Ken Wilber
Source Starseeds Light Family

by Ken Wilber Excerpted from The Collected Works of Ken Wilber: Volume 4

Perhaps the most persistent problem in developmental biology concerns morphogenesis, or the coming into being of form, because the actual form of an organism—its pattern, its shape, its spatiotemporal order—cannot be predicted or even accounted for in terms of its constituent material parts. To give the simplest example: a protein is a long chain of molecules that, based on the properties of the molecules themselves, could easily fold into any number of energetically equivalent forms, and yet, in living systems, they are always found folded in only one way. That is, one form is always selected from numerous equivalent possibilities, and yet, on the basis of mass and energy considerations, no one form should be preferable to any other. The same puzzle is found, a fortiori, in larger and more complex organic systems. No known physical laws can account for the form these systems take. So what does account for it?

Aside from the mechanistic approach, which purports to explain the problem by ignoring it, there have been three major attempts to account for morphogenesis. One is the vitalist approach, pioneered at the turn of the century by Driesch (1914). This theory, influenced in part by Aristotelean ideas, maintains that each organic system possesses a characteristic vital force that, as entelechy, guides and shapes the form of the organism. This theory, admirable as a first attempt, suffered mostly from its vagueness, and consequently was replaced in the 1920s by various forms of organismic theory, influenced largely by the works of Whitehead, Smuts, and the Gestalt psychologists. “Vital force” was replaced by the more sophisticated and precise concept of the “morphogenetic field,” which is said to guide the actual form or pattern of the organism’ material and energetic components, much as a magnetic field will guide and shape iron filings placed within it. Thus, as is well known, if on removes a section of a growing embryo, the embryo will regenerate the section. It does so, according to this theory, because the morphogenetic field of the embryo drives it to replenish, not merely its lost matter, but its lost form. That is, the embryo has, in addition to its material-energetic laws (governed by the standard laws of physics), a holistic drive to reform the whole (a drive to “closure” governed by the morphogenetic field, which itself is not governed or explained by physical laws).

The theory of morphogenetic fields was pioneered by Waddington (1975) largely under the (then unacknowledged) influence of Whitehead. But Waddington wavered on the exact nature of the morphogenetic field; in fact, he hinted that it could probably be explained on the mere basis of physico-chemical properties. Rene Thorn (1975), in his famous catastrophe theory, took up Waddington’s ideas and gave them a powerful and impressive reformulation in terms of topographical mathematics. Despite the undeniable contribution of Thorn, however, his theory attempts only to describe morphogenesis, not explain it, and thus the how and the why of these fields remained untouched.

I find his hypothesis to be one of the most innovative, careful, and refreshing scientific presentations of the last decade

"I find his hypothesis to be one of the most innovative, careful, and refreshing scientific presentations of the last decade"
Ken Wilber

Goodwin (1979), on the other hand (and this is the third of the major approaches), takes the Platonic view that these fields are actually archetypal and timeless forms that are forever or transcendentally given but only become actualized in the course of historical development or evolution. This at least gives a possible explanation of the existence and purpose of these fields, but it has the awkward side-effect of implying that, since all forms are timelessly given, there is no actual creativity or genuine novelty anywhere in the universe. It seems, in fact, a subtle form -of determinism.

Enter Rupert Sheldrake (1981) and his theory of formative causation. Sheldrake accepts wholeheartedly the theory of morphogenetic fields, but unlike Waddington and Thorn, he wishes to explain these fields (not just describe them), and unlike Goodwin, he believes that these fields themselves can develop. They are not timelessly given but rather are themselves effected and molded by past morphogenetic fields. The idea, simply, is that once a particular form comes into existence, it will have a causal effect on all subsequent, similar forms; and thus the more a particular form has been replicated, the more likely it will be replblted in the future. This causal influence of one form on another Sheldrake 1’l\lIs “formative causation” (similar to Aristotle’s formal causation), and the actual means of this causation Sheldrake calls “morphic resonance.”

