Animal minds News

Further to the question of what constitutes “woo” (Rupert Sheldrake edition)

Spread the love

As I asked here, how do we decide what is “woo” or why someone should be attacked for peddling it? Sheldrake is an animal behaviourist who has for some time attracted hostility for researching the ability of intelligent animals to know things in ways that are against the rules we have made for them.

Here is a story that might point us in a direction more fruitful than listening to the self-satisfied rants of the guardians of “science”:

From a recent New York Times story,

Nobody knows how it happened: an indoor house cat who got lost on a family excursion managing, after two months and about 200 miles, to return to her hometown.

Even scientists are baffled by how Holly, a 4-year-old tortoiseshell who in early November became separated from Jacob and Bonnie Richter at an R.V. rally in Daytona Beach, Fla., appeared on New Year’s Eve — staggering, weak and emaciated — in a backyard about a mile from the Richters’ house in West Palm Beach.

File:A small cup of coffee.JPGOh sure, say many. A sentimental anecdote. A bid for attention. Easily explained by human psychology.

Not so fast. Reporter Pam Belluck references a 1954 German study in which

cats placed in a covered circular maze with exits every 15 degrees most often exited in the direction of their homes, but more reliably if their homes were less than five kilometers away.

Such studies don’t tend to get followed up, so heart-warming anecdotes are our sole, steamy window into the facts.

I suspect one reason such studies are not followed up is this: Career  academics can get by, by pointing out that there is no known mechanism by which a cat can accomplish such a feat. Indeed one expert Belluck consulted said,

… nobody’s going to do an experiment and take a bunch of cats in different directions and see which ones get home.

No? That is exactly what the maze experiment Belluck reported did (except that the cats were quite safe, of course).

The cats only needed enough intelligence to know which maze door is the right exit if they want to start off home. The critical question is, what is the source of information, given that the cat is a territorial but non-migratory animal?

In any event, people reporting a returned cat incident are told that they have grafted their emotions onto a cat who looks like the lost one. This will seem unconvincing if the cat not only looks the same but behaves the same, and appears to recognize the same people. But perhaps, they must consider, they were just imagining and confabulating all that too.

There was one key difference in Holly’s case: An animal rescue organization discovered that Holly had an ID microchip implanted in her ear. It was the same cat.

As to how a cat might navigate, hypotheses vary in the absence of research. One clue is that Holly lives along the Florida coastline, and could have kept the ocean on her right and I-95 on her left. She had lost half her body weight and had worn, bleeding paws, implying that she walked all or most of the way.


We have much to learn about animal cognition, but advances may require challenging current beliefs about how animals know things, learn, or navigate. This may be a good time to hat tip the work of Rupert Sheldrake on animal senses. Sheldrake, who was ostracized for doubting Darwin and subsequently much ridiculed (he once had to throw celebrity Richard Dawkins out of his lab for trying to do a hit piece on him), has done careful, interesting work on dogs who have an uncanny ability to know when their masters are returning home.

Dog owners often ascribe their animals’ anticipations to telepathy or a “sixth sense”, but as Sheldrake notes, there could be more conventional explanations:The Science Delusion

First, the dog could be hearing or smelling its owner approaching.

Second, the dog could be reacting to routine times of return.

Third, it could be responding to subtle cues from people at home who know when the absent person is returning.

Fourth, the animal may go to the place at which it waits for its owner when the person is not on the way home; the people at home may remember its apparent anticipation only when the person returns shortly afterwards, forgetting the other occasions. Thus the phenomenon could simply be an artifact of selective memory.

In order to test these possibilities, the dog should be capable of reacting at least ten minutes in advance, the person to whom the dog responds should come home at non-routine times, the people at home should not know when this person is coming, and the behavior of the dog should be recorded in such a way that selective memory can be ruled out (Sheldrake, 1994). This recording of the dog’s behavior can be done most effectively by means of time-coded videotape.

In this paper we describe a series of videotaped experiments and observations with a dog called Jaytee, belonging to Pamela Smart (PS). More.

Jaytee, and some other subsequently tested dogs, did seem to know, but read and judge for yourself. Of course Sheldrake might be mistaken, but the last people we should want to hear from in judging the matter are (former) fellow Darwinians, Wikipedian trolls, and anyone else with a vested interest in attacking him.

This post is slightly edited from a version that originally ran at The Best Schools January 23, 2013.

5 Replies to “Further to the question of what constitutes “woo” (Rupert Sheldrake edition)

  1. 1
    TheisticEvolutionist says:

    I have read all of Sheldrake’s books. He was originally influenced by Lamarckian evolution and searching for an alternative theory of morphogenesis to explain certain data that was being ignored by Darwinians. Lamarck was a materialist so there is a bit of contradiction in some of Sheldrake’s endorsement for Lamarckian evolution.

    Nevertheless I consider Sheldrake’s first book a classic, it may be wrong but it wasn’t pseudoscience. He was attempting to scientifically test his ideas. Unfortunately he lost the plot when he started advocating psychic powers and other new age stuff, and now he has no credibility. The same thing happened with Hans Driesch (one of Sheldrake’s influences). Arthur Koestler is another. Koestler published an excellent book defending neo-Lamarckian evolution but a few years later published a book claiming precognition and psychic powers had been proven.

  2. 2
    Box says:

    TheisticEvolutionist: Unfortunately he lost the plot when he started advocating psychic powers and other new age stuff, and now he has no credibility.

    Sheldrake’s credibility has been lost because his work was shown to be fraudulent?

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    “Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion” by Rupert Sheldrake: – Dec. 1, 2012
    Excerpt: “Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions,
    Committed materialists have made science into a kind of religion. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.
    These materialist beliefs are often taken for granted by scientists, not because they have thought about them critically, but because they haven’t. To deviate from them is heresy, and heresy harms careers….Science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas.”

  4. 4
    bornagain77 says:

    Of note: I disagree with Dr. Sheldrake on some of his conclusions, but agree wholeheartedly with him on dogmatic ‘scientific fundamentalists’ who believe in materialism

  5. 5
    TheisticEvolutionist says:

    As far as I know none of Sheldrake’s work has been fraudulent. His experiments have not been replicated by other scientists. As I said he started his career in an attempt to provide a theory of morphogenesis which is entirely reasonable I admire him for it but then ruined his career by endorsing psychic powers and new age stuff. Sheldrake also contradicts himself he repeatedly defends the Big Bang in all his talks and criticised any model of an eternal universe but Big Bang is a dogma. He didn’t include Big Bang in his list of dogmas.

Leave a Reply