Schrödinger's Secret

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“Do you believe in evolution, Miles?” Professor Robert Langford looked up at the young postdoc, his eyebrows raised.

“Yes, of course,” Miles said, surprised and thinking it was an odd question. “... don’t you?”

“Well, yes … and no,” said Langford, taking a deep breath. “While there can be no doubt that evolution happened, whether modern evolutionary theory satisfactorily explains how is another matter.”

“Surely a Noble prize-winning physicist wouldn’t fly me clear across the country just to debate the merits of neo-Darwinian theory?”

“No, not to debate the matter, Miles,’ Langford smiled. “But to entrust you with a competing theory of evolution that Erwin Schrödinger himself formulated nearly 70 years ago -- a theory so far ahead of its time that he dared not share it with his contemporaries for fear not only of losing all credibility, but even worse,” Langford paused, “that his revolutionary ideas might be buried beneath an avalanche of ridicule and scorn forever.”

Miles leaned forward as Langford continued, “Schrödinger chose instead to pass down his ideas through a select few, like myself, whom he implored to safeguard and reveal to the world only when the time was ripe. I believe that time has finally come, but I am not their ideal advocate,” said Langford with a wry smile and looking directly into Miles’ eyes. “You are.”

Visibly confused now, young Miles Konisberg could scarcely fathom what he was hearing. Naturally, he had read What is Life?, Schrödinger’s ground-breaking (1944) book on the inexorable role of physics in biological science – especially genetics -- but so had virtually every other student of biophysics.

“But Professor, I only earned my PhD last year. And I don’t have a single lead-author publication to my credit. I’m honored, of course … but why me? “

“Because,” Langford explained, “your dissertation on quantum randomness and stochastic processes brilliantly anticipates the heart of Schrödinger’s hypothesis. Having independently blazed this crucial part of the trail yourself, there can be none more qualified to share Schrödinger’s bold vision with the world.”

“Like you,” Langford continued, “Schrödinger acknowledged that there are two kinds of randomness in the world. He and he alone recognized the enormous implications for evolutionary theory.” Pacing back and forth now, the Professor had naturally drifted into lecturing mode.

“Coin flips, dice rolls and lottery drawings are familiar examples of the first, i.e. classical, form of randomness. Given sufficient information such events are completely predictable; so they’re actually only pseudo-random.” He paused momentarily to adjust his glasses.

“By contrast, as you well know, quantum-random events -- such as radioactive decay, electron spin, and photon polarization -- are unpredictable in principle. These genuinely random phenomena happen for reasons that are not only fundamentally unknowable but are, indeed, non-existent. Using the Schrödinger wave equation one can calculate the probability of observing one or another possible outcome of a given quantum random system. But because quantum-random events are intrinsically uncaused, one can never predict with certainty which specific outcome will actually occur.

“Precisely when a particular radioactive atom will undergo decay, for example, is totally variable and unknowable, yet the collective behavior of many such atoms is nevertheless perfectly predictable. A great paradox lies in the fact that while quantum events are genuinely random individually, their participation in a sizable distribution of equivalent events isn’t random at all. This capacity ‘to predict the unpredictable’ lies not only at the heart of quantum physics, but biological evolution as well, where genuinely random genomic alterations collectively achieve distinctly non-random (and often times impossibly favorable) developmental outcomes.”

Miles nodded in agreement as Langford continued, “Pseudo-random mutations -- arising spontaneously from classical events such as exposure to radiation or, say, the occasional glitch in transcription fidelity -- are commonplace. And natural selection can certainly operate on them. But this reactive form of evolution accomplishes little more than to purge the unfit and may occasionally tweak an already well-established biological motif.

“So how, Schrödinger wondered, if not by way of some supreme creative intelligence (a notion he vehemently refused to entertain) could perfectly engineered biological machines arise from haphazardly hit-or-miss random mutations? Schrodinger instantly realized they couldn’t … and yet they did!”

Langford and Miles locked eyes now.

“Although the details eluded him,” Langford went on, “Schrödinger reasoned that genuine quantum randomness must be the key to how ‘random mutations’ can lead to distinctly non-random biological outcomes. The genetic fluctuations responsible for evolutionary progress must have unfolded in anticipation of their collective course and future value. But how?

“Schrödinger, you see,” Langford leaned back against the desk now, “was convinced that Nature continuously oversees all quantum interactions, including those bringing about structural changes within an organism’s hereditary material. And that from among every organism’s limitless mutagenic options, those providing the most biologically favorable long-term consequences will naturally tend to occur.”

Miles beamed. “Yes! Of course!” he interjected excitedly, “only in hindsight can we see that the impossibly favorable biological outcomes we find routinely sprinkled throughout the natural world are the result of uncaused -- yet nonetheless goal-oriented -- alterations to life’s genetic code!“

Langford nodded approvingly, “And there you have Schrödinger’s secret: The genome of every life form, like a cheating gambler’s dice, is quantum mechanically ‘loaded’ to probabilistically favor ideal evolutionary outcomes. More specifically, all non-trivial evolutionary advances are the product of an innately coordinated progression of quantum-random genetic fluctuations whose course naturally unfurls in an inexplicably advantageous and unambiguously purposeful manner. Not by accident. Not by design. But naturally.”

His clenched hand extended, “Here’s the key to the safe deposit box containing Schrödinger’s copious notes,” said Langford. “Care to read them for yourself, Miles?”

“I’d like nothing more,” came the quick reply. “Thank you, sir!”

About the Author: 
I am a semi-retired software developer and aspiring author looking to give neo-Darwinism a run for its money. Schrodinger's book What is Life? is available at http://whatislife.stanford.edu/LoCo_files/What-is-Life.pdf