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The Attention Span. “Morphic Heresy.”

This week I’m keeping it shorter. It’s about a weird idea I can’t stop thinking about.

I also wanted to flag two current-affairs pieces. One is an analysis of the broad implications of the Evergrande crisis from Michael Pettis. The other a great flag from someone in my network (thanks Ed) on investing in a time of quantum change by Eric Peters. Both are below.

“Morphic Heresy.”

[7 minute read]

I have a dangerous confession. I’m really interested in “pseudoscience.”

I don’t mean the deliberately misleading brand of nonsense aimed at getting you to buy something useless. I mean the kind of conjecture that has no hard evidence, but seems to really annoy the scientific establishment. Today’s pseudoscience might be tomorrow’s science. In one of the best essays I’ve ever read, What You Can’t Say (below), Paul Graham hammers home the point that ideas specifically labelled as “heresy” at the time are often the sources of humanity’s greatest advancements.

“If Galileo had said that people in Padua were ten feet tall, he would have been regarded as a harmless eccentric. Saying the earth orbited the sun was another matter. The church knew this would set people thinking.”

Perhaps my favourite example of alleged pseudoscience is “heretical” scientist Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of “Morphic Resonance.” I first read about this idea five years ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I’ve learned to pay close attention when this happens- it means there’s probably something valuable in the idea. Sheldrake describes morphic resonance as a process whereby self-organizing systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems. As he describes it in a fun interview for Scientific American:

“The most striking experiment involved a long series of tests on rat learning that started in Harvard in the 1920s and continued over several decades. Rats learned to escape from a water-maze and subsequent generations learned faster and faster…. The interesting thing is that after the rats had learned to escape more than 10 times quicker at Harvard, when rats were tested in Edinburgh, Scotland and in Melbourne, Australia they started more or less where the Harvard rats left off. In Melbourne the rats continued to improve after repeated testing, and this effect was not confined to the descendants of trained rats, suggesting a morphic resonance rather than epigenetic effect.”

Essentially it’s a kind of Jungian “collective unconscious” of memories and ideas that a species can draw upon. Cool if true. One of Sheldrake’s favourite examples of this “telepathy” is the seemingly inexplicable way many dogs and cats seem to know when their owners are coming home. This apparently holds even when they return at non-routine times in unfamiliar vehicles such as taxis, and when no one at home knows when they are coming.

So what?

Even if morphic resonance somehow gets comprehensively debunked next week, it’s still an interesting illustration of a critical idea. As far as I can tell, flourishing and mastery is directly correlated to the amount of intelligence you attribute to things outside of yourself.

The shift in emphasis toward appreciating the inherent “intelligence” of the systems we inhabit is an extremely important inversion. Perhaps the most important one. It’s a disorienting fact that what we can be consciously aware of is literally millions, even trillions, times smaller than “what’s out there.” Thus the idea that there are hidden forces acting on us moves from possibility to probability. This means watching our environment closely for directional cues in a reciprocal relationship. Many of the best complex systems theorists, mystics, and scientists, have eventually come to similar conclusions. The term “Heresy” is typically used when it’s disruptive to an existing power structure. And there are few structures as powerful as the rational, intellectual human ego, especially in Western culture. Galileo himself removed man from the center of the cosmos.

When it comes to asset markets, elite traders know this intuitively. Like the rats in Edinburgh and Melbourne, new market knowledge can be incorporated into prices across the world almost instantaneously. Moreover- the market can determine causal relationships we cannot intuitively disentangle. For a while, butter production in Bangladesh was one of the indicators with highest correlation to the S&P 500. It seems obviously spurious, but what if it isn’t?

Rather than impose their will on the system, the best investors can consistently and rapidly defer to the market’s collective intelligence when their hypotheses fail. Especially at turning points. As one of my former clients liked to quip, “the best indicator of price is price.” Price momentum has been one of the best performing strategies of the last 40 years. And what is price if not the memory of a stock?

The other “systemic intelligence” that we all now intuitively understand is the Internet. Watching the viral spread of trends and memes is strikingly similar to the mechanism Sheldrake describes for the way memory operates across morphic fields. It’s an obvious insight that if you can identify emerging trends in online attention, you’ll capture an insane amount of value. Or be able to sell a lot of ads. Frankly, I always think of Sheldrake when it seems like everyone online is thinking about the same topics at the same time. The same quotes, the same ideas, the same opinions. It’s that devastating feeling when you realize your independently generated insight is completely consensus. We’re all hurtling to a global phase change at the edge of chaos together.