To return to the example of protein folding: According to Sheldrake, t he first time in evolution that a particular protein was generated, it could potentially have folded into any number of energetically equivalent forms, but by chance it settled into one form. However, the next lime this protein was generated, anywhere in the world, it would, according to Sheldrake, have a significantly elevated tendency or probabilityof settling into this same form, simply by virtue of morphic resonance and formative causation from the morphogenetic field of the first protein. As more and more proteins eventually adopted similar forms, this set up a very powerful formative causation that, in effect, forced all subsequent (and similar) proteins to take on the same form. An original contingency has become, via repetition, a virtual necessity. The morphogenetic field of this protein now governs the form of the protein, but it is not a field that is given from the beginning. Far from being an archetypal law, it is rather more like a habit, or cosmic memory. Indeed, for Sheldrake, all of the laws (or formal regularities) of the world have been built up, over successive generations, by morphic resonance and formative causation. Put succinctly, the probability that a given form will occur in the present is a function of the number of times a similar form has occurred in the past. That probability field is exactly the basis of the morphogenetic field. (This view is, as far as it goes, apparently similar to that of Peirce, who held that natural laws are actually habits built by probabilities, and not immutable givens.)

However, what makes Sheldrake’s theory so radical is that formative causation postulated to act in a nonlocal fashion; that is, it operates instantaneously across space and time. Once a particular form has been learned by a system, it will be more easily learned by a similar system anywhere else in the world, without any spatiotemporal contact. And, in fact, Sheldrake points out that there is already a fair amount of circumstantial evidence supporting this. For example, it is well known that it is extremely difficult to crystallize complex organic compounds for the first time, but once it has been done in any laboratory, it is more easily (more rapidly) done in others. It has also been shown that once rats learn to negotiate a particular maze in one part of the world; rats elsewhere learn that maze more rapidly. And this, according to Sheldrake, is because of nonlocal morphic resonance and formative causation.

This is obviously a bold and innovative hypothesis. Fortunately, Sheldrake has carefully explained just how this hypothesis can be empirically tested (one can, for instance, set up protein crystallization experiment around the world). Further, these experiments would allow us to distinguish, for example, between Goodwin’s theory and Sheldrake’s: If t form of each subsequent generation of the protein is crystallized mo easily, without any cross-contact, that would rebuff Goodwin’s proposition that these forms are changelessly given from the start, and support Sheldrake’s hypothesis of cumulative conditioning and formative causation. We must await, then, the results of these experiments.

In the meantime, however, we might speculate on the implications and nature of the hypothesis itself. I for one agree entirely on the existence of morphogenetic fields. In addition to the evidence of developmental biologists, there is much corroborative evidence from the fields of developmental psychology and sociology (a morphogenetic field is, in fact, a homolog of what psychologists and anthropologists would call “structure,” which is defined, not by its components, but by its overall form or pattern, and this holistic pattern governs its constituent components). Certain theoretical objections, however, might be raised against Sheldrake’s contentions that (1) these fields are entirely abstract, without any energy of any sort; (2) these fields are nonlocal in character; and (3) there are no archetypal or changeless forms involved in evolution itself. To take them in order:

1) To say that morphogenetic fields are entirely formal or abstract, that they are without any type of mass or energy, but that they somehow influence, indeed govern, mass and energy, raises that ancient and intractable dualism: How can nonmatter affect matter? This looks suspiciously like a new ghost in the old machine, no matter that these ghosts are said causally to interact. I am not a priori against this dualism, but somehow it just doesn’t compel. And this is reinforced by the fact that most of the analogies that Sheldrake uses are based on energetic fields: the magnet and its fields of force, for example. Even the idea of morphic resonance is taken from sonic fields (two strings vibrating at the same pitch).

It is therefore possible—I would say probable—that morphogenetic fields are not completely formal but rather possess some sort of very subtle energy, and it is the influence of these subtler energies on the denser ones that constitutes the formative capacity of morphogenetic fields. This idea also fits with the more traditional view that, for example, the biological morphic field is composed of a subtle energy (“bio-energy” or “prana”), and it is the subtlety of this energy that imposes—and thus appears as the form of the grosser energies. This view at least obviates the dualism. Sheldrake himself says that form cannot exist without energy, and energy cannot exist without form. It is therefore difficult to see how formative causation could act without a correlative energetic causation.

