Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Quantum Evolution?

In his new book, Why Does the World Exist, (1) Jim Holt examines the age-old question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” After valiantly reviewing the ideas of philosophers, physicists, cosmologists, novelists, and religious philosophers throughout history, and arriving at no ultimate answer, he concludes that physicists have come the closest to an answer: the universe sprang out of nothing with no net expenditure of energy. The theory that allows this is quantum physics.

Out of Nothing?
But did the universe really spring out of nothing? Quantum theory states that, through quantum fluctuations, particles constantly appear and disappear out of the void. But the void is not really empty: it contains the mathematical equations that dictate the laws of quantum physics. In fact, physicists today consider mathematics to be the matrix, existing outside of time and space, upon which the universe is built.
It may be that the truly eternal part of existence is this mathematical quantum field with all possible formulations, only part of which is used to determine our universe.

Darwin's Contribution
Even though it has been accepted for decades that the universe is a quantum world, until recently biologists have ignored quantum physics in their formulations of cellular biology and evolutionary theories, as evidenced by biologist Kenneth J. Miller who wrote, “Science, by analysis, is mechanism and materialism. And all that Darwin did was to show that mechanism and materialism applied to biology, too.” (3)

The Genome Question
But a growing number of scientists view things differently. Evolutionary biologist Leonid Kruglyak is quoted in 2009 in Nature (4) as saying “It’s a possibility that there’s something [about the contributions of genomic structure to the evolution of complex phenotypes] we just don’t fundamentally understand…that it’s so different from what we’re thinking about that we’re not thinking about it yet.” And then in March 2009 molecular biologist Eugene Koonin (5) wrote “Evolutionary-genomic studies show that natural selection is only one of the forces that shape genomic evolution and is not quantitatively dominant, whereas non-adaptive processes are much more prominent than previously suspect.”

Directed Mutation
To be sure, some scientists and blog contributors (e.g. The Panda’s Thumb) regard quantum evolution, chaos theory and information theory as relating to biology to be sloppy science at best and buzz words for Intelligent Design and Creationism at worst. But ignoring quantum physics in biology is no longer acceptable. Many scientists today believe that the “basis of life is molecular, molecules are quantum systems, they exist in quantum states.”(3) In 2010 a team of Toronto chemists demonstrated that marine algae use quantum mechanics in photosynthesis.(6) Penrose and Hameroff (7) suggest that consciousness may depend on “orchestrated” quantum computations in collections of microtubules within brain neurons. McFadden and Al-Khalili (8) created a quantum mechanics model for “directed” or “adaptive mutation,” a phenomenon that suggests that mutations don’t only occur randomly but in response to specific environmental conditions.

The Spirit of the Matter
Quantum mechanics suggest a universe made up of matter and energy that exists as part of a mathematical matrix of potential or virtual forms. Matter is seen as being essentially part of a transmaterial reality. The nature of reality is an invisible, interconnected “wholeness.” Many physicists view consciousness as a primary cosmic property. Hans-Peter Durr, who had worked with Werner Heisenberg, wrote, “Matter is not made up of matter. Basically there is only spirit.” (3)

1. Holt, Jim, Why Does the World Exist? WW Norton & Co. 2012
2. Miller, Kenneth R. 1999. Finding Darwin’s God. New York: Cliff Street Books.
3. Schafer, Lothar, Journal of Cosmology, 2009, Vol 3, pages 547-557.
4. Kruglyak, Leonid, Nature, 2008, Vol 456, p 18
5. Koonin, Eugene, Nucleic Acids Research, Vol 37, p 1011.
6. Collini, E. et al., Nature, 2010; 463 (7281): 644 DOI: 10.1038/nature08811
7. Penrose, Roger, and Hameroff, Stuart, Journal of Cosmology, 2011, Vol 14
8. McFadden, Johnjoe and Al-Khalili, Jim, BioSystems, 50 (1999) 203-211