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Morphogenetic Fields and Theosophical Commentary

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(This article is also available in Dutch/het Nederlands)

Science is one of the most influential aspects of human culture. Our views of the cosmos, its composition, origin and future, our views of nature’s and human evolution, our decisions concerning questions of life and death – what life and death really are – our ideas about what leads to psychological, social, political and physical well-being, are in our days greatly based on scientific investigations, insights and beliefs.

Science and its promoters, the scientists, have therefore an enormous responsibility and it is no doubt one of the great tasks of theosophists to extend a helping hand to deepen and enlarge essential understanding of the fundamental truths of nature. On the other hand it is a challenging experience for theosophical students to study the facts and developing theories of modern science, each of which is a manifestation of the One Being and a demonstration of the striving and evolution of the human mind, and to see them in the light of the universal wisdom.

One of the objects of the Theosophical Society is to encourage the study of ancient and modern religions, sciences and philosophies. This will prove the essential unity of the human mind, and that our present culture and that of the present millennium can build on the heritage of wisdom not only of the findings of our western cultures in the last few centuries, but of all cultures, ancient and modern. It will also show that science can be spiritual – demonstrating the oneness of all life as a fact in nature – which will be the basis for an ethics of universal brotherhood. Science, the perception and interpretation of nature, will then become the great sustainer of the higher purposes of human development – as it has been in the glorious past of more spiritually inclined cultures. Science, then, cannot do without philosophy and without unshakable dedication and devotion to truth, oneness and the well-being of all.

If we keep the flame of inspiration burning scientists will one day come to us theosophists to enquire into the deeper knowledge that we hold in custody. It seems that we can only efficiently fulfill this request when we can speak the language of the scientists, but even more so when we can ponder the refinement in the writings of our own great teachers and of the wisdom teachings of Asiatic and other cultures. There seems – I think sometimes – to be a gap between the worlds of theosophists and scientists, a gap of language and of mutual understanding.

If we closely look into the more progressive and daring efforts of certain scientists or philosopher-scientists in the last few decades, we see an awakening awareness that there may be something more than the merely material and mechanistic. We hear about ‘immaterial’ morphogenetic fields, about our earth as a living mother, about the universe as a living being, about wholeness and holistic approaches in the health sciences. But still we have not witnessed a full breakthrough towards an understanding of the inseparability of all aspects of nature’s manifestation, of physical matter, fields, life, energy, mind, intelligence, forces, of stars and men, of gods and more humble creatures. And this is because all the efforts of investigators and thinkers are not yet properly guided and interconnected within the universal framework that we as theosophical students can offer,

Blavatsky gave a lot of space in her The Secret Doctrine and elsewhere to discussion of scientific topics. Also in her active life she received many prominent scholars of all disciplines who came to her as inquirers. It is difficult to realize how great her influence was and how different the world would have been without her having been there. But she stormed the strongholds of materialism, and, though almost invisible to the world, she laid the foundation for a more spiritual evolution of science in the centuries to come. She was sometimes aggressive in her tone, because she had to destroy the old to allow the new to be born. We, more than a century later, are part of an upward arc, and it is our task to further help the new child to be born and prepare the basis for its healthy adulthood.

There are many examples of where we can discuss and illuminate scientific ideas in the light of the theosophic and profound non-western knowledge we have nowadays at our disposal. One example is the not new, but recently strongly promoted hypothesis of morphogenetic fields, by biologist and science-historian Rupert Sheldrake. He stated that there exist fields, comparable to gravitational and electro-magnetic fields, which are of a non-material character, but nevertheless exert an influence on matter. These fields also determine the form which potentially will manifest in the arrangement of molecules that will build the physical bodies of plants, animals, and also minerals and even astronomical structures, and on a smaller scale internal structures of atoms, etc. “These fields are supposed to account for, or describe, the coming into being of the characteristic forms of embryos and other developing systems” (New Science of Life 12). By “other developing systems” he means the forms of all living and so-called non-living systems in nature. “If morphogenetic fields are responsible for the organization and form of material systems, they must themselves have characteristic structures. So where do these structures come from? The answer suggested is that they are derived from the morphogenetic fields associated with previous similar systems …” (NSL 13). In his books A New Science of Life and The Presence of the Past and others he elaborates his ideas in great detail and uses them to account for regulation and regeneration. He also states that “morphogenetic fields play a causal role in the development and maintenance of the forms of systems at all levels of complexity.” (NSL 71) Through “morphic resonance,” acquired characteristics can be transferred independent of time and space to other morphogenetic fields, and thus become settled as patterns of processes or habits. Thus, through learning, evolution proceeds. Fields, finally, also account for movement, psychological tendencies, behavior, habits, etc. However nothing can be said, he says, about the origin of the manifested universe, and how the first forms, from which others evolved through learning and morphic resonance, came into being.

