Morphogenetic theory



"Although they seem fanciful, Sheldrake's ideas are difficult to combat logically when studied in detail At the very least, they are a good case study of the creative flexibility of the minds of biologists." Lois Wingerson, World Medicine (July 1981)


At present, the classical study of biology is based on the mechanistic theory of life: living organisms are regarded as physical and chemical mechanisms of life.chemistry and all life phenomena are considered to be, in principle, explainable in terms of physics and chemistry. This mechanistic paradigm is by no means new; in fact, it has been prevalent for more than a century. The main reason why most biologists still adhere to the mechanistic paradigm is that it works: it provides a framework for thinking in which questions about physical and chemical mechanisms can be asked.chemical processes of life and in which answers to those questions can be found.

A strong argument in favour of this approach is that it has led to spectacular successes such as "cracking the genetic code". However, critics have pointed to seemingly sound reasons that cast doubt on whether all phenomena of life, including human behaviour, could ever be explained in an exclusively mechanistic way. But even if it is accepted that the mechanistic approach is limited, both in practice and in principle, it cannot simply be abandoned; it is currently the only approach available to experimental biology and will no doubt continue to be followed until a better alternative emerges.

Any new theory that wants to extend or go beyond mechanistic theory must do more than state that life involves factors or qualities not currently recognized by the physical sciences: it will have to say what these factors or qualities are, how they work, and how they relate to physical processes.known chemicals.

The simplest way in which mechanistic theory could be modified is to assume that life phenomena depend on a new type of causal factor, unknown to the physical sciences, that interacts with physical processes.chemicals inside living organisms. Several versions of this vitalist theory have been proposed during this century, but none of them has succeeded in making testable predictions or suggesting new types of experiments. If, citingl per Sir Karl Popper, "the criterion for determining the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability or refutability or testability", vitalism has so far failed to achieve this qualification.

Holistic philosophy provides a context for what could be an even more radical revision of mechanistic theory. This philosophy denies that everything in the universe can be explained from the bottom up, for example, in terms of the properties of atoms or in terms of any hypothetical ultimate particles of matter. Rather, it recognizes the existence of hierarchically organized systems that, at each level of complexity, have properties that cannot be fully understood in terms of the properties manifested by their parts taken separately; at each level, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. These wholes can be thought of as organization, deliberately using this term ina broad sense to include not only animals and plants, organs, tissues and cells, but also crystals, molecules, atoms and subatomic particles. In fact this philosophy proposes a shift from the paradigm of mechanism to the paradigm of organism in the physical sciences and in biological ones. A.N. Whitehead statesa well-known phrase: "Biology is the study of larger organisms, while physics is the study of smaller organisms."

For over 50 years many writers, including biologists, have advocated different versions of this organismic philosophy. But for organicism to be said to have more than a superficial influence on the physical sciences, it should be able to yield testable predictions. What is nothas yet spent.

The reasons for this failure are most clearly seen in the areas of biology that are most influenced by organicist philosophy, namely embryology and evolutionary biology. The most important organismic concept outlined so far is that of morphogenetic fields. These fields should help explain or describe how the characteristic forms of embryos and other developing systems arise. However, this concept is used ambiguously. The term itself seems to imply the existence of a new type of physical field that plays a role in the development of form. Some theorists of organicism, however, deny that they are suggesting the existence of a new type of field, entity or factor not currently recognized by physics; rather, they use this organicist terminology to propose a new way of talk about physical systemscomplex chemicals. This approach seems unlikely to lead very far. The concept of morphogenetic fields could only have practical scientific value if it led to testable predictions different from those of conventional mechanistic theory. And such predictions can only be made if these morphogenetic fields have measurable effects.

The hypothesis stated in this book is based on the idea that, inMorphogenetic fields do have measurable physical effects. According to this hypothesis, specific morphogenetic fields are responsible for the characteristic shape and organisation of systems at every level of complexity, not only in biology but also in physics and chemistry. These fields control the systems with which they are associated by influencing events that, from aenergy point of view, they turn out to be indeterminate or probabilistic; they impose restrictions-type of energetically possible outputs of physical processes. 

As morphogenetic fields are responsible for the organisation and shape of material systems, they themselves must have characteristic structures. But where do these field structures come from? The proposed answer is that they come from the morphogenetic fields associated with previous similar systems: the morphogenetic fields of all previous systems are present in any subsequent similar system; the structures of previous systems influence subsequent similar systems ina cumulative way, acting both transspatially and and transtemporal.

According to this hypothesis, systems are organised the way they are organised because systems similar to them were organised in the same way in the past. For example, the molecules of a complex organic chemical crystallise in aa characteristic pattern because the same substance crystallized in that way before; a plant takes the characteristic form of its species because previous members of the species took that form; and an animal acts instinctively in aa particular manner because animals similar to his s-have behaved in that way previously.

The hypothesis refers to repeat forms and patterns of organisation; the issue of origin these shapes and patterns are outside its sphere of interest. Several different answers can be given to this question, but all seem equally compatible with the method of repetition that has been suggested.

From this hypothesis some testable predictions can be deduced that differ strikingly from those of conventional mechanistic theory. A single example will suffice: if an animal, say a rat, learns a new pattern of behaviour, any similar rat afterwards (of the same breed, bred under similar conditions, etc.) will tend to learn the same pattern of behaviour much more quickly. The more rats that learn to perform that task, the easier it should be for any subsequent similar rat to learn to perform it. So, for example, if thousands of rats are trained to perform a new task ina London lab, similar rats should learn to perform the same task much faster in labs everywhere else. If the learning speed of rats in another lab, say in New York, iswould measure before and after the London rats were trained, rats tested on the second occasion should learn much faster than those tested on the first occasion. This result should occur in the absence of any known physical link or communication between the two labs.

Such a prediction may seem so improbable as to be absurd. Remarkably, however, there is already evidence from laboratory studies in rats that the predicted outcome does indeed occur.

This hypothesis, called the formative causality hypothesis, leads to a radically different interpretation of many physical and biological phenomena than that proposed by existing theories, and also offers a new perspective on several well-known problems. In this book, the hypothesis of formative causality is outlined ina preliminary form, some of its consequences are discussed and various ways in which it could be tested are proposed.

excerpt from the paper "A new science of life"