Development through Alternation

8.9 Morphic resonance

Anthony Judge

An understanding of development calls for an understanding of how the shapes and behavioural patterns of psycho-social entities are determined. Rupert Sheldrake, a biochemist, has recently explored the limitations of the prevailing paradigm in biology and has put forward an original and revolutionary answer to this problem. His closely argued thesis is that the form, development and behaviour of living organisms, including human beings, are shaped by "morphogenetic" fields of a type at present not recognized by physics. His presentation suggests a fruitful new approach to thinking about the emergence, stabilization and development of societal, institutional and conceptual patterns and structures.

Sheldrake argues that such morphogenetic fields are moulded by the form and behaviour of past organisms of the same species through direct connections across both space and time:

"The characteristic form of a given morphic unit is determined by the forms of previous similar systems which act upon it across time and space by a process called morphic resonance. This influence takes place through the morphogenetic field and depends on the system's three-dimensional structures and patterns of vibration. Morphic resonance is analogous to energetic resonance in its specificity, but is not explicable in terms of any known type of resonance, nor does it involved a transmission of energy." (128, p.116-7).

The relevance to human and social development lies in the way in which this insight clarifies the influence or constraining effect of past patterns on the possible emergence of new patterns. What he is suggesting is that "by morphic resonance the form of a system, including its characteristic internal structure and vibrational frequencies, becomes present to a subsequent system with a similar form; the spatio-temporal pattern of the forms superimposes itself on the latter." (128, p.96) Forms therefore get "canalized" or locked into particular developmental pathways known as "chreodes" (129). The difficulty of shifting into more fruitful developmental pathways is thus explained by the "weight" of all past systems of similar form. These act to increase the probability of the repetition of forms of a given type:

"The most frequent type of previous form makes the greatest contribution by morphic resonance, the least frequent the least: morphogenetic fields are not precisely defined but are represented by probability structures which depend on the statistical distribution of previous similar forms." (128, p.l18)

The emergence of new forms, or a "new order", of any kind is therefore a low probability event difficult to bring about. But once the pattern has been brought about it becomes progressively easier to maintain. "Once the final form of a morphic unit is actualized, the continued action of morphic resonance from similar past forms stabilizes and maintains it." (128, p. 118) Sheldrake puts forward evidence in support of this hypothesis and suggests a number of experiments by which it may be verified.

His perspective can also be applied to the problem of learning about the nature of any new order whilst "immersed" in the patterns of the old order:

"People usually repeat characteristically structured activities which have already been performed over and over again by many generations of their predecessors....All the patterns of activity characteristic of a given culture can be regarded as chreodes....rnorphic resonance cannot itself lead an individual into one set of chreodes rather than another. So none of these patterns of behaviour expresses itself spontaneously: all have to be learned....Then as the process of learning begins, usually by imitation, the performance of a characteristic pattern of movement brings the individual into morphic resonance with all those who have carried out this pattern of movement in the past. Consequently learning is facilitated as the individual 'tunes in' to specific chreodes." (128, p.195-6)

This suggests the fink between learning, chreodes and the "answer domains" which were the point of departure of this paper. Sheldrake in effect clarifies the specificity of patterns of credibility and the relationship between them. In the psycho-conceptual realm, his morphogenetic fields are as much "credibility structures" as probability structures. It is easier, for example, to get funds for research that has been done in the past because its credibility has already been established. Such fields render patterns perceivable or recognizable.

Sheldrake provides a framework within which to take the alternation argument of this paper a step further. In the turbulence of modern society it is to be expected that at a particular moment strategy/pattern A would prove appropriate to a community (say). But the environmental turbulence may well erode its appropriateness and effectively call for the emergence of strategy/pattern B, or C, or D. There will probably be morphic predecessors for each, possibly embedded in the folk tales of the culture, to give some credibility to the "alternatives". But the alternatives are in each case relatively high probability/credibility structures compared to the meta-strategy/pattern (A:B:C:D), which allows the community to shift between these alternatives in response to the turbulence of the environment. There are few morphic predecessors to clarify this pattern. Hence the importance of seeking out the kinds of analogies recorded in this paper.

The question then becomes how to increase the credibility of this meta-strategy/pattern rather than, as at present, how to increase the credibility of some momentarily significant alternative. Visions of desirable futures could therefore usefully focus on alternation patterns as much as on the specific patterns or alternatives between which alternation must necessarily take place in a dynamic society (#15).

Diagram 8: Diagrammatic representation of the development of a system from a morphogenetic germ (triangle) by the normal chreode, A. An alternative morphogenetic pathway is represented by B, regulation byC, and regeneration by D. The virtual form within the morphogenetic field is indicated by the stippled area. Reproduced with slight modification from Sheldrake (128, p. 78)
Development of a system from a morphogenetic germ (triangle) by the normal chreode

For it is the meta-pattern of alternation which provides the transition pathways between its essentially antagonistic constituent patterns. Without such pathways the transition itself becomes socially catastrophic, irrespective of the catastrophies the appropriate alternative is designed to avert. Unfortunately our present mind-set requires that transitions should be socially catastrophic because, like a stumbling infant or a drunken adult, we have not yet collectively learned any better way of shifting from leg to leg in the process of moving forward.

An adapted version of one of Sheldrake's diagrams is included to suggest the nature of the dynamics between the "completed" meta-pattern and various partial patterns in which only some strategies are explicit (see Diagram 6). The complementarity of such constituent partial patterns may well be governed by its own type of rnorphic resonance - between different "lock and key" forms, rather than between similar forms as in Sheldrake's case. Each morphic "lock" then provides a morphic niche for a "key" whose emergence it eventually evokes, although in more complex cases the number of distinct morphic species interlocking in this way might be much greater than two.