Biology

What is Morphic Resonance?

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake coined the term Morphic Resonance to describe the idea that the occurrence of events in one place seems to recreate those same events in other places. For example, he notes that once a crystal has been synthesized in one place, synthesizing crystals in other places subsequently becomes much easier, and though the initial synthesis takes a long time, the subsequent syntheses follow much quicker. These phenomena can be explained easily if the world was constructed like an inverted tree, and the crystal was a fruit of the tree. It takes a long time for the tree to grow to maturity before it produces the first fruit. But once the first fruit has emerged, the subsequent fruits don’t require the whole tree to grow again, and therefore they follow the first fruit quickly. If we only see the fruits, and not the branches and trunks of the tree, it appears that the fruits are popping out in different places randomly, and the phenomenon has to be explained by some kind of ‘resonance’. If instead we see the branches and trunks, then the emergence of the first fruit takes a while because the branches and trunks have to be created before the fruit. These deeper level realities remain invisible to the senses because they are subterranean. To understand how this invisible reality simultaneously creates many visible facts, we need to view space and time as inverted trees.

Examples of Morphic Resonance

Rupert Sheldrake gives many examples of this phenomenon. For example, since the beginning of IQ tests in the 20th century, successive generations of tests have generated higher IQs even though the tests remain more or less the same, and the general intelligence of the population remains unchanged. There is the famous four-minute mile phenomena—e.g. once a milestone has been reached, the subsequent attainments of the milestone (e.g. running a mile under 4 minutes) becomes easier.

Similarly, in the case of crystal synthesis, morphic resonances will make crystals more stable, which means their melting points must increase. Sheldrake cites experimental data for several synthetic compounds whose current melting points are 5-20 0C higher than when they were first synthesized. In contrast, the melting points of naturally occurring compounds haven’t changed. (A counterargument to this claim can be that the crystals on subsequent synthesis are purer and because impurities decrease the melting point, the purity of a crystal increases the melting point. However, a counter to this counterargument can be that once a phenomenon has been manifest in experimentation, it becomes easier to create pristine forms of that phenomenon again. What we consider the improvement in the scientific method of synthesizing compounds can also be treated as morphic resonance.)

In the case of biological adaptation, if a cell adapts to a certain type of environment (say during a cell culture during laboratory experiments), the adaptation is similarly repeated in other places.

Lateral vs. Vertical Causation

The notion of “resonance” is rather evocative. If a musical instrument vibrates in one place with a certain tone, it causes another instrument to vibrate with the same tone. However, resonance also requires the transfer of energy from one instrument to another. The phenomenon of resonance therefore requires some sort of lateral causation. I use the term lateral to distinguish it from the idea of vertical causation, which occurs in case of a tree—one fruit doesn’t grow faster because of the previous fruit; rather, the subsequent fruits grow faster because there is already a fruit bearing tree in place.

Therefore, in the lateral explanation of causation, we have to suppose that one fruit causes the emergence of other fruits. In the vertical explanation of causation, we have to say that there is a deeper level reality which causes the emergence of all fruits; we just happen to see one of the fruits before we see the others, but the reason they are occurring in quick succession has nothing to do with any type of causation or energy flowing from one fruit to another; rather the tree is the cause of the manifestation of the fruits, and some fruits just happen to manifest earlier in the fruit bearing season.

We can go on to say that the tree indeed has fruit bearing seasons. That is, when the season arrives, certain types of fruits will pop out almost simultaneously in different places, when there was no sign of their existence previously. To someone who doesn’t see the entire tree, this simultaneous independent appearance of the fruits can seem perplexing. It seems compelling to suppose that the first fruit causes the other fruits to manifest. However, the problem is that the lateral cause that goes from one fruit to another would never be found, if the causality is indeed of the vertical variety.

The Cutting Edge of Scientific Causality

Rupert Sheldrake appears to have hit upon a new kind of causation in which things simultaneously appear in many different places at once, and there is no good explanation for these facts in the current scientific models of causality. If something has never happened in the past, its likelihood is very small. By the law of averages, something very unlikely can happen very rarely. How can something very unlikely suddenly become very likely in all sorts of unrelated and dissimilar places? His answer is that the first occurrence is unlikely but it makes the subsequent occurrences very likely due to resonance.

