The kiss of life

12th May 1995 at 01:00
Rupert Sheldrake argues that a challenge to the mechanistic theory which dominates scientific philosophy is long overdue.

Thanks to the national curriculum, more young children than ever before are studying science, whether they like it or not. But older children are turning away in droves. The number taking physics A-level fell by 20 per cent from 1987 to 1993, with a further decline of 7 per cent in 1994. At universities, there are now fewer applications per place for mathematics, physics and chemistry than for any other subject, and entry standards are falling fast. In 1993, zoology A-level was abandoned altogether. It became uneconomic, with fewer than 60 candidates nationwide. Nor is this swing against science confined to Britain. Since the late 1980s, it has been paralleled in most industrialised countries, even Japan.

Many scientists are worried. Why is this happening? The simplest explanation is that students are responding to market forces. With declining job opportunities and diminishing public esteem, science is not attractive enough to compensate for the hard work it involves.

The conventional response is to promote "the public understanding of science". The recent National Science Week was a Government-sponsored attempt to bring this about.

In my opinion the problem is too deep to be solved by better public relations. Institutional science is based on the mechanistic theory of nature, and depicts a machine-like, soulless world. Its spirit is clearly expressed in factory farming, for example, or genetic engineering. For more than three centuries, it has been linked to an ideology of dominating nature, and has helped to bring about the ecological crisis. In some ways the public understands this kind of science only too well, and does not particularly like it.

At the same time, science really interests a lot of people, and there is an enduring fascination for ingenious technology, as the appeal of television programmes like Tomorrow's World testifies. Exhibitions on dinosaurs are packed. Excellent natural history programmes on television have huge audiences, and popular science books are one of the success stories of modern publishing, with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time at the top of the league. Books on chaos, consciousness, quantum theory, evolution, Gaia, complexity and ecology occupy many feet of shelfspace in book shops.

But all this has very little to do with science as practised by professionals in their laboratories. Most are not concerned with the big questions, but with very detailed ones in their specialised field. In addition, there is a vast gulf between the official world view of professional scientists, based on the mechanistic theory, and the views encountered outside the walls of scientific institutions: animals are not generally regarded as machines, psychic phenomena are commonly taken for granted, astrology is popular, unorthodox healing is openly discussed and many people believe in the power of prayer.

Science teachers and their pupils find themselves at the interface between mechanistic and non-mechanistic attitudes, an uncomfortable place to be. Their problems are exacerbated by trying to cope with the mass of factual material prescribed in the national curriculum.

Over the past few years, I have been helping to organise meetings of science teachers to find better ways of teaching science in schools. These meetings have been co-ordinated by the Scientific and Medical Network, whose members include holistically-minded scientists, teachers and doctors. One of the teachers' commonest complaints is that school science seems so detached from personal experience, so dead and irrelevant.

I had the same problem when I was studying science myself. I was drawn to biology because I liked plants and animals and kept many pets. But at school and at university, we usually started by killing the organisms we were studying, and were taught to regard them as inanimate machines that had evolved by blind chance. Most of our genuine experience of nature had to be set aside as "subjective", and we learned to use the impersonal style that science has made its own: "A test tube was taken . . ." This split was epitomised for me at Cambridge when I saw in a laboratory corridor a wall-chart of biochemical pathways, across the top of which someone had written in big letters: KNOW THYSELF.

Some of the teachers at these gatherings were from Waldorf Schools, where a holistic approach has been followed for years. I was impressed by the way they root their science teaching in direct experience. Their students actually look at the sky and learn to recognise the planets and the stars, rather than merely reading about them in books. And biology projects are mainly out of doors with living plants and animals. For example, at Michael Hall School, at Forest Row in Sussex, the younger children collect tree seeds, raise tree nurseries, and plant trees. It works better than trying to learn about plants from diagrams and videos in the classroom.

Another way of making school science more interesting is through contacts with people in research laboratories. A new scheme by which schoolteachers and working scientists are paired makes this possible. The pairing approach has proved very successful in the United States, and a British version was launched last year: the Norfolk Teacher-Scientist Network. The co-ordinator is a former science teacher, Frank Chennell, working together with Dr Keith Roberts, head of the Cell Biology Department at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. There are now 62 teacher-scientist pairs in Norfolk. Their interchanges in laboratories and in classrooms are proving just as illuminating for the scientists as for the teachers and their pupils. The scheme has recently been extended to include Teacher Fellowships, providing four-week experiences for teachers in active research laboratories within the county.

But while there is much to be learned from professional researchers, I have been convinced for several years that science need not be the monopoly of expensive institutions. This is a central theme of my book, Seven Experiments that Could Change the World: A Do-lt-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science, in which I show how fundamental research can be very cheap and is potentially open to anyone interested. Some of these experiments would make fascinating science projects in schools; indeed they would qualify as "investigations" in the context of the national curriculum.

One of the seven experiments involves pets. Many pet owners have noticed that their dog or cat has an uncanny ability to know when a member of the family is coming home, often half an hour or more in advance. Is this merely a matter of routine, or sharp hearing? To test these possibilities, the person coming home should do so at an unexpected time, and by unusual means, for example by being dropped off by a friend. If the pet still knows in advance when they are coming, this would suggest the existence of an invisible connection or psychic bond. The research so far suggests that such bonds do indeed exist.

On the basis of informal surveys, I estimate that roughly 1 in 4 dogs anticipates the return of its owner, and 1 in 8 cats. If this is so, then every school is likely to contain children from families with such pets, and others can be identified by contacting local kennels (usually listed in the Yellow Pages of the Telephone Directory). Many kennel proprietors are well aware of this phenomenon and have interesting tales to tell. Another effective method, as I have found by experience, is to enlist the help of local newspapers and radio stations. Most journalists love doing stories about pets; and they are usually quite happy to ask people to write in about their own experiences.

Another experiment concerns the sense of being stared at, when we turn round to find that someone is looking from behind. This commonplace occurrence has been neglected by professional researchers, but it can be investigated in simple experiments rather like parlour games. Results to date, including those from a school project, suggest that people really can tell when they are being looked at from behind. The implications are staggering, because they suggest that our minds can reach out through our eyes and affect what we are looking at. Our thoughts and intentions may not be confined to the privacy of our skulls.

I believe that science is on the threshold of a major transformation. The new science will be less mechanistic than the old, and have a much stronger sense of Gaia, the living Earth, and of cosmic evolution. Its metaphors will be more organic than mechanical, and nature will no longer be treated as inanimate and mindless. It may well recognise the existence of invisible interconnections, such as those between pets and their owners, at present unrecognised by physics. I think the new science will be more fun to study, and more related to personal experience. Projects in schools could even play a major part in bringing about this revolutionary change.

o Norfolk Teacher-Scientist Network: contact Frank Chennell, Hurdle Cottage, Brisley Road, North Elmham, Norfolk NR20 SDL. Tel: 01362 668337 o Scientific and Medical Network: contact the Director, David Lorimer, Lesser Halings, Tilehouse Lane, Denham, Middlesex UB9 SDG. Tel: 01895 835818

Dr Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of A New Science of Life (Flamingo Pounds 7.99) and Seven Experiments that Could Change the World (Fourth Estate Pounds 6.99)

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