Latest news from those kinky scientists who live out on the edge. Damn heretics.

Non-Genetic Inheritance

I posted yesterday about Rupert Sheldrake's "heretical" idea of morphic fields contributing to behavioural changes in populations. Coincidentally, today I came across this article on the New Scientist website - "Can experiences be passed on to offspring?":

What was your mother up to before you were even a twinkle in her eye? You might not think it matters, but it seems that in mice at least, mothers that receive mental training before they become pregnant can pass on its cognitive benefits to their young.

Previous studies in both people and animals have shown that a mother's experiences while pregnant can affect her offspring's gene expression and health, even years later. However, it was not known if experiences prior to pregnancy had an effect.

...researchers suspect that the mother passes on this cognitive effect during gestation, perhaps by releasing hormones that prompt "epigenetic" chemical markers to appear on her unborn child's genes, regulating their expression after birth.

Moshe Szyf at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, calls the work "remarkable". "The mother can modulate the intellectual capacity of her young," he says. "If it happens in humans it has immense implications."

I've often wondered at the precise actions that arise out of instinctual behaviour in animals. This seems to take it a step further.

Sheldrake Indicted for 'Crimes Against Reason'

In 1981, Nature's senior editor Sir John Maddox published an editorial entitled "A book for burning?" in which he took aim at a book by biologist Rupert Sheldrake. In A New Science of Life, Sheldrake had put forward a hypothesis which stepped completely outside orthodox science: "morphic resonance".

After chemists crystallized a new chemical for the first time, it became easier and easier to crystallize in laboratories all over the world. After rats at Harvard first escaped from a new kind of water maze, successive generations learned quicker and quicker. Then rats in Melbourne, Australia learned yet faster. Rats with no trained ancestors shared in this improvement.

Rupert Sheldrake sees these processes as examples of morphic resonance. Past forms and activities of organisms, he argues, influence organisms in the present through direct connections across time and space. Individual plants and animals both draw upon and contribute to the collective memory of their species.

Sheldrake reinterprets the regularities of nature as being more like habits than immutable laws.

A third edition of A New Science of Life has just been released in the UK (see Amazon UK) - and to stir the pot during Darwin's 200th birthday week, The Guardian has run an online forum discussing Sheldrake's heretical ideas. The forum has featured contributions from the likes of Susan Blackmore, Caroline Watt and Nature's Adam Rutherford, who accused Sheldrake of "crimes against reason".

The man himself has now posted "A Response To My Critics" on the Guardian forum. As usual, Rupert is calm and collected and makes some good points:

Isaac Newton ran into the science/magic problem with gravity. The idea that the moon influenced the tides through empty space sounded like magic, and Newton was embarrassed by his failure to explain what he called the "occult" or hidden force of gravitation. His critics, mainly French, accused him of magical thinking.

...I do not claim that the evidence is conclusive, only that the question is open. Those who assert that there is no evidence, like Susan Blackmore and Adam Rutherford, are willfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.

The same is true of controversies about telepathy. Sceptics like Rutherford, who accused me of "crimes against reason", rely on the claims of other skeptics, like Michael Shermer, who rely on yet other skeptics such as David Marks, who ignore any evidence that goes against their beliefs.

Adam Rutherford, who works for Nature, dismisses scientific ideas presented in books, rather than in scientific journals. He would therefore rule out Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate this year, as well as most of the work of Richard Dawkins. My own research is published in peer-reviewed journals (including Nature) as well as in books.

...Science is our best method for exploring what we do not understand. But for some people science has become a religion. They need authority and certainty, and want to believe that the fundamental answers are already known.

Scientific fundamentalism serves deep emotional needs, but it is counter-productive for the progress of science itself. It inhibits scientific exploration, gives science a bad name and puts young people off. Science advances through questioning dogmas, by considering new possibilities, and through open-minded enquiry.

As Rupert points out in his response, many of his research papers are available on his website (along with plenty of other material, including lectures and articles).

(In passing, I couldn't help but notice that Susan Blackmore is now saying that she "spent the best part of 30 years trying to find evidence of paranormal phenomena and failed. My initial belief was wrong, I concluded, and so I changed my mind and became sceptical." Ahem.)

