Rupert Sheldrake has researched telepathy in dogs, crystals and Chinese medicine in his quest to explore phenomena that science finds hard to explain
© Karen Robinson for the Observer
Rupert Sheldrake in Hampstead, north London.
It is not often, in liberal north London, that you come face to face with a heretic, but Rupert Sheldrake has worn that mantle, pretty cheerfully, for 30 years now. Sitting in his book-lined study, overlooking Hampstead Heath, he appears a highly unlikely candidate for apostasy; he seems more like the Cambridge biochemistry don he once was, one of the brightest Darwinians of his generation, winner of the university botany prize, researcher at the Royal Society, Harvard scholar and fellow of Clare College.
All that, though, was before he was cast out into the wilderness. Sheldrake's untouchable status was conferred one morning in 1981 when, a couple of months after the publication of his first book, A New Science of Life
, he woke up to read an editorial in the journal Nature
, which announced to all right-thinking men and women that his was a "book for burning" and that Sheldrake was to be "condemned in exactly the language that the pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy".
For a pariah, Sheldrake is particularly affable. But still, looking back at that moment, he still betrays a certain sense of shock. "It was," he says, "exactly like a papal excommunication. From that moment on, I became a very dangerous person to know for scientists." That opinion has hardened over the years, as Sheldrake has continued to operate at the margins of his discipline, looking for phenomena that "conventional, materialist science" cannot explain and arguing for a more open-minded approach to scientific inquiry.