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Morphogenetic field

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A morphogenetic field (a subset of morphic field) is a hypothetical biological (and potentially social) field that contains the information necessary to shape the exact form of a living thing, as part of its epigenetics, and may also shape its behaviour and coordination with other beings (see also morphogenesis). This hypothesis is not accepted by most scientists, who consider it pseudoscientific.[1] [2] The term morphogenetic field has also been used in a different sense by mainstream developmental biologists.[3]

Research backgroundEdit

British biologist Rupert Sheldrake posited a theory of morphogenetic fields that has become well-known for the criticism and skepticism directed towards it by some prominent members of the scientific community. The theory of morphic fields is not currently accepted by mainstream science. That a mode of transmission of shared concepts and archetypes might exist did gain some tacit acceptance, when it was proposed as the theory of collective unconscious by renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung. A morphic field might provide an explanation for the theory.

Sheldrake trained as a plant physiologist and became interested in the way that living things took on their form. In particular, he was interested in how what began as a single cell that split into identical copies eventually changed to take on specific characteristics such as leaves or stems in a plant.

At the time of his research in the late 1960s and 1970s, the mechanisms for such development were unclear. In the 1920s, embryo regeneration and the ability of willow shoots to grow whole new trees implied to some researchers the possibility of some influencing field. The later discovery of DNA appeared at first to offer a clearer explanation, but since the DNA remains largely identical throughout an organism, it was thought that DNA could not explain form. Subsequent research revealed that DNA controls the form of a creature through the complex mechanism of cellular differentiation.

Sheldrake observed:

"The instructors [at university] said that all morphogenesis is genetically programmed. They said different species just follow the instruction in their genes. But a few moments' reflection show that this reply is inadequate. All the cells of the body contain the same genes. In your body, the same genetic program is present in your eye cells, liver cells and the cells in your arms. The ones in your legs. But if they are all programmed identically, how do they develop so differently?"

Sheldrake then became interested in "holistic" ideas after reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's works on the topic. He developed a theory to explain this problem of morphology, with its basic concept relying on a universal field encoding the "basic pattern" of an object. He termed it the "morphogenetic field".

The morphogenetic field would provide a force that guided the development of an organism as it grew, making it take on a form similar to that of others in its species. DNA was not the source of structure itself, but rather a "receiver" that translated instructions in the field into physical form.

A feedback mechanism, morphic resonance, would lead to changes in this pattern, as well as explain why humans did not "pick up" the pattern of plants during development. In Sheldrake's theory, the existence of a form is itself sufficient to make it easier for that form to come to exist somewhere else.

Morphogenetic fields was also dealt with by Lancelot Law Whyte in 1949, while working on Einstein's Unified Field Theory. [4]


Sheldrake first published his ideas in 1973, offering several examples as evidence in support.

One was the research of Harvard University researcher William McDougall, who, in the 1920s, studied the abilities of rats to correctly solve mazes. He found that the offspring of rats that had learned the maze were able to run it faster. The first rats would get it wrong 165 times before being able to run it perfectly each time, but after a few generations it was down to 20. McDougall attributed this to some sort of Lamarckian evolutionary process, such as genetic memory. An alternative explanation, however, involved the rats following the scent left behind by their predecessors.

Sheldrake attributed this process to morphogenetic fields. The rats running the maze the first times built their pattern of learning into the "rat field", and later rats were able to draw on this now-established pattern. Several examples of this sort of "universal learning" were offered.

Another piece of evidence came from pure chemistry, where another unexplained "learning behaviour" takes place during the formation of crystals. When a new chemical compound is first created it will crystallize slowly, but when other researchers repeat the experiment they find it occurs more quickly. Chemists hypothesize that this is due to better experiments — the parts of the first experiment that result in slower growth are documented and not repeated. If this is correct, using documented processes should consistently result in slower crystal growth; however, this hypothesis does not appear to have been tested. Sheldrake also attributed this to a morphogenetic field, suggesting that the crystals being formed for the first time were influencing a field that later crystals drew on.

