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Fresh look at uncanny powers of not-so-dumb friends

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 us.

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 and yields.

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 physical forces.

* Insect colonies are not superorganisms with mysterious soul or field.

* 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 journey.

* Record in detail the means by which the owner comes home, and also the route.

* 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.

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