Formative Causation
A bold theory concerned with the origin and growth of form
and characteristics in nature. This theory was proposed by biochemist
and plant researcher Rupert Sheldrake in his book A
New Science of Life The Hypothesis of Formative Causation.
For many years, embryologists have used the general term
morphogenetic fields to indicate the mysterious factors that influence
the development of growth and characteristics in plants
and animals. The term is derived from the Greek morphe (form)
and genesis (coming into being) and is usually assumed to embrace
a complex of inherited characteristics programmed in
DNA molecules. Sheldrake’s theory, however, proposes a literal
interpretation of morphogenetic fields as structures independent
of time and space. All the past fields of a given type are
available instantly to, or coexist with, subsequent similar systems.
The genes only define parameters within which development
takes place and do not determine the future form of the
organism. The fertilization of a seed or egg, says Sheldrake, is
a ‘‘morphogenetic germ’’ for development that is influenced by
‘‘previous systems of which structures similar to these morphogenetic
germs were a part. [It] thus becomes surrounded by, or
embedded within, the morphogenetic field of the higher-level
system [i.e., the cell is influenced by the tittuse-field, the tissue
by the organ-field], which then shapes or moulds the process
of development towards the characteristic form.’’
Sheldrake calls the influence of one morphogenetic field
upon another ‘‘morphic resonance,’’ involving a new kind of
action at a distance, independent of space and time. This influence
does not appear to be electromagnetic and may involve
some as yet undiscovered method of action, a theory that clearly
has relevance to such parapsychological phenomena as telepathy
and clairvoyance.
Sheldrake’s theory applies to crystals as well as to animals
and plants. If a new organic compound is crystallized the shape
may be merely a matter of chance. Once crystallization has
taken place, however, it establishes a morphogenetic field affecting
all subsequent crystallizations of that substance, influencing
them to take the same form. Successive crystallizations
reinforce the field, facilitating future formation of a particular
crystal shape. In the same way, future developments of animal
or plant species are affected by the establishment of morphogenetic
fields in the past. In simplest outline the theory suggests
that it is easier to learn something because others have learned
it before.
Although Sheldrake does not discuss the implications for
parapsychology in detail in his book, his references make it
clear that since morphogenetic fields are claimed as independent
of space and time they could also act as channels for transmission
of information, and are thus related to telepathy and
The theory had an astonishingly hostile reception by the editors
of the journal Nature (September 1981)
‘‘What is to be made of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s book. . . .
This infuriating tract has been widely hailed by the newspapers
and popular science magazines as the ‘answer’ to materialistic
science, and is now well on its way to being a point of reference
for the motley crew of creationists, anti-reductionists, neoLamarckians
and the rest. The author, by training a biochemist
and by demonstration a knowledgeable man, is, however, misguided.
His book is the best candidate for burning there has
been for many years. In reality, Sheldrake’s argument is in no
sense a scientific argument but is an exercise in pseudoscience.
Preposterously, he claims that his hypothesis can be tested . . .
and the text includes half a dozen proposals for experiments
that might be carried out to verify that the forms of aggregations
of matter are indeed moulded by the hypothetical morphogenetic
fields that are supposed to pervade everything.
These experiments have in common the attributes of being
time-consuming, inconclusive in the sense that it will always be
possible to postulate yet another morphogenetic field to account
for some awkwardly inconclusive result, and impractical
in the sense that no self-respecting grant-making agency will
take the proposals seriously. . . . His book should not be
burned (nor even confined to closed shelves in libraries) but,
rather, put firmly in its place among the literature of intellectual
In correspondence in subsequent issues of Nature, however,
readers deplored this ‘‘emotional outburst.’’ Clearly the suggestion
that experiments should not be undertaken to test a
theory because they would be ‘‘time-consuming’’ or ‘‘inconclusive’’
seemed thoroughly unscientific, they wrote, since many
scientific theories that appeared at first sight to be ‘‘preposterous’’
were validated by later experiments.
A thoughtful discussion of Sheldrake’s theory is a comprehensive
article by R. J. M. Rickard in Fortean Times (Spring
1982), which printed a detailed interview and discussion with
Sheldrake himself at the home of John Mitchell.
Sheldrake, Rupert. A New Science of Life The Hypothesis of
Formative Causation. London Blond & Briggs, 1981.
———. The Presence of the Past Morphic Resonance and the
Habits of Nature. New York Vintage Books, 1989.