Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Blue Sky Nonsense: reviewing “Blue Sky God: The Evolution of Science and Christianity” pt. 1: Morphic Fields and the Works of Christ

Blue Sky God: The Evolution of Science and Christianity by Don MacGregor (book sources)

Fields and Forms

Fields are all around us, yes. MacGregor again harps on about the possibility of unknown forces—while it might be too strong a statement to say these are ruled out, a good deal of effort has been expended by experimental physicists to measure the absence of such things in highly sensitive ways. The gambit of “we don't know that there aren't other forces, so it's totally OK to propose (without evidence) that such unknown forces exist and have major macroscopic effects” is a hallmark of pseudoscience.

Rupert Sheldrake and Morphic Resonance

Enter Rupert Sheldrake, a formerly respectable biologist now gone way off the rails, notorious for a whole range of pseudo-scientific and anti-scientific claims such as that energy is not conserved, memories are not stored in the brain, that the laws of nature are just ‘habits’ and so on.

One of Sheldrake's core beliefs is that DNA doesn't determine the form of an organism; that instead development is guided by a “morphic field”. Furthermore, he believes that there is a (single) field for each species too, and that this allows individuals of a species to share skills and memories without actual contact.

Pavlov's Mice and McDougall's Rats

Many people have heard of Pavlov's dogs. But his mice are less well-known (even I had not heard of them until reading this).

The story is that Pavlov in the early 1920s tried some experiments on Lamarckian inheritance. He conditioned a bunch of mice to respond to some stimulus, counted the number of trials needed, and then bred the mice and repeated the experiment with subsequent generations. In 1923 he informally reported preliminary results which claimed that the number of trials needed had dropped from 300 to 5, and that he expected within a few more generations to have mice which had the conditioned response from birth, with no training needed at all. Now, this is a truly startling result, and it fuelled the hopes of Lamarckians for decades; apparently the results are still sometimes referred to today, even by non-cranks.

But there's just one problem with the story, which is that in 1927 Pavlov completely retracted the results, saying “the question ... must be left entirely open”. He described the experiments as “very complicated, uncertain and moreover extremely difficult to control”. He never mentioned them again, and when explicitly questioned about them declined to comment. A second-hand report claims that he considered the experiments to be one of his biggest scientific errors.

Either Sheldrake or MacGregor seems to have missed the memo on this, though, because MacGregor (citing to Sheldrake) reports the result as though it were established.

But of course Pavlov wasn't the only person investigating Lamarckian inheritance using behaviourist methods. One of the others was William McDougall, who ran training experiments with rats in a water maze over an extended period of time and also claimed to see improvements in the rats' performance over generations (having tried to eliminate any possible Darwinian effects by, supposedly, breeding a subgroup of poorly-performing rats for comparison). A number of other people tried to reproduce McDougall's experiment, and Sheldrake uses this fact to completely re-interpret the results of the entire series of experiments: to Sheldrake, what is happening is not Lamarckian inheritance, but rather that the ‘morphic field’ of the rat species is changing so that the rats learn more easily, or already know the task.


The basis of this claim is that the people reproducing McDougall's work found that the number of trials needed to train their rats was comparable to the lowest figure from McDougall's later experiments, even though they were using unrelated rats; Sheldrake takes this as implying that all rats everywhere were learning from McDougall's experiments. Now, it strikes me that these other experimenters were trying to address the topic of Lamarckian inheritance, not Sheldrake's bizarre theories, so they would have had no reason to expect to find their rats needed the same number of trials as McDougall's original rats, they were only looking for the improvement over generations.

And in this context it becomes relevant that at one point McDougall needed to replace his water maze, and to his surprise he found that even though he'd intended the new one to be identical, for some reason his rats found it ‘easier’ than the old one—not marginally, but by a factor of 1.5 times. Now, these ‘mazes’ aren't complex, as shown in the diagram; rats are placed in the water at point O, and have to swim to A or B, one of which is brightly lit; the brightly lit one has the steps out of the water electrified, so the rats have to learn to go to the dimly-lit one.

So the fact that simply replacing the equipment had such a significant effect (which McDougall simply compensated for by using a fudge factor in his results) suggests that it's going to be impossible to compare raw results from different experimenters in any kind of sane way. For the original purpose that probably didn't matter, since everyone doing the experiment was interested in changes not raw numbers of trials; but for Sheldrake's purposes this is a show-stopper. Nor is this the only possible factor involved, it's just one example. (There's also the question of how all these rat populations were being bred and raised in the first place; how did the genetics and upbringing of the average laboratory rat change over the years? So many possible confounding factors...)

Tits and Milk

Britons at least as old as I am may recall the days when milk was commonly delivered to the doorstep in glass bottles with foil lids, which certain birds, such as the great tit (Parus major) or blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), would sometimes remove to get at the cream. This is Sheldrake's next example of claimed species-wide learning.

The phenomenon was first observed in England in 1921, and spread widely in subsequent years. But what Sheldrake's theory doesn't explain is this: the tits, who are somewhat social and are known to learn from observing each other, picked up the trick and spread it once one of them discovered it, but birds of other families with solitary habits, who would previously take cream from open bottles if given a chance, were only found to open the foil lids in rare isolated observations. This is consistent with the trick being spread by social learning, but inconsistent with it being spread via ‘morphic fields’, because in the latter case it would be expected to spread in the solitary birds too.

Sheldrake (or MacGregor's account of Sheldrake, there are no citations here) goes on to claim that in Holland, tits began to steal cream the same way before the country was invaded in WW2, that during the occupation no milk was delivered, and that when deliveries resumed (after a period claimed to be longer than the lifespan of the birds) the habit was resumed more quickly than expected. However, given that the maximum recorded lifespan for blue tits in England exceeds 9 years (the average is much less, 1.5 to 3 years) I find this argument unconvincing.

Morphic Resonance and the Works of Christ

Having claimed that Sheldrake's nonsense is “gradually gaining support” (erm, no), MacGregor now wants to use it to justify what must be the oddest soteriological claim I've ever seen:

  1. Jesus was, in MacGregor's view, fully human
  2. Therefore whatever he did affects the ‘morphic field of humanity’
  3. Jesus achieved a (presumably unprecedented) level of ‘oneness with God’, and demonstrated healing abilities
  4. Therefore, via morphic resonance, any other human can now do the same.

(Insert your favourite multiple-facepalm meme image here)

Atonement – Death and Resurrection

MacGregor's conclusion here is mostly theological (of a sufficient density that I decline to parse it in detail), but what it seems to boil down to is that he does not (at least here) regard the resurrection as literal, but identifies it with the supposed change in the morphic field of humanity, which he then identifies as the ‘Body of Christ’. There isn't really anything one can say about this, other than the fact that it is supported, to pinch Jeremy Bentham's term, only by ‘nonsense upon stilts’.