Physicists Bow to Darwin
What’s Darwin got to do with physics? Presumably, if you dropped his statue off the leaning tower of Pisa, it would fall at 32 feet per second squared, but the man is remembered for his speculations about biology, not physics. Why, then, did Nature Physics devote a special issue to Darwin? Here’s what it presented.
- Editorial: The editors explained why they were honoring Darwin.1 In “What’s the big idea?” they wrote, “It is not obviously the business of a physics journal to mark the anniversary of a major development in biology. But the repercussions of Darwin’s theory of evolution are relevant to all.” They believe the story of Darwin has something for everyone – including physicists. They encouraged subscribers to read The Origin of Species in recognition of a “bold scientist” who, according to Mark Buchanan, was one of few “leaving the comfortable confines of the accepted theoretical framework of their day and launching themselves out into territory unknown.”
The editors compared evolution to gravity. Neither is something to be believed; it just is. Something else just is: science.
That is something to be understood from this year’s anniversary celebrations, perhaps – that science has a unique place in human culture, and is not counter, or equal and opposite, to anything else. Science just is. After all, isn’t it appreciation of that purity, that integrity, that ultimately motivates us as scientists?
George Berkeley might have asked, if there were no scientist performing a measurement, would there be a science? (For thoughts on evolution and integrity, see the 03/12/2009.) The Editorial recommended that its physicist readers review the 15 “Darwin’s Gems” published in Nature in January (see 01/02/2009).
- Michael Shermer: The well-known skeptic (of religion) Michael Shermer wrote a piece in the issue entitled, “A noble conception.”2 He’s not a physicist, but he wanted to share thoughts on why evolution is still controversial when physical theories are not. His thesis relied heavily on the “god of the gaps” argument. He quoted Sir Isaac Newton who had said, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being,” and asked why creationists and intelligent design proponents do not quote this line more often. His answer: scientists have filled in the gap in our knowledge with theories of the formation of planets. “That is the fate of all such ‘god of the gaps’ arguments – the gaps are filled by science, and religion moves on to other problems.” He parried this line of thinking to Darwin, whom Shermer said was moving in the same direction.
This raises the question whether religion will retreat entirely from saying anything about nature. Shermer feels it should. “Why did religion not fall into disuse with the rise of science? The reason is that it is no longer the job of religion to explain the natural world. That is what science does, and it does so spectacularly.” Yet Shermer knows that a controversy still revolves around Darwin’s ideas, but not Newton’s. He offered six reasons for this: (1) The fear that evolution degrades our humanity by making us another animal species; (2) Belief that science is in conflict with religion, which tends to polarize “believers” against scientists “If scientific discoveries do not seem to support religious tenets”; (3) Belief that evolution is a threat to specific religious tenets, like a recent Genesis creation vs a 4.5-billion-year-old earth; (4) Misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, because teachers are afraid to teach it; (5) The fear that evolutionary theory implies we have a fixed human nature (surprisingly, a fear from the political left, who don’t like the implications of a mind that evolved from animal nature, he claimed); and (6) the equating of evolution with nihilism and moral degeneration.
On point 6, Shermer quoted Irving Kristol and Nancy Pearcey both arguing that society cannot survive if individuals believe they have meaningless lives in a meaningless universe. He argued, though, that “It need not be so.” First, “Evolution is science, as solidly supported as any in the human pantheon of knowledge.” And then he said “if one is a theist,” it shouldn’t matter how or when God created: “whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the Universe that He created: the grandeur of the work commands awe regardless of the processes used.” It’s a stretch to imagine what this article has to do with physics. The famous agnostic ended with theological arguments:
Theists and theologians should embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth never dreamed by our Bronze Age ancestors who first penned the origin myths to which some still cling today. We have learned a lot in 4,000 years, and that knowledge should never be dreaded or denied. Instead, science should be embraced by all who cherish human understanding and wisdom, and that is ultimately what Darwin’s noble conception implies, and why Darwin matters today more than ever.
