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on 18 February 2012
I had a familiarity with Sheldrake's ideas prior to reading Presence of the Past, gained in the main through his and other websites. I'd also read 'Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home' which I have to say I didn't really enjoy. Sheldrake ideas are fascinating but I found 'Dogs' somewhat repetitive and whilst some of the stories are interesting they served to illustrate the constraints of a mechanistic understanding of phenomena rather than to elucidate Sheldrake's theories. The same can be said for 'Presence of the Past', however in terms of the depth of coverage and the explanation of ideas it is far superior.

I find Sheldrake's writing a little variable. For example, his discussion of the philosophy of science is very well written. He clearly explains complex ideas and shows their limitations without being dismissive. The weakness in his writing comes when he discusses his own theories. He seems to tag them on as an afterthought. I found myself wanting him to put a bit more meat on the bones of his theories and to worry a little less about appearing as an observer who seeks evidence one way or the other to confirm or deny his hypothesis. Personally, I'd prefer him to write with belief rather than detachment.

Having not been hugely positive about the book, I must say I do have a great admiration for Sheldrake. This is partly why I've given 4 stars. The main reason for the score though, is that despite its flaws the book does point towards a new way of understanding reality. That's no small thing. I have the Science Delusion sitting on my shelf and will read that shortly, but I expect that to really get tune into Sheldrake's morphic field I'm going to have to read 'A New Science of Life'.
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The Presence of the Past: Morphic resonance and the habits of nature by Rupert Sheldrake, William Collins, London, 1988, 412 ff.

Just as we learn practically and historically from the past so, Sheldrake claims, do we also learn spiritually from the past from the morphic field. This book is nearly twice the size of its predecessor, A New Science of Life, which introduced readers to the notion that there exists a spiritual energy field that was only just beginning to be recognized by science. This energy field was known to eastern mystics as the Akashic field - a term subsequently taken up by Ervin Laszlo. Scientists today, whose minds are open enough to accept the existence of psychic phenomena, describe this as the quantum energy field, expanded on at some length by Lynne McTaggart.

If you think this book is full of unscientific mumbo-jumbo, think again. Unlike Sheldrake's previous book that the Editor of Nature suggested should be burned as `scientific heresy', this book is described by New Scientist as an `engaging, provocative tour de force' and his work has been endorsed by, amongst many others, Professor of Physics, Paul Davies. There is quite a lot of biology in this book, for the author after all is a former Director of Studies in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Cambridge University.

The central theme of the book is how the morphic field holds the memories of past events to influence similar events in the future. Thus `nature' influences our lives through our DNA, as suggested by Darwin and Wallace (though before the role of genes was known), and `nurture' has its influence though the morphic field, thus substantiating the Lamarckian view of inheritance of acquired characteristics. The book has an extensive Notes section, a detailed list of References and an Index. This is essential reading for anybody searching for an explanation of psychic phenomena.

My review was written from the original edition but there is now a new edition of this book available, indicated by the subtitle which is not present in the earlier edition.
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on 19 May 2004
I am sympathetic to Sheldrake's startling if somewhat vague theory of morphic fields. However, if (like me) you have read other books of his such as the one that started it all off, A New Science of Life, you might find this one a bit familiar, repetitive and maybe dull.
It doesn't feel like there's a whole lot of new material here. Rather, each section follows a rather predictable pattern: Sheldrake describes some scientific phenomenon that is currently not well understood, such as how memories are stored in the brain or how flocks of birds are so well co-ordinated. He then gives the rather vague standard scientific explanation and points out its weaknesses, e.g. that there is little evidence to support it (though also usually little to rule it out either).
Then a sentence appears such as 'However, according to the hypothesis of formative causation...' followed by Sheldrake's routine explanation of the phenomenon in terms of morphic fields. This explanation is so vague - not much more than saying there are 'morphic fields' from other similar organisms in the past guiding the phenomenon so that it all works as described - as to be no more satisfactory than the standard scientific explanation. In fact a friend pointed out to me that the morphic field explanation often seems little more than a restatement of the problem: 'the reason it behaves as it does is there is some special thing [labelled a morphic field] which makes it behave like that'.
Sheldrake also often backs up his theory by quoting some curious long-forgotten early 20th century research into or theorizing about the topic (and I wonder how much credibility scientific literature of that vintage can have).
That's not to say there isn't something to Sheldrake's theory; but it's a very vague theory, and this book doesn't make it more convincing. What is needed is experimental evidence for it; a few possible experiments are outlined here, but they haven't been carried out. More interesting from this viewpoint are his other books "7 experiments that could change the world" and particularly "Dogs that know when their owners are coming home", which provides quite convincing evidence of animal telepathy, though whether this has anything to do with morphic fields is an open question.
So my verdict: read his other books in preference, particularly if you're new to Sheldrake's theories.
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on 15 January 2014
This book deserves a bit of a history, as I spent some months studying it. In 1981, Rupert wrote and released the book called "A new science of life", in which coming out vitalists doctrine explaines and elaborates further the concept of mophogenesis. Coming up with new tems like morphic fields or motor fields he widens up the concept in broader philosophical perspective. The book is succesful and second reprint in '85 signified the interest from readers, so in '88 this book is sort of second part, bringing more and more details.

