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Fwd = Interview with Heretical Biologist Rupert Sheldrake: Part 3

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  • Frits Westra
    Forwarded by: fwestra@hetnet.nl (Frits Westra) URL: http://www.anomalist.com/gonzoscience/sheldrake3.html Original Date: Sun, 30 Jun 2002
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 30, 2002
      Forwarded by: fwestra@... (Frits Westra)
      URL: http://www.anomalist.com/gonzoscience/sheldrake3.html
      Original Date: Sun, 30 Jun 2002 14:35:23 +0200 (CEST)

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      Interview with Heretical Biologist Rupert Sheldrake: Part 3

      A Column by Jim Richardson and Allen Richardson

      Biology is a conceptual battleground over turf along the spectrum
      between two schools of thought: the mechanists at one extreme and the
      vitalists at the other. The mechanists, who won and are now known as
      neo-Darwinists, conceive of biological systems as complex machines--
      machines that should be understandable in terms of the collective
      workings of their physical parts - not unlike a clock, say. The
      vitalists, who were undone by the synthesis of urea in a lab many
      years ago, maintain that mechanistic principles are insufficient for
      explaining biological function, and posited some kind of "vital" force
      or energy to supplement deficiencies in the mechanical model.
      Rupert Sheldrake, along with other scientists like Brian Goodwin, have
      attacked the mechanical model of biology. In return, their own
      biological theories, particularly Sheldrake's morphogenetic field
      theory, have been attacked as "vitalist." We asked Dr. Sheldrake about
      these issues.

      Gonzo Science: The label "vitalist" or "neo-vitalist" has been pointed
      at you. I believe it was you who pointed out that many of the more
      neo-Darwinist folks put all this emphasis, they ascribe all these
      abilities to the gene, a so-called "genetic program," that doesn't
      have any more explanatory power than the morphogenetic fields that
      you're talking about.

      Sheldrake: I think it has less explanatory power than morphogenetic
      fields. No, I think the standard view in biology - sometimes I call it
      "molecular vitalism." Vitalism is the belief that there is some
      mysterious principle at work within living organisms ... I think the
      molecular vitalists, like Richard Dawkins and other neo-Darwinists,
      try and cram all the vital factors of living organisms into the genes.
      They say, "It's very small; it's okay to have all these mysterious
      vital factors." The way they talk about genes goes way beyond what
      molecules, chemical molecules, can actually do. Dawkins speaks about
      genes being selfish; molding organisms; competing with each other;
      engaging in evolutionary arms races; being as ruthless as Chicago
      gangsters. The thing is absolutely riddled with anthropomorphic,
      metaphorical language. In fact, practically all his writing is
      metaphor. Now there's nothing wrong with metaphor; we use metaphors to
      understand things. But where it goes wrong is when metaphor is
      confused with reality; when "selfish," vitalistic genes are confused
      with the reality of DNA molecules. In fact the "selfish genes" are
      just a projection; they're projections of images and metaphors onto
      molecules ... I think what genes do is code for particular proteins,
      and some genes are concerned with control of protein synthesis, but
      they don't explain the organism any more than the tarmac on highways
      in the city explains the life of the city; they're part of living
      creatures. I don't think they explain anything more than - well, so,
      the instruction books would explain an organism, but they're not even
      instruction books, they're just strings of bases which say what amino
      acids should be strung together in what order.

      Gonzo Science: So the DNA of an organism is not self-replicating?

      Sheldrake: No, the DNA is self-replicating in the sense that one
      strand can enable the other strand to be specified, but it can only
      replicate of course with the whole of the rest of the organism.

      Gonzo Science: So, we're quoting Brian Goodwin here, but if it's true
      that organisms have a dense spectrum of states, and almost anything
      possible for evolution by natural selection, or - I think what he's
      trying to say is that there's not a limitless number of forms that
      organisms could take, or that the living state is a dynamic state and
      is subject to the laws of physics, and this is what's lost when he and
      you say that the spatio-temporal elements of biological form have been

      Sheldrake: I think they've been overlooked because the drive has been
      to reduce things to the smallest possible bits. You know, it's like
      trying to understand a TV set by grinding it up and analyzing the
      silicon and copper and stuff. You find out something about it, but
      when you do that, you destroy all the structural matrix of functions
      on which it depends. And you also neglect to see that the functioning
      of the TV set depends not just on the components inside it, but on the
      programs to which it's tuned, which are invisible influences, and not
      found obviously through it. So I think it's naïve, but it may be a
      necessary stage for biology to go through, this extreme reductionism
      and trying to understand everything in terms of molecules. Molecules
      are certainly there. But they don't explain the whole organism and
      what's going on within it. I think we're going to have a better way of
      understanding life, and a better system of medicine for example, that
      can include enough of heuristic and complementary therapies, instead
      of just pretending they don't exist. We're going to have to have a
      wider theory of life and that's going to have to be a field theory.
      Recommended Reading: A New Science of Life and all books by Rupert
      Sheldrake; and visit the Sheldrake website http://www.sheldrake.org/ .

      Log On: www.gonzoscience.com

      Copyright 2002 by Jim Richardson and Allen Richardson

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