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No. 57: May-Jun 1988

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You can fool some of the animals some of the time, but....

R. Sheldrake has found another possible example of "morphic resonance," as he relates in the New Scientist:

"Ranchers throughout the American West have found that they can save money on cattle grids by using fake grids instead, consisting of stripes painted across the road. Real cattle grids, known as cattle guards in the U.S., are usually made of a series of parallel steel tubes or rails with gaps in between, which make it physically impossible for cattle to walk across them. However, cattle do not usually try to cross them; they avoid them. The illusory grids work just like the real ones. When cattle approach them, they 'put on the brakes with all four feet,' as one rancher expressed it to me. .....

"According to my hypothesis of formative causation..., organisms inherit habits from previous members of their species. This collective memory, I suggest, is inherent in fields, called morphic fields, and is transmitted through both time and space by morphic resonance, a process which takes place on the basis of similarity. From this point of view, cattle confronted for the first time by grids, or by things that look like grids, would tend to avoid them because of morphic resonance from other cattle that had learnt by experience not to try to cross them."

Sheldrake follow these two paragraphs with an examination of more conventional explanations. He is wise to do this because morphic resonance does seem pretty farfetched. Do new naive cattle somehow acquire this aversion to cattle grids, real or fake, from an experienced member of the herd? Apparently not, because a herd of all naive cattle will avoid the painted grids. Can the spell of fake grids be broken? Yes, due to fear or the desire for food, some cattle will jump over the fake grids, but others will inspect them carefully, see what they really are, and proceed to walk across. Thereafter the fake grids are useless with an "educated" herd. (Sheldrake, Rupert; "Cattle Fooled by Phoney Grids," New Scientist, p. 65, February 11, 1988.)

Comment. Animal behavior provides much more ammunition for Sheldrake; viz., the spontaneous spread of the milk-bottle-opening talent among some British birds. His newest book, The Presence of the Past, is crammed with evidence. Nevertheless most scientists wince when Sheldrake and morphic resonance are injected into a conversation. We suspect that this wincing habit has been communicated to all scientists through morphic resonance!

From Science Frontiers #57, MAY-JUN 1988. 1988-2000 William R. Corliss