The habits of Nature

What I like about Sheldrake’s thesis, that memory is inherent in Nature, and that each species has a collective memory, is that it is presented as a possibility. Nothing hard and fast here. Better still, he develops his case in some detail, reflecting an erudite intellectual capacity. Scholars whose work is impacted by Sheldrake are presumably examining his theory objectively. For, our progress in understanding ourselves and our universe requires open minds; indeed a capacity to go beyond the observable and measureable into the virtual – however initially uncomfortable that is. Sheldrake’s theory is exciting, while subjectively appealing.

The following extracts from ‘The Presence of the Past’ are from the chapter titled ‘Introduction’.

“This book explores the possibility that memory is inherent in nature. It suggests that natural systems such as termite colonies, or pigeons, or orchid plants, or insulin molecules, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind, however far away they were, and however long ago they existed. Because of this cumulative memory, through repetition, the nature of things becomes increasingly habitual. Things are as they are because they were as they were.

Thus habits may be inherent in the nature of all living organisms, in the nature of crystals, molecules, and atoms, and indeed in the entire cosmos.

A beech seedling, for example, as it grows into a tree, takes up the characteristic shape, structure, and habits of a beech. It is able to do so because it inherits its nature from previous beeches; but this inheritance is just not a matter of chemical genes. It depends also on the transmission of habits of growth and development from countless beech trees that existed in the past.

Likewise, a swallow grows up, it flies, feeds, preens, migrates, mates, and nests as swallows habitually do. It inherits the genes of its species through invisible influences, acting at a distance, that make the behaviour of past swallows in some sense present within it. It draws on and is shaped by the collective memory of its species.

All humans too draw upon a collective memory, to which all in turn contribute.”