Rupert Sheldrake is a theoretical biologist whose book, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation, continues to evoke a storm of controversy.
Following is the second in a series of articles wherein Sheldrake presents his ideas for amplifying Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious and archetypal psychology.
He concluded his first article with these words:
SOCIETY AS SUPERORGANISM
A familiar comparison might be that of a hive of bees or a nest of
termites: each is like a giant organism, and the insects within it
are like cells in a superorganism. Although comprised of hundreds
and hundreds of individual insect cells, the hive or nest functions
and responds as a unified whole.
To visualize this, it is
helpful to remember that fields by their very nature are both within
and around the things to which they refer. A magnetic field is both
within a magnet and around it; a gravitational field is both within
the earth and around it. Field theories thus take us beyond the
traditional rigid definition of "inside" and "outside."
better describes the characteristic phenomena of animal societies
than the idea that they are all individually interacting yet
Termites are blind, and the inside of the nest is dark, so they can’t do it by vision. Edward O. Wilson considers it unlikely that they do it by hearing or acoustic methods, because of the constant background of sound caused by the movement of termites within the mound.
The only hypothesis
that Wilson, who represents the most hard-nosed reductionist school
of thought, considers likely is that they do it by smell. And even
he agrees that that seems farfetched.
Their movements were coordinated even though
they approached the wall from different sides. Amazingly, the
termites on opposite sides of the steel plate built arches that met
at the steel plate at exactly the right position to join if the
plate had not blocked their way. This seemed to demonstrate that
there was some kind of coordinating influence which was not blocked
by a steel plate. Obviously, this would be impossible to do by
smell, as Wilson suggests, since even termites can’t smell subtle
odors through a steel plate.
They move very fast in response to quite unexpected stimuli, yet they do not bump into each other. The same is true of flocks of birds.
A whole flock can bank as one without
the birds bumping into each other.
This is much faster than the birds’ minimum reaction time to stimuli. He measured their startle reaction time using dunlins in the laboratory in dark or dim light. He set off photographic flashbulbs and measured how long it took the birds to react. He found that it took the individual birds about 80-100 milliseconds; that is, they reacted as individuals four to five times more slowly than the rate at which the maneuver wave moved from bird to bird.
The banking maneuver could begin anywhere within
the flock - at the front or back or at the side. It was usually
initiated by a single bird or a small group of birds, and then
propagated outwards much faster than could be explained by any
simple system of visual cuing and response to stimuli.
The above examples illustrate a few of the areas in which actual empirical studies are possible - areas which suggest the existence of group minds or group fields in the coordination of collective animal behavior. It has often been suggested that a similar phenomenon may be at work in human groups, especially in the behavior of crowds.
A number of studies has been
conducted by social psychologists on what they call "collective
behavior," which includes the behavior of crowds, football
hooligans, rioting mobs, and lynching mobs, as well as rapidly
spreading social phenomena such as fashions, fads, rumors, crazes,
and jokes. All such phenomenon would fit readily into the concept of
group morphic fields.
We are contained within these larger
collective patterns of organization much of the time but because
they are always present, we cease to be aware of them. We take them
for granted, just as we take the air we breathe for granted, because
the air is also always present. However, if we are held under water
for a while, we no longer take the air for granted; we quickly
become conscious of our need for it! Similarly, people placed in
solitary confinement quickly become aware of the importance of
It behaved similarly to a group field, and many of the
activities of the group consciousness were concerned with
maintaining and stabilizing the continued existence of the group
we think of such a group mind as an aspect of the morphic field of
the society, it would indeed have its own memory since all morphic
fields have in-built memory through morphic resonance.
By the 1930s, the
shadow side of collective consciousness had taken tangible form in
Nazi Germany. Because this shadow side was all too real, most people
were frightened of any concept suggesting group minds or group
consciousness. Certainly we have all seen the shadow side of group
consciousness only too clearly in the last few decades. What we
need to realize, however, is that there is much to be learned from
thinking about the more positive side of group fields or group
It was within this broader intellectual environment,
characterized by Durkheim’s conscience collective and McDougall’s
group mind, that Jung formulated his concept of the collective
It exists in our language in phrases such as the body politic, head of state, arm of the law. These are organic metaphors which imply the unified, organic nature of society.
The same notion is also common in religious metaphors,
and is expressed in such descriptions of the Christian church as the
mystical body of Christ. More specifically, Christ compared himself
to the vine of which the people were the branches, again connoting
an organic unity. Even in 17th-century political thought, which was
far more atomistic in tone, philosopher Thomas Hobbes compared
society to a leviathan, a great monster, using still another organic
speak of a growing economy which can be sick or healthy, and which
goes through cycles. Economies have all the attributes of giant
living organisms, with an autonomy which even politicians,
businessmen and bankers cannot control. The economy has become a
self-regulating, self-organizing system, very much alive in a
supposedly dead world. Thus the economy has come to life at the
expense of the earth, and that is one of the problems with which
many people are currently grappling.
This is similar to the way in which the morphogenetic field of the human being coordinates the entire body even though the cells and tissues within the body are continuously changing.
Rituals are found in all societies all over the world, both in cultural and religious contexts. For example, in our own society the Jewish feast of Passover recalls the dreadful visitation of death throughout Egypt when all the first-born were killed, except the first born of the Jews who were protected by the ritual blood of sacrificial lambs smeared on the doorways of Jewish houses.
In the Christian Mass, the ritual of Holy Communion, in
which Christians drink the blood and eat the body of Jesus - refers
back to the primal Last Supper when the Passover feast was
transformed and Jesus himself became the sacrificial victim.
When we say good-bye, we give a ritualized
blessing which retains some of the power of the original ritual,
even though most people are no longer conscious of its original
meaning. Similar ritual acts on large and small scales permeate even
our modern "enlightened" societies.
During this period, it was believed that there was a "crack in time" when the living and the dead, the past, the present, and the future all came together. The eve of the festival of the dead was Halloween, when the spirits and ghosts came out and the dead walked again.
Similarly, in the Christian calendar, November 1st is "All Saints Day" and November 2nd is "All Souls Day," when the souls of the departed are commemorated and requiem masses are said in churches even today. So, behind our present-day celebrations lay a much older ritual background: a pattern behind a pattern.
of these ancient rituals are alive and well in the modern world.
For example, Brahmanic rituals in India use Sanskrit, a language which is no longer spoken except by Brahmins, and the Sanskrit phrases must be pronounced the correct way in order for the rituals to be effective. We find a similar practice in a Christian context.
The Coptic church in Egypt
dates back to ancient times when Coptic was the spoken language; so
in modern Cairo, you can attend a Coptic service and the language
you hear is the otherwise dead language of ancient Egypt. The
survival of ancient Egyptian in the Coptic liturgy was one of the
important clues that enabled the unraveling of the language of
ancient Egypt with the help of the Rosetta Stone. Similarly, the
Russian Orthodox church uses Old Slavic, and, until recently, the
Roman Catholic church used Latin. There are hundreds of such
When people are asked why they do this, they frequently say that this enables them to participate with their ancestors or predecessors. So rituals have a kind of deliberate and conscious evocation of memory, right back to the first act. If morphic resonance occurs as I think it does, this conservatism of ritual would create exactly the right conditions for morphic resonance to occur between those performing the ritual now and all those who performed it previously.
ritualized commemorations and participatory re-linking with the
ancestors of all cultures might involve just that; it might, in
fact, be literally true that these rituals enable the current
participants to reconnect with their ancestors (in some sense)
through morphic resonance.
The best known of the
Indian mantras is OM. A Christian mantra (and, in fact, it is also a
Jewish and Muslim mantra) is AMEN. Although it translates literally
as, "So be it," it has a much deeper significance as a
phrase. When chanted in its original form of AMEN, it was an
extremely powerful mantra. It survives at the end of Christian
prayers and hymns even though most people are unaware of why it is
The acolytes visualize the guru
who has given it to them floating above their heads, and then
visualize the entire lineage of masters and gurus behind him, right
back to the Buddha himself. There are Tibetan pictures of people
sitting and meditating with a tree growing out of their heads - a
tree filled with faces and figures. These are called "lineage
trees," and they represent the spiritual lineage through which the
transmission comes to the disciple.
