The Engine of Evolution
In the traditional neo-Darwinian paradigm, the figurative engine of evolution, namely, the natural selection of chance variations, functions according to purely classical laws as does the mechanism of mutation itself. The engine runs quite mechanically and nonteleologically, so that any impression of its being externally “directed” or purposive is illusory, according to the paradigm. Until late in the twentieth century, any quasi-Lamarckian notion of the adaptive (purposive) inheritance of acquired characteristics or of direction in evolution was considered to be perilously close to the teleology of creationism or intelligent design and hence pseudoscientific.
The Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1964) could write of a “within of matter” and of an apparent telos in evolution, culminating in the formation of a noosphere or membrane of consciousness coexisting with the biosphere and enfolding the closed curvature of the earth. But such notions were too mystical for scientists and too scientific for the theologians of his day, such that he was silenced by the Vatican. Teilhard’s vision of evolution, however, was respected by the eminent biologist Julian Huxley, who wrote the introduction to Teilhard’s book The Phenomenon of Man and may have found some vindication in the tough-minded domain of quantum physics.
The internalist perspective, to which I alluded briefly in applying quantum mechanics to life, had not been seriously considered until the mid-late twentieth century, with the contributions, for example, of Erwin Schrödinger (1992) and McFadden and Al-Khalili, who have suggested “that the macroscopic behavior of cells and such molecules as RNA and DNA might be determined by the dynamics of individual particles and thereby be subject to quantum rather than classical laws” (1999, 209). Schrödinger held the view that quantum fluctuations produce mutations, while McFadden and Al-Khalili have provided a quantum mechanical model of what they referred to as “adaptive mutations.” This formulation is a radical departure from the neo-Darwinian theory “founded on the principle that mutations occur randomly and the direction of evolutionary change is provided by selection for advantageous mutations” (ibid., 203).
A paradigm shift may therefore be occurring in the scientific understanding of the engine of evolution itself. As Davies has put it, without some process like quantum computation, “it would probably have taken longer than the entire age of the universe (about 13 billion years) for even a single protein to have formed by chance, even if all matter was made up of prebiotic soup” (2004, 76).
In The Mind of God, Davies seems to have been impressed enough by the nonrandomness and sheer mathematical beauty of cosmology and evolution that he wrote, “I cannot believe that our existence in this universe is a mere quirk of fate, an accident of history, an incidental blip in the great cosmic drama… The existence of mind on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no by-product of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here” (1992, 232).
However, in what follows, I shall argue that active quantum information and the Jungian archetypes as timeless cosmic ordering and regulating principles are implicit to the evolutionary process, which transcends humanity but in which human beings consciously participate by creating culture, including science and religion. As I have already noted, it is through the emergent consciousness of humanity that the universe reflects upon itself.
Evolution and Quantum Mechanics
The work of several eminent twentieth-century physicists could be construed as a significant catalyst of a paradigm shift whereby quantum mechanics would become integral to the theoretical explanation of evolution. Fritz-Albert Popp referred to “the chaotic and senseless goals of neo-Darwinism” in his outline of some empirical studies relevant to thinking of evolutionary phenomena in terms of quantum rather than classical laws (1989, 165). Conrad (1990) questioned why the pattern processing capabilities of cells and organisms seem to be so much greater than those achievable with present-day computers. His “self-assembly” model consisted of a hierarchical scheme of biological information processing from the quantum level to macroscopic cellular and organismic planes. He posited a form of quantum computing as an explanatory tool with respect to the mechanisms or “engine” of evolution.
Conrad rejected the classical system as inadequate to the understanding of evolution, proposing instead that such phenomena as quantum information processing and computation are necessary. In Conrad’s own words, “electrons, protons, photons, and various quasi particles are on a scale size at which the quantum potential becomes relevant and to the extent that the dynamics of particles guide the docking process, self-assembly will proceed with an efficacy which cannot be understood in terms of classical analogues” (1990, 751). Self-assembly results from a quantum-facilitated search, the results of which are scaled up to the macroscopic level.
But this, as we shall presently see, is relevant to the understanding both of mutation, resulting from the “quantum fluctuations” to which Schrödinger (1992) originally referred, and of the kind of quantum search algorithm that may have fast-tracked matter to life an estimated 4 billion years ago. Even viewed from its traditional biological perspective, random mutation is to the theory of evolution what Paul Davies’s purposive ideas in The Mind of God and in his paper, “Does Quantum Mechanics Play a Non-trivial Role in Life?” (2004), could be to the proponents of intelligent design who believe that they are proposing a serious and scientifically testable theory that can compete with evolution. Intelligent design does not satisfy Popper’s falsifiability criterion of what characterizes a scientific theory.