Some aspects of his ideas remind us immediately of what in theosophy is known as the liṅga śarīra or astral model-body. Other aspects remind us of the astral light or of ~k~Ña, with its ability to preserve records of everything that has ever existed, and to preserve models or astral molds for forms to manifest in the future.

In relation to Sheldrake, we find some interesting remarks in Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine in her chapter on Life, Force or Gravity (SD I 529 – 40). She quotes, approvingly, from an article by R. Hunt, 1865[1]where he writes: “But regarding Life – Vital Force – … [this is] a power far more exalted than either light, heat, or electricity, and indeed capable of exerting a controlling power over them all …,” to which Blavatsky comments that “the Sun is the store-house of Vital Force, which is the Noumenon of Electricity; and that it is from its mysterious, never-to-be-fathomed depths, that issue those life currents which thrill through Space, as through the organisms of every living thing on Earth” (SD I: 531).

Quoting Paracelsus she says: “The vital force is not enclosed in man, but radiates (within) and around him like a luminous sphere (aura) …” (SD I: 538) and H.P.B. says on the “principle of Life” that on the manifested (or our) plane [it] is but the effect and result of the intelligent action of the … manifesting LIFE and LIGHT” (SD I: 539)[2]

These statements of occult science reach far beyond Sheldrake’s ideas, because the vital force or life principle has a controlling capability, connects every life-form within the solar system directly with the sun (and the planets) via its currents of life-force, thus making the solar system as a whole into a living being, and also, and above all, because all this is guided by intelligent action. Also remarkable is that electricity and electromagnetic radiation (such as light and heat) are regarded as phenomena resulting from the noumenal vital force, which is guided through the solar system and all minor (and major) forms of manifestation by intelligences. Of course this is true also for our technical applications of electricity, etc. guided through wires or beams into all types of man-made machines, which all result from human inventive intelligence, and cover a wide variety of activities, such as washing laundry, the internal workings of a computer, and sending messages all over the world. Blavatsky also quotes another nineteenth century scientist to underline her ideas, namely B.W. Richardson, F.R.S.[3], etc., Also in Popular Science Review, Vol X, 1871, pp. 379-87who speaks about “Nervous Ether,” which appears to be synonymous with the vital fluid of Paracelsus. He says: “… between the molecules of the matter, solid or fluid, of which the nervous organisms, and, indeed, of which all the organic parts of a body are composed, there exists a refined subtle medium … which holds the molecules in a condition for motion upon each other, and for arrangement and rearrangement of form, a medium by and through which all motion is conveyed; by and through which the one organ or part of the body is held in communion with the other parts, by which and through which the outer living world communicates with the living man; a medium, which, being present, enables the phenomena of life to be demonstrated …” (my italics).

He continues, “…The evidence in favor of the existence of an elastic medium pervading the nervous matter and capable of being influenced by simple pressure [my italics] is all-convincing … In nervous structures there is, unquestionably, a true nervous fluid, as our predecessors taught” (S.D. I 531-2). Among these predecessors was Paracelsus, who called it Archaeus or Liquor Vitae and writes about it, as translated from Latin in Franz Hartmann’s Life of Paracelsus: “The Archaeus or Liquor Vitae [fluid of life] is an essence that is equally distributed in all parts of the human body … The Spiritus Vitae [spirit of life] takes its origin from Spiritus Mundi [spirit of the world]. Being an emanation of the latter, it contains the elements of all cosmic influences, and is therefore the cause by which the action of [cosmic forces] upon the invisible body of man may be explained” (quoted in SD I 532). The “invisible body” is the liṅga śarīra or astral model of Hinduism and theosophy. The life fluid alone is not enough to explain the workings of the inner man (or animal, plant, molecule, etc.). Richardson speculates in the same article: “… the veritable fluid of nervous matter is not of itself sufficient to act as the subtle medium that connects the outer with the inner universe of man and animal. I think … there must be another form of matter present during life … which pervades the whole nervous organism, surrounds as an enveloping atmosphere each molecule of nervous structure, and is the medium of all motion, communicated to and from the nervous centres … [and that] there is in the animal body a finely diffused form of matter … even stored in some parts; a matter constantly renewed by the vital chemistry …” (Quoted in SD I 532).

