Taking a Look at Evolution From Quantum Reality

Molecules are the basis of life and molecules are quantum systems. We must, therefore, enter our knowledge of the quantum structure of molecules into the discussion of biology. Specifically, quantum reality as the basis for all observable phenomena is important for a comprehensive view of evolution.

In The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins describes the merits of theories which help us to change the way we see. "We look at life", he writes, "and begin by seeing a collection of interacting individual organisms. Then suddenly the image flips. The individual bodies are still there; they have not moved, but they seem to have gone transparent. We see through them to the replicating fragments of DNA within." From this process new viewpoints emerge which make us "see animals and their behavior differently."

Continuing where Dawkins stopped, I suggest that, when looking at life, we begin by looking at bodies and their DNA. Then suddenly the image flips, the DNA will become transparent, and we see the underlying quantum structure. Looking at a given stretch of DNA is like looking at the tip of an iceberg. Underlying the visible part is a quantum structure with countless empty, invisible states. Simply by changing the way we observe, a new understanding of living organisms and their behavior can arise.

When I refer to the quantum nature of molecules, I do not mean that, in the blood and sweat of living organisms, genes necessarily perform any fancy quantum acrobatics, evolving in superpositions of states or making non-local connections. However, I do mean that it is important to be aware that molecules exist exclusively in quantum states with a fixed energy and an associated waveform (wave function) or probability distribution.

The First Evolutionary Relevant Aspect of the Quantum World concerns the fact that any activity at the molecular level is restricted to jumps from one state to another. Quantum jumps are spontaneous, seemingly caused by nothing and ruled by transition probabilities, which in turn are controlled by the state waveforms. When processes are ruled by probabilities, one can never be sure of the outcome of a specific event.

In living cells, the synthesis of genes, DNA molecules, is a quantum process. Thus, when a particular stretch of DNA is synthesized, the probability may be overwhelming that the resulting product sequence of nucleotides is the same as that of a DNA template that is present, but that need not be so. When the product is not the same as the template, we say an error was made in copying a gene, and a mutation occurred.

In contrast, the quantum world knows no copying and no errors. In the synthesis of DNA a group of nucleotides simply forms a common quantum state. In a mutation, a group of nucleotides populates a vacant quantum state that was not occupied before. When the new state leads to variations in phenotypic effects, this is when natural selection takes control.

In this way one is led to consider that the units of natural selection are not stretches of chromosomes, but the waveforms of quantum states, which actualize in chromosomes.

The Second Evolutionary Relevant Aspect of the Quantum World concerns the fact that every quantum system consists not only of the observable state that it occupies, but also of countless other, invisible states that are vacant. The simplest example is the hydrogen atom. When a hydrogen atom is in its lowest energy state, the groundstate, it must be assumed that higher energy states also exist, even though they are not quite 'real' because they are empty.

Quantum chemists call vacant states 'virtual' because they virtually exist, but not 'really.' They have the potential of becoming real when a transition is made to them. Only occupied states are actualized, real states. Virtual states exist like mathematical forms, but they are more than the mere idea of a mathematical form. To the reader not familiar with such aspects of quantum reality, Heisenberg's description might help. Quantum entities can exist in a kind of reality not known to ordinary things "between the idea of a thing and a real thing," he wrote.

In each molecule a large number of vacant states are available, to which that molecule can make a transition. Each quantum state is not an isolated entity but a member of a whole connected system of states, each with its own quantized energy and characteristic waveform.

Stretches of DNA are no different in this regard. A strand of DNA is the actualization of one out of many possible states that its nucleotides can populate. For each chain of nucleotides, there are countless empty states, and finite probabilities for spontaneous transitions to one of them. We see such transitions, for example, in recombination reactions or crossing-over. Populating empty states of DNA can lead to variations in phenotype, which natural selection then evaluates. Thus, the complex order evolving in the biosphere is not from chaos and not from nothing, as Darwinians often claim, but from the actualization of the precisely determined patterns of quantum states, which already exist in the quantum structure of DNA before a transition is made to them.

There is a general notion that, since transitions to new states (mutations) are random, the variations caused by mutations must also be random. But the one does not follow from the other. While jumps from one quantum state to another are ruled by chance, the order of the states on which the jumping will land is not. "Blind chance can lead to anything", Monod wrote, "even vision". Monod was right, chance can lead to anything. However, whether chance is also able to create what it leads to, that is another question.

Ultimately, lifeforms are correlated with quantum waveforms. When new lifeforms evolve from existing species, they are the phenotypic effects of waveforms of quantum states occupied by nucleotides. Jumps from one waveform to another are spontaneous and caused by nothing. Adaptation will then give the random sampling of quantum states the direction of evolutionary progression.

