INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).

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Wilber, Sheldrake and Evolution

Andrew P. Smith

Recently I posted here a brief critique of Rupert Sheldrake ["Is the Cure Worse than the Disease?"], in which I suggested his theory of morphic resonance, as an explanation of certain scientific phenomena, might be a cure worse than the disease. Some time ago [1984], Ken Wilber also commented on this theory ["Sheldrake's Theory of Morphogenesis"] and it seems to me that his take on it leaves the patient in even worse shape than Sheldrake does.

Knowing when to hold them, knowing when to fold them

Wilber begins with the protein folding problem:

To give the simplest example: a protein is a long chain of molecules that, based on the properties of the molecules themselves, could easily fold into any number of energetically equivalent forms, and yet, in living systems, they are always found folded in only one way. That is, one form is always selected from numerous equivalent possibilities, and yet, on the basis of mass and energy considerations, no one form should be preferable to any other.
 

Ribonuclease A 3D structure,
with SS bonds in gold

Reading this, it's hard for me to believe that Wilber studied biochemistry in graduate school (where I believe he was when Christian Anfinsen won a Nobel Prize in 1972 for his insights into this problem). There are not “any number of energetically equivalent forms”, there is generally one folded state that represents an energetic minimum. The problem is that in order to reach the most stable state the folding chain has to search through an astronomically large number of less stable states. The problem is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, whereas Wilber understands it as choosing one needle out of a stack of identical needles.

Now protein folding is indeed still a mysterious process. A typically-sized peptide does not have enough time to perform such a search for the most stable state even within the lifetime of the universe (Levinthal's paradox). So clearly the folding protein must engage in some short-cuts. These are not well-understood, which is why Sheldrake finds the notion of morphic resonance an attractive solution to the problem.

But what kind of solution does morphic resonance provide? Wilber continues:   

According to Sheldrake, the first time in evolution that a particular protein was generated, it could potentially have folded into any number of energetically equivalent forms, but by chance it settled into one form. However, the next time this protein was generated, anywhere in the world, it would, according to Sheldrake, have a significantly elevated tendency or probability of settling into this same form, simply by virtue of morphic resonance and formative causation from the morphogenetic field of the first protein. As more and more proteins eventually adopted similar forms, this set up a very powerful formative causation that, in effect, forced all subsequent (and similar) proteins to take on the same form.
 

Again, I'm astonished that someone with a background in science could make a statement like this. Wilber is saying 1) which of any energetically equivalent states a folded protein takes is random; 2) one such state having randomly appeared, the propagation of that random state is made more probable by the creation of a morphogenetic field.

Hello??? If the initial conformation is random, what are the odds that it would be functionally useful? Suppose it wasn't? Then we would have myriad proteins evolving not because they carried out some function critical to life, like enzymatic catalysis, but simply because they appeared first.

This nutty idea is exquisitely ironic coming from Wilber, because like many critics of Darwinism, he often disparages the view that evolution can arise from a random process. The key to Darwinism, of course, is that random variation is coupled with natural selection; it's the latter process that ensures that only those random variations that promote survival persist. But according to the view Wilber expresses in the above quote, evolution is nothing but randomness. There is no selection at all—first come, first served. The resulting process is exactly the parody of Darwinism presented by its most hostile critics.

Perhaps Wilber wants to argue that since all possible conformations are energetically equivalent, it doesn't matter which one emerges. Maybe each one is functionally identical, too. That is very unlikely to be the case, but if it actually were, why would morphic resonance be needed? If any conformation is as good as another, there is no need for a process that ensures that particular conformation is propagated.

So what Wilber says here is clearly nonsense. He is wrong when he says all the possible conformational states of a protein are energetically equivalent, and he is also wrong when he implies that a process that promoted one of these states would enhance evolution. The only question I have at this point is: does Sheldrake also believe in this nonsense?

Sheldrake, I'm quite sure, does accept the prevailing scientific view that there is one energetic minimum that a folding protein adopts. He understands that the problem is not choosing one of many energetically equivalent states, but rather, searching for the energetically minimum state. And he is on very solid ground arguing that science does not yet understand how the peptide can do this.

But how does his morphic resonance explain the process? If I understand the concept correctly, morphic resonance does not provide for anything new; it simply stabilizes previously existing forms. That being the case, how could it enhance the protein folding process? Given one correctly folded protein, morphic resonance could increase the likelihood that other peptides with identical amino acid sequences would also fold into that same conformation. But how could it happen the first time?

To the best of my knowledge, Sheldrake has no answer to this question. He can't argue that it happened by sheer chance the first time, because according to him, the odds of folding into the correct conformation are astronomically low. Even in billions of years of evolution, it probably wouldn't happen. But even if did, by that time there would, according to him, be millions of other incorrectly folded states, which would create their own morphic fields and so out-compete the correctly-folded state.

So while I can sympathize with Sheldrake when he argues that protein folding presents a problem that science has not yet solved, I don't see how his morphic resonance solves it, either. Morphic resonance depends on a particular form—whether it be a folded protein or the shape of some insect's wings—already having come into existence, and if it already has, then presumably whatever process led to this is sufficient—coupled with natural selection—for explaining its propagation. Stripped to its actual effects on evolution, morphic resonance seems to be nothing but a process that amplifies natural selection. It's Darwinism on steroids.

The presence of past evidence

Which raises another obvious question: what is the evidence for these fields?

Well, I guess it's touching that Wilber and Sheldrake have so much respect for natural selection that they want to promote a theory that makes it even stronger.  But to do this requires belief in fields that transcend space and time, allowing some new form of existence to increase the chances of similar forms by reproducing itself not simply in the here and now, but in the anywhere and anytime.

Which raises another obvious question: what is the evidence for these fields? That is, even supposing they make it easier for life forms, once having emerged, to persist, what reason do we have for believing they actually do this? Here is what Wilber has to say on that:

Sheldrake points out that there is already a fair amount of circumstantial evidence supporting [morphic resonance]. For example, it is well known that it is extremely difficult to crystallize complex organic compounds for the first time, but once it has been done in any laboratory, it is more easily (more rapidly) done in others. It has also been shown that once rats learn to negotiate a particular maze in one part of the world; rats elsewhere learn that maze more rapidly.

This is vintage Wilber, the same man who tells us that studies show that meditators can move up one level in two years ["Ken Wilber on Meditation"], who assured us that one Mahendra Kumar Trivedi could alter “the atomic and molecular structure of phenomena simply through his conscious intentionality”, a claim being tested by “over 5000 empirical studies” [see his blog "A Narrative on Guruji", June 21, 2010]. As soon as someone claims there are studies supporting something he wants to believe in, he confidently throws around words like “it is well known that…” and “it has also been shown that…”

Really, Ken? Care to cite some recent studies that demonstrate this? I'm sure if they have been done, and the findings reproduced, they would be strong candidates for a Nobel Prize.

Crystallization of organic compounds is well-known to be as much art as science. One must pay exquisite attention to various conditions. That being the case, one would expect that after the first successful attempts were made, and the methods used were published, success in crystallizing not only those proteins but others would soon follow. It seems to me extremely difficult to rule out such advances as the reason for any enhancement in the crystallization process. Other factors, such as contamination, have also been pointed out to be capable of affecting crystallization in the same ways that Sheldrake predicts morphic resonance would.[1]

What about lab animals learning mazes faster? To the best of my knowledge, this audacious claim is based mostly on studies beginning eighty-five years ago by animal behaviorist William McDougall (1927). McDougall was attempting to prove the existence not of morphic fields, but rather Lamarckian evolution, the inheritance of acquired characteristics. A well-known claim of Lamarck was that organisms that acquired some new characteristic within their lifetime could pass it on to their offspring. Since such acquired characteristics generally don't and can't have any effect on germ cells, such inheritance would likely require processes unknown to science at that time (though there is a little more evidence for them now).

Consistent with Lamarckian evolution, McDougall found that successive generations of rats learned to navigate a maze faster than their progenitors. Very interestingly, though, subsequent studies by other laboratories claimed to report the same phenomenon, even among animals whose progenitors were untrained. These results were taken as evidence against Lamarckian evolution, but Sheldrake notes they do support his theory of morphic resonance. It seems that the ability to learn faster was transmitted across space and time, to unrelated animals.

But how good is this evidence? A later study (Agar et al 1953) found that the effect was not sustained indefinitely. Animals would learn faster for several generations, then learning speed would reverse over subsequent generations. Further experiments led the researchers to conclude that the rate at which animals learned was correlated with their health, reflecting laboratory conditions, which underwent changes over time.[2]

Improved health could presumably also explain changes in learning speed among our own species that I believe Sheldrake has also claimed in support of his theory. This is not to say that this interpretation necessarily provides the definitive answer to why learning rates increased over time. In fact, Agar et al. identified more than half a dozen factors that affected speed of learning. But as with crystallization, their findings show that experiments that seem to be consistent with morphic resonance may in fact have a very different—and much more believable—explanation. And given all the other difficulties with this theory, we should surely insist on the rule, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

When falsification is false

To find support for his theory, Sheldrake has not simply considered studies carried out in the past, however. He has proposed new tests of his theory, and to Wilber, that is another point in its favor:  

Along the lines of Sir Karl Popper, he proposes ways, not to prove his theory (anybody can dream up supposed proofs), but to potentially disprove his theory, which helps to define a scientific hypothesis.

