Homo narrans

I went to see Rupert Sheldrake speak at the recent Oxford Literary Festival, and a very good speaker he is too. Sheldrake is the heretical biologist who claims that genes have very little to do with morphology; rather it's all to do with habit or what he calls morphic resonance.

I've never read any of his books but it's fair to say that I've yet to be persuaded by his theories. And yet, as a speaker he is very persuasive.

He was promoting his latest book, The Science Delusion, in which he challenges materialism, the unproven dogma at the heart of modern science.

I found I agreed with much of what he said. For example, I've never understood why we have faith in the idea that there are immutable scientific laws. How could we possibly know, from our limited perspective in time and space, that laws have never, or will never, change? It's a funny kind of religious, yes, religious faith right at the heart of science. Laws, after all, are a human creation, an anthropocentric metaphor flung out onto the universe. Maybe what we observe really are just tendencies or habits?

But even I found myself baulking at his challenging the first law of thermodynamics, that matter and energy can neither be created or destroyed. In fact, I found myself spluttering with indignation: how dare he? Everyone knows it to be the case. It's one of the fundamental cornerstones of science. It was drilled into me from an early age, and has stayed with me as one of those unquestionable truths.

And yet the more he spoke the more I realised that I'd completely taken it on trust. No one has ever demonstrated to me why it is the case. Indeed, if Sheldrake is to be believed, no one has ever proved it. It stands there defiantly but remains dogma.

And that got me thinking. For along time I've held the view that we are fundamentally storytelling creatures. Telling stories (and yes, arguing or even fighting over them) is what we do. We are indeed Homo narrans.

Stories make us. We know that from psychotherapy. But I think more than that, and as my trusting internalization of the first law of thermodynamics reveals, stories make the world. It's stories all the way down. The art, I suppose, is learning to defy what we have been told and thereby to script and tell our own stories. Whatever his faults as a scientist (and as I said, I can't really comment not having read his works), Sheldrake at least has been brave enough to do that.


  1. Great post Andy, and yet again one that echoes thoughts I've been having lately. Science is a religion! I imagine you felt much like someone a few hundred years back brought up to belive with concrete certainty any of the Biblical "facts" would have felt on beginning to realise it was just a "story".

    I wonder if you've read the wonderful book by Patrick Harpur - "The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination"? It touches on many of these ideas, and weaves in alchemy and myth and science, and looks at that "in-between" way of looking at things that the shamanic worldview has. He talks about the fluctuations between magical and literal thinking our society has gone through...

  2. I've always found it curious too, that we have absolute faith that we puny little humans know for sure how the universe works, or at least big chunks of it. I believe Isaac Newton was an Alchemist (and a Theologian) as well as a 'Scientist' (though he probably didn't make a distinction), and it seems odd that today half of what he did is revered as great scientific truth which has informed much of what we consider to be basic scientific certainties, and the other half is dismissed as superstitious poppycock. I find it hugely arrogant actually, the idea that we can be absolutely sure that what we take for granted as truth now, will remain so forever. History proves over and over again, that last year's truths become this year's silly old wives' tales (with all apologies to real old wives, who are often proved to have been right all along!).



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