Quantum Mechanics And The Collective Unconscious

Chapter Four: Evolution Revisited

Introduction: Vitalism

Until the 19th century, and specifically prior to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution through variation and the development of species, most people believed in some type of 'vitalist' theory of life, marking off organic, living matter from inorganic, inanimate matter through the former's possession of some distinguishing factor or 'vital principle'. Very often this was expressed in a way that we can only call 'dualist', although vitalism is not necessarily dualist in principle. Science could have discovered and described a mechanism common to all living things; of course, we now know that it didn't, except at the so-to-speak mechanical level of genetics and dna. Vitalists believed that the (organic) chemicals used as the building blocks of life were different in kind from inorganic chemicals, and it was a major blow to vitalism when urea was synthesized from inorganic compounds by Friedrich Wöhler in 1828 (four years earlier he had similarly synthesized oxalic acid). Nonetheless, chemical scientists of the period such as Jöns Jakob Berzelius (1779 - 1848), who published a table of accurate atomic weights in 1826, continued to argue that some regulative force must exist within living matter to maintain its functions.

Although the initial killer punch for vitalism was the publication in 1858 of On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882), Darwin himself did not prescribe any mechanism for the inheritance of characteristics, and it was not until the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's genetic research after his death in 1884 that a complete theory of evolutionary biology became possible, and it seemingly allowed no place for vitalist ideas.

By 1867 Thomas Henry Huxley could already say: 'Zoological physiology . . . is the doctrine of the functions or actions of animals. It regards animal bodies as machines impelled by certain forces, and performing an amount of work which can be expressed in terms of the ordinary forces of nature. The final object of physiology is to deduce the facts of morphology, on the one hand, and those of distribution on the other, from the laws of the molecular forces of matter.'

Vitalism however was not quite dead. Evidently it forms an important part of Chinese and alternative medicine, in which the balancing of various types of 'force' is held to account for health and bodily malfunction. Even in the West, for all the advances that have taken place in genetics and embryology, it is not possible to say that science has gained a full understanding of the processes that underly biological development. 20th century researchers who continued to incorporate neo-vitalist ideas in their theories include Driesch and Haldane.

Hans Adolf Eduard Driesch (1867 - 1941) was a German biologist and philosopher, most remembered for experimental work in embryology. He carried out the first known cloning of an animal (a sea urchin). Finding that embryonic development persisted correctly despite even quite major interference, he concluded that there was a pervasive, underlying but non-local force at work. To this vitalistic theory he gave the name entelechy (borrowed from Aristotle). Driesch's entelechy has much in common with Sheldrake's 'morphic resonance' (see the previous chapter) and can certainly be said to be neo-vitalist. Driesch posited a non-spatial, 'mind-like' life force that controls individual development. He opposed mechanistic ideas of development, and imagined that the process of development was highly indeterminate. No doubt he loved quantum mechanics, but it came too late to help the formation of his ideas.

John Burdon Sanderson (Jack) Haldane (1892-1964), an evolutionary biologist, was the son of John Scott Haldane (1860-1936), biochemist and authority on gases. For much of his career, Haldane was professor of Genetics at University College, London. Although neo-Darwinian, and the author of many authoritative works on the mathematical basis of genetics, Jack Haldane can fairly be called a dualist, and did not accept a purely mechanistic basis for evolution and ontology. He said: 'We must find a different theoretical basis of biology, based on the observation that all the phenomena concerned tend towards being so coordinated that they express what is normal for an adult organism.' However he cannot be called a vitalist; possibly an organicist. He did not put forward a theory of his own. He also said:

'My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose,' and: 'It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.'

The Issue Of The Evolution Of Evolution

It's not at all clear where to draw a dividing line between eternally true laws of nature and those methods or techniques which appear to us immutable, but may have come into being as a result of a process of trial and error (evolution, for instance, in the present context).

It's not even clear that there are any 'eternally true laws of nature', at least as far as physics and chemistry are concerned. We don't (can't) know what existed before Big Bang, and it would be devilishly hard to prove that things like molecular weights, or the numerical values for the momentum of electrons spinning around a nucleus, were already established prior to Big Bang. How would you start? It's tempting to think that pi and prime numbers are the same in all possible universes, of course, but even that thought is based on the idea of number. How do you know that there isn't a possible universe in which number is just as indeterminate as light particles are in ours?

This will not stray (far) into metaphysics, but the last two paragraphs are meant as a backdrop to an account of some of the theories that have been developed to account for evolution, or at least to describe it.

Whether evolution sprang fully formed into action at the moment that the first biological cell reproduced itself, or whether it developed its own mechanisms alongside the development of life is impossible to know. But we can speculate, and we are in good company in such speculations, as will appear below.

