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March 24, 2011

Book review: Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming HomeThe book was recommended when I commented that one of our dogs could tell when my dad was coming home. I attributed the ability to sight or sound because the dog could see the street where the car passed on the way home. Also, cars do make unique sounds. Sheldrake, early in the book, starts to attack people who disdain telepathy as being anti-science. This was a red flag for me. The best defense is a good offense so go on the offensive early. Soon after he introduces morphic fields which at no point are demonstrated to be real. Towards the end of the book Sheldrake practically equates morphic fields to gravitational and quantum fields and from then on talks about morphic fields as if they existed in reality, as if he had proven their existence by applying the scientific method.

It is not enough for one person to do an experiment. The experiment must be reproducible so that independent scientists can confirm (or deny) the results. To his credit, Sheldrake makes emphasis on the need for further experiments.

Arthur C. ClarkeArthur C. Clarke said famously that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Sheldrake attributes the ability to orient oneself, in both humans and animals, to a "sense of direction" developed through natural selection because it is useful for survival. But what if it could be shown that it is the use of an advanced technology that allows people to orient themselves? Sheldrake describes how Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator from Raiatea, was always able to point towards Tahiti no matter where Captain Cook took him on the vast Pacific Ocean (page 191). What Sheldrake does not know is the advanced technology that Polynesian navigators used to explore the Pacific Ocean. Not knowing the technology, Sheldrake attributes the ability to magic, to "a sense of direction" that has no scientific explanation beyond a vague reference to Darwinian selection. Polynesian navigation has been extensively documented in We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific by David Lewis.

We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the PacificSince I'm a life long sailor, I found Polynesian navigation extremely interesting. On an ocean as vast as the Pacific, how could primitive people find tiny specs of islands? I won't recapitulate the art of Polynesian navigation except to say that once you learn to read the indications, it is practically impossible to miss an island chain or to pass between two islands without realizing they are there even if you are sailing without instruments. Also, there is no single silver bullet, it is a combination of waves, birds in flight, cloud formations, star observation and other signs that orient the navigators. One interesting aspect is the difference between Polynesian and Western navigation. If you show a Western nautical chart to a Polynesian navigator he cannot understand it. Yet they build their own charts with stones. Their star orientation is entirely different from Western astronomy. What we do is magic to them. What they do is magic to us! But Polynesian navigation as a technology is no less advanced than the Mayan calendar or the Stonehenge observatory.

The book would have been more enjoyable had Sheldrake not brought up telepathy and morphic fields which are as likely as the aether or the celestial spheres of the ancients.

Denny Schlesinger

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals by Rupert Sheldrake

We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific by David Lewis

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