Previously on TDG:

Holy Grail of Resources Updated

The website of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) has had a makeover, and with the new look comes something very exciting. The archives of the Journal of Scientific Exploration - which I raved about last year - now itemises the articles published in JSE so far, and offers free PDF downloads of all of them on a per article basis! No need to download the whole issue anymore...just peruse the article list (use CTRL-F in your browser to find certain keywords/author names) and pick out the articles you want to read. As I mentioned last year, those articles cover open-minded, scientific investigation of: remote viewing, earth lights, ball lightning, reincarnation, telepathy, psychokinesis, ufology, the afterlife, crop circles, fringe archaeology, biofields, 'orbs', intelligent design, precognition, poltergeists, earthquake phenomena and cryptozoology - amongst others! This is, quite literally, the Holy Grail of resources for TDG readers.

Note too that the new website also now offers an online facility for joining the Society for Scientific Exploration. Well worth considering.

Previously on TDG:

Quantum Thoughts?

Last week Discover Magazine posted a fascinating article on the developing scientific field of quantum biology, titled "Is Quantum Mechanics Controlling Your Thoughts". The article begins by looking at new evidence which suggests that quantum effects (such as entanglement and tunneling) may be the mechanism behind biological processes such as photosynthesis and the sense of smell.

One of the most significant quantum observations in the life sciences comes from Fleming and his collaborators. Their study of photosynthesis in green sulfur bacteria, published in 2007 in Nature [subscription required], tracked the detailed chemical steps that allow plants to harness sunlight and use it to convert simple raw materials into the oxygen we breathe and the carbohydrates we eat. Specifically, the team examined the protein scaffold connecting the bacteria’s external solar collectors, called the chlorosome, to reaction centers deep inside the cells. Unlike electric power lines, which lose as much as 20 percent of energy in transmission, these bacteria transmit energy at a staggering efficiency rate of 95 percent or better.

The secret, Fleming and his colleagues found, is quantum physics... Instead of haphazardly moving from one connective channel to the next, as might be seen in classical physics, energy traveled in several directions at the same time. The researchers theorized that only when the energy had reached the end of the series of connections could an efficient pathway retroactively be found. At that point, the quantum process collapsed, and the electrons’ energy followed that single, most effective path.

Electrons moving through a leaf or a green sulfur bacterial bloom are effectively performing a quantum “random walk”—a sort of primitive quantum computation—to seek out the optimum transmission route for the solar energy they carry. “We have shown that this quantum random-walk stuff really exists,” Fleming says.

These new findings are important to the controversial idea of 'quantum consciousness', as they may refute two of the main arguments against the idea: (a) That quantum effects won't occur at the macro level of biological systems, and (b) That it is too warm in the human brain for these quantum effects to occur. And at the end of the article they address this issue, talking to the pioneering researcher in the field (and an old friend of ours here at TDG) Stuart Hameroff. Although the article's author does note that quantum consciousness is still a speculative idea, the complete article does bring some context (and respectability) to the area:

It is still a long way from Hameroff’s hypo­thetical (and experimentally unproven) quantum neurons to a sentient, conscious human brain. But many human experiences, Hameroff says, from dreams to subconscious emotions to fuzzy memory, seem closer to the Alice in Wonderland rules governing the quantum world than to the cut-and-dried reality that classical physics suggests. Discovering a quantum portal within every neuron in your head might be the ultimate trip through the looking glass.

It would have been nice if the article had mentioned that Hameroff is not alone in his speculation: his 'co-speculator' is no less a personage than Sir Roger Penrose, and a separate, well-credentialed theorist on the idea (though he departs from the Hameroff-Penrose hypothesis on a number of points) is Henry Stapp. See Wikipedia's page on 'Quantum Mind' for a good starting point for further exploration. Makes you wonder whether Michael Shermer would like to retract some of his assertions in this Sci-Am column.

Now, heading off further down the rabbit hole than Discover (and certainly Michael Shermer) would like to go, 'quantum consciousness' may also provide a way of understanding near-death experiences and the possibility that consciousness lives on after physical death. When I spoke to Stuart a couple of years ago, this was his (speculative) explanation:

Under normal circumstances consciousness occurs in the fundamental level of spacetime geometry confined in the brain. But when the metabolism driving quantum coherence (in microtubules) is lost, the quantum information leaks out to the spacetime geometry in the universe at large. Being holographic and entangled it doesnt dissipate. Hence consciousness (or dream-like subconsciousness) can persist.