Darwin, Wallace, Dawkins, Mendel and other contributors to our current understanding of the operation of genetics, variation and selection (the mechanisms of evolution, if you like) describe matters as they are today, give or take a century or two. It's one moment in the five billion year history of life on Earth, and the 'laws' which they discovered and describe appear immutable; but in reality many of these laws probably evolved themselves.

William James, so far ahead of his time in so many respects, certainly agreed with Darwin's theories, but toyed with the idea that evolution might be a much more fundamental agent in the development of our universe, without putting such ideas forward in any comprehensive fashion. Here he is, in one of his last published works, devoted mostly to expressing his bafflement over the difficulties of psychical research, dismissing the idea that psychic activity is some sort of inconsequential relic of the evolutionary process:

'If . . . one takes the theory of evolution radically, one ought to apply it not only to the rock-strata, the animals and the plants but to the stars, to the chemical elements, and to the laws of nature. There must have been a far-off antiquity, one is then tempted to suppose, when things were really chaotic. Little by little, out of all the haphazard possibilities of that time, a few connected things and habits arose, and the rudiments of regular performance began. Every variation in the way of law and order added itself to this nucleus, which inevitably grew more considerable as history went on; while the aberrant and inconstant variations, not being similarly preserved, disappeared from being, wandered off as unrelated vagrants, or else remained so imperfectly connected with the part of the world that had grown regular as only to manifest their existence by occasional lawless intrusions, like those which "psychic" phenomena now make into our scientifically organized world. On such a view, these phenomena ought to remain "pure bosh" forever, that is, they ought to be forever intractable to intellectual methods, because they should not yet be organized enough in themselves to follow any laws. Wisps and shreds of the original chaos, they would be connected enough with the cosmos to affect its periphery every now and then, as by a momentary whiff or touch or gleam, but not enough ever to be followed up and hunted down and bagged. Their relation to the cosmos would be tangential solely.'

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) is sometimes mentioned as having contributed to a vitalist or 'creative' role for evolution, but this has largely been read into his thinking by others – Nietzsche is famously obscure in his writings. He frequently speaks against Darwinian ideas (although it's unclear that he ever would have read Darwin in the original) but he nonetheless accepted the broad principles of natural selection. His complaint seems to have been against the 'English' theories of evolution which in his mind would have led to survival of the mediocre, whereas he preferred to believe in the operation of evolution towards the superman, the principle that was adopted and abused by the Nazis. It has to be remembered that in the second half of the 19th century, no mechanism for the operation of evolution had been determined (other than by Mendel), so that 'evolution' could mean all things to all men. Ironically, his position would today be called neo-Darwinist, which has come to be the accepted position of evolutionary thought. But that doesn't require the existence of some sort of vitalist principle: common or garden Darwinism will do very well!

Henri Bergson (1859-1941) accepted many elements of Darwinian evolution, such as the role of mutations and the operation of natural selection, but he explicitly rejected a fully mechanistic explanation of the origin of species. He believed that there is a fundamental difference between organic life and inorganic matter, which in Creative Evolution (1907) he called 'Élan vital'. Although this sounds as if it is a 'vitalist' position, he certainly denied any dualistic view of evolution; for him, there was no separate field or force operating to govern or moderate evolutionary processes. Élan vital was an inherent property of living matter.

Bergson arrived at the conception of élan vital partly through study of the operation of consciousness and the role of intuition in human thought. From a starting point 'wholly imbued with mechanistic theories', as he wrote to his friend William James, he came to realize that time, treated as a fixed quantity in such theories, was otherwise: 'It was the analysis of the notion of time, as that enters into mechanics and physics, which overturned all my ideas. I saw, to my great astonishment, that scientific time does not endure. This led me to change my point of view completely'. He emphasized the importance of time (durée) in understanding consciousness, to be understood as a process rather than a series of static moments: 'the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances'. Bergson further suggests that duration and motion are alike in that neither possesses any homogeneity. A consequence of this is that whether the context of consideration is mathematical or spatial, equations for the measurement of motion are always a misrepresentation because, in Bergson’s words 'an algebraic equation always expresses something already done,' whereas 'it is the very essence of duration and motion, as they appear to our consciousness, to be something that is unceasingly
being done...' (Time and Free Will, 1889).