I would rather contend that there isn’t any resonance between the different occurrences, and yet, the same type of phenomena appear simultaneously in many places because underlying these phenomena is a deeper level reality—which we can understand as the root, trunks, and branches of a tree—which remains hidden from our sensual perception. The production of this reality is the slow and hard part of a tree growing up from seed to full maturity. However, once the tree has grown to maturity, it pops out fruits in all sorts of different places almost simultaneously. The initial fruits are not as big because the tree has attained fruit bearing age, but it hasn’t matured into the perfect fruit bearer. Therefore, as time passes, the subsequent fruits become even better, until, of course, the tree dies.

This model of causality is extensible to many human phenomena especially in the ideological and cultural sphere where ideas that remained unviable for long periods of time suddenly spread like wildfire and overwhelm a society. We generally attribute the origin of these ideas to individuals who first coined or presented them. But I would rather say that the ideas spread because it was time for them to manifest on a large scale; they are like fruits that pop out of a mature tree.

The Universe is a Tree

I have in earlier blog posts, books, and podcasts talked about the tree; the idea is based on mystical and religious philosophies (both Vedic and Western traditions) but also backed by the need to understand the world as meaning which organizes from abstract to contingent concepts in a tree structure.

The natural thing—in the context of biology—that comes to mind is the tree of life drawn by biologists. If life were described in terms of conceptual types of living entities (e.g. with different mentalities) then the life forms with a higher mind would precede those life forms with a lower type of mind.

Our bodies are described as an expanding inverted tree—from top to bottom, and from center to periphery—in Vedic philosophy. The soul in the body therefore gets entangled by the downward and outward expansion, and gets liberated due to the inward and upward contraction. The obvious empirical evidence for this expansion is the nervous system which originates in the brain and expands downwards through the spinal cord, while the spinal cord emanates further branches at each successive step.

There are detailed descriptions in yoga texts of the 72,000 nerves through which prāna flows. I will not discuss the mystical significance of 72 here, but if one understands the philosophy, prāna is one of three parts of the triad—manas, prāna, and vāk—in which manas is the abstract concept, vāk is the instance of that concept, and prāna is the process of expanding the abstract concept into its instance. So the tree is expanding from abstract to contingent, which means that all the conceptual preparation which is needed before a contingent phenomenon appears constitutes the heavy-lifting. Once this heavy-lifting has occurred in nature—as part of the tree maturing—the fruits manifest easily.

The Cyclic Nature of Time

Nature, in Vedic philosophy, contracts and expands from a root, just like a tree. The root of the tree is an abstract idea, which is instantiated and divided into parts. During expansion, for example, an abstract idea is instantiated and divided into its parts. We can think of this process as the instantiation and division of the idea ‘furniture’ into ‘tables’, ‘chairs’, ‘beds’, etc. during the expansion of the universe. During contraction, the expanded ideas—e.g. ‘tables’, ‘chairs’, and ‘beds’—merge back into ‘furniture’. There is a detailed process of this division—which is sometimes loosely abbreviated as māyā (meaning that which is not)—which partitions the abstract idea into more contingent parts. The divided parts are in one sense real because they exist, and yet they are only partial truths of the whole and hence considered illusions. This process of expansion and contraction of māyā is under control of time.

Therefore, when the right time arises, phenomena automatically manifest in many places simultaneously, and we call this expansion of the phenomena the emergence of cultures, civilizations, ideologies, theories, species, and many others. Similarly, these phenomena also merge back into their original abstract form which cannot be perceived because it is abstract, although it can still be grasped and understood by the mind because the mind is capable of myriad abstractions.

The process of expansion and contraction is described at great length in Sāñkhya philosophy, and the cause of this expansion and contraction is said to be time. This time goes in cycles—it expands and then contracts, followed by more repetitions of expansion and contraction. Therefore, there is a single tree which has an eternal root, but the trunks, branches, twigs, and fruits of this tree are not eternal. Rather, at different times, different trunks, branches, twigs, and fruits are manifest. Before the fruits are visible, the trunk, branch, and twig must be manifest, which means that there is a slow gestation process which remains subterranean for a long time, followed by the sudden appearance of the same type of phenomena in many places. Morphic resonance speaks to this sudden appearance, but the lateral model of causality (indicated by the word ‘resonance’) is replaced by vertical causation.