- Quantum weirdness: Seth Lloyd, a specialist in extreme quantum information processing at MIT, offered his speculations about deep connections between biological natural selection and quantum physics.3 After a touch of history about the parallel development of quantum mechanics (QM) and the neo-Darwinian synthesis, Lloyd wrote, “Which brings us to the central question that I wish to consider here: what, if anything, does quantum mechanics have to do with natural selection?” His answer: “quite a lot.” QM is like Mendelian genetics: it is based on discreet states, not fluid, continuous variations predicted by classical physics. The discreet nature of quantum interactions, he explained, “gives a package of digital ‘gifts’ to nature, which in turn uses these gifts crucially in the development of life.” Here is his list of five gifts bequeathed by QM: (1) stability, because the quantum atom is stable, whereas the classical atom would have imploded; (2) countability, because QM only allows for a limited number of stable atomic arrangements; (3) information, because QM states are like bits; (4) information processing, because bits can be combined into ever more complex ways at higher scales; (5) randomness. Why is randomness a gift? Bring in Darwin:
The fifth and last gift that quantum mechanics gives to nature might not always be considered a gift: it is randomness. Unlike classical mechanics, quantum mechanics contains intrinsic uncertainty, which translates, under the proper circumstances, into irreducibly random behaviour. It was this intrinsic randomness to which Albert Einstein was objecting when he declared “God does not play dice”. In fact, Einstein was wrong: God does play dice and, luckily, is very good at it. Randomness is indeed the enemy of order – this is the quality to which Einstein objected. But randomness is also the source of variation. And as Darwin taught us, life without variation is not life.
Nature took these quantum gifts of stability, countability, information, information processing and randomness, and ran with them. The Universe began with a bang, and immediately started processing information.
Lloyd proceeded to portray the evolution of nature as the outworking of a cosmic creative process:
Each reaction transformed its input molecules and their attendant bits of information into a particular mix of output molecules and bits, which in turn became the inputs to further chemical reactions and so on. Eventually, in a sequence of events that scientists would desperately like to uncover, the more sophisticated methods of processing information that underlie life came into being. Once proto-life had attained the ability to reproduce with variation, the genie was out of the bottle. Darwinian natural selection kicked in. Bacteria, multicellular organisms, plants, animals, primates and humans all came onto the scene in due course.
This argument seems to beg the question of the nature of information. What is information, if not informed by a mind? And how does life and humanity evolving “in due course” square with what he just said about randomness? The quantum weirdness of Lloyd’s thesis gets weirder when he tries to incorporate human intelligent design into the category of natural:
When I give talks about quantum computers, every now and then a member of the audience will object that quantum computers are not possible to build, because if they were, “nature would have already discovered them”. This is a silly argument, not least because we can already build simple quantum computers. The same argument could also be made about lasers: natural selection did not cause pre-human life on Earth to evolve the laser, yet we still have lasers. Nor is the laser somehow unnatural. Natural selection evolved human beings, who then, naturally, invented the laser.
To support the idea that nature randomly selected humans able to build computational machines, Lloyd claimed that the 99% efficiency of the antenna of photosynthesis is a case of quantum computation achieved by bacteria. He claims bacteria used a quantum search algorithm to achieve this remarkable efficiency of converting sunlight to chemical energy. The efficiency of the quantum search in spite of noise and temperature fluctuations, he said, arose by accident: “we conclude that, on the one hand, nature is an excellent quantum mechanic, and, on the other hand, trillions of bacteria did not give their lives in vain.”
It’s apparent that Seth Lloyd just personified nature as if it were some communist dictator willing to sacrifice countless individuals in a five-year plan to build a factory for the revolution. But Lloyd is not done Darwinizing reality yet. Next, he extended it into hyper-reality. “Let’s close with some speculation,” he said, as if he had not already been engaging in it. He leaped into the multiverse and made natural selection the law to rule all laws:
The power of natural selection extends beyond mere biological systems. The laws of physics as we know them may themselves have been the outcome of a process of natural selection. Lee Smolin has suggested that the Universe is constantly sprouting baby universes, whose physical laws are similar to, but not quite the same as their mother’s. As they mature, these baby universes in turn sprout further universes, and so on (see Fig. 2). Our Universe could be ‘naturally selected’, in the sense that its physical laws support life, where the laws of its cousins do not. A similar notion arises in Leonard Susskind’s string theory ‘landscape’ in which some 10500 different sets of physical laws, each equally likely a priori, vie to construct the Universe we see today. Finally, Max Tegmark and I (ref. 16) have speculated that the Universe is generating all possible self-consistent information-processing structures. If this is so, quantum mechanics itself, with all its weirdness, might have been naturally selected out of other potential bases for physical law for the simple reason that, as we have seen, quantum mechanics has much to offer to life.