Addressing the idea that the human brain contains something like a photographic representation of reality at each moment, he wrote (Matter and Memory):

'But is it not obvious that the photograph, if photograph there be, is already taken, already developed in the very heart of things and at all points in space? No metaphysics, no physics can escape this conclusion. Build up the universe with atoms: each of them is subject to the action, variable in quantity and quality according to the distance, exerted on it by all material atoms. Bring in Faraday's centers of force: the lines of force emitted in every direction from every center bring to bear upon each the influence of the whole material world. Call up the Leibnizian monads: each is the mirror of the universe. Only if when we consider any other given place in the universe we can regard the action of all matter as passing through it without resistance and without loss, and the photograph of the whole as translucent: here there is wanting behind the plate the black screen on which the image could be shown. Our "'zones of indetermination" [organisms] play in some sort the part of that screen. They add nothing to what is there; they effect merely this: that the real action passes through, the virtual action remains.' (1896/1912, pp. 31-32)

In this passage, he is describing a holographic conception of brain operation, fifty years before holography was established as a scientific discipline. He also anticipated many of the principles of quantum mechanics, including the idea that the presence of an observer has to be reckoned with in any account of phenomena, and the role of uncertainty.

Quantum Phenomena In Evolution

Quantum tunnelling describes the behaviour of a particle, say an electron, a photon or a proton as the case may be, which appears on the other side of a barrier (a potential wall) that according to classical physics it should not have enough energy to surmount. This is explained through the uncertainty principle: the particle exists as a set of probabilities representing its wave function, and there is a low probability that its position at a given moment is on the other side of the barrier, in which case it is said to have 'tunnelled' through the barrier, possibly with energetic consequences for other particles. If its appearance in its new position causes a permanent change to the overall disposition of its surroundings, quite probably involving collapse of the particle's wave function and its decoherence, then there can be consequences in the classical world, for instance a mutation. Note incidentally, the 'transfer' of a particle by quantum tunnelling is instantaneous, since it already existed on the far side of the barrier as a small probability.

Quantum tunnelling has recently emerged as a candidate to play a significant role in the operation of evolution. Current lines of research are described in Trixler (2013).

Much current work on biological quantum tunnelling has followed a seminal paper published in 1963 by Löwdin, which straightforwardly announced that 'many of the fundamental biochemical processes are directly connected with the transfer of electrons and protons', i.e. are subject to the laws of quantum mechanics rather than those of classical physics. The paper directly posited a role for quantum transfers (i.e. tunnelling) in the DNA mutation process, building inter alia on the work of Watson & Crick.

The work of Al-Khalilib and McFadden (1999) was mentioned in Chapter One. Their account of a quantum-based mechanism underlying the phenomenon of adaptive mutations (which appear to contradict the established rules of neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology) is highly relevant to the issue of the evolution of evolution. To recap, their work demonstrates that quantum coherence can be maintained in a cell over biologically significant periods of time (multiple seconds), and that a mutating DNA cell with quantum coherence can exist in a superposition with the external environment while it, so to speak, 'tests' possible mutations against the environment (employing the reverse quantum Xeno effect) until a point at which the cell decoheres (the superposition collapses) leaving an adaptive mutation.

Darwinian evolutionary biology posits a random mutation process in which beneficial mutations survive and prosper; but you do not have to be a Lamarckian to wonder at the apparent inefficiency of a random mutation process. Faced with this difficulty, many people have traditionally retreated into a deistic belief in a guiding hand and a purposive, directed evolutionary process. But that is 'out of the frying pan and into the fire' – the explanation is worse than the problem. If it were true that evolution itself became (or perhaps always was) more efficient through the use of quantum mechanisms, then that would be a far more believable scenario.

The next chapter of this book puts forward a thesis that quantum phenomena were an integral part of the organic development process and thus of evolution from the very beginning; and if that is the case then it becomes not just credible but even inevitable (and parsimonious) that evolution would have employed quantum effects ab initio, although at the moment there is certainly no scientific consensus on such a proposition.

It seems however remarkable that such a significant new field of enquiry should have lain fallow for the nearly 50 years that have passed since Löwdin's original paper. Al-Khalilib and McFadden put this down to over-compartmentalization in scientific research, and the xenophobic, territorial habits of researchers. Their original paper was as long ago as 1999, and they admit that they failed at the time to follow up what was a untried direction of research. In fact, quantum biology remained on the fringes of scientific respectability for another ten years and only from 2010 did it begin to attract serious attention. A 2012 workshop held at Surrey University's Institute of Advanced Studies included a presentation by Al-Khalilib, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iujZr42Aho4, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwgQVZju1ZM in which he elaborates on quantum tunnelling as an aspect of dna mutation.

The evidence at this stage, scanty though it is, points in the direction of a close and intricate interplay between evolution and quantum effects from the very beginnings of life on earth. The implications of such a connection for the evolution of species are explored in the next chapter.


Al-Khalilib, Jim and McFaddena, Johnjoe, (1999) A quantum mechanical model of adaptive mutation, Biosystems Volume 50, Issue 3, June 1999, Pages 203–211, at http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Johnjoe_Mcfadden/publication/12899582_
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