In principle, this is true. But in practice, Sheldrake's ideas—now three decades old, and still no more accepted by most scientists than they were when he first proposed them—have not proven to be very testable. A major problem is that no matter how many negative experiments are performed, one can always explain away the results. Maybe the difference is too small too detect, or the field is too weak, or hasn't had a long enough time to develop, or as Wilber himself suggests, maybe non-locality of effects is very rare. If the effects are mostly local, they may be harder to distinguish from the effects of Darwinism or other developmental processes that involve the actions of genes.

Sheldrake's problem here is that his theory isn't specific enough. Since he doesn't know anything about the nature of his proposed fields, he can't say exactly how much they could affect evolution or development of a particular trait. In the absence of such specific predictions, he's left with only very general, either-or tests. Not only does a negative result not disprove the theory, but a positive result would not provide nearly as much support for it as it would if he could predict specific numerical values of some kind—that a protein crystallized 10% faster, or a rat learned a maze in 30 attempts instead of 40. It is such numbers that help distinguish one theory as opposed to another that might predict the same general event.

The patient is losing patience

I don't think Wilber has done Sheldrake any favors with his praise of morphic resonance.

In conclusion, I don't think Wilber has done Sheldrake any favors with his praise of morphic resonance. He has shown a poor understanding of both the theory itself, and of the phenomena Sheldrake thinks it might explain. And as far as I know, while his comments on it were written many years ago, he has not attempted to update them in any way—e.g., admitting that the experiments he argued could test the theory have not resolved the debate at all (mostly because, as perhaps should have been evident to him all along, they never were capable of doing so).

Perhaps scientists and other theorists need to take an oath, analogous to the one that the medical profession is supposed to uphold: don't make the state of knowledge any less understandable or credible than it was when you found it. Of course, new theories are an important lifeblood of science. Science, as its strongest supporters have always noted approvingly, is self-correcting. Theories and results are constantly being challenged, and need to be.

But modern science is much like modern organisms. It has become so complex, the result of so many finely balanced processes, that any major change or mutation is far more likely to harm it than to help it. The most successful challenges to science are most likely to come from the bottom: new observations that aren't consistent with the mainstream view in some area, and demand a complete re-thinking. This is the way Darwinism was developed, for example, as well as quantum mechanics, and our modern understanding of genes. The history of science demonstrates, I think, that if a mainstream view is wrong, its shortcomings will eventually become too obvious to hide.

Sheldrake, in contrast, has tried to challenge science from the top. He did not begin with new observations, replicated by other researchers, that demanded an explanation not consistent with current theory. He re-interpreted certain established observations—which most scientists felt did not require a new explanation —so that they became supportive of a new theory. Only then did he attempt to find new evidence for this theory.

Even in this case, his theorizing might have value, if in the process it stimulated new research that added to our knowledge. But as far as I can see, Sheldrake's theory has not even accomplished this. At some point, he has to stop complaining about what science has not shown, and reveal something new of his own.

ENDNOTES

1. For further discussion of this issue, see "Sheldrake's crystals: An exchange of views on morphogenesis leads to the conclusion that testing Sheldrake's ideas about crystallization is useless.", business.highbeam.com, and "Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? (Part four: on natural laws and resonating habits)", heterodoxology.com

2. Agar et al (1953) actually used a light discrimination task. McDougall (1930) himself switched from maze learning to this paradigm in a later set of studies (1930), because he found, as Agar did in his studies of light discrimination, that the health of the animals affected the results in maze learning, though in the opposite direction.

REFERENCES

Agar, W.E., Drummond, F.H., Tiegs, O.W. and Gunson, M.M. (1953) Fourth (Final) Report on a test of McDougall's Lamarckian experiment on the training of rats. J Exp Biol 31, 307-321

McDougall, W. (1927) An experiment for the testing of the hypothesis of Lamarck. Brit J Psychol. 17, 267-304

McDougall, W. (1930) Second report on a Lamarckian experiment. British Journal of Psychology. General Section 20, 201-218




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