Robert Pollack, in a lecture at the Science and the Spiritual Quest II Conference remarked: " ... facts from science tell us that our species ... is not the creation of design, but the result of accumulated errors." This is the well-established, conventional view of evolution. In contrast, the quantum perspective knows of no errors made in the evolution of life. Rather, it suggests that, as an alternative to either intelligent design or blind chance, the revelation of the order of empty quantum states by their actualization is a plausible mechanism for the spontaneous emergence of complex order in the visible world.

In the immediate sense, the states involved in the evolutionary process are those of DNA. In a general sense, the states of DNA are just a part of the quantum structure of the universe, from which all of the visible order of reality evolves by virtual state actualization.

The Third Evolutionary Relevant Aspect of the Quantum World is that, even though the quantum probability fields carry no mass or energy, their properties and interactions determine the visible order of material things. The visible order of the universe is the phenotypic expression of a deeper order. The entities of this order, however, are not just miniaturized editions of ordinary things, but different in essence.

Therefore genes, lumps of matter, are not the terminus of reality and not the authors of any information that they convey. Rather, genes are the vehicles (modifying one of Dawkins' term) or relay stations by which the messages of an underlying order is revealed. Through genes the order of quantum reality (including its virtual order) can express itself in the material world. Genes have phenotypic expressions in the way that biologists describe, while at the same time they are themselves phenotypic expressions of quantum waveforms.

In the quantum perspective the true power of Darwin's wonderful insight comes to the fore. A century before the discovery of the unpredictable quantum world, Darwin anticipated a mechanism that allows nature to reach into her transcendent roots.

Sociobiologists like Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson claim that our values, including moral values, are part of innate, genetic dispositions which construct our minds. "Ethics as we understand it," Ruse and Wilson write in "The Evolution of Ethics" in Religion and the Natural Sciences, "is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate ... Our biology enforces its ends by making us think that there is an objective higher code, to which we are all subject." Similarly, Ruse writes in the May 2001 edition of Research News, "Morality is a collective illusion of humankind put in place by our genes in order to make us good cooperators."

In contrast, in the quantum world, genes do not pursue any ends, but following the laws of physics and chemistry, they just reveal universal order. Genes are not the great deceivers of humanity, nor selfish impostors, but can be considered messengers. If our moral principles are indeed conveyed by our genes, as Ruse and Wilson claim, then we must assume that, in addition to the physical information needed to build bodies, they also transmit the metaphysical principles needed to build human minds. In no case are they the authors of the messages that they transmit but all genetic instructions derive from some objective source.

Many pioneers of 20th-century physics have attested to the quasi-mental or mind-like aspects of quantum reality. Thus, we may have to get used to its unexpected capacity of being the source not only of physical principles but also of principles relating to our mind. This implies that quantum reality is the missing link. If morality has been "put in place by our genes" it must be based on some property of the universal order that produced it—an objective correlate in the order of reality according to which genes operate.

The basic premise of my argument, then, is as follows: The visible order of the universe is a phenotypic effect of quantum reality. Therefore, every element of the visible reality must have a counterpart in the order of quantum reality.

Elements of the visible reality are both material and mental, physical and metaphysical, having to do with facts and with vales. In view of the quasi-mental, mind-like aspects of quantum reality it is now plausible to assume that all principles of the visible reality, including the non-physical or mental have a counterpart in quantum reality. Some waveforms of quantum reality have phenotypic expressions in material phenomena, like brain states. Others have phenotypic expressions in the metaphysical principles emerging in brain states.

How the elements of quantum reality express themselves in the visible reality is not quite clear. It is not quite clear for simple physical properties, where the lack of insight is referred to as the measurement problem of quantum reality. It is not at all clear for the metaphysical principles, where the lack of insight is demonstrated by the ongoing discussions about the relations between facts and values. In principle, two different mechanisms could be suggested: it is possible that we are on-line to a transcendent part of the universe. Alternatively, it is possible that we are in-tune with its order.

Concerning the former, it seems more likely that, if the background of the universe is mind-like, it will communicate with our minds, than that it will not. In that case, we can be on-line, and many people have attested to an experience of that kind.

The concept of being in-tune with the order of the universe evolves from the view of genes as messengers. Through genes, the order of quantum reality can express itself in the material world. As a result, we are in-tune with the order of the universe.

The consequences of this expanded view of evolution for the spiritual quest are obvious. When Darwin's hypothesis is placed into the molecular context of quantum reality, Dawkins' claim that Darwin made atheism "intellectually fulfilling" is no more logically conclusive than the evangelism of the creationists.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!