I read Quantum Evolution by Johnjoe McFadden and I’m not sure what to make of it. The writing isn’t the best. In several places it seems that he began to write one sentence, then changed his mind and edited it, but didn’t finish deleting the old. Sometimes he says the opposite of what I know he means to say from the context. He also cites statistics unimportant to his point, but unnerving because they are inaccurate. The sun is only millions of degrees in the center, not billions. He repeatedly refers to Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, as Michael Bethe. It is these types of things that make my crackpotometer rise, but McFadden is a professor at the University of Surrey and has a strong background in infectious diseases. Of most annoyance to me, the first half of the book is just an overview of basic biology completely unnecessary for understanding his major argument and can be safely skipped.
When he does finally get to his major argument, he claims that something called the quantum Zeno effect gives mutations a greater tendency to be beneficial rather than harmful without ever really explaining how it works. My crackpotometer rose even more. Since I had never heard of the phenomenon, I had to look it up. Apparently, when a particle has a probability of changing from one quantum state to another in a given time (e.g. an electron jumping from one orbital to another), its “timer” can be reset by “measuring” it – almost as if the particle exists as something more than a mere probability matrix that has to “move” from one state to the other in that time. The electron will not move if you keep looking at it. The problem I still have is that my understanding was that there exist pairs of properties that cannot both exist above a maximum level of precision (such as position&momentum and time&energy). By looking at the electron and knowing its position, doesn’t it then have a very uncertain momentum, thereby giving it an uncertain position in the next moment? Also, why have I never heard of this before? I was very surprised.
Other studies I was very surprised to hear of was the study by John Cairns that purportedly shows the very same mutations happening more frequently in a strain of bacteria differing from the control group strain only by its environment making such a mutation more beneficial, and the study by Wolf Singer that purportedly correlates awareness with synchronous neuronal firing in cats. These are huge findings that could revolutionize evolutionary biology and psychology! How have I not heard of these? What else don’t I know?
As far as I can tell, the book’s main point is this: Molecular configurations normally exist in quantum superpositions until the molecules must interact with other molecules thereby taking on a fixed state. This is called decoherence. Should an enzyme find itself in a state that causes an interaction, rapid repeated interactions of the same type with multiple molecules (this is what enzymes normally do) will force it to remain in the fixed state due to the quantum Zeno effect. When unused for a period of time, enzymes are again able to enter superposition. Whenever they next interact with another molecule, there is a small chance that they will enter a new configuration state with brand new properties. Since the parts of the RNA molecule that code for creating the enzyme (and the parts of the DNA molecule that code for creating the RNA) interact so infrequently with their environment (as opposed to other parts of the RNA or DNA molecule), it is possible that it (and the DNA) will too remain in a set of superposed states entangled with the set of superposed states of the enzyme microns away. Should the enzyme hit upon some novel mode of interaction that is rapidly repeated, forcing it to hold the new configuration, it can retroactively rewrite the DNA through quantum entanglement to have a brand new mutant gene that codes for it in the future. This is how organisms are able to evolve whole new classes of enzymes (and other proteins) without wasting time with intermediary steps with no evolutionary advantage to retain them. This is therefore a rebuttal to intelligent-design enthusiasts who are fond of pointing out that the probability of any given protein arising by chance mutations in DNA is equal to one divided by the number of available amino acids (in the case of Earth life, 23) raised to the power of the number of amino acids in the protein (which can sometimes be hundreds).
Note: The actual probability is even smaller since each amino acid is coded for by a triplet of nucleotide sequences and some triplets code for the same acid.
I get the gist of it, but I am still left with many questions. First, even if an enzyme finds itself interacting with other molecules only by bumping into them and altering their trajectory, why is this interaction not good enough to be “frozen in” by the quantum Zeno effect? McFadden seems to suggest that there is a bias for those types of interactions that will cause the greatest long-term effect. Why? Greatest effect measured in what, exactly? Number of particles? Mass? Volume? Information qubits? Even mere bumping can propagate an effect throughout the universe, though we are unlikely to notice the difference in the same way we would notice the difference of a new species being created – but does this mean that biological evolution actually represents a greater difference? Or is this only according to our arbitrary way of measuring difference? Could a mutation leading to a novel enzyme configuration in turn leading to cancer that wipes out a species ever be considered a great enough difference? Or will the lack of the mutation for cancer thus allowing life to continue altering its environment always be a bigger difference?
McFadden seems to suggest that these types of mutations have a tendency to be beneficial. Why? If molecules can evolve so easily without intervention from an intelligent designer, why don’t we see new life arising spontaneously in nature all the time? Why do we not see life in the laboratory when scientists attempt to replicate the conditions of early Earth? Why do the computer algorithms meant to model evolution only show adaptation by the loss of information but never by getting more complex? He himself brings up these points but his only answer is that these other systems aren’t “quantum enough.” Why? I think I understand why the computer programs fail. Their behavior is defined rigidly by a computer operating on the “classical” level, and I have read somewhere that a classical computer can never simulate a quantum system (different type of math). But the laboratory gunk? It’s made of all the same stuff as life. Why doesn’t it grow?
Finally, even if I accept that whole new proteins can arise this way, how does one explain the emergence of entire new organ systems in animals (and plants), which require the coordinated mutations of many proteins at once (not to mention differences in chromosome number, and more)? Such a large system could never remain in a coherent superposition for long (at least relative to the rest of the universe – there is the idea that the entire universe is entangled, but being a part of this same universe there is no way for us to sense this. In any case, this would place the directing force of evolution in the hands of the entire universe as a whole, making genes superfluous.).
There is another thought that occurs to me. Since nobody knows how creative thought actually works, and some have suggested it might have a quantum basis (Roger Penrose, McFadden himself, and many others), perhaps this combination of quantum superposition and quantum Zeno effect literally is the intelligent designer it supposedly makes obsolete. Could God be the wave function of the universe?
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My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.