Although Sheldrake had talked about the theory in the 1970s and had become somewhat well known, the "big release" occurred when the theory was presented in book form in 1981 in A New Science of Life. Interestingly the book does not provide any examples from the problem that actually led Sheldrake to the theory in the first place: the theory was offered as an explanation of plant and animal development, but no actual direct evidence along these lines was offered. In addition, the scope of the theory was expanded, with Sheldrake claiming that all of physics might operate along the same lines. In this view, nature may be not a set of laws, but rather of habits.

Critical receptionEdit

The reception of many scientists to Sheldrake's theories was negative. "Theories of everything" are generally greeted with skepticism, particularly if they are written in layman's language and not published in peer-reviewed journals, and even more so if the author claims insight into fields that they have no direct experience in. A New Science of Life was all three, and thus generally dismissed out of hand. Sheldrake seems to have become increasingly disenchanted with the science world's reaction. On his website, he dismisses it all as a closed-minded bureaucracy.

Sheldrake's theories, however, became popular in the new age field, where it attracted attention; chiefly due to its view of the "connectedness" of the world, as well as his being an example of a "real scientist" whose theories were being dismissed by the scientific establishment. In 1988 he followed up his earlier book with The Presence of the Past: A Field Theory of Life.

Since then, Sheldrake has drifted away from his work on the morphogenetic field. Although he still considers it the basis of his work, more recent publications have had little directly to do with it.

Continuing experimentsEdit

As Sheldrake moved away from interest in mainstream institutions, he proposed a list of Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (1994), which included, among other things, the seed of his study of Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home (1999).

In 2003 he published The Sense of Being Stared At, about a sense reported widely by a great many people. This included an experiment where people were blindfolded and having other people behind them either stare at them or at another target; the object beings stared at determined randomly. A loud click would cue the subject to declare if he was being stared at or not. Sheldrake claimed that if the guess was wrong and the subject was told that, they would subsequently get it wrong less often.

Sheldrake reported that, in over tens of thousands of trials, the scores were consistently above chance (60%) when the subject was being stared at, but only 50% (random chance) when the subject was not being stared at. This suggested a weak sense of being stared at but no sense of not being stared at. Sheldrake claims that these experiments have been very widely repeated, in schools in Connecticut and Toronto and a science museum in Amsterdam, with consistent results. Skeptics doubt his results and attribute the results to bad randomization during the experiments [1], despite the fact that these same results occur under pure random number generation (coin flipping) as well as many other randomisation schemes[2].

Sheldrake maintains that this skepticism is due, not to problems with the work, but instead to the preconceptions of the scientists that hold them. His approach to the scientific method, based on Darwin's careful observations, took him further away from molecular biology and the focus on gene, enzyme, protein and cell functions. This, he says, is a challenge to the mechanistic paradigm that views biology as a function of chemistry and physics—part of 19th century materialism that has led to genetic engineering and to biotechnology in general, but away from an account of consciousness, which the field theories are seeking.

His critics reply, however, that their skepticism is based on the lack of good experimental evidence. They also claim that, since Sheldrake first proposed his theories in the 1970s, tremendous strides have been taken in understanding how form arises from genetic material.


  1. L'Imposture Scientifique en Dix Lecons, "Pseudoscience in Ten Lessons.", By Michel de Pracontal. Editions La Decouverte, Paris, 2001. ISBN 2-7071-3293-4.
  2. (24 Sep 1981) A book for burning?. Nature 293 (5830): 245-246. DOI:10.1038/293245b0. Attributed to Nature's senior editor, John Maddox (commenting on Sheldrake's book A New Science of Life (1981)), Maddox wrote: "Sheldrake's argument is an exercise in pseudo-science. — Many readers will be left with the impression that Sheldrake has succeeded in finding a place for magic within scientific discussion — and this, indeed, may have been a part of the objective of writing such a book."
  3. Gilbert, Scott (1997), The "Re-discovery" of Morphogenetic Fields,, retrieved on March 3, 2007  Gilbert writes that, since at least the 1920's, mainstream biology has used the term morphogenetic field to mean "that collection of cells by whose interactions a particular organ formed". This usage is distinct from Sheldrake's in that nothing external to the cells themselves is implicated.
  4. Whyte, Lancelot Law (1949), The Unitary Principle in Physics and Biology, London, pp. 140 

See alsoEdit


External linksEdit

de:Morphisches Feld
es:Campo morfogenético
pl:Pole morfogenetyczne
pt:Campo morfogenético
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