Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
January 2018

Morphic Madness

“It seems to me that there is room—one might even say a long unfelt want—
for what might be called the ‘tall’ science-fiction story.
By this I mean stories that are intentionally unbelievable:
not, as is too often the case, unintentionally so.”
–Arthur C. Clarke, preface, Tales from the White Hart

I don't normally engage in scientific discussions via Facebook posts. They're not super-conducive to critical thought, mostly serving to reinforce people's existing beliefs. This is partly due to their length, which makes it hard to do anything other than summarize a complex idea, and partly due to self-selection. FB is not helping by basing its feed algorithms on what people want (those little click-hits of dopamine) rather than what democracy needs (having our personal preconceptions challenged by reality).

I will now hypocritically use this space to respond to some random Facebook post. Actually, the article linked from the post is an excerpt of a book, which is designed to look like a college textbook, with plenty of color illustrations, sidebars, and an impressive index. There are a lot of ideas here, among them:

What is subtle energy? Underlying physical reality are subtle, or indiscernible, energies that create and sustain all matter. The so-called real world—the one you can touch, smell, taste, hear, and see—is constructed entirely from these energies, which are imperceptible through the five senses. The Subtle Body, Introduction, p. xx.

Western anatomy relies on charts that say, 'The liver is there.' Cut into the body, and the liver is there. The East might track the liver through charts locating liver energy in a toe. Both are true; the physical liver does lie under the ribcage, and its subtle energies do flow into the toe. (p. 6)

If subtle energies actually do occupy a negative time-space continuum, move faster than the speed of light, and have no mass, we can determine that we do not currently have the equipment needed to measure them. This does not mean that what is invisible does not exist. (p. 8)

Subtle energies, rule breakers that they are, can stretch—and sometimes completely ignore—time and space, change form at will, and occupy many places at once. (p. 9)

And that's not even the end of Chapter 1. Many of these seem to be exactly what Pascal Boyer described as supernatural in his 2003 review paper. They are logical possibilities that go against common experience and the scientific method. Find something that appears to be a rule of nature or culture, and break it—a fine old tradition in science fiction. According to Boyer, these violations actually make the ideas they are attached to more memorable, and thus more likely to spread through the meme pool.

As a quick aside, the basic theoretical model for much of this stuff seems to come from one William A. Tiller, who took this perfectly sensible diagram,

function ↔ structure ↔ chemistry ↔ electromagnetic fields

for which there is much evidence, and extended it into this,

(from the Foreword of Gerber, 2001)

the inspiration for which seems to me to be a search for some kind of symmetry. The upper left path is the one Western science has focused on, and the lower right path is based on—I don’t know what. Tiller's ideas about Eastern philosophy?

We are all elements of spirit, indestructible and eternal, and multiplexed in the divine. We contain a unique mechanism of perception which is mind. In my theoretical modeling, mind consists of three levels—the instinctual, the intellectual, and the spiritual—and mind is postulated to function in a six-dimensional space lattice. Vibrational Medicine, p. 15.

Tiller has published articles on these ideas in fringe journals, and a whole series of white papers on his nonprofit Tiller Institute’s website. A gold mine of SF ideas.

Anyway, what I want to do this month is take one—just one—aspect of that Facebook-linked article, the “morphic field” that Rupert Sheldrake proposed as an explanation for the shapes of bodies in the 1980s.

Sheldrake suggested that there is a field within and around a morphic unit—the physical development unit of what later becomes a tissue or organ—that forms it. All living organisms—from cells to people—that belong to a certain group tune in to the morphic field and through morphic resonance develop according to the programs within that field. (p. 145)

For the moment, let's ignore the words “resonance” and “program,” both of which appear to be used somewhat metaphorically (we'll return to resonance in a later column). What purpose does the morphic field serve?

Sheldrake apparently felt that there wasn't enough information in a DNA molecule to specify the architecture, or something like that. Which is true—by itself, a DNA molecule is not capable of doing anything interesting. It's just a long, relatively inert chemical thread, braided around itself to hold itself together. In fact, that lack of reactivity is precisely what makes it a good storage molecule. To grow, or copy itself, or communicate with other DNA molecules, it needs a vast and intricate cellular infrastructure composed mostly of proteins, more specifically a structural cytoskeleton and mobile protein nanobots called enzymes that move around and perform chemical reactions. The only place a cell can get this full package of infrastructure is from its mother cell, because in the current highly evolved form, the infrastructure is too complicated to assemble from scratch. Our current corrosive oxidizing atmosphere makes the prospect practically impossible.