Parapsychology researcher Dean Radin is another who has pondered on a possible link between quantum effects and anomalous cognition - see his book Entangled Minds (Amazon US and UK) for more. Dean made a quick comment about the story on his blog last week as well.

Previously on TDG:

Sheldrake on the Edge

Each year the Edge Foundation asks its members - some of the best minds on the planet - a 'big' question designed to provoke further commentary and debate. This year's Edge question is "What Will Change Everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?" Respondents included Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, James Watson, Paul Davies, Michael Shermer and Sam Harris, among a long list of notables.

Many respondents (in my opinion) didn't really grasp the enormity of the question, or the actual semantic precision of it, instead preferring to stick to their own favourite topic and not applying the details of the question to their answer with enough rigour. Perhaps the most common theme was speculation on a 'Technological Singularity' heralding a 'posthuman age' (which certainly would "change everything"), although there didn't seem to be too much discussion of possible negative consequences of such a happening (e.g. a super-intelligent system that is recursively self-improving could well take control and master us; or the likely social problems that will come with a population that lives to 150 or longer).

One of the few 'heretical' scientists included in the list was Rupert Sheldrake, and true to form he submitted a provocative answer: that materialism (ie. physicalist science) was on its last legs:


Credit crunches happen because of too much credit and too many bad debts. Credit is literally belief, from the Latin credo, "I believe." Once confidence ebbs, the loss of trust is self-reinforcing. The game changes.

Something similar is happening with materialism. Since the nineteenth century, its advocates have promised that science will explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry; science will show that there is no God and no purpose in the universe; it will reveal that God is a delusion inside human minds and hence in human brains; and it will prove that brains are nothing but complex machines.

Materialists are sustained by the faith that science will redeem their promises, turning their beliefs into facts. Meanwhile, they live on credit. The philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper described this faith as "promissory materialism" because it depends on promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Despite all the achievements of science and technology, it is facing an unprecedented credit crunch.

In 1963, when I was studying biochemistry at Cambridge I was invited to a series of private meetings with Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner in Brenner's rooms in King's College, along with a few of my classmates. They had just cracked the genetic code. Both were ardent materialists. They explained there were two major unsolved problems in biology: development and consciousness. They had not been solved because the people who worked on them were not molecular biologists—nor very bright. Crick and Brenner were going to find the answers within 10 years, or maybe 20. Brenner would take development, and Crick consciousness. They invited us to join them.

Both tried their best. Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on the development of the nematode worm Caenorhabdytis. Crick corrected the manuscript of his final paper on the brain the day before he died in 2004. At his funeral, his son Michael said that what made him tick was not the desire to be famous, wealthy or popular, but "to knock the final nail into the coffin of vitalism."

He failed. So did Brenner. The problems of development and consciousness remain unsolved. Many details have been discovered, dozens of genomes have been sequenced, and brain scans are ever more precise. But there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone.

The fundamental proposition of materialism is that matter is the only reality. Therefore consciousness is nothing but brain activity. However, among researchers in neuroscience and consciousness studies there is no consensus. Leading journals such as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep problems with the materialist doctrine. For example, Steven Lehar argues that inside our heads there must be a miniaturized virtual-reality full-colour three-dimensional replica of the world. When we look at the sky, the sky is in our heads. Our skulls are beyond the sky. Others, like the psychologist Max Velmans, argue that virtual reality displays are not confined to our brains; they are life-sized, not miniaturized. Our visual perceptions are outside our skulls, just where they seem to be.

The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the "hard problem" of consciousness because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, for example, the quality of redness is still unaccounted for.

In biology and psychology the credit-rating of materialism is falling fast. Can physics inject new capital? Some materialists prefer to call themselves physicalists, to emphasize that their hopes depend on modern physics, not nineteenth-century theories of matter. But physicalism's credit-rating has been reduced by physics itself, for four reasons.

First, some physicists argue that quantum mechanics cannot be formulated without taking into account the minds of observers; hence minds cannot be reduced to physics, because physics presupposes minds

Second, the most ambitious unified theories of physical reality, superstring and M theories, with 10 and 11 dimensions respectively, take science into completely new territory. They are a very shaky foundation for materialism, physicalism or any other pre-established belief system. They are pointing somewhere new.

Third, the known kinds of matter and energy constitute only about 4% of the universe. The rest consists of dark matter and dark energy. The nature of 96% of reality is literally obscure.

Fourth, the cosmological anthropic principle asserts that if the laws and constants of nature had been slightly different at the moment of the Big Bang, biological life could never have emerged, and hence we would not be here to think about it. So did a divine mind fine-tune the laws and constants in the beginning? Some cosmologists prefer to believe that our universe is one of a vast, and perhaps infinite, number of parallel universes, all with different laws and constants. We just happen to exist in the one that has the right conditions for us.

In the eyes of skeptics, the multiverse theory is the ultimate violation of Occam's Razor, the principle that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. But even so, it does not succeed in getting rid of God. An infinite God could be the God of an infinite number of universes.

Here on Earth we are facing climate change, great economic uncertainty, and cuts in science funding. Confidence in materialism is draining away. Its leaders, like central bankers, keep printing promissory notes, but it has lost its credibility as the central dogma of science. Many scientists no longer want to be 100% invested in it.

Materialism's credit crunch changes everything. As science is liberated from this nineteenth-century ideology, new perspectives and possibilities will open up, not just for science, but for other areas of our culture that are dominated by materialism. And by giving up the pretence that the ultimate answers are already known, the sciences will be freer—and more fun.

There's a *lot* of reading to get through the entire list of responses, but I certainly recommend having a browse - at least to pick out some of the names or topics you're familiar with. Many answers had their desired effect with me - I was drifting off on tangential thought threads so many times I started taking notes so that I would remember to explore each of them at length at a later time. I'll probably post a few over coming weeks, but feel free to leave your own thoughts about any of Edge answers in the comments here at TDG.

Astonishing Evolution

Sometimes, I wonder how 'blind' evolution really is. This is one of those moments:

The “dying” leaf-mimic katydid - the insect kingdom's very own version of an X-Man. Full gallery here...great stuff.

Scientists Against the Tide

One of the things we regularly discuss here on TDG is the difficulty in getting serious attention for new or 'heretical' scientific ideas. I'm sure then that many readers will enjoy reading Against the Tide. A Critical Review by Scientists of How Physics and Astronomy Get Done (free PDF download available via the link, or buy from Amazon US / UK):

This book deals with the tension between the scientific establishment of a given time, and scientists with radical or heretical ideas, who work outside the mainstream, and have difficulties in having their ideas accepted or even seriously critiqued...much of the scientific activity at the present time confirms [sic] to a set of ideas and paradigms which are unquestionably accepted by the vast majority of practising scientists. Most work is done within this framework, and those who disagree with it find it difficult to survive academically, because they are denied grants, positions, research facilities like observing time on telescopes, invitations to speak at conferences, the opportunity to publish in the best research journals, and even to post their papers on open electronic archives heavily used by the community. These difficulties make it impossible to air radical ideas, or glaring inconsistencies in experimental or observational data, which challenge the very foundations of mainstream science. This suppression of dissent and challenging new ideas, without examining them carefully for correctness and applicability, prevents progress in human knowledge, and the vast resources expended on science go in vain, merely perpetuating unqualified beliefs and dogmas... The book should be read by everyone working in science, to become acquainted with the anguish that some people feel at the way they have been treated by the scientific establishment...

I think that in many ways, the exclusion of new ideas initially acts well as a safeguard against a mass of incorrect suppositions not backed by evidence. But there are also many other cases where a good deal of evidence has been gathered, which should at least bring these new ideas to a point where they are seriously discussed in an objective manner, but they aren't. So I don't think the argument is cut-and-dried, but there is certainly room for some criticism of over-zealous defenders of the paradigm.

Is Science Fiction Dying?

It's interesting to look at how science fiction has evolved over the past 120 years or so. I have wondered whether the increasing complexity of technology and perceived need to break out from oft-repeated story concepts are leading to a marginalisation of science fiction, due to the 'need' to cater to the harshest critics of science fiction, uber-geeks who can understand the concepts involved, at the expense of the general reading public.

