WAS IT EASIER for you to learn to drive than for your father? W Do your kids take to radio and video technology as though they were born to it?

Maybe they were.

A startling new theory of how living things learn and how they assume their very forms is shaking the scientific world. The ideas could revolutionize vast areas of modern thinking, some expert observers say. Others violently disagree.

At the center of this slowly developing intellectual hurricane is a tall, lean Englishman with curly hair, intent gray eyes and a calm way of answering outrageous questions that makes you suspect he has had some practice.

When Rupert Sheldrake's book "A New Science of Life" came out in England in 1981, the influential British magazine Nature went wild, calling it "the best candidate for burning there has been for many years." Its editor debated Sheldrake on the BBC. Letters poured in. They still do, and they are mostly favorable to the new idea, which applies to every creature on earth. And, to even the most scientifically backward of people, the possibilities are intriguing beyond words.

An American think tank has offered $10,000 for the best experiment testing the hypothesis, and hundreds of laymen from all over the world have responded already.

The beauty of a universal phenomenon such as Sheldrake's theory is that anyone can test it, cheaply and simply. Making the test foolproof, however, is another story.

The hypothesis is this:

When a behavior is repeated often enough, it forms a "morphogenetic field" which sets a "morphic resonance" instantaneously ranging through space and time. If rats in a London lab learn to cope with a particular maze, then rats in New York should thereupon be able to solve the same maze much more quickly.

This has been observed already. In 1920, Harvard's William McDougall began running rats through a water maze. Twenty-two generations later, even rats selected for being slow learners found the solution almost 10 times faster than the original ones had. Later, the experiment was tried in Scotland and Australia, and now even this new first generation of rats mastered the same maze as fast as McDougall's best.

Similarly, we know that new compounds are hard to crystallize the first time they are synthesized, but after that first time, "they should get easier and easier to crystallize, owing to the influence of the morphogenetic fields of the previous crystals," Sheldrake said in a recent lecture. "And in fact this phenomenon is very well known among chemists."

How do babies learn language so quickly, without texts or grammar? An English child in China learns Chinese with ease, and vice versa, he points out. Scientists have speculated for years that all languages have some basic innate structure in common, but Sheldrake thinks that we have here right under our noses an example of morphic resonance at work. "Any child picking up English, or Chinese, is assisted by the pool of previous learning of either language."

Taking the idea deeper, Sheldrake suggests that the formation of all organisms is not predetermined by DNA alone, that genetic programming is not a law but simply a habit established by previous experience. This notion conflicts with the basic assumption of materialistic science that life can be reduced to a matter of physics and chemistry. Modern embryological theory hasn't yet worked out precisely how DNA makes a frog into a frog and a rabbit into a rabbit but asserts that the answer is there, in the chemistry, and that we just need to learn more about it.

"You could test my hypothesis in a high school lab," says Sheldrake, a well-regarded plant physiologist who is in town to visit friends and lecture the Congressional Clearing House on the Future today. "I've worked out a fruit fly experiment you could do for about $100. This whole thing has led to a new way of doing science. You don't have to rely on the system, you don't need grants. You don't have some specialist announcing discoveries to the world from on high. This is open science: The process of discovery is public."

Rupert Sheldrake was a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and of the Royal Society, with degrees from Cambridge and Harvard, when he changed directions in 1974 and went to Hyderabad, India, for the International Crop Research Institute. It was there, while he was living in a rajah's palace and later in an ashram where he went to meditate, that he worked out his Theory of Formative Causation.

"I was always interested in the nature of life," he says. "That's why I got into biology. Even as an undergraduate I thought the mechanistic theory of life inadequate, and about 10 years ago I began to see there might be an alternative theory. There have been people in biology for some time trying to work toward a much broader view of life and biology, who don't think it can all be reduced to chemistry and physics. I had these insights, and then gradually developed the hypothesis."

Sheldrake says the morphogenetic field has a role in deciding the patterns of life forms. Take plant cuttings, he says. Take the regeneration of animal parts. Take fingernails. How does a fingernail know to grow back in its original form? "Plato held that somewhere there was an eternal, archetypal fingernail. I say that the field is caused by actual fingernails of the past, a kind of pooled memory."

