This book is a follow up to the animal sections in Sheldrake previous book 'Seven Experiments that Could Change the World'. It focuses on various kinds of animals, but especially pets such as cats and dogs. In the scientific world there is something of a taboo against taking pets seriously, perhaps due to the subjective nature of experiences with them...but as Sheldrake points out, they are also the animals we know best, and are therefore easiest to test.
Book contains some great anecdotes, one of my favourite concerning some bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees):
"One bonobo had a long bamboo cane, which she was poking members of the public with, so we wanted it off her. I had a bag of four cakes which we were going to have for our tea, and I thought I would give her a cake if she gave me the stick. But she saw I had four cakes and she broke the bamboo stick into four pieces, one piece for each cake."
Another fascinating historical anecdote concerns the dogs of Scottish drovers. When they drove their cattle into northern England and stayed to work on the harvest, they sent their dogs back into Scotland. The dogs would make the epic return journey alone, stopping in the same inns their masters stopped at on the way down!
Anecdotes aside, the book examines three kinds of unexplained powers: telepathy, sense of direction, and premonition.
Sheldrake gives many examples from his extensive database of pets who know their owners are returning, even when the rest of the family doesn't know it (and therefore can't provide unconscious cues). In these cases, smell and hearing have been ruled out as factors (see the book for the arguments and proof).
Sceptics counter this by pointing out that pet owners' accounts may be unreliable. While Sheldrake thinks it wise to hold a degree of scepticism until things can be verifed by experiment, in reality most of these so-called 'sceptics' adhere to what he calls "compulsive scepticism, which stems from the dogma that telepathy is impossible." This, of course, is not a scientific attitude. It is actively anti-scientific.
When one of Sheldrake's experiments with a dog called Jaytee was repeated by a noted sceptic of the paranormal, Dr. Richard Wiseman, Wiseman's findings corroborated those of Sheldrake.
Sheldrake acknowledges with regard to some species that more research needs to be done in the wild with their close relatives, to see how these anticipatory abilities evolved. He knows of no instances of such behaviour in pet fish, reptiles, amphibians or insects, so it may be limited to warm blooded animals.
It is exhibited by some humans, too, especially those who live in a close relationship to the natural world, such as Kalahari bushmen. Even in modern Western cities it is not unknown among babies. And there is a phenomenon the Norwegians call 'vardøger', where someone's unexpected arrival is preceded by a 'phantom' arrival, who makes identical noises (footsteps in the hall etc.)
SENSE OF DIRECTION:
Despite much research, it is still unknown how birds such as pigeons home. Landmarks and memory and sun position play no part, as experiments have shown, and nor does the earth's magnetic field.
Tribal peoples possess a similar directional ability, one famous example being the Raiatean chieftain Captain Cook took with him on his travels, who was always able to point the direction in which his home lay. This homing sense has atrophied in modern people, but it still exists (in some more than others).
Migration, too, is not fully explained, and Sheldrake argues that theories of genetic programming can't adequately account for it. If you want his arguments in detail you'll have to buy the book, but in summary (1) such a rigid system wouldn't allow for being blown off course etc. (2) the nature of genetic evolution wouldn't allow for sudden adaption, and (3) it would have to be magnetic, and the magnetic field constantly shifts. Furthermore the poles completely reverse every 250,000 years or so: "Since all migratory animals today are the descendants of ancestors that have survived some 80 magnetic reversals, all must have had ancestors capable of reaching their goals in spite of reversals in the earth's magnetic polarity."
If the genetic theory was true, changes in migratory habits would only take place over many generations, but in reality new races can emerge very rapidly. This fits better with Sheldrake 'morphic fields' hypothesis than with the genetic determinist view.
Sheldrake admits the morphic field hypothesis does not prove so useful in cases of premonition. He himself he finds the idea of telepathy easier to accept than that of precognition, which he finds philosophically disturbing.
Animal premonitions seem to challenge our 'traditional' ideas on causality, hence many people are sceptical. But the Chinese have adopted a more pragmatic approach, and many lives have saved there by taking heed of animal earthquake warnings.
Sheldrake advocates a similar system for earthquake prone places like California. Pet owners would phone a hotline if their pets were behaving strangely, and if a significant number of calls were registered in one area, evacuation plans could be considered. Obviously it would have to be tested first, to avoid false alarms which could set back research on the subject, but overall the idea is a good one, and a typical example of Sheldrake's pragmatic approach to science.
Sheldrake provides a helpful section at the end containing tips on how to conduct research and experiment with your own pets.
He also gives references to successful experiments in human telepathy, which have been independently replicated. When Richard Dawkins conducted a discussion with Sheldrake for a TV show, and claimed there is no substantive evidence for telepathy, Sheldrake proceeded to point out that there is...and Dawkins turned the camera off! The interview was then dropped from the finished program (an internet search on 'Dawkins Sheldrake' will give the full story behind this incident).
The book also contains an appendix summarising briefly Sheldrake's theory of morphic fields (treated in greater depth in his books 'A New Science of Life' and 'The Presence of the Past'). Some of this is updated material not found in the previous books, including the assertion that morphic resonance better explains the findings of Chomsky and Pinker than the theory that language structure is genetically determined.