Something right, something wrong

Of course Denyse O’Leary defends Pivar — any crackpot in denial about evolution is a friend of the IDists. They do point out a bizarre flaw in Wikipedia, though, and a common mangling of a concept.

There is an idea that’s been around for almost a century, the morphogenetic field. This is a concept in developmental biology that refers to a local domain of interactions that work independently of more global factors to assemble an organ. For instance, we can talk about a limb field or an eye field, and it identifies a patch of tissue that is dedicated to a particular developmental task, and that is coordinated by signaling factors that operate across the field, but not necessarily in adjacent tissues. It’s a perfectly ordinary idea, although admittedly it has gone through periods of nebulosity where, for example, the nature of any coordinating factors was unknown and only inferred. But it’s not woo-woo pseudoscience. (Pivar gets this right, although he confuses morphogenetic fields with reaction-diffusion mechanisms, which is weird and hard to do if you know anything about either.)

Now there is another, similar term that has often been intentionally muddled up with morphogenetic fields: morphic fields. This is a coinage by Rupert Sheldrake, who claims that morphogenetic fields are a subset of morphic fields, and also postulates an extra-organismal property that unites morphic fields, called morphic resonance. Morphic fields and resonance are complete crackpottery. It’s the basis of the Hundredth Monkey Effect, which doesn’t exist, and Sheldrake’s broader claims of a mystical field-force that has all kinds of metaphysical implications.

The fields organizing the activity of the nervous system are likewise inherited through morphic resonance, conveying a collective, instinctive memory. Each individual both draws upon and contributes to the collective memory of the species. This means that new patterns of behaviour can spread more rapidly than would otherwise be possible. For example, if rats of a particular breed learn a new trick in Harvard, then rats of that breed should be able to learn the same trick faster all over the world, say in Edinburgh and Melbourne. There is already evidence from laboratory experiments (discussed in A NEW SCIENCE OF LIFE) that this actually happens.

The resonance of a brain with its own past states also helps to explain the memories of individual animals and humans. There is no need for all memories to be “stored” inside the brain.

Needless to say, none of these ideas are supported by any credible evidence, and what little there is all seems to come from gullible New Age phonies.

Bottom line: Morphogenetic fields = entirely natural concept describing the organization of developing tissues. Morphic fields = unlikely pseudoscientific mystical contrivance to support belief in magical action at a distance and a sort of spirit world. Now try reading the Wikipedia entry for “morphogenetic field”. It’s all wrong! It describes the work of Sheldrake (with painful credulity) and has substituted a discussion of morphic fields and morphic resonance for anything to do with legitimate developmental biology. Ooops. Look quick: I hope some Wikipedian somewhere will swoop in and fix this embarrassing error quickly.

Oh, and O’Leary calls my description of Pivar’s book a “rave” and promises to read him with an open mind. Go ahead, but anyone who actually accepts his work as worthwhile isn’t open-minded—they’re mindless. I just don’t know how anyone could look at his transitional drawings, which bear no resemblance to anything in phylogeny or ontogeny, and not realize that he’s just making it all up.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 18, 2007

    Oh, God, that’s a mess.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 18, 2007

    My first guess is that the “Pharyngula” article has been contaminated by creationist talking points:

    The existence of a common Pharyngula stage for vertebrates was first proposed by Ernst Haekel [sic] in 1874 [2]. However, more recent work has cast doubt on the validity of this proposed common stage. A detailed analysis of Haekel’s drawings and of variations in timing of appearance of various structures common to vertebrate embryos (analysis of sequential heterochrony) suggests that it may not be possible to find a single set of criteria that define a common pharyngula stage after all [3].

    Mmmm. Remind me again why I should care about Haeckel instead of all the work that has been done since?

  3. #3 Sastra
    July 18, 2007

    I suppose I will be completely “tolerant” (ie indifferent) to religion when people express their religious beliefs as sheepishly as they admit to retaining a superstition. “I know it’s silly, but I still knock on wood sometimes to keep away bad luck.” Well, okay.

    Instead, they seem to feel that this is the real wisdom which gives their life meaning and allows them to understand reality more clearly. Supernatural essences are the facts behind what is only apparent, and accepting them (or even hoping they’re true enough to strive to believe) is the sign of maturity and depth we should all seek. Supernatural beliefs make us better people.

    Not so okay. I should at least be allowed a polite demur.

  4. #4 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    July 18, 2007

    I just don’t know how anyone could look at his transitional drawings, which bear no resemblance to anything in phylogeny or ontogeny, and not realize that he’s just making it all up.

    Um, that was a rhetorical question on IDiots, right? … Right?

    Don’t look to wikipedia for science, look to it for all of the b-sides released by Nirvana.

    IIRC comparisons finds Wikipedia no worse or better than other large dictionaries (but much faster to change errors as we see here), and the serialized articles seems like good starting points for references as one could expect. The articles covering subjects I know looks mostly fine to me. (There are always points that are arguable…)

    I have noted that serious math users like Terence Tao and n-Category Café routinely links to Wikipedia for definitions/context.

    Then again, there are bloopers to be found.

  5. #5 tony
    July 18, 2007


    I think I’d want more than a polite demur

    If someone is in my face about religion, I’ll be doubly in their face about religion.not.!

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