EARLIER this year a friend began to tell us, over dinner, of the
curious behaviour of his dog when a play by Samuel Beckett had been
shown on television. The dog had become alert, intent, and disturbed.
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We scoffed a little, I suppose, and so he put Foot Falls on the video.
The actress Billie Whitelaw shuffles from side to side and there is the
sound of a bell. The dog's reaction was startling. It awoke instantly
from its snooze and sat in front of the screen. Its uneasiness was
plain. The play, or something in it, aroused unpleasant associations.
The cue, we thought, might be audible to the dog but not necessarily to
The incident came to mind this week when I read a new book which deals
with the question of the uncanny powers of animals*. This is a popular
work written by a serious scientist, Rupert Sheldrake, who has been
engaged in research for 25 years.
His thesis is that orthodox mechanistic theories have failed to
explain such phenomena as the migration of birds and fish, the homing
ability of pigeons, the anticipatory or even premonitory behaviour of
pets, and what in humans is often called the sixth sense.
My father was always very interested in the premonitory powers of
animals. Indeed, he wrote a few short stories on the theme; in one a
railway inspector's cat, which always had prescience of his master's
return home even if it were unexpected, also showed through its
behaviour an instant awareness of his death in a distant accident. The
railway inspector had catlike amatory instincts too.
Sheldrake gives many examples of this anticipatory power from real
life as reported to him by reputable correspondents. A pet tortoise
awakes and prepares to feed as soon as its mistress starts thinking
about preparing its meal; dogs, like the railway inspector's cat,
prepare for their owner's homecoming as soon as the thought of going
home comes into his or her mind.
Stravaiging wolves show remarkable ability to locate other members of
the pack from whom they may have become separated by great distances. In
Africa and Australia termites are believed to have remarkable powers of
knowing at a distance and in some cultures are used as oracles.
Sheldrake is also fascinated by and fascinating about the homing
abilities of pigeons. These remarkable birds are able to return to their
lofts in the most adverse circumstances. They can even locate mobile
lofts. Birds used by the Italian Navy were able to locate their lofts on
ships that moved about the sea. Indeed, pigeons pressed into military
service have been decorated for gallantry.
The homing pigeon has been much investigated by mechanistic science.
By various ingenious means it has been baffled, blinded, disoriented.
Its homing instinct has survived though sometimes has been impaired,
probably by trauma.
The pigeons, it has been proposed, use smell; or they navigate by the
sun; or they have an in-built ''compass'' that relies on the earth's
magnetic fields. These and other explanations, Sheldrake argues, have
all proved either false or incomplete. Similarly, the most common
explanation for the salmon's ability to find its natal stream so that it
may spawn there, its sense of smell, cannot be the mechanism that
carries it across thousands of miles of ocean though it may be one
factor among others.
He believes that the pigeon is tied to its home by some force which he
compares to an elastic band. This is a simple metaphor for a complex
idea developed in dynamics. ''In mathematical modes of dynamical
systems, systems move within a field-space towards attractors.''
This bond, this homing force, like the powers of other animals,
insects, and fish, may be beyond the ken of conventional science. Like
paranormal phenomena, such powers have not often been acknowledged as
worthy of investigation by those who think that mechanistic laws can
explain all the universe. On the contrary, Sheldrake speculates, the
universe, and the earth, may not be governed by laws of physics or
chemistry but rather may be whole and part of a living organism.
Sheldrake is also sceptical about the value of much research now
conducted in institutionalised settings. It is, for one thing, very
expensive. From his days working on rain-forest plants in Malaysia and
tropical crops in India, he believes that simple and cheap experiments,
carried out by ordinary people, can expand the horizons of science.
Indeed, he came much to admire the ingenuity of Indian scientists who
could construct valuable experiments at low cost with the help of local
people. From these came significant improvements in agricultural methods
He proposes simple experiments to challenge seven assertions of
conventional science, including:
* Pets don't have uncanny powers.
* Homing and migration are explicable in terms of known senses and
* Insect colonies are not superorganisms with mysterious soul or
* People can't really tell when they are being looked at from behind,
except perhaps by subtle clues.
* Illusions like phantom limbs are not really ''out there''.
Pigeon-fanciers apart, the most accessible experiment for most people
will involve the study of a pet's anticipatory behaviour. Sheldrake
gives some simple and clear advice:
* Keep detailed notes on the times at which the pet shows such
behaviour and on the times at which the owner begins the homeword
* Record in detail the means by which the owner comes home, and also
* If videos are made, the time should be recorded clearly by having a
clock in the field of view.
Whatever the outcome of these experiments, Sheldrake concludes, they
will at the very least show there is a great deal we do not understand.
Perhaps, in an age of factory farming and vivisection, they will also
give us more respect for our not-so-dumb friends.
* Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. By Rupert Sheldrake.
Fourth Estate, #15.99.