Here again we see the hierarchical structure, from Spiritus Mundi, via Spiritus Vitae and Liquor Vitae down to the astral model which causes material particles to be arranged to build the outer form, and that all is guided by intelligent beings: “… Occultism, through its great Seers, perceives an innumerable Host of operative Beings: Cosmic Dhyan-Chohans [a Buddhist term signifying the great wise and knowledgeable ones beyond human beings: literally lords of meditation or contemplation], entities whose essence … is the Cause of all terrestrial phenomena … that essence is co-substantial with the universal Electric Ocean, which is Life” (S.D. I 604).

In the above we see some points of contact with Sheldrake’s ideas, but also differences. In the first place the occult sciences present a view that is enormously wider because the phenomena of physical life as we know it on earth are placed within the clearly understandable wholeness of cosmic interconnectedness, in which all forms of matter, vital and phenomenal forces and intelligence play their inseparable parts. This is far more satisfying than any theory in which “something” non-material influences the material, and in which consciousness, mind and evolutionary origin and impulse are separate, inexplicable phenomena. It seems to me – supported by the eastern and theosophic doctrines – that one level of the total composition of the universe – say the level of the vital fluid – can only influence another level, if both levels are one in essence, and all levels have the essence of all other levels within them.

Let us now compare some statements about the liṅga śar§ra, also called model body or astral body, with Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields. As already quoted, Sheldrake’s fields “describe the coming into being of the characteristic forms of embryos and other developing systems” and play a causal role in the arrangement of molecules resulting in the bodies of living beings as well as physical structures. He also states that the morphogenetic fields are subject to change through time, and represent the cumulative characteristics associated with previous similar systems.

HPB says about the liṅga śarīra, in reference to the human body: “It is the subjective image of the man that is to be, the model of the physical body in which the child is to be formed and enveloped. It is then clothed with matter, …” (BCW XII: 609) and “The liṅga śarīra is the perfect picture of the man, … [and] is the subjective image of the man which is to be, the first germ in the matrix, the model of the physical body, in which the child is formed and developed” (IGT 84). “… it [the body] can be regarded as merely a denser aspect of the Liṅga Śarīra, … and the Liṅga Śarīra is molecular in its constitution, like the Body” (IGT 170-1). “The Liṅga Śarīra, or ethereal double of the Body, is molecular in constitution, but of molecules invisible to the physical eyes. It is therefore not homogeneous” (IGT 184). In relation to vitality or prāṇa she says: “… the Liṅga Śarīra is the upādi through which Prāṇa can work” (IGT 168*), and “… the liṅga śarīra is the reservoir of life for the Body, the medium and vehicle of Prāṇa …” (IGT 177). Evolution has taken place from within without and reflects itself, as far as forms are concerned, in the liṅga śarīra. The Sthūla or physical body is merely built on the model of the liṅga. The liṅga śarīra itself is formed and kept in shape by the vitality or prāṇa, which is in its turn guided by the higher principles of the inner being that lives, or rather expresses itself, in the outer form. It is thus a hierarchy of the spiritual over the mānasic, and of the mānasic over the atomic. Remember however that, according to occult science, atoms are not just lifeless matter particles, but in themselves living spiritual beings, which find their lowest expression in that limited state of universal matter which our senses and instruments can perceive. Atoms and molecules have their own liṅga śarīras and vital energy or electrical properties through which they are chemically held together and – through the overpowering living-electric vitality or prāṇa of the human or animal or vegetable soul – are arranged and held together in such a way as to form the shape in which such a soul and the monad working through that soul wishes to express itself. This unity of essential composition of atoms with all other life-forms explains why “morphogenetic fields do indeed have measurable physical effects,” as Sheldrake states.