He likes to use his analogy of the radio, which some day may be as familiar to us as Plato's cave. If you showed a radio to a man who knew nothing of electromagnetic radiation, he would probably think the sound was somehow coming out of the wires and transistors. Changing stations and removing parts would seem to confirm his notions. But without any knowledge of the distant broadcast station supplying the program, he wouldn't really know what was going on.

Sheldrake compares the radio's hardware to the DNA theory of heredity and the actual broadcast to morphic resonance.

Perhaps the simplest way to show what morphic resonance is about is to describe the winning entry in a British competition for suggesting experiments that would test the theory. Britain, by the way, is agog over Sheldrake and his ideas, filling letters columns with suggestions and comments. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson believes "a new kind of understanding of nature is now emerging," and several quantum physicists, accustomed to dealing with the unseen, have replied strongly to the Nature editorial.

The winning proposal was based on the fact that a nursery rhyme surely is one of the most thoroughly learned bits of knowledge that float in our heads. Why not, asked physicist Richard Gentle, confront a non-Turkish speaking test group with an authentic Turkish nursery rhyme . . . and a fake one made up of nonsense syllables that merely sound Turkish? People should learn the real one far more easily because of the resonance established by generations of Turkish children.

The idea since has been refined by Sheldrake, who commissioned a Japanese poet to give him three very similar rhymes: a real Japanese nursery rhyme, a poem of his own, and a gibberish rhyme. Last month they were published in Brain/Mind Bulletin in Los Angeles, and readers were urged to see which was easiest for them to memorize. Preliminary tests already show, Sheldrake says, that the traditional verse comes quickest and the nonsense hardest.

"It's a good test," he says, "but not perfect. The Jungians say nursery rhymes are more than just nursery rhymes, and so on."

Still, he believes some form of international brainstorming eventually will prove whether this strange resonance exists.

"The first thing is to establish that there is an influence. Then we'll worry about what it is. After all, people observed the effects of magnetism for years before a field theory was developed. It's the same problem Newton had with gravity. In his day people thought all action required contact, and here was this new thing, gravity: action at a distance. Even now, fields are a mysterious concept, and we know them through their effects. Science explains the visible in terms of the invisible. You don't try to understand it in the first stage: It's the predictions coming true that matter."

Though Sheldrake expected a reaction from orthodox scientists, he has been pleasantly surprised by the tremendous interest laymen have shown in his ideas. The popular press--though not yet the mainstream scientific press--has taken up the issue, and he has been getting more attention in America since Robert L. Schwartz's Tarrytown Conference Center in Tarrytown, N.Y., offered the $10,000 prize. A Dutch foundation has added another $5,000 as a second prize for proof or disproof of the theory. Schwartz already has sent out about 300 brochures to contestants. The competition ends Dec. 31, 1985.

These days Sheldrake doesn't see much of Cambridge, let alone his flat in Nottinghamshire. He is in demand from London to Los Angeles for lectures, confronting the objections of the orthodox, haughty or apoplectic with his quiet reasonableness.

The opposition makes much of the fact that his mysterious, instantaneous "influence" might encourage all sorts of pseudoscientific groups or, as the Nature editorial said, "the motley crew of creationists, anti-reductionists, neo-Lamarckians and the rest." Jungians are delighted with what they see as a vehicle for the collective unconscious. And skeptics snort about telepathy and paranormal happenings.

Sheldrake's tendency is to let the chips fall where they may. As a matter of fact, he is interested in psychical research "which doesn't fit the orthodox scientific model. There are lots of anomalies in the world, and some of them might make more sense in the new model. Telepathy: It might provide a context for that." Telepathy, in other words, could be a special case of morphic resonance between specific individuals.

When he debated Nature editor John Maddox on the BBC, Maddox said he thought it dangerous to encourage people to believe there was room for paranormal phenomena.

"I asked him what was the matter with that. He said, 'Because they don't exist.' "

Sheldrake holds out his palms and smiles. How, he refrains from saying, could John Maddox claim to know a thing like that?