NPR logo The Non-Determinant, Yet Non-Random Becoming Of The Evolving Biosphere


The Non-Determinant, Yet Non-Random Becoming Of The Evolving Biosphere

Not the only sleek animal in the sea! Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Not the only sleek animal in the sea!

Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

I write about something we all know. I, at least, have never said it to myself and hope it is of general interest. The evolution of the biosphere, a mixture of quantum and classical physics and perhaps more, is neither determinant, nor algorithmic, nor random.

Why should we care? The twin towers of 20th-century physics reign: general relativity, GR, and quantum mechanics, QM. The first is the crown of classical physics. The second is our theory of the atomic and sometimes macroscopic world. They have never been mathematically united, which may be the problem of quantum gravity.

We are familiar with the deterministic field equations of general relativity. And we are familiar with the non-determinism of quantum mechanics, at least on Feynman's sum over all possible histories formulation of quantum mechanics, accepted by all as a full formulation of quantum mechanics.

If GR and QM remain un-united by the physicists, it seems of deep interest that, in some practical sense, they are united in the evolution of the biosphere.

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Darwin assumed heritable variations, random with respect to fitness, and natural selection. Given the now known structure of the DNA double helix and the fact that mutational events are quantum non-determinate events, we now know that heritable variation is typically due to DNA (or RNA in RNA viruses) non-determinate events.

But even the simplest versions of natural selection are undoubtedly non-random. The eye evolved at least 11 times independently. Simon Conway Morris in "Life's Solutions", discusses manifold cases of convergent evolution. The marsupial wolf and mammalian wolf are a fine example. So too are the streamlined forms of dolphins and sharks.

Thus with no deeper insights that these, the quantum character of mutations yielding heritable variation for Darwin's natural selection, and convergent evolution, we know that the combination of quantum and classical physics processes are non-determinate, hence non-algorithmic — a fully determinate classical physics set of computational processes on Turing machines — yet evolution is also not quantum random like the random decay of a radioactive nucleus.

Whether God plays dice with the universe, as Einstein objected to with QM, God does not play dice with respect to the non-determinate, non-algorithmic, non-random becoming of the evolving biosphere.

I know this; I think we all do. But when we juxtapose this with the twin towers of GR and QM as free standing theories, in their collaboration in the evolution of the biosphere, we get something not in our twin towers. The becoming of the biological world is neither classical physics determinate, nor algorithmic a la Turing, nor random, a la straight forward QM and radioactive decay.

But that opens untold doors. I have posted about the non-determinant, non-algorithmic but non-random behaviors of trans-Turing systems as a hope for a new class of information processing systems, and a new way to think of mind-brain where we are no longer shackled to the classical physics of Turing determinate logic gates and classical determinate physics "consciousness neurons".

We can rightly wonder if we can construct trans-Turing systems. But we cannot doubt the non-determinate because quantum, thus non-algorithmic, yet non-random evolution of life for 3.7 billion years. QM and classical physics are united in that evolution.

But this union hides troves. I have written repeatedly about Darwinian pre-adaptations — causal features of organisms of no selective significance in the current environment that may become of selective significance in a different environment.

Recall my repeated story of the evolution of the swim bladder, enabling neutral buoyancy in the water column to some fish, from the lungs of lung fish. To repeat my question: Can we pre-state all possible Darwinian pre-adaptations just for humans. We all seem to agree we cannot do so, because we cannot pre-state all possible selective conditions, nor can we pre-state the novel weird "uses" of odd bumps on frogs that may become pre-adaptations. But, as we have seen, this means we cannot enumerate the Adjacent Possible of the evolution of the biosphere by Darwinian pre-adaptations, so cannot make probability statements. We do not know the relevant sample space. Then we cannot have sufficient laws for the emergence of unexpected pre-adaptations, if laws, as Nobel physicist Gell-Mann states, are compact descriptions of the regularities of a process.

This at least hints that the de-facto union of QM and classical physics in evolution may lead to a world that becomes, beyond law, and beyond our saying beforehand!

If there can be no sufficient law, this may be a hint that the union of QM and GR itself is not itself lawful. Perhaps the evolution of the biosphere, beyond sufficient natural law, is telling us that the becoming of the world is partially beyond law and that quantum and classical physics cannot be united as a sufficient law that entails, as S. Weinberg hopes, all that unfolds in a creation that is a persistent, unstatable, beyond words, becoming.

If so, is this not a wonder in which we participate?