Sheldrake’s theory proposes that morphogenetic fields are ‘responsible’ for the characteristic form and organization of systems. But the morphogenetic field or liṅga śarīra is not responsible. It is only the receptive and pliable medium (capable of being influenced by simple pressure, according to Richardson) consisting of matter finer than the physical, which obeys the higher forces of the hierarchical inner constitution of any living being. This may explain why outer forms of animals are at the same time adjusted to the personal character of those particular animals, which may be selfish or cruel in human terms, but at the same time show a structural intelligence, technology and beauty which is far beyond human understanding. It is both the personal desires and characteristics working, and the impulses from the higher monadic essence.

He also states that morphogenetic fields affect events that appear to be indeterminate or probabilistic, referring to the indeterminism and supposedly probabilistic character of quantum processes. Therefore variation may occur due to chance mutations affecting morphogenetic fields. If however occult science is right in stating that even the inner electrical-vital processes within the constitution of an atom or smaller entity are connected with and guided by intelligent forces, there is no room for probabilities, except from the standpoint of ignorance, to which processes may seem to be probabilistic. One of the most prominent of the theosophical doctrines promoted by Blavatsky is, as we all know, that of karma. Karma leaves no room for probabilities, but it does allow freedom of choice by consciousnesses on whatever level and to whatever extent, and therefore there is always a degree of unpredictability. Regarding the extreme subtlety of morphogenetic processes, also on the molecular, atomic and subatomic level as Sheldrake admits, age-old occultism might well be right. If we do away with probabilities in relation to intra-atomic processes, the path is made free for the possibility of guided evolution and guided physical transformation. Also the way is made free for an explanation of why atoms and their subdivisions have the inherent possibility at all, of bringing forth all the accomplishments of nature. If we adhere to a merely materialistic standpoint, it remains an unsolvable mystery how such natural phenomena as consciousness, mind or spiritual intuition can emerge from ‘stupid’ atoms dependent on random unconscious processes. If however we believe that every principle or element that builds the cosmos, including consciousness, intelligence, intuition and so forth, is inherent in every atom or sub-atom – the ultimate holistic standpoint – we can comprehend why atoms can ‘understand’ the impulses from the soul or monad or divine being, and adjust to their overpowering guidance.

One of the points with which Sheldrake struggles is where his fields originate from. He tries to explain how acquired characteristics – acquired through learning, transference over space and time, or probabilistic processes – of morphogenetic fields can serve for following generations, or can again be non-genetically transferred to others, “associated with previous similar systems … by cumulative influence which acts across space and time” (NSL 13). He does not seem to be aware that the inner being of plant, animal, atom, or whatever, is beyond physical matter, and manifests only through matter on this plane. There is no “origin” at all, but all j§vas are merely reembodying at the beginning of a manvantara or evolutionary cycle, and they pick up the forms that are engraved in the astral “picture-gallery of eternity (SD I: 104)” which fit their evolutionary needs of expression. So, a model or morphogenetic field does not derive from a material “germ” as Sheldrake states, but is, according to theosophical teaching, in itself independent of matter, and the material form is a precipitation of material particles around this model. Form fields, or rather astral or ethereal models, however, with all their detailed complexity, pliability and beauty, which are undoubtedly influenced by formative intelligence, seem to exist even before, and then independent of physical matter.
Abbreviations and literature:

NSL    Sheldrake, Rupert: A New Science of Life; The Hypothesis of Formative Causation, J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1981.

Sheldrake, Rupert: The Presence of the Past; Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature, Times Books, New York, 1988.

SD       Blavatsky, Helena P.: The Secret Doctrine, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1988

BCW   Blavatsky, Helena P.: Collected Writings, The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, -1991

IGT     Spierenburg, Henk J.(comp. & ann.): The Inner Group Teachings of H.P. Blavatsky to her pupils (1890-91) (2nd, revised and enlarged edition), Point Loma Publications, San Diego, 1995

 

– Rudi Jansma

Originally published in SUNRISE

 

  1. Hunt, Robert, F.R.S., 1865 “The source of Heat in the Sun” in The Popular Science Review, London, Vol. IV, January 1865, pp. 145 – 56 [<<]
  2. Hartmann, Franz: Life of Philippus Theophrastus, Bombast of Hohenheim known by the name of Paracelsus, and the Substance of his Teachings, etc., The, London: George Redway, 1887 [<<]
  3. Richardson, B.W.: Theory of a Nervous Ether, in D. Estes, Half Hour Recreations in Science, 1874 [<<]