In “Rupert Sheldrake: the ‘heretic’ at odds with scientific dogma” (The Guardian Observer, February 5, 2012), a comparatively sympathetic portrait of Rupert Sheldrake at 70, Tim Adams offers,
It is not often, in liberal north London, that you come face to face with a heretic, but Rupert Sheldrake has worn that mantle, pretty cheerfully, for 30 years now. Sitting in his book-lined study, overlooking Hampstead Heath, he appears a highly unlikely candidate for apostasy; he seems more like the Cambridge biochemistry don he once was, one of the brightest Darwinians of his generation, winner of the university botany prize, researcher at the Royal Society, Harvard scholar and fellow of Clare College.
But then he doubted, and became an outcast. For him, it was animals, the way they often seem to know things – including things not accessible to the human intellect – that are not fully explained by their conventional senses.
Indeed, Richard Dawkins, guardian of Darwinian correctness, made a point of hounding Sheldrake, and at one point had to be shown out of his lab. Of Dawkins, Adams notes,
Sheldrake is the same age as Dawkins – 70 this year – and though their careers began in an almost identical biochemical place, they could hardly have ended up further apart. If Sheldrake’s ideas could be boiled down to a sentence, you might borrow one from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Richard, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”
Of his new book, he suggests,
scientists are prone to “the recurrent fantasy of omniscience”. The science delusion, in these terms, consists in the faith that we already understand the nature of reality, in principle, and that all that is left to do is to fill in the details. “In this book, I am just trying to blow the whistle on that attitude which I think is bad for science,” he says. In America, the book is called Science Set Free, which he thinks is probably a better title. “They were aware that if they called it The Science Delusion it would be seen as a rightwing tract that was anti-evolution and anti-climate change. And I want no part of that.”
Though he remains at best a contentious figure, and to some an irredeemable charlatan, Sheldrake sees some evidence that this old opposition is breaking down, that doubt and wonder might be returning to science.
“I think one of the reasons why my book has – so far – been well received is that times are changing,” he suggests. “A lot of our old certainties, not least neoliberal capitalism, have been turned on their head. The atheist revival movement of Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett is for many people just too narrow and dogmatic. I think it is a uniquely open moment…”
His hope is that there will be a “coming out” moment in science. “It’s like gays in the 1950s,” he suggests. “I think if people in the realm of science and medicine came out and talked about the limitations of purely mechanistic and reductive approaches it would be much more fun…”
Sheldrake reminds us a bit of Wallace, who broke with Darwin, and was a similarly unconventional thinker.
See also: Dawkins vs. Sheldrake
More on Britain’s “be grossly intolerant” science czar’s demands of scientists
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allan at Brains on Purpose
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