However, quantum mechanically induced adaptive mutation would present natural selection with a much richer and more varied spectrum of choices than that caused only by environmental mutagens such as UV light and cytotoxic chemicals. In both cases, information generated at the microphysical (quantum) level is transduced upwardly to the mesoscopic (cellular or microorganism) and macroscopic levels. The underlying mathematics of these processes, as well as the active information and computational parallelism that determine them, eliminate the notions of mindless randomness and chance that have dominated thought in the neo-Darwinian paradigm of evolution for the past century. The concept of mind as active information or archetypes, on the other hand, may provide a much better fit to evolutionary data. To consider this proposition, I now turn in more detail to the contributions of Matsuno and McFadden, who are among the scientists creating the conditions for a revolution in the understanding of evolution from a classical to a quantum mechanical framework.
Biosystems and Quantum Information
Matsuno (2000), in asking whether a biology of quantum information exists, addresses some of the biomolecular systems that might exploit quantum mechanical effects. His paper on this theme argued a detailed case for the proposition that quantum-level information is being processed in biological systems. Alluding to physicist Richard Feynman’s dictum that whatever humans invent, nature has arrived there first, Matsuno questioned whether biosystems had beaten humanity to the invention of quantum computing, proposing a “quantum mechanical model underlying a neuronal synaptic transmitter release based on a tunnelling process” (2000, 41). He then turned to the issue of measurement and, in adopting an internalist ecological perspective, proposed that a sequence of measurements proceeding internally generates information.
Biological computations founded on internal measurement provide an irreversible enhancement of organization and quantum coherence. “Once it is accepted,” Matsuno argued, “that biological information processing has a quantum mechanical underpinning, two further concepts become important. Quantum coherence through exchange interaction and then the enhancement of this through quantum entanglement” (2000, 43).
According to Matsuno, quantum information in biology focuses upon the capacity of molecules to approach global coordination from within. In now turning to the work of McFadden on adaptive mutation, the move from an implicit or unconscious investment in the externalist classical framework of evolutionary theory to the internalist quantum mechanical framework will be more fully explicated.
As I have already implied, this is a shift from understanding evolution (including that of life and mind) in classical terms to understanding it in terms of the quantum laws that govern the internal and microscopic level of matter. Some readers might construe this perspective as being in a direct line of conceptual descent from thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin, for whom such developments in physics as those of quantum information theory and computing were not available. And yet much of the critique provided by proponents of neo-Darwinism seems to be stuck in a classical scientific framework of explanation, as though the quantum revolution had never occurred. So much so that, as Davies has put it, the “classical chance hypothesis” of the origins of life seems unsatisfactory. And I would add, the rule of chance may turn out to be itself a matter of secular religious faith!
Furthermore, conceptualizing the genetic code as a quantum code permits a vastly enhanced computational speed made possible through multiple superpositions, so that greater numbers of errors in base-pairing and hence mutations could occur. Acting as biological quantum computers, biosystems, including cells and microorganisms, would be able to search multiple mutational states simultaneously, allowing for the selection of adaptive as well as random mutations, as McFadden and Al-Khalili (1999) have suggested. McFadden drew my attention to a paper by himself and colleagues on mutation in multiple drug-resistant strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Ghanekar, et al. 1999). Their empirical work on this particular microorganism had provided what he described as “hints of the adaptive mutation phenomenon,” although further work was required to more convincingly “nail it to quantum mechanical effects” (personal communication, 2007).
The truly revolutionary ideas in the publications of Matsuno and McFadden and his colleagues are those involving living cells acting as quantum measuring devices able to assess quantum processes occurring internally and the shift from a classical to a quantum explanation of such phenomena as mutation that may be adaptive rather than random in nature. Perhaps the greatest conceptual leap beyond the confines of neo-Darwinism is the notion that there may be much more to mutation than chance errors in DNA or RNA bases, resulting from either quantum mechanical processes or the external environment. More needs to be said, however, about the phenomenon of directed mutation and the implied challenge to traditional neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory.
