email - September 2013

Quantum Evolution

Does quantum physics prove biological evolution?

In last month’s feature article, Michelle listed Context-driven Actuation of Potential (CAP) as one of the possible successors to Neo-Darwinian evolution. She quoted this summary of CAP from the seminal paper itself.

This paper proposes a different critique of Neodarwinian theory, which derives instead from a nonclassical and nondeterminist view of physics, as developed recently in quantum mechanics. If the notion of variation is examined carefully, one realizes that what is naturally selected for in the Neodarwinian view are essentially forms of concrete and actual matter. We present a more general view in which forms of potentiality coexist with forms of actuality. We will see that the presence of potentiality states points to a non-Kolmogorovian probability structure at the basis of the context–entity interaction in evolution, which makes possible different pathways of evolution than were allowed for before.” 1

This sounds a lot like double-talk, and perhaps it really is nothing more than that. This prompted an email from one reader asking for a glossary of terms. We really can’t blame him because I’d never heard of Kolmogorovian probability either. I had to look it up.

The book Kolmogorov: Foundations of the Theory of Probability by Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov is historically very important. It is the foundation of modern probability theory. The monograph appeared as "Grundbegriffe der Wahrscheinlichkeitsrechnung" in 1933 and build [sic] up probability theory in a rigorous way similar as Euclid did with geometry. Today, it is mainly a historical document and can hardly be used as a textbook any more. 2

So, “non-Kolmogorovian probability” simply means “non-traditional probability.” Therefore, non-Kolmogorovian probability is somehow different from the well-established laws of probability and statistics.

“Non-deterministic” means “unpredictable.”

Traditional probability is predictable—to a certain extent. That is, one can’t determine which gambler will win or lose on any particular spin of a roulette wheel; but one can calculate with remarkable accuracy how much money will be lost by all the gamblers each day if one knows the total amount of money they bet on the wheel.

The fact that CAP is based on some unspecified, unorthodox version of probability raises some legitimate questions about the validity of the theory. Hence, the appeal to quantum mechanics.

Quantum Mechanics

Quantum mechanics is a branch of science generally applied to chemistry and physics but not biology. Historically, quantum mechanics was developed to explain physical phenomena and chemical reactions, and has grown from there. Let’s stroll down memory lane and see how quantum physics grew out of classical physics.

The two iconic charts found in nearly every science classroom are: (1) the racist depiction of an ape evolving through several sub-human black primates to the pinnacle of evolutionary perfection—the white man; and (2) the Periodic Table of the Elements. These two charts are the essence of science (in some minds). The Periodic Table is the foundation for understanding all chemical reactions in classical chemistry.

The Periodic Table lists all the known elements in order from lightest (in the upper left corner) to the heaviest (in the lower right corner). The elements in each column have similar characteristics. That is, every element in a column reacts chemically as all the other elements in that column do. Each entry in the Table shows the atomic number and weighted average mass of all the isotopes of that element. This is good, factual science.

The traditional (classical) model of the atom is based on the Periodic Table. It is important to understand the difference between a model of an atom and the atom itself. The model of the atom helps us to understand how an atom reacts physically and chemically in certain situations.

The classical model of an atom looks like a planet with many orbiting moons. It describes the structure of an atom as a nucleus (consisting of protons, neutrons, and exotic sub-atomic particles) surrounded by orbiting electrons. These electrons orbit at specific distances, as if they were enclosed in thin shells with various diameters.

It is useful to view the atom this way for two reasons. One is that chemical reactions can be predicted by knowing how many electrons are in the outer shell (that is, how many electrons need to be shared with another atom to fill the shell). The other reason is that the electrons can be thought of as having a certain amount of energy depending upon which shell they are in. That allows one to determine exactly how much energy is needed to move an electron from one shell to another, which tells something about the light that is absorbed or emitted when electrons move from one shell to another.

The classical model works very well for predicting the behavior of atoms in many situations. But there are some situations where the classical model doesn’t work. In particular, it doesn’t explain how light can act like both a wave and a particle; and it doesn’t explain how atoms interact with each other at subatomic distances or speeds approaching the speed of light. So, the quantum mechanics model was developed to further explain how atoms react with each other. It is a better model in the sense that quantum mechanics explains all the classical atomic behavior, and more—but it is harder to understand because the math is very difficult.

Since it is hard to understand, we won’t try to explain it in detail. We will just say that, rather than picturing electrons orbiting neatly at specific distances in shells, it talks about the probability of electrons being in certain states. These states are multi-dimensional, requiring complex math with imaginary numbers.

Quantum mechanics is a useful model for predicting how atoms will act under certain circumstances which can be experimentally verified to be correct. Quantum mechanics also makes some predictions that cannot be experimentally verified easily (or cannot be verified at all). Some of these predictions are surprising and paradoxical. In particular, they include the viability of Schrödinger's Cat, 3 which is both alive and dead until it is observed; quantum entanglement (sometimes referred to as “spooky action at a distance”), 4 and the Multiverse. 5 We don’t want to open those cans of worms, so we won’t take any position on them, other than to say that they are controversial, or perhaps misunderstood.

What we will say is that quantum mechanics opens the door to many bizarre, paradoxical ideas—and CAP runs right through that door. Once you are comfortable accepting the notion that paradoxical, unexplained phenomena are “scientific” because they are rooted in quantum physics, you can accept anything. CAP takes advantage of that by appealing to unspecified aspects of quantum physics.

Context-driven

CAP claims to be “context-driven.” That means behavior depends upon the circumstances. For example, the clothing you wear is context-driven. If it is raining, you put on a raincoat. A raincoat is worn “in the context” of rain. “Context” is just another word for “circumstances.”

Microevolution really is context-driven. That is to say, species really do adapt (within limits) to the environment (that is, the context) in which they are living. The size and shape of finch beaks have been shown to change somewhat depending upon the kind of food available. So, the “C” part of CAP is at least plausible.

Potential

CAP claims to depend upon “potential,” that is, a possible outcome. If you place a bet on 17 Black on a roulette wheel, you have a potential to win 35 times as much as you bet. Kolmogorovian probability says you probably won’t win—but the potential to win does exist.

Human DNA contains the potential to produce people who will grow to be somewhat less than four or somewhat more than seven feet tall at maturity. Human DNA does not contain the potential to produce people who grow to be 5,280 feet tall (unless you invoke non-Kolmogorovian probability ).

Actualization

Just because the potential exists, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the potential will be realized. That is, you could potentially win if you bet on 17 Black—but your dreams of big bucks won’t necessarily be actualized if you do.

CAP

DNA has been shown to have some potential for limited variability. It has also been observed that environmental conditions (the context in which a creature lives) can influence whether or not various characteristics are expressed (actualized) in some of its offspring. In this respect, CAP really isn’t any different than Darwin’s notion of variability and survival of the fittest.

The problem (for evolutionists) is that the amount of variation is limited by the maximum number of genetic combinations and ways that these combinations can be expressed. In other words, there is limited potential for change.

CAP tries to circumvent the limitations of variability by appealing to some unknown quantum phenomenon and unconventional laws of probability. In other words, in a world where anything can happen, and the known laws of probability don’t hold, then new life forms will evolve. The only reason this theory has been proposed to replace neo-Darwinian evolution (a.k.a. the Modern Synthesis) is because neo-Darwinian evolution is impossible in the light of modern science.

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Footnotes:

1 Diederik Aerts, et al., 1 December 2012, “On the Foundations of the Theory of Evolution”, http://arxiv.org/pdf/1212.0107v1.pdf
2 http://kolmogorov.com/Foundations.html
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger%27s_cat
4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spooky_action_at_a_distance
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse