We had talked at a party at the Royal Society, and I liked him and was curious. So I went round for lunch at his house in Hampstead. One glorious anecdote emerged: in 1963 he was finishing his degree at Cambridge when Sydney Brenner and Francis Crick held a seminar for the eight brightest students of the year to persuade them to become molecular biologists.
Brenner’s pitch was this: “There are two great problems left to science. One is development and the other is consciousness. The reason that neither has been solved is that the people working on them are stupid. But now we have cracked the genetic code, we are going to finish them. Francis is going to take consciousness and I am going to take development. We will have them solved in ten years. Who wants to come along for the ride?”
But Sheldrake went off to do plant biology instead. I have no reason to doubt the story. It is entirely consistent with everything we know about the attitude of molecular biologists in general and Sydney in particular in 1963 and makes a nice book-end to Jim Watson’s remark, recorded in E.O. Wilson’s autobiography, that anyone who would hire an ecologist was out of his mind.