Natural Selection of Nonrandom Variations
McFadden and Al-Khalili have pointed out that the principle that mutations occur randomly with respect to the direction of evolutionary change has been challenged by the phenomenon they have termed “adaptive mutations.” Arguing that no satisfactory theory exists to account for how a cell can selectively mutate certain genes in response to environmental signals, they noted that spontaneous mutations are initiated by quantum events such as the shift of a single proton from one site to an adjacent one (1999, 204). This is essentially the “quantum jump” effect described by Schrödinger. McFadden and Al-Khalili considered the wave function describing the quantum state of the genome as being in a coherent linear superposition of states describing “shifted and unshifted protons.” Accelerated rates of decoherence, they argued, may significantly increase the rate of production of the mutated state.
Referring to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics formulated by Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, and others concerning the role of the observer, McFadden and Al-Khalili (1999, 205) make the provocative claim that living cells (like conscious observers) can themselves form unique quantum measuring devices that monitor and probe quantum processes occurring internally. They sum up their notion of the cell acting as a quantum computer, as they put it, able to “sample the vast mutational spectra and to collapse towards those that provide the greatest advantage” (ibid., 211). The phenomenon of adaptive mutation, demonstrated with E. coli, seems likely to be implicated in the development of multiple drug-resistant strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and perhaps HIV in response to environments created byantiretroviral drugs.
The conclusions drawn by McFadden and Al-Khalili may have profound implications for understanding the role of active information associated with the quantum potential for a theory of evolution which, far from being constrained solely by randomness and chance and the externalist perspective of classical physics, is illuminated by an internalist and quantum mechanical framework. Mutation thus conceived is not solely a random or chance matter but adaptive or directed in a manner that is compatible with quantum mechanics and information theory. However, this astonishing argument needs further elaboration, if only because it means the beginning of the end of a purely classical understanding of matter, particularly once matter has evolved into entities both animate and conscious.
What would become of Dawkins’s God delusion if in fact life and such phenomena as mutation are inconveniently determined by quantum mechanics rather than classical laws? McFadden and Al-Khalili’s conclusions, as well as those of Conrad (1990), Matsuno (2000), Davies (2004), and Penrose (1999, 2004), will probably lead to a paradigm shift in evolutionary theory that incorporates some distinctly Lamarckian (purposive) mechanisms, especially if further experimental data confirm the significance of such phenomena as adaptive or directed mutation. Dawkin’s dogmatic and rigid form of neo-Darwinism would collapse.
Dawkins’s Crunch: Quantum Information
The inevitable “crunch” for Dawkins’s argument comes with the recognition that all biological phenomena involve the movement of fundamental particles such as protons and electrons within living cells and informational molecules such as RNA and DNA. (The term crunch is a metaphor from cosmology concerning the end of a process of contraction of the universe, reversing the expansion phase that has continued since the Big Bang.) As such, and as McFadden and physicists as far back as Schrödinger have known, movements of fundamental particles are best described by quantum rather than classical mechanics. Quantum phenomena occur in biological systems, although the implications have yet to be fully explored especially in the understanding of such deadly microbes as TB and HIV, which represent globally salient evolutionary challenges for Homo sapiens.
These considerations, of course, have profound significance for attempts to illuminate the origins of life and other big-picture questions such as the emergence of mind and consciousness whereby evolution becomes both cultural and directed. However, the race to produce a viable quantum computer (by humans) is motivated in part at least by the spiritual quest to comprehend the evolutionary origins of life as well as the destiny of humankind. The information thus created will have an almost ineffable epistemological significance for humanity while contributing to a theology of the third millennium inspired by the same fire that breathes life into the equations of science. If as Hiley and Pylkkänen (2005) and others have suggested, even the quantum level can be thought to have via active information, a primitive mindlike quality, and if indeed nature has already invented quantum computing as an evolutionary tool, then the old classical view of the world is dead.
Furthermore, mind, rather than being somehow miraculously added to the evolution of the universe, would be as intrinsic to it as Bohm’s implicate order or Pauli’s archetypal cosmic ordering and regulating principles. This sentiment, expressed sublimely in Bohm’s idea that humanity is the mirror reflecting the universe to itself, may represent a metaphorical crunch for Dawkins’s God Delusion, in which neo-Darwinism is more of a doctrine about nature rather than an empirical explanation of it, and for the absurdity of the intelligent design argument.
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This article is an excerpt from Peter B. Todd’s book The Individuation of God: Integrating Science and Religion (chapter 2: Religious Fundamentalism as a Shadow) and is published on this website with the kind permission of Chiron Publications. For more information please visit http://chironpublications.com
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