- Historical science: Mark Buchanan wrote a thesis in the special issue about Darwin’s use of history in science.4 It began with Lyell, he said, who brought in the notion of gradual change over long periods of time. “But if Lyell brought history into science, Darwin pushed it further, introducing the notion that everything in biology that exists does so, in some sense, by chance, as a result of accidents that left ineradicable marks on the future.” Contingency, he acknowledged, seems the opposite of laws that science describes. Yet much of what science works with is contingency. “Darwin gave science a way to proceed in this setting by identifying underlying historical processes – algorithms, if you will – which may be simple in outline, yet lead to consequences of surprising complexity.” His next paragraph admitted that Darwin, despite the title of his famous book, never provided evidence for the origin of species:
There is, indeed, little simplicity in biology. To take one example, Darwin never managed to explain the creation of new species, focusing rather on the gradual phenotypic change of existing species – the lengthening of beaks, or the changing of colours. Today, it’s increasingly clear that speciation probably takes place through a variety of mechanisms, such as so-called allopatric speciation, driven by the division of populations into geographically isolated sub-populations, which may then evolve divergently with time. But experiments and theory over the past two decades suggest that speciation may also take place without geographical isolation, through the ordinary dynamics of evolution.
Buchanan did not explain the apparent circularity of this last statement: can one invoke “ordinary dynamics of evolution” to prove evolution? Next, he mentioned a recent hypothesis that speciation acts like a phase transition (here’s a tie-in with physics). As with a phase transition (like liquid water freezing into ice), small change in circumstances of a bird population can cause a rapid change in optimality that produces a big result in the population. Yet that seems an argument by analogy. “Even so, it seems to me fair to place with Darwin – although Lyell and whoever inspired him deserve credit as well � the very beginnings of the appreciation that complex phenomena can emerge from relatively simple dynamical origins, a notion that resonates strongly with much of modern physics.” This, he indicated, resembles chaos theory:
Today we are all influenced by this thinking and find it hard to see how revolutionary it was initially. In physics we’re used to models in which accidents count and accumulate and end up driving outcomes – models of self-organized criticality, applied in contexts ranging from earthquake dynamics to mass extinctions, models for fracture dynamics, erosion or deposition, crystallization and so on. If the timeless laws of classical physics and quantum mechanics attempt to wipe history away, or at least demote it to secondary status, processes based on evolution – in a general sense – focus on the accidental and how it gets locked into place. This is part of the broad legacy of Charles Darwin, even if it has little to do with biology.
As a metaphor for what Darwin accomplished, he invoked Sewall Wright’s notion of the “fitness landscape” (Buchanan likes the word “notion” – he used it four times in his short essay; see 10/14/2008 commentary). According to Wright’s metaphor, populations can be pushed by natural selection onto local fitness peaks and get stuck there – unable to cross the lower-fitness basins to a higher peak. Similarly, Darwin pushed humanity off its comfortable “fitness peak” because he saw a distant, higher peak far away. “This inevitably means traversing a valley of low ‘fitness’ in between, which includes the usual ridicule and opposition facing all those with disruptive ideas which inevitably start out ill- and incompletely formed,” he ended. “We owe the greatest scientific discoveries to those who shoulder such risks, of whom Darwin himself may be the greatest example.”