Now one of the reasons that Sheldrake makes such a sharp distinction between form and energy (or formative causation and energetic causation) is that the two seem to follow (or display) different laws. Sheldrake gives the example of a flower: If you burn a flower to ashes, the mass-and-energy of the flower is conserved, but the form or pattern of the flower is simply destroyed (i.e., energy is conserved, form isn’t). But by Sheldrake’s own theory this is not quite true. The form of the flower, in fact, must be retained in something like cosmic memory if it is to subsequently influence similar forms via morphic resonance and formative causation. A form that was totally destroyed, that ceased to exist absolutely, could not have any effect whatsoever on subsequent form. In other words, Sheldrake’s own theory, which denies the conservation of form, in fact demands some sort of subtle formal conservation, analogous (but not identical) to energetic conservation. Formal conservation seems exactly what formative causation is all about. If this is so, Sheldrake has implicitly hit upon a profound and novel truth.

2) Another reason Sheldrake wishes to sharply separate formative causation and energetic causation is that some of the examples he is considering (e.g., protein crystallization) seem to act across space and time (i.e., nonlocally), and no known type of energetic causation can do so. Fortunately, the experiments Sheldrake has proposed will go a long way in helping decide this issue. My point is simply that, even if these experiments disprove Sheldrake’s nonlocal formative causation, they will not disprove morphogenetic fields themselves, which may just as easily operate in subtle yet still more or less local ways. In fact, most of the known cases of information transfer (i.e., form transfer) definitely occur in space and time, not outside space and time (thus, even in Sheldrake’s favorite analogy of form transfer, that of a telephone or radio, the transmission takes place in space-time). Even if there are occasional nonlocal transfers (as in Bell’s theorem), nonetheless the bulk of information transfers that we know of is local, and we still must explain that. It seems to me that much (not all) of Sheldrake’s nonlocal formative causation might as easily be explained as subtle local formative causation. In other words, Sheldrake might be drastically overstating the case that all formative causation must be nonlocal. Rather, the typical seems to be as follows: each moment bequeaths its energy-mass and form to subsequent moments, which add their own unique (creative) characteristics and then bequeath that whole package (form and content) to the next moment, and so on indefinitely, so that each event would eventually and ultimately be interconnected with all other events, but not necessarily in an instantaneous and nonlocal fashion. This, anyway, seemed to be Whitehead’s view (he believed in prehensive unifications, but they were unifications of actual space-time occasions, which are not instantaneously nonlocal).

3. Sheldrake, in the line of Spencer, Ward, Schelling, Bergson, Dilthey, and so on, keenly understands the importance of historicism or developmentalism in the nature of the world. He is thus suspicious of those theoreticians who tend to see all truths, all forms, all entities as being somehow timelessly implanted in the world from the start. (It should be said that we are not talking about the possibility of a radically timeless and formless Ground of Being or Godhead; we are talking about the nature of created forms, and whether or not they are rigidly unchanging. As for a transcendental Ground of Being, Sheldrake made it quite clear that he believes in such). In particular, Sheldrake was deeply influenced by Bergson’s idea of creative evolution, and Bergson’s critique of those who, once a new form has emerged, deny its genuinely creative import by claiming it was really there all along in potential or hidden form. This would include, of course, Goodwin’s archetypal interpretation of morphogenetic fields. Sheldrake thus takes the stance that perhaps it would be better to see all forms, all entities, as being products of past development, on the one hand, or creative emergence, on the other. But timeless, unchanging categories—that Sheldrake denies.

