Tap Dance & the Snow Job

In search of a little light reading, I grabbed Rupert Sheldrake’s book Science Set Free from my shelf. Evidently I bought it ten years ago, and also evidently I never read it, as it’s not marked up. I think I lost interest in Sheldrake when his experiments that purported to demonstrate telepathy were debunked.

After reading the first 50 pages, I’m ready to pull the rip cord. The guy is a sloppy thinker. His whole view is poetry, not science.

To be fair, his observation about the origins of the mechanistic, reductionist beliefs found in the standard scientific world view is important. We could all use a reminder not to be taken in by that line of thinking. The universe is still mysterious! But rather than present a coherent alternative, Sheldrake just dances around, slings a bunch of intellectual horse droppings, and hopes you won’t notice.

In his introduction, he lays out “ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.” Some of his items I would agree are debatable. I’m not convinced that his taking aim at item 4, “The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning….” is off the mark. It seems to me that we’re right to question that idea.

But to get there, we have to pass through item 1. The scientific world view, he says, is that “[e]verything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms.” No, no, no! That’s not a tenet of science at all! The scientific tenet is that living organisms are complex mechanisms. Sheldrake begins by setting up a false dichotomy. He’s accusing scientists of something that scientists don’t in fact believe, and in the process he seems somehow to be assuming that those scientists have a category called “living organisms” that does not include dogs. This is a naked flimflam job, right there on page 7.

But that’s just a warmup. On page 9 he quotes Francis Crick’s son as saying that Crick hoped “to knock the final nail into the coffin of vitalism.” Vitalism is a now-discredited theory that there is some sort of innate vital force that is present in plants and animals but not present in inanimate objects. Sheldrake puts it this way: “Vitalism is the theory that living organisms are truly alive, and not explicable in terms of physics and chemistry alone.” The second half of that sentence is fine, but the first half is gibberish. Sheldrake hasn’t defined what he means by “truly alive.” Even the most materialistic scientist would acknowledge that a tree is “truly alive.” It has a metabolism, and that metabolism does stuff.

It’s a shell game. It’s a tap dance. Sheldrake isn’t doing science, he’s just waving his flag and hoping you’ll be suckered into taking his ideas seriously.

Jumping forward to page 37, we find him failing to understand how evolution works. He drags in the “theory” of so-called Intelligent Design, and fails to refute it. And I quote: “Proponents of Intelligent Design point out the difficulty, if not impossibility, of explaining complex structures like the vertebrate eye or the bacterial flagellum in terms of a series of random genetic mutations and natural selection.” Notice the verb there — “point out.” Sheldrake is hoping you’ll intuit that some other force must be at work. Implicitly, he is endorsing Intelligent Design. The fact that eyes and flagella did indeed evolve gradually, over the course of tens of millions of years, is not even open to debate, Rupert, sweetie. It happened. And Richard Dawkins ripped the preposterous notions of Intelligent Design to very small pieces in a book that Sheldrake could easily have purchased and read.

If he did read it, it would be incumbent upon him to explain precisely how Dawkins erred. But no, he’s just going to rush onward, spewing out a bunch of twaddle.

He quotes Alfred North Whitehead, and then expands on Whitehead’s idea: “In Whitehead’s words, ‘Biology is the study of the larger organisms, whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.’ In the light of modern cosmology [Sheldrake goes on], physics is also the study of very large organisms, like planets, solar systems, galaxies, and the entire universe.”

Do you see what’s happening there? Sheldrake has ripped the word “organism” free of its moorings in natural science. It is now a free-floating germ of poetry. A galaxy is an organism! Never mind that what we know of galaxies suggests not the faintest similarity between galaxies and the living organisms on our own planet. Galaxies do not reproduce, for starters. Nor do they eat. But Sheldrake wants you not to notice that. He wants you to wallow in and be cleansed by the waters of his mystical poetic view.

He gets into the Big Bang, compares it to ancient myths about the Cosmic Egg, and then says, “Our growing, evolving universe is much more like an organism….”

In the margin, with a pencil, I wrote, “Horseshit.” I should have used a pen.

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