Buchanan did not clarify whether he thinks mankind ever reached said higher peak. One can only wonder what he would think if intelligent design proponents were to apply the same metaphor to themselves: suffering ridicule and opposition from the Darwinist majority while traveling toward their “vision of another, higher peak far away.” Whose measurement criteria should prevail: those of the majority, or of the brave minority or individual? Darwin was in a minority when he struck out across the landscape, but now the scientific institutions strongly oppose the minority of intelligent design scientists who would wish to follow their vision. He seems right about one thing: we need a “sense of history.”
- Cause for celebration: Dan Csontos reviewed the Darwin celebrations taking place around the world.5 Down House, Cambridge, London – these all received glowing descriptions. The “tree of life” sketch from the Origin, “perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Darwin’s big idea,” adorned the short article, but precious little was said about physics. (For the scientific status of Darwin’s “tree of life,” see the 01/22/2009, 01/28/2009, and 01/23/2009 entries.)
- Origin reviewed: Patrick Goymer, 150 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin, decided to review the venerated book.6 “It’s probably the most famous scientific book ever written, but is On the Origin of Species worth reading if you are not an evolutionary biologist or a historian of science?,” he asked. Indeed it is, he argued. He surveyed the major themes in the book – none of which have to do with physics – as useful to the educated lay reader, even if built on the science of his time (Malthus and Lyell providing “essential foundations”). Darwin’s handling of possible objections to his theory (“this is falsifiable science,” Goymer said), including the evolution of the eye and gaps in the fossil record, “are handy reference for any scientist who might encounter creationism.” He ended by recommending two physics-informed books on evolution – What Is Life? by Erwin Schroedinger, and Quantum Aspects of Life by Paul Davies. That’s about the only tie-in he provided with physics.
- Quantum Darwin: The most detailed tie-in of Darwin with physics was a “Progress Article” by Wojciech Hubert Zurek entitled, “Quantum Darwin.”7 Here a physicist can feel at home: the article is adorned with the equations of mathematical physics and quantum mechanics. Zurek applied natural selection to the outcomes of quantum states. The discussion, though, is as much philosophical as mathematical. Sparing the reader the math, here’s a sample:
Selection of the set of outcomes by the proliferation of information essential for quantum Darwinism parallels Bohr’s insistence that a ‘classical apparatus’ should determine the outcomes. However, it follows from the purely quantum equation, and is caused by a unitary evolution responsible for the information transfer. Nevertheless, as classical apparatus would, preferred pointer states designate possible future outcomes. This precludes measurements of complementary observables and makes it impossible to find out the pre-existing state of the system. Thus, information acquisition—a copying process—results in preferred states.….
There was nothing non-unitary above– unitarity was the crux of our argument, and orthogonality of branch seeds our main result. The relative states of Everett come to mind. One could speculate about the reality of branches with other outcomes. We abstain from this—our discussion is interpretation free, and this is a virtue. Indeed, the ‘reality’ or ‘existence’ of a universal state vector seems problematic. Quantum states acquire objective existence when reproduced in many copies. Individual states—one might say with Bohr—are mostly information, too fragile for objective existence. And there is only one copy of the Universe. Treating its state as if it really existed seems unwarranted and ‘classical’.
If this seems to beg questions about knowledge of information and existence, it does. Nevertheless, Zurek invoked all the Darwinian ideas – struggle for existence, contingency, variation, favoured races and natural selection in his discussion of “quantum Darwinism.” This was the longest article in the series. It had the most mathematical rigor. Yet, in the end, it ended with questions. Zurek raised possibilities that could render his entire discussion self-refuting. What is information, if its history can be overwritten? Could that mean that there is no way to know Zurek’s treatise itself contains reliable information?
We have seen how quantum Darwinism accounts for the transition from quantum fragility (of information) to the effectively classical robustness. One can think of this transition as ‘the it from bit’ of John Wheeler.
In the end, one might ask: how Darwinian is quantum Darwinism? Clearly, there is survival of the fittest, and fitness is defined as in natural selection—through the ability to procreate. The no-cloning theorem implies competition for resources…so that only pointer states can multiply (at the expense of their complementary competition). There is also another aspect of this competition: the huge memory available in the Universe as a whole is nevertheless limited. So, the question arises: what systems get to be ‘of interest’, and imprint their state on their obliging environments, and what are the environments? Moreover, as the Universe has a finite memory, old events will eventually be ‘overwritten’ by new ones, so that some of the past will gradually cease to be reflected in the present record. And if there is no record of an event, has it really happened? These questions seem far more interesting than deciding the closeness of the analogy with natural selection. They suggest one more question: is quantum Darwinism (a process of multiplication of information about certain favoured states that seems to be a ‘fact of quantum life’) in some way behind the familiar natural selection? I cannot answer this question, but neither can I resist raising it.