I would certainly agree on the importance of evolution and creativity, but perhaps Sheldrake goes too far in his disavowal of archetypal givens. For instance, by Sheldrake’s own theory, there are certain categories that must be the case in order for his theory itself to be true, and these a priori categories are in fact archetypal. For example, Sheldrake sees the world as composed of energy and form; he sees energy causing energy and form causing form; he sees development occurring; and he sees creativity as essential. And all of those—energy, form, causation, development, creativity—are seen to be present everywhere, timelessly, from the start. They are therefore archetypal by his own standards, at least for this universe (which is not to say that prior to this universe they were necessary). Even Whitehead, the champion of process reality, believed in the existence of what he called “eternal objects” (shape, color, etc.). In short, there seem to be at least certain deep structures to this cosmos that are everywhere invariant, but its particular surface structures seem everywhere variable (learned, habitual, developmental, etc.). I think Sheldrake’s hypothesis of formative causation is a substantial addition to our possible understanding of how the latter (i.e., the developmental) components might in fact develop, although it tells us nothing about the former or archetypal components.

(Some critics have faulted Sheldrake for not explaining why or how new forms emerge, and while that is an understandable criticism, it is unfair. Sheldrake himself clearly and carefully explains that his theory is only meant to explain how certain forms are replicated once they emerge. He believes in the creative emergence of new forms, but does not purport to explain it. I am simply adding that his theory does not and in fact cannot address the creativity of new forms simply because creativity itself is archetypal, a category his specific theory does not explicitly recognize.)

A small side issue, but one that is sure to be raised: It is often said that the phenomena of black holes—in which all known laws and forms are suspended—proves that no patterns can be archetypal. Perhaps. I myself don’t find that argument very convincing. For we arrive at the properties of a black hole on the basis of calculations generated from present physical laws. If those laws are themselves suspect-due to the existence of black holes-then so are the properties attributed to those black holes by the present physical laws. This amounts to saying that the present physical laws suggest that there are no present physical laws. It’s like writing a book claiming that there is no such thing as writing. I’m perfectly willing to admit that black holes are completely weird phenomena, but I’m not prepared to admit that they axe absolutely without properties (physicists, after all, have managed to explain them in gruesome detail), and those properties-strange as they may be-are simply a subset of the archetypal givens of this universe.

It might seem that, given these reservations, I am not all that impressed with Sheldrake’s efforts. In fact, however, for various reasons I find his hypothesis to be one of the most innovative, careful, and refreshing scientific presentations of the last decade, especially among what is known as “New Age” science (i.e., the attempted synthesis of empirical science and transcendental traditions). For one, it is written in an extremely meticulous and clear fashion. It shares none of the ambiguous and half-baked (or should one say fully baked?) notions that seem to define the typical “new paradigm” confessions, most of which are neither science nor art, but a dodge. Further, Sheldrake does not subscribe to the fashionable notion that physics somehow has a corner on truth; in fact, he shuns exclusively physical approaches and, following Whitehead and Bergson, looks to living or biological systems for more fundamental (or “higher”) truth claims. Unlike Pribram, Zukav, the early Capra, and so on, Sheldrake refuses to see physical interactions as paradigmatic for the universe, and his reasons for this refusal are a classic and eloquent explanation of the inherent limitations of extrapolating from physics and chemistry to the Entire World. Finally, since he claims this as a scientific theory, he does what most New Age scientists fail to do: Along the lines of Sir Karl Popper, he proposes ways, not to prove his theory (anybody can dream up supposed proofs), but to potentially disprove his theory, which helps to define a scientific hypothesis. Despite my interim agnosticism about his conclusion (agnosticism he scientifically shares), I am tempted to say that, in Rupert Sheldrake, we have the emergence of one of the first genuinely “New Age” scientists, and, in the spirit of his own philosophy, this is a creative emergence I happily applaud.


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Bergson, H. (1911). Creative Evolution. London: Macmillan.

Driesch, H. (1914). History and Theory of Vitalism. London: Macmillan.

Goodwin, B. C. (1979)· “On Morphogenic Fields.” Theoria to Theory 13: 109-14.

Popper, K. (1965). Conjectures rand Refutations. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sheldrake, R. (1981). A New Science of Life. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.

Thorn, R. (1975). Structural Stability and Morphogenesis. Reading, Mass.: Benjamin.

Waddington, C. (1975). The. Evolution of an Evolutionist. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Whitehead, A. N. (1969). Process and Reality. New York: Macmillan.