But that's all history. In 2009, Rupert re-release "A new science of life" and two years later this book. In between and probably still after, he appeared in a number of TV and radio interviews, where he closely explains the concept. The interest in this particular approach has risen during last three decades, and the heated debate of scientists between reductionists and holistic approach is getting more and more commercialized. Rupert offers an explanation somewhere in the middle.

On one hand you have hard physicists with highly reductionist approach, who reject any holistic phenomena (like telepathy or accupuncture). On the other hand you have "sort of" holists, with quantum or dualistic or interactionist approach, who reject any reductionist approach, rendering it inefficient, if not useless and absolete. The concept of mophogenesis comes out of vitalist doctrine, where certain laws has been eblished some while ago, and is highly reductionistic. The terms like chreodes are here for a while holons, but as I said earlier, Rupert added a twist to it, and saw a system where reductionists saw only a parts. The concept of morphic fields is not really reductionistic at all. Quite an contrary, highly holistic and I would say spiritual, which could be translated as pseudo-scientific, as it brings the topics and explanations of phenomena, that are usually rejected by orthodox reductionists.

Morphic fields is very broad concept, bringing new terms and views, like motor fields (fields responsible for all movement) or mental fields(fields responsible for the consciousness). The concept has many valid points that somehow rule out some well-established rules within science generally. He explains the phenomena like telepathy, evolution, and memory by bringing into a bigger picture many more aspects of reality. The debate goes around most dubious concepts, like matter and energy (where is the line between them, if there is any), or brain and mind (phenomena of consciousness and memory), and offers usually simple, understandable, and effective explanation. The reading is very informative and compelling. Highly thought provoking too. Recommend to all spiritual scientists out there.
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on 27 January 2002
Although quite dry Sheldrake's scholarly book proposes the important idea that a vast information field underlies all reality, from crystals through to complex life forms. These fields are often nested i.e. a complex organism such as the human body would have a multiplicity of fields sitting as it were one inside the other. Not only do these fields pre-exist, perhaps in the sense of archetypes, but new forms of activity create new fields and also changes in activity update the fields. These fields might also be considered as the 'habits' of nature.
Sheldrake also examines ideas from history which support his idea of morphogenesis.
In my view the book is a must read for those who wish to understand different and non-mechanistic approaches to the problem of evolution and the development of consciousness.
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on 3 December 2013
The Presence of the Past - An utterly fascinating book - written so that somebody without a background in science has a chance to understand his subject.

There is a possibility that the natural world and that includes everything that grows including us - has an ancient memory - a collective memory - which it is natural for us to draw on. He describes this fact as Morphic Resonance.

It is a book I keep near within reach and dip into regularly.


Trish Niblock
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on 21 April 2014
If you are curious to know how we are likely to see ourselves thirty years from now, read this book. As a bonus you get a masterful overview of the history of Western Thought. How we conceive the world determines how we act in the world.
Kiss goodby the mechanical model of the universe and the Selfish Gene.
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on 25 September 2013
Dr Sheldrake scintillates, as one would expect him to. His proposal is rich and well situated, and his argument is compelling.
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on 12 January 1999
"Familiarity with concepts conceals a deep problem". Mr Sheldrake is right to point this out, but never quite gets to grips with the problem he is tackling because ironically, he is never quite able to escape the familiarity of his own field of expertise. Like every scientist who is trying to say something new, he struggles to keep it in the fold of accepted thinking and to that purpose does no more than invent a new language in his conception of morphogenetic fields which does little more than the old idea of psi-fields or holons. From a scientific point of view, it gives to the kind of information he is dealing with an acceptable image, but in the end it is the same as saying that there is a something-I-know-not-what going on. The fact that experiments he has performed or reported on suggests something extraordinary in the nature of reality amounts to no more than saying that there may be something in it. The book has a lengthy section analysing the notion of a law as it has come down to us from the Greeks, but he never actually challenges the familiarity of the basic concepts of science that are passed down the generations as immutable. Consequently, he picks on the notion of a "field" within whose boundaries he presents his case for the morphogenetic experience and causative formation, not noticing that this conception itself is designed to bolster the laws of inertia which are now some three hundred years old and still unrevoked. Consequently, he is blind to the role that death plays in the structure of reality and within morphogenesis itself, merely noting that dead languages or familiar languages can be learnt faster than gobbledegook or invented languages never spoken before. Furthermore, it suffers from a flaw that was a criticism of the platonic Forms in that Mr Sheldrake thinks that new fields arise with the formation of new ideas. He does not consider that, in the event of a field existing, it is just as capable of being switched off! To try to demonstrate the drama of experience in a test-tube is to invite the drama to dissipate and leave only a husk of itself for eyes to pry. It was the same problem for those experiments exploring psychic phenomena: how can the interest of the phenomenon be sustained over long periods of cold examination? Usually the experiments are held up as evidence of disproof by the skeptical and the positivist. At the end of the day, given the narrow parameters of operation, and the desire to be scientific, the best one can say is that there may be something in it and that is the end of that. What is really needed are ideas that challenge the autocratic position of science which is self-assumed which demands that anything concerning the nature of reality must comply with the conditions laid down by etc.etc. Even so, it is an interesting read, as far as it is prepared to go.
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on 16 February 2016
I re-read this last year after seeing Sheldrake speak about this on youtube. Brilliant and thought provoking.
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