1. Editorial, “What’s the big idea,” Nature Physics 5, 161 (2009) doi:10.1038/nphys1206.
2. Michael Shermer, “A noble conception,” Nature Physics 5, 162 – 163 (2009) doi:10.1038/nphys1207.
3. Seth Lloyd, “A quantum of natural selection,” Nature Physics 5, 164 – 166 (2009) doi:10.1038/nphys1208.
4. Mark Buchanan, “A sense of history,” Nature Physics 5, 167 (2009) doi:10.1038/nphys1209.
5. Dan Csontos, “Anniversary: Cause for celebration,” Nature Physics 5, 170 (2009) doi:10.1038/nphys1211.
6. Patrick Goymer, “Modern classic,” Nature Physics 5, 169 – 170 (2009) doi:10.1038/nphys1210.
7. Wojciech Hubert Zurek, “Quantum Darwin,” Nature Physics 5, 181 – 188 (2009) Published online: 2 March 2009 | doi:10.1038/nphys1202.
Making Darwin the god of physics demonstrates once for all that the Darwiniacs have turned evolutionism into a religion. You need no more proof than to read these articles. Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been turned into a meta-law exalted above all meta-laws, such that it governs the fictional multiverse and steers the formation of universes toward evolving fools who will believe such things.
There’s a logical fallacy to which mortals often succumb, called “begging the question.” It’s a form of circular reasoning that fails to deliver on a promised explanation. Usually, the responder distracts attention from the main question by answering some other question, leaving the original question sitting there, begging for an answer. For example, let’s say Joe asks Moe how he knows the future will be like the past. Moe responds cheerfully that it has always been so. He proudly thinks he has provided empirical evidence that the future will be like the past, till Joe points out that he didn’t ask how the past turned out to be like the past; he wants to know how the future will be like the past. A little reflection reveals the fallacious nature of Moe’s logic. One cannot appeal to past evidence to explain the future.
Nor does it help if Moe hedges his explanation with probability, claiming that “very probably” the future will be like the past. Joe asks why. Moe says, “Well, because it has always worked out that way.” Once again he has appealed to past explanations as evidence for the future, leaving the original question begging. Lest one think this is silly semantic quibbling, it is part of a major philosophical problem – the problem of induction – that David Hume and others have used to challenge the pretensions of the self-proclaimed wise among us. Bertrand Russell used a humorous illustration to point out the flaw of assuming the future will be like the past. Imagine a chicken that learns to associate the appearance of the farmer at 6:00 in the morning with feed on the ground. Every morning, day after day, the chicken experiences the sight of the farmer with feed. 6:00 a.m.: farmer, feed. Next morning: farmer, feed. This continues for years. It becomes like a law of nature to the chicken. The chicken has every reason to assume the future will be like the past, till one morning, the farmer shows up with an axe. Similarly, we humans sing with Little Orphan Annie that the sun will come up tomorrow, and bet our bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun, but we cannot know whether the Rapture will occur or a meteor will wipe out the planet or the sun will go supernova, or any other of a number of unknown eventualities will spoil the pattern to which our experience has made us accustomed. Scientists cannot even prove the laws of nature will be the same tomorrow. Yet science relies on assuming they will. Bible believers have a solution to the riddle of induction. They believe the word of God (as in Genesis 8:22) that because the Creator is orderly and truthful, we can trust His word that the future will be like the past (subject to His promises), because He is the Lawgiver who set up the laws. This “precondition for intelligibility,” as philosopher Greg Bahnsen called it, allows us to do science. The materialist, however, has no such foundation for induction. Scientists are supposed to demonstrate things, not assume them. But without assuming the validity of induction and the reliability of the laws of logic, they have no grounds for making sense of the world. Moe responds, “well, they are doing science without worrying about this.” True, Joe says; they are “helping themselves” to assumptions from the Christian worldview, assumptions they cannot justify from their own premises. If Joe were really merciless, he could explain that they make good use of these assumptions because, as rational creatures made in the image of God, they have the law of God written on their consciences (Romans 2:14-15). In a sense, they are using God’s BiOS (Bible input-output system) to boot up a faulty operating system and run junk programs.