The most interesting, and perhaps least immediately plausible, implication of morphic resonance is of the impact of single individuals on the whole system. If you personally make a breakthrough, the entire collective memory benefits. They crystallize and articulate an idea that is somehow latent in the ether around us. An truth that can catalyse a critical moment or movement. This is consistent with both modern chaos theory and the ancient Taoist concept of the sage.

Curiously, this last idea has credible support from the “multiple discovery” theory of science. This is the unexplained phenomenon of seemingly unrelated people making similar breakthroughs simultaneously. It’s more common than you would expect due to coincidence alone. There are hundreds of examples, such as Elisha Gray filing a patent for the telephone on exactly the same day as Alexander Graham Bell. A study actually found the pace of simultaneous discoveries was itself increasing. Which is what the “cumulative memory” morphic theory would predict. Sheldrake compares it to the Flynn Effect, or the phenomenon where IQ test scores have been steadily increasing with every generation across different countries and cultures. Even Flynn called his own theory “baffling.” It would also support the phase change acceleration theory.

An individual can crystallize and articulate an idea that is somehow latent in the ether around us. Whenever I hear someone say “I’ve always thought that but never put it into words” it’s often a sign of someone bringing a new truth into the world. Like the example of Solzhenitsyn we previously discussed, a truth that can catalyse a critical moment or movement. This is consistent with both modern chaos theory and the ancient Taoist concept of the sage: the individual as the butterfly in the system.

Morphic resonance is probably a myth, and will be swept away like a great deal of other "pseudoscience" before it. But, like all myths, the story doesn’t have to be literally true to contain great value.

Related Reading:

  • Read: Morphic Resonance and Morphic Fields- an introduction by Rupert Sheldrake.
  • Why Read: If you want to go further down this rabbit hole, this is a quick introduction as well as the site hosting the rest of his research and writing.

  • Read. Scientific Heretic Rupert Sheldrake on Morphic Fields, Psychic Dogs and Other Mysteries in Scientific American (17 minute read).
  • Why Read: a fun, quick interview with Sheldrake that explains the thesis and discusses why it makes scientists so hostile.
  • “Q: Why do you think your ideas are so vehemently rejected by the scientific mainstream, while multiverses, string theory, panpsychism (as defined by neuroscientist Christof Koch) and other highly speculative ideas are taken seriously?”
    “Sheldrake: Within physics, since the quantum revolution and the Big Bang cosmology, there has been a pluralism of ideas with many unexpected possibilities entertained seriously by mainstream physicists. However in the 20th century, biology moved in an opposite direction, toward a more dogmatically materialist position. When I first put forward the hypothesis of morphic resonance in the 1980s, most biologists were convinced that all the problems of biology would soon be solved in molecular terms, and this enthusiasm gave a great impetus to human genome project. But this confidence is now waning as developmental biology continues to defy any simple explanation in terms of molecules. The assumption that genes code for the characteristics of organisms is thrown into question by the "missing heritability problem." And it turns out that the inheritance of acquired characteristics, now called epigenetic inheritance, is common in both animals and plants. The implications of this revolutionary acceptance of epigenetic effects are still being worked out, but I think that biology will become more open as a result.”

  • Read. What You Can’t Say by Paul Graham (40 minute read).
  • Why Read. Repost from a prior week. As I noted above, this is an absolutely foundational essay for me. It’s an uncomfortable examination of the view that every human culture regards its moral and ideological foundations as totally settled, only to look absurd to future generations.
  • “It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.”

Other reads this week:

  • Read: What Does Evergrande Meltdown Mean for China? By Michael Pettis (24min read)
  • Why Read: I am a big fan of Michael Pettis in general, but this is my favourite kind of analysis. Tell me what’s happening, as clearly as possible, first. Then tell me what you think about it, then what will happen next. It’s amazing how rare it is, because the first stage is harder than it looks!
  • Read: The Case for Quantum Change by Eric Peters at OneRiver (19 minute read).
  • Why Read: sent by a kind network contact (thanks Ed), it’s a great investment think-piece on our accelerating world. Peters and I have come to somewhat resonant conclusions about the power of decentralizing technologies to spark a Renaissance.

Have a great weekend!

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