Molecular dynamics simulations of this molecular infrastructure are really cool to watch. Inner Life, narrating the passage of a white blood cell through the wall of a blood vessel, is inaccurate in one specific way, in that it spreads the components out so that you can see them. There isn't nearly this much empty space inside a cell. A newer, more realistic example is here. But all models are wrong in that same way. If it were completely accurate, it wouldn't be a model; it would be a cell.

The idea of morphic fields (or, to up the technobabble ante, morphogenetic fields) was apparently popular with a certain community and led to more specific logical predictions.

Barbara Ann Brennan, an expert on the human energy field, states that the subtle energy structure sets up a matrix for cellular growth; it is therefore present before cells grow. (p. 8)

Note that this is a perfectly good logical prediction. It is consistent with the theory. Unfortunately, good logic is not enough for good science. Hypotheses should be testable, preferably with current technology. However, I don't want to get into a methodological pissing match, which is what professional skeptics seem to enjoy above all else. I would much rather just point you towards the cool science that has already been shown to work, experimentally.

Since the 1980s, developmental biologists have worked out some of the devilishly complicated signaling that cells use to build bodies. Cells talk to one another chemically and electrically as they are building, and complexity emerges out of the specific content and timing of their communication, with no need for a complete top-down blueprint, energetic or otherwise. It's enough to specify the basic rules of the process, rather than the end product. If something goes terribly wrong, that cell or organism-to-be dies, and we see natural selection in action.

Watch the video tutorial. Follow up with some reading and searching.

The point here is NOT that the biochemical mechanisms prove that morphic fields are imaginary. Proving a negative is notoriously impossible, using science’s form of inductive logic. The point is that if the biochemical mechanisms are shown to be necessary and sufficient, then we don't need a magic morphic field to explain our observations. We can provisionally give up the assumption that there must be a complete blueprint. Science likes its theories to be as simple as they can be. Rules are simpler than a complete blueprint.

Science fiction, on the other hand, likes its theories to be as cool as possible. Never mind that the phrase “laser sword” makes no sense whatsoever. It sounds cool, and looks even cooler, and that emotional aspect is at least as important in attracting young scientists (and young-at-heart science geeks) as the facts of how lasers work. This is why I'm telling you, as an SF author, about these wacko cool theories. SF is a game we play with our readers, or at least it can be. Try putting some of this stuff into your next story, and inviting your readers to poke holes in it, or to logically extrapolate from it and suggest the next thing you write for them.

Randall Hayes is apparently a six-dimensional being, which is one more dimension than Mr. Mxyzptlk, who is, like, the 76th greatest comic book villain of all time. But then, so is everybody else, so that’s kind of disappointing.




from a comment by Aquilius: “I’ve heard that’s why catholics make the sign of the cross—it’s really to cut your energy in half, then half again when they 'greet' you.”
That is awesome. I'm totally going to start doing that, and I'm not even Catholic.

Dale, Cyndi (2009). The Subtle Body: An Encyclopedia of Your Energetic Anatomy. Sounds True, Inc. Boulder, Colorado.

This is a fantastic book (in at least two senses of the word). The publisher's name is just great.


Gerber, Richard (2001). Vibrational Medicine: The #1 Handbook of Subtle-Energy Therapies, third edition. Bear & Company, Rochester, VT.

An older book, still using a foreword written in 1987 by William Tiller.


This is where I actually got the GIF.


I should emphasize that Tiller states that his ideas are testable, and therefore science.



Michael Shermer, “Rupert's Resonance,” Scientific American, November, 2005, 19.


Rupert Sheldrake (1995). A New Science of Life. Park Street, Rochester, VT.

I have not read this. It’s just here in case you want to follow up.




From RIKEN in Japan.


Bubbles! Who doesn’t love bubbles?


This one is less detailed but browseable, with tutorials, including the one on morphogens above.


This free text is searchable but not browseable, so you have to know what you’re looking for.


Read more by Randall Hayes

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