Look at the papers from Nature Physics above and go hunting for begged questions. The hunting field is rich with game. One example is the presumption that natural selection has creative power. The authors all simply assumed that Darwin’s Supreme Law of Nature could generate eyes, livers, lungs, wings and minds from matter, simply because Darwin seemed to demonstrate variation among pigeons, mockingbirds, sheep and plants. The Darwinians extrapolate horizontal motion into vertical motion. Another is Lloyd’s silly analogy between baby animals and baby universes on which natural selection can act. Another is assuming that laws of nature can emerge by natural selection. Another is assuming similarities prove ancestry. And another is assuming natural selection conveys any meaning at all. Zurek repeated the tautology that “fitness is defined as in natural selection—through the ability to procreate.” Once defined by its outcome, natural selection reduces to “survivors survive.” How do you know they are fit? Because they had the ability to procreate; i.e., their progeny survived. Why did their progeny survive? Obviously, because they were the fittest. Without an independent measure of fitness, the statement conveys no information. It’s simply a restatement of the obvious: one equals one, boys will be boys, a rose is a rose, and survivors survive.
In fact, the question-begging goes further. By appealing to an undirected, purposeless process, they reduced natural selection to the Stuff Happens Law. The mutation component of neo-Darwinism clearly has no direction or goal – it is all chance. The natural selection part, similarly, cannot be personified into an intelligent Selector. Natural selection is incapable of foresight – indeed of any sight at all. Contrary to Darwin’s characterization of his law as something that is “daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good,” natural selection is not a person. It can only react to the immediate circumstances. It cannot foresee that an eye or a wing or brain would be beneficial, and even if it did, it would convey no sense of value on it since, as we just explained, fitness is a meaningless metric. No part of the theory, therefore, is anchored in any factor that is necessary or normative. It wobbles like a dust particle undergoing Brownian motion. In short, Stuff Happens. How explanatory is that? One might try to boast that the Stuff Happens Law is scientific because it makes predictions (stuff will happen) and is falsifiable (if nothing happens, the law is disproved) and produces corollaries (e.g., Murphy’s Law; see 09/15/2008 commentary), but its explanatory power is nil. Since it can accommodate contradictory outcomes (i.e., some planets produce life but others don’t, or some bacteria produce humans but others undergo no change at all for 2.6 billion years) it explains nothing. Opposite stuff happens as probably as ordinary stuff. Buchanan calls this an algorithm. If this is an algorithm, then earthquakes are architects.
Re-read the papers above with this in mind. Is it not true that they are wallowing in a fantasyland of their own making, begging questions left and right? They attribute the beauty, order and design of the universe and life to Stuff Happens. They help themselves to concepts like law, information, and virtue from the Christian smorgasbord – items that cannot be derived from their materialistic presuppositions. They exalt the imagination of their own hearts (01/17/2007), extending the speculations of a biologist into speculations about physics and cosmology and imaginary worlds beyond observation. Having assumed the supremacy of the Law of Natural Selection (aka the Stuff Happens Law), they fall into religious ecstasy, worshipping its founder, celebrating his apotheosis, and glorying in his sacred scripture. They spread Savior Charlie’s Gospel of Stuff Happens to every realm, from the behavior of quantum particles to the operation of a mythical multiverse.
Their rhetoric consists primarily of bald assertions of dogmatism (b.a.d.). They’re b.a.d., and like Michael Jackson, they brag about it. Michael Shermer boasts that it is no longer the job of religion to explain the natural world. “That is what science does, and it does so spectacularly.” Remember that the word spectacular can apply to failures (see Wired.com).