It may appear that the division into serious scientists and con-men of the scientific world is something obvious and undeniable. Nevertheless, there are people who are real scientits, but they profess controversial, or even revolutionary, theories, called by some a scientific heresy. One of the representatives of this group is Rupert Sheldrake, a British biologist, educated in Cambridge and Harvard, publishing in Nature and other renowned journals specializing in natural sciences.The basis for most of his theories can be found in "The Rebirth of Nature. The Greening of Science and God".
In "The Rebirth of Nature" Sheldrake describes the animistic theory of nature in contrast to the mechanistic one, starting with a solid, historical introduction. The original, old beliefs, based on the power of Nature and the Mother Goddess and, in consequence, on matriarchy, gave way initially to the aggressive male gods, resulting in the end of simple haromony, and beginning of wars and hostile human attitude towards the surrounding world (Sheldrake is very interested in feminism, and vice versa, proving, that all theories and philosophies, even at the surface very diverse, somehow, somewhere have a point in common).
The next, and, according to the author, much more important breakthrough was the end of search for scientific proofs of existence of the soul, ether and any divine, or experimentally undescribable, elements, warranting the existence of life. The faith in the divine was then substituted by the mechanistic theory - which says that we, humans, together with all beings, are governed solely by the laws of physics and these laws explain absolutely all functions of ou organisms as well as personal and social behavior.
This breakthrough was initiated in the Renaissance by simple experiments, such as lack of weight difference between alive and dead animals proving, according to the scientists of that era, that after death the mechanism simply stops working. According to Sheldrake, the common sense says that this very experiment can be interpreted in the way disadvantageous for the mechanistic theory, because if nothing material decides if the organism is alive or dead, the life cannot be explained by the part of the physical mechanism... (besides, what about the "21 grams"?)
Paradoxically, the breakthrough was reinforced by Reformation and the Protestants' sober attitude to life, and stabilized in the Enlightment period. The theory of evolution beutifully confirmed the mechanistic theory, at least in the initial stage.
In spite of all, many contemporary theoretical biologists lean towards the holistic concept of natural philosophy, linking physical laws of nature with the belief in the forces and connections among all the animated and non-animated components of the Planet Earth.
The important part of the holistic theory are fields. The discovery of fields, such as gravity, magnetism or electricity, in physics, shaked the mechanistic theory to a certain degree, because gave the examples of "immaterial" energy interactions (the author somehow omits the physical particle element of these interactions, but never mind). Sheldrake postulates, by analogy, the existence of the morphogenetic fields, responsible for the formation and evolution of life. He also gives interesting examples of phenomena, which are not yet explained or completely deciphered by sciene.
One such phenomenon is memory - indeed, although lesions in particular parts of the brain cause various types of memory loss, it is not known, where and how the memories are stored and segregated. Sheldrake compares the brain to a TV set: it is equally vain to search in the neurons for the traces of past events, as to look in the circuits for the traces of the TV shows. The destructions of a component will cause problems with the reception of a given channel, but does not prove that the trace of this channel, its memory was in the damaged component (this is such an oversimplification... and I am even not sure if it is accurate, but definitely it is a good image).
Sheldrake supports the contemporary, holistic natural philosophy with the Gaia hypothesis, conceived by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. The Gaia hypothesis, or the hypothesis of Earth as an organism (according to Lovelock; Margulis tones down his expressions quite a bit, saying thet our planet cannot really be called "a living organism" without complete re-definition of the term "life") - at least as a self-regulating biosphere and biotope, explains, how the Earth could have maintained relatively constant environmental conditions for a long time (for example, the constant salt concentration in seawater is explained with the mechanism of lagoon formation) and warns against (caused, of course, by mechanistic way of thinking) influence of our species on the environment. One of the main points of the Gaia hypothesis is treating Homo sapiens as one if the nods in the network of interactions, together with other species of living organisms and also with the unanimated components of our environment, not, like we are used to, as a higher intelligence created to rule over the world. (the problem with using the Gaia hypothesis to prove anything is that it is a HYPOTHESIS).
Sheldrake develops his theory, discussing many scientific unknowns, getting through the weak points of the theory of evolution and medical mysteries to the thoughts about the Big Band abd the beginnings of the Universe. He concludes with a statement that the old, mechanistic theory still exists, but in a conspiratory form, the proof of which seems to be Richard Dawkins and his book "The Selfish Gene". I am rather on the side of Dawkins as long as the scientific beliefs go, but Sheldrakes arguments (despite the fact that the theory of selfish genes creating our bodies and influencing emotions is not, as Sheldrake would want, a simple depiction of living creatures as robots manipulated by DNA, like by a computer program - even Dawkins formulates it differently now and clearly the title of his book was mostly a commercial trick) make a lot of logical sense and it is difficult to argue with them - they require a lot of solid knowledge (many tried).
"The Rebirth of Nature" is a good (albeit biased) introduction to contemporary theoretical biology and a proof of importance of this branch of biology, so neglected in the age of molecular biology and biochemistry.
The other advantage of this book is a good bibliography, full of references to original publications. It is not necessary to agree with the author and it is possible to close an eye to many obvious simplifications, but it is interesting to learn, what is the way of thinking of one of very active scientists, who is not present in a school curriculum and also get some distance and critical attitude towards the knowledge, nowadays commonly agreed to be right.