People are often instructed to use mantras only in the appropriate context and not to bandy the word around in casual conversation. I myself have heard Hindu gurus caution that inappropriate use will weaken the mantra. This makes impressive sense when explained in terms of morphic resonance: Instead of acting as a key tuning one into the meditative states of one’s own past and of the past of the guru or lineage of gurus, the mantra would also tune one into all the casual conversations at which the word had been bandied around.
Thus, extraneous influences which would dilute or weaken the
intended effect of the mantra would be brought in via the phenomenon
of morphic resonance.
Many religious teachers compare their way to a path, as in Christianity when Jesus says, "I am the Way," or as in Buddhism where there is the eight-fold path of the Buddha.
The notion is that through a religious initiation, the individual is set on a path which the initiator of the path - Buddha or Christ - has trod before them, and on which many other people since then have also trod. The people who have gone along that path create a morphic field - and not only those who established the initial path, such as Buddha or Christ, but all those who followed after them contribute to the morphic field, making the pathway easier to traverse.
In Christianity the
concept is explicitly stated in the Apostles’ Creed through the
doctrine of the "Communion of Saints." Those who follow the path of
Jesus are not only aided by Jesus himself but also by the communion
of saints - all those who have trodden the path before.
This mysterious flow of influence could be understood as the result of the process of successive schools of art tuning into the morphic fields of the earlier schools. (I am indebted to Susan Gablik, 1977, for this idea.) If we think of paintings as having morphic fields for their actual structures, we can then see how a kind of "building up" occurs through morphic resonance. A painting in a given school is created; other people see it. Every time a new painting in that school is made, it alters the field of the school. There is a kind of cumulative effect.
Just as an animal within a species draws upon
the morphic fields of the species and, in turn, contributes to those
same fields, a work of art produced within a school draws upon the
morphic field of the style of the school and contributes to it, so
that the style evolves.
We can think of different schools of thought and different areas of inquiry in science as having their own morphic fields. In fact, we speak about the field of physics, the field of biology, the field of geophysics, the field of metallurgy, and so on. It is my opinion that we could take literally the very use of the word field in this context.
Within each field of science there are sub-groups: in physics, for example, there are astrophysicists, quantum theorists, and so on, and sub-schools within those sub-groups. Entrants to each must go through the proper initiations; they must study and pass the right exams; and all have their own folklore, mythology, and founding fathers. This is essentially the insight of Thomas S. Kuhn in his great book, The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions (1970).
He says that science is a social activity, and that scientists are initiated into the professional group by the practicing group of scientists. These social groups are self-regulating and self-organizing, just like any other field structure. Scientists strongly resent it if outsiders come along and tell them how to run their outfit. Physicists, for example, feel that they are the best people to judge what should go on in physics. Even if governments want to regulate the science of physics to their own ends, then they do it with the help of physicists.
They have to set up committees
and grant-giving agencies on which physicists sit for peer group
In his book, Kuhn uses the word paradigm in two senses, as
he makes clear in his second edition. The paradigm is not just a
conceptual way of looking at things, a model; rather, it is a shared
consensual view of reality upon which the professional group
depends. In each group, the members recognize those they consider
proper co-members of the professional group, and those whom they
recognize as outsiders - as not being within their group. This is
the social aspect of paradigm.
Both Gablik and Kuhn have pointed out that the concept of paradigm in the sciences is similar to the notion of style in art: paradigms have the kind of cumulative, developmental, evolutionary quality that characterizes styles in artistic traditions. Indeed, Kuhn went so far as to model his theory of scientific development on art history. Previously, science had been treated as if it were a purely rational activity based on the cumulative building-up of knowledge, completely independent of the social and professional dimensions taking place within the scientific process.
Kuhn demonstrated that the same kind of patterns
which were accepted by many historians of art were also at work
within the sciences.
A very powerful morphic
resonance is evolved by this way of doing things; and that is why
paradigm changes tend to be rather rare, and why they meet with