The near-tautology of speculating on the future of science fiction is an interesting one, and a couple of weeks ago New Scientist hosted a feature on that very topic:

These days, science can be stranger than science fiction, and mainstream literature is increasingly futuristic and speculative. So are the genre's days numbered? We asked six leading writers for their thoughts on the future of science fiction, including Margaret Atwood, William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Plus, we review the latest sci-fi novels, highlight the writers to watch and reveal the results our poll of your all-time favourite sci-fi films and books.

With an introduction by Marcus Chown, the feature is definitely worth checking out if you're at all interested in the genre. Coincidentally, around the same time PBS also ran a feature on how the science fiction pulps are struggling to survive (rather ironically) in the modern world of free content on the Internet.

This year I've been revisiting many of my science fiction favourites of my youth, as I stopped reading fiction for quite a long while. Anybody got good recommendations for some quality 'modern' reads?

Singularity Summit 2008

The 2008 Singularity Summit was held on October 25th, with a sell-out of 500 attendees watching presentations by the likes of legendary sci-fi author Vernor Vinger, Intel CTO Justin Rattner, inventor and singularity spokesman Ray Kurzweil, and Peter Diamandis, the founder of the Xprize Foundation. For the neophytes out there, the singularity is "the point in mankind’s future when we will transcend current intellectual and biological limitations and initiate an intelligence and information explosion beyond imagining." Most singularity proponents believe that time is within the next few decades. Personally, while I'm fascinated by the content of singularity discussions and think it's excellent to discuss and strive for, I also get a feeling that the singularity sometimes has a rapture-like religious effect on some individuals which clouds clear-thinking to a certain extent.

In any case, Singularity Hub has an excellent, detailed rundown of the event which is worth checking out to get a feel for where the field is at right now - here's the summary of points the writer took away from the day:

1. When people become believers in a near term singularity (a singularity that may come in their lifetimes) they radically change their behavior in terms of risk tolerance, eating habits, and investment horizon. If large numbers of people begin to believe in a near term singularity this poses the possibility of enormous and potentially dangerous upheavals for society.

2. Even if a true singularity is not reached within our lifetimes the singularity summit reinforces the vision that tremendous technological change beyond our imagining is coming in the next 40 years. In the next 5 years an explosion in interest about the singularity and the pace of accelerating technology may occur.

3. According to Ray Kurzweil, solar energy is an information technology that is experiencing exponential growth. Solar energy production has doubled every year for the last 20 years and is now only 8 doublings away (that is about 10 years!) from providing nearly all of the world’s energy needs. The implications of this trend are huge and warrant careful consideration for the environment, investment, politics, etc.

4. Peter Diamandis announced that the Singularity University (SU) will be launched in the near future. The Hub’s Keith Kleiner will be a founding member of SU and we will have much more to say about SU soon!

5. According to Intel CTO Justin Rattner Intel has a solid roadmap that will ensure that Moore’s law will continue for at least another 10 years, by which time computers will be at least 1,000 times more powerful than today’s computers

6. Virtual worlds will continue to gain traction and functionality as people continue to recognize and leverage the unique advantages that these worlds offer versus the physical world.

7. Computers may be able to beat humans at chess and air hockey, but they are still a long way off from emulating human emotion and social behavior. Demonstrations today of the cutting edge in computer emulation of emotion and social ability were downright pitiful. Of course it is possible that we will make big leaps in the coming years, but today’s demonstrations were not encouraging.

For a full rundown on all speakers' presentations, head to Singularity Hub. There are also links to other reports, and images, on the Singularity Summit website (with audio and video from the event coming in December).

Excuse me, while I touch the sky...

After 68 hours in orbit and a space walk, the Chinese astronauts have returned safely, and the mission can be considered a rotund success.

Spacewalker Zhai Zhigang was the first to emerge and was helped to a nearby folding chair, where he was greeted with flowers and applause and said he was "proud of his motherland."

You can view Zhigang's historic space walk here.

2008 has been a year of lights and shadows for China. Good things have happened to them (The Olympic games and this), along with very bad things (toxic-milk scandals, lead-in-toy scandals, floods, earthquakes and the collapse of schools constructed with inadequate materials, political controversy over Tibet, etc). While I'm not one who shies away from criticizing the bad, I nevertheless congratulate the Chinese for this succesful mission, and wish them the best on future endeavours related to the peaceful exploration of space... as long as it stays peaceful.