Is there a specifically biological form of energy? This apparently simple and innocuous question has caused the loss of reputation of more scientists than any other in the past two hundred years.
Chinese and Indian medicine have for centuries involved the central idea of meridians running through the human body along which biological energy travels, and energy centres through which this bioenergy passes and is distributed. Just why established medical science should be so firmly opposed to the idea of energy meridians in the human body is a mystery, especially as there is considerable strong experimental evidence for acupressure and acupuncture, published in journals such as The British Medical Journal and the British Journal of Anaethaesia.
The first Western scientist to take the ideas of Eastern medicine seriously and to conduct experiments with them was Austrian psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich. Among the many professional scientists who have paid the price of investigating biological energy, none has paid more dearly than Reich.
Wilhelm Reich and Orgone
On the night of 4 November 1933, members of Adolf Hitler's personal guard, the SA, lit bonfires in the main squares of Germany's leading cities. The flames that disfigured the gothic architecture of Munich and Stuttgart, Hamburg and Hanover with grotesque shadows of a grotesque future were started with a unique fuel: the published work of many of Germany's leading scientists, philosophers, and medical men and women -- books by Jews.
Among the many thousands of titles burned in public on that bitter November night were Character Analysis and The Function of the Orgasm by a young Austrian psychiatrist, Wilhelm Reich. Reich had many crimes against the Nazi state to answer for. He was a jew. He was a Communist who fought against fascism. He was a prominent junior colleague of Sigmund Freud and an exponent of the 'jewish science' of psychoanalysis -- fraudulent in Nazi eyes. Reich had founded street sex clinics for unmarried working class men and women. He talked and wrote of orgasms and other sexual topics. He was starting to talk and write about something called 'Orgone' energy. As the Nazi stormtroopers gathered round the flames, Reich started packing his bags for a haven from intolerance and persecution in the US.
Twenty seven years later, On 17 March 1960, a convoy of official trucks rolled along 25th street on New York's lower east side and came to a stop outside the City public incinerator. Officials of the federal Food and Drug Administration carried armfuls of the books contained in the trucks into the incinerator where waiting workmen cast them into the flames. The books thus burned included such titles as The Sexual Revolution (virtually the blueprint for the swinging sixties), together with some familiar sounding titles: The Function of the Orgasm and Character Analysis.
Wilhelm Reich had been dead for more than two years but he had achieved the unique double distinction of having his books burned by both the Nazis and the American Government. He had died in the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, sent there by a Federal court for refusing to delete a word from his books: the word 'Orgone'. He died refusing to recant his belief in a biological form of energy.
Reich is one of the most extraordinary scientific figures in a century notable for scientific geniuses and charlatans. He was in his lifetime, and is still today, called by both titles. A hero of the libertarian left, he is also a villain of the authoritarian right. Whatever title is finally bestowed on him by history, he will unquestionably be seen by the future as having fathered some of the most original and influential psychological ideas of the twentieth century.
He is personally largely responsible for the whole shape and direction of non-Freudian psychotherapy as it is practised today. And while the authoritarian ideas and talk-oriented approach of Freud are questioned and largely abandoned, Reich's democratic, libertarian body-oriented style of empowering the patient to heal himself is recognisably the dominant approach in psychotherapy today. Reich more than any other single individual gave rise to the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s and the revolutionary aspirations of the 1960s generation; politically, socially, sexually, psychologically.
But another, darker part of the received image of Reich is his obsessional belief in 'bions' -- corpuscles of energy that he believed to exist everywhere -- and his conviction that his black box 'orgone accumulators' could cure cancer -- beliefs that took him far beyond the limits of credibility both of his own time and of ours too. It is sometimes hard to remember that one is reading about the same man: the passionate young shirt-sleeved Viennese physician, helping young men and women take control of their own sexuality: the cantankerous older man, refusing to bow to the Federal courts of his adopted country, convinced that his courageous pioneering vision alone could save a blind world.
From a scientific standpoint, the question is: did Reich's theories have any experimental evidence to support them?
Interestingly, Reich was an indefatigable experimenter who kept and published detailed notes on his experiments. Not surprisingly no serious conventional scientist today who expects to receive research grants for their work cares to admit to repeating Reich's experiments. But at least one medical man has had the courage to do so, and has found evidence that Reich was correct.
One of Reich's claims was that elementary forms of life such as protozoa assemble themselves spontaneously from decaying organic material -- even decaying vegetable material. He claimed that this process was governed by a bioenergy field which informed the developing individual cells, the energy he called 'orgone'.
In 1987, Reich's experiments were replicated by Dr Robert Dew. Dew's published paper contains detailed colour photographs clearly showing protozoa forming from decaying vegetable material just as Reich had asserted. Not so surprising is the response of conventional biologists to these experiments: it is to ignore them and hope they will go away.
And in case anyone imagines that scientific book-burning is a thing of the past and couldn’t happen today, consider the response of John Maddox, editor of the world's most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, to publication of A new science of Life by Rupert Sheldrake. Dr Sheldrake's 1981 book was the first serious attempt by a scientist to question the ruling mechanistic paradigm of biology. The editor of Nature called for the book to be burnt.