a holistic science that integrated direct experience and understanding. It didnít involve breaking everything down into pieces and denying the evidence of oneís senses.
This filled me with great excitement, the idea that there could be a different kind of natural science. So invigorated was I by this prospect that I decided I wanted to study the history of science and philosophy to see why science had got to where it was. I was fortunate to get a fellowship at Harvard where I spent a year studying philosophy and history. Thomas Kuhnís book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had recently come out and it had a big influence on me, gave me a new perspective. It made me realize that the mechanistic theory of life was what Kuhn called a paradigm, a collectively held model of reality, a belief system. He showed that periods of revolutionary change involved the replacement of old scientificparadigms by new ones. If science had changed radically in the past, then perhaps it could change again in the future. I was very excited by that.
I had a wonderful time at Harvard. I soon discovered that in the United States, university students are treated like children - told exactly what to read and then tested to make sure they have read it. In England I hadnít been treated like that since I was fifteen. I didnít like that system at all. So I decided I didnít need the Masterís degree I was supposed to be getting. Anyway, I could simply buy one from Cambridge University. If you have a Cambridge B.A. you have to do only two things to get an M.A.: stay alive for three and a third years and save up five pounds, the price of the degree. The result was that I spent a wonderful year at Harvard freed from the tyranny of exams, tests, and so on. I could do exactly as I liked, go to any lectures in any subject, read anything. It was wonderful. Unfortunately, very few people have this experience at universities because theyíre nearly always on treadmills.
When I got back to Cambridge, England, I did a Ph.D. on how plants develop, particularly working on the hormones within plants. While I was a graduate student there I came across a group called the Epiphany Philosophers, who were connected with an Anglican monastery called Community of the Epiphany. This group of philosophers, physicists, and mystics explored the connections among mystical experience, philosophy, and science - and still do. This was exactly what I was interested in, and I found this a very helpful and inspiring group.
However, this was a predominately Christian group, and I wasnít a Christian. I was an atheist. When I was about fourteen, my biology master at school had convinced me that religion was a thing of the past, and science was the thing of the future. Religion shackled humans to superstition, priests, and dogma; but science liberated humans and enabled them to march forward to a new era of prosperity and brotherhood. Technological progress would bring about this kind of heaven on earth, through human reason, not through blind faith and mumbo jumbo.
It was nice to think that I was in the vanguard of a heroic, liberating movement. I took an optimistic atheistic and humanistic attitude, which lasted a long time. Itís a very firmly embedded mind-set once you get into it.
So when I joined the Epiphany Philosophers, the Christian aspect didnít interest me much. But I was interested in the exploration of new ideas in quantum theory, philosophy of science, parapsychology, alternative medicine, and the holistic philosophy of nature. These were some of the themes we were discussing in the sixties. We lived together as a community in an old windmill on the Norfolk coast for a week at a time, four times a year. It was an interesting mixture of people, ranging from undergraduates, hippies, and healers to eccentric professors, physicists, and monks - and we were able to talk together and engage in common explorations.
I went on with my research on plant development and became a Research Fellow of Clare College in Cambridge and also a Research Fellow of the Royal Society, which gave me tremendous freedom, for which Iím very grateful. For seven years I lived in seventeenth-century rooms in a beautiful courtyard. I had all my meals provided. All I had to do was wait for a bell to ring and I just walked across the courtyard, put on my academic gown, and on high table was served delicious meals, with vintage wine from the well-stocked college cellars. After dinner we drank port in a panelled common room, called a combination room, and talked for hours. Since the fellows of the colleges are from all different subjects, I had many valuable opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion.
I was free to do whatever research I liked. The first year, I went off to Malaya because I wanted to study plants in rainforests. I travelled through India and Sri Lanka on the way, and that was a real eye-opener. Being in Asia showed me totally different ways of looking at the world. When I got back to Cambridge, I went on with my work on plant development. As I did so I became more and more convinced that the mechanistic approach simply could not work in understanding the development of living organisms.
I was beginning to explore the holistic tradition in biology, which is a minority tradition, but itís always been there. I began to formulate the idea of morphic resonance, the basis of memory in nature, the main thing Iíve been working on since. The idea came to me in a moment of insight and was extremely exciting. It interested some of my colleagues at Clare College - philosophers, linguists, and classicists were quite open-minded. But the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species didnít go down too well with my colleagues in the science labs. Not that they were aggressively hostile; they just made fun of it. Whenever I said something like, "Iíve just got to go and make a telephone call," they said, "Ha, ha, why bother? Do it by morphic resonance!"
I saw that a new kind of science was necessary, and I was encouraged as I began to see what it could look like. It became clear that the futureof my interests didnít lie in bio-chemistry. I wanted to do something quite different, where I could work with whole organisms, and preferably do something that was useful as well. I resigned my fellowship at Cambridge and got a job in an international agricultural institute in southern India, at Hyderabad, where I worked for about six years on the physiology of tropical legume crops, improving crops for subsistence farmers in India. This was a great opportunity to work in the fields, to get to know plants year-round, growing outdoors, a completely different experience from working with little bits of them in the laboratory, where they were isolated from all the real-life factors which are only too apparent in the world of agriculture.
The main reason for taking the job in Hyderabad was that I wanted to be in India. I had already become interested in Indian philosophy and had started doing transcendental meditation. I was drawn to the Hindu traditions. So I went to India, lived there, and worked in agricultural research. I loved being in India.
I went on thinking about my heretical ideas in biology until I felt ready to write a book on the subject. I didnít want to leave India but I had to leave my job because I was working very long hours and didnít have time to write the book. By that stage Iíd met somebody who was to play a great role in my life, Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk who lived in a small ashram right in the very south of India. It was a Christian ashram, bridging the Christian and Eastern traditions.
During my time in India Iíd been involved with various Hindu gurus and ashrams, and also with Sufis in Hyderabad, which has for centuries been a stronghold of Sufism. I had a great friend who was a Sufi, an old and very charming man, who was my teacher. But oddly enough, in spite of all this, I found myself being drawn back to the Christian tradition, which I felt was my own tradition. I realized I could never really become a Sufi because you have to become a Muslim to become a real Sufi, and I couldnít see myself getting into all that. I couldnít become a Hindu because I couldnít be an Indian. Yet, at the same time I began to find new meaning in the Christian tradition that Iíd rejected for so long.
When I met Bede Griffiths, he made the bridge between the Christian and the Eastern traditions much easier for me to cross. I went and livedin his ashram for a year and a half, and then I wrote my first book, A New Science of Life, which I dedicated to him.
Then I went on working part-time in my old job in India and the rest of the time pursued my interest in morphic resonance and holistic ideasin biology. And thatís what Iíve been doing since I met my wife, Jill in India, and we share many interests. Weíve explored some of my interests together. One of the things we do is come with our two sons to North America every year, an annual family migration.
Iíve written three more books: The Presence of the Past, which expands the idea of memory in nature; The Rebirth of Nature, which shows how we can once again think of nature as alive instead of inanimate and mechanical; and Seven Experiments That Could Change the World, which is subtitled A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science. In the latter I focus on areas where simple, inexpensive research can make a big difference. I think that only by re-empowering independent investigation in science can the spirit of inquiry be revitalized. Science in the past was done mainly by amateurs. It has now become exclusively professionalized, but it doesnít have to be that way.
One of my main concerns is the opening up of science. Another is exploring the connections between science and spirituality, and I am particularly thankful for the